Being a leader in charge has always been in my blood. Growing up, I was a "bossy girl," the one with the ideas, the troublemaker, and the instigator. As the third of six children, I naturally fell into the mediator role between older and younger siblings. But when the older two left for the military or school and with both parents working full time, at 12-years-old I became the gal in charge, and I quickly grew to meet those challenging responsibilities.
Fast-forward a couple of decades to today, I spend my time running a successful nationally recognized consulting firm where we have created a unique problem-solving approach for companies tackling the world's largest and top customer, the U.S. federal government. Our clients have won over five billion dollars in federal contracts in just the last seven years, which is when we began tracking that return-on-investment (ROI) metric.
As a child it was second nature to get my younger brothers and sister corralled, fed, homework done, bedtime ready, and tucked in—all the while managing my own school and housework load. It meant juggling many tasks at once, figuring out time management, and satisfying my mom's high standards. All of these responsibilities created the perfect fuel for a budding entrepreneurial mindset.
I studied how my grandpa ran his gas station/candy store—always with a smile and kind word to everyone who came in. His customers counted on him for help and advice to keep their cars running, and he added the candy store to keep their children (and me!) happy. He came to the U.S. as an immigrant, with little to get started beyond a sharp mind, tenacity, gumption, and a creative "make-it-work" attitude. I loved being his shadow and delighted in receiving his praise for picking the right tool, selecting the correct part, and learning how to count exact change at the cash register.
All of these responsibilities created the perfect fuel for a budding entrepreneurial mindset.
When I started my own business twenty-two years ago, there were no databases to access, no road map to follow, and no mentors to reach out to. I started the business because I was working extremely hard as an employee in a different market, and while partnership was often discussed by the owners it remained elusive. Finally, I decided that if I was going to work that hard, I might as well do it for myself and have control over my own destiny. So, I jumped into business-ownership with both feet and never looked back.
Initially, I focused on marketing consulting for the business-to-business (B2B) market. I leveraged all I had learned and created a unique process for our clients to reduce time and money while increasing ROI with an effective business development model. Being located near Washington DC, a number of our clients also wanted to be more successful selling services and products to the federal government and asked us to help them in that very unique market. Once again, it was natural for me to rise to the challenge. That's when I had the idea to create TargetGov, where I developed the FAST™ Process, a trackable, measurable, and repeatable federal revenue growth program that our clients could readily execute with their own internal team.
A few years into the growth of my company, I discovered a group of businesswomen who inspired and energized me. They were like me, serious about growing their business, and they offered guidance and mentorships. Women Impacting Public Policy (WIPP) opened my mind to many critical business needs, such as the importance of working together to achieve a goal, honoring others with different perspectives, and finding ways to compromise. They confirmed the exquisite beauty and necessity of being a mentee or a mentor.
I learned that being a mentee meant I had to do the work my mentor asked of me, always be prepared, be ready to think in new ways, and be able to recognize when failure (while inevitable) was not a death sentence. I still don't like failure, but I'm not afraid of it anymore, and for that life-changing lesson I thank my mentors. In becoming a mentor, I found that it is just as challenging as many people who want to be mentored have no understanding of the commitment required from both participants.
Mentoring is more than offering off-the-cuff advice. It also takes time, effort, and energy to get to know with whom you are working with, what is her motivation, her fears, desires and goals, and, most importantly, are you a good match for each other.
Today, the federal government's Small Business Administration (SBA) offers a formal mentor-protégé program designed to help small businesses new to this marketplace work with established large and small businesses already successfully selling to the government. It is your responsibility to identify and connect with a mentor, and while difficult, it is entirely possible to do with a strong commitment to the needed effort.
The SBA and WIPP have also teamed up with American Express in the creation of the ChallengeHER Program, a national initiative to educate women and boost government contracting opportunities for women-owned small businesses. Since its inception, ChallengeHER has educated more than 21,000 women entrepreneurs at 70 workshops across the country and facilitated more than 5,350 meetings between women small business owners and government officials. I am involved in ChallengeHER events across the U.S. and have had the honor to meet, mentor, and work with women who are ready to tackle the federal government as a target customer. One of my mentees, Denita Conway, President of Proven Management, LLC has taken advantage of the ChallengeHER program; through her hard work and dogged persistence she has been named the SBA's 2018 Maryland State Small Businessperson of the Year. Denita is a true success story.
It is your responsibility to identify and connect with a mentor, and while difficult, it is entirely possible to do with a strong commitment to the needed effort.
Now is a perfect time to consider the federal government as your biggest and best customer. They spend more than any other single entity in the world with businesses of all sizes, and every year it spends over $120 billion with small businesses, of which over $22 billion is spent specifically with women-owned businesses. These contracts may be worth a few thousand dollars to millions and tens of millions of dollars.
So, getting started is not complicated, as it merely requires that you register your business at the official, mandatory, free federal government website System for Award Management. SAM.gov is where you will enter all of your important business facts, such as your tax identification number, your unique DUNS number, the NAICS codes describing the services or products you provide, the points of contact for your business, and bank account information. This website also provides a help desk number and email if you run into hurdles or have questions about registering.
Getting certified as a woman-owned business is optional, but also beneficial to stand out from the competition. A formal certification makes you eligible for a group of set-aside contracts and also eligible for other direct award contracts where no competition is needed. You can learn more on their website.
Women are generally strong networkers, and the government marketplace has many opportunities to network and meet prospective customers, prime contractors, teaming partners, mentors, and others who are interested in this marketplace. To explore where these networking events are taking place, visit the official government website. On the home page, you will see a green button called Search Small Business Events. Click that to bring up a list of nationwide events sponsored by the federal government, from national conferences to small matchmaking events.
A great first event for someone interested in working with the U.S. federal government is a matchmaking event. A matchmaking event is like speed dating for businesswomen who want to meet and talk with government decision-makers and prime contractors. You'll have 10-15 minutes at each table; when the time is up, you move to the next table. It is a terrific way to meet decision-makers, tell your business story, and discuss how you can help that customer with your services and products. You can find an array of matchmaking events in your area on the website too!
My final piece of advice is that the U.S. federal government marketplace is extraordinary; it can grow your business beyond your wildest dreams and take you on an adventure offering every opportunity imaginable. However, it is a tough market, and you will be tempted to walk away because of the long, enduring process. Don't give up! Your tenacity, perseverance, and dogged persistence will be rewarded as you pursue the opportunity to add another zero or more to your annual revenues.
WRITTEN BYGloria Larkin