Have you ever wanted to go after government contracts, but were unsure where to start? Federal, state, and municipal projects come up all the time, at all different sizes for all different types of companies and industries. Find out how you can stay on top of these projects and how to land them, with procurement expert Bryan Wallace of the Maine Procurement Technical Assistance Center.
Rich: Our guest today was born and raised in Brunswick, Maine. A procurement counselor for Maine PTAC, he has attained certification from the Association of Procurement Technical Assistance Centers and the Veteran Affairs Verification Assistance counseling program. He has a passion for sharing his knowledge through teaching and coaching. His experiences include managing media campaigns for an advertising agency in Portland, workforce development with the Maine Community College system, an adjunct instructor at Central Maine Community College. He holds a bachelor’s degree from Quinnipiac University and an MBA from Southern New Hampshire University. Currently residing in Bowdoin with his wife and daughter, our guest today is Bryan Wallace. Bryan, welcome to the show.
Bryan: Hey, good afternoon.
Yury: Welcome. Bryan, could you tell me what does a procurement counselor for Maine PTAC do, and how are you helping Maine businesses?
Bryan: Yeah, sure. So the short is we assist local businesses, sell their goods or services to the government, and that can be everything from managing opportunities that they already have found to finding opportunities and responding to those opportunities and just generally marketing themselves to the government.
Yury: So can it be only just the product or can it be a service?
Bryan: Yeah, products and services.
Rich: And do you prefer that we say P-T-A-C or PTAC which sounds so much cooler.
Bryan: Yeah. Most people say PTAC.
Rich: All right.
Yury: Well, clearly I’m a foreigner, so-
Rich: No, it’s like the Institute for Family Owned Businesses. I’m the only person who seems to call them IFOB. I’m like why wouldn’t you call them IFOB? Everybody else say IFOB.
Rich: All right. I think we’re digressing here and we’re just starting. So one of the questions that I had, Bryan, was what are the differences between federal, state and municipal work as far as a company wanting to sell through these organizations? Is it a different approach? Is it all the same?
Bryan: Yeah, sure. So there’s a lot of additional registration and procurement rules when it comes to federal work. The local municipality or county, usually it’s a little more simple, but there still is some paperwork that a business needs to go through.
Rich: Okay. Regardless of what level you’re at, there’s always going to be a little bit of paperwork, which is where you guys come in.
Yury: So what’s the process for a small business that wants to sell to the government?
Bryan: Usually, if they reach out to us, we sit down with them. They have to get a unique identifying number from Dun & Bradstreet and then they get registered with sam.gov which is kind of the government’s validation that you are a legit business. You are who you say you are, you pay your taxes, those sorts of things.
Yury: How long is the process?
Bryan: That whole process, those couple of steps usually takes maybe two weeks.
Yury: Oh, is it? That’s brief, and efficient.
Rich: For government for sure. So if we are looking to get more business and we’re looking at the government as one way that we can get those business, are there things that we can do to better market or position ourselves so that we’re more attractive to a government agency?
Bryan: Yeah, absolutely. I recently went to a training and they were talking about marketing yourself to government agencies, and one of the things from that conference was there is no such thing as marketing to the government. It’s still marketing to people. You’re still selling your product or your service to someone. And so building that relationship and really finding out maybe who the end user is of your product and getting them to ask for it is really, really critical.
Yury: So speaking about marketing to people, so as a business owner, would I be marketing directly to you making sure that you understand what my product is and you see the benefits of my company doing business for the government or with the government?
Bryan: Yeah, we assist businesses and kind of give them the tools to market themselves to the government. In fact, there’s only a few things we’re not allowed to do. One of the things is we’re not allowed to assist a business, just general business development stuff. We’re not allowed to help a startup business or I shouldn’t say help a startup. We’re not allowed to assist with a business startup. We’re not allowed to do any business plan development and that we’re not allowed to market directly on behalf of a client to the government.
Rich: So you’re mostly helping with the positioning and the process for a business to be able to get business from the government?
Bryan: Yes, correct.
Rich: So I know one of the things that you guys talk about on the website is bid match. Can you talk to me a little bit about what bid match is and how does it help businesses find opportunities out there?
Bryan: Yeah, absolutely. So one of the discouraging things about government contracting is that there’s just so many different places to find opportunities. There’s a lot of different contract vehicles that the government uses and they can post these in a number of different sites. So with bid match, bid matches our most popular service. We sit down with a client, we create a profile based on some industry codes, some keywords and some geographic. We can base it on per state. And basically it scours all of these different sites, federal, state, and even local to tell you or to notify you by email when there’s an opportunity that matches what your business does. It’s not perfect. It’s usually a system where kind of a few tweaks here and there, but most people are willing to cast a net to see what’s out there.
Rich: So this is kind of a matchmaking service that Maine PTAC offers, correct?
Rich: So after we start a relationship with you and we tell you the kinds of things we’re looking for, the kinds of things we think we’d be good at, then you help by pulling from these different websites, resources to find those and then you’re going to let me know that they’re available.
Bryan: Correct, yeah.
Rich: Let’s say that one of them sounds really good. What are the next steps?
Bryan: Yeah, sure. So I always encourage clients if you find something and you think, hey, this is something that’s in my wheelhouse I want to proceed. What do I do next? I’m happy, I come, and we set up a physical meeting maybe and I sit down and we go through what the proposal is asking for or what you need to respond with in the solicitation. Make sure you meet all the requirements and that you’re really covering all of the bases.
Yury: Does it cost anything to use this tool or participating?
Bryan: It does not. And that’s probably one of the more challenging things in my job is that the hardest thing to do is sell something that’s free. And I really have to convince a lot of business owners that there’s no real loss other than maybe some time to put in up front in developing kind of a plan for doing business with the government. But there’s no fees for any PTAC services.
Yury: Do you scout for businesses to do business with the government, or usually they find you and they work with you?
Bryan: We do a little bit of both. I spend a lot of time at chamber after our events and business to business events, finding businesses that maybe don’t know that we’re out there or that already have some government contracts and just need a little more push that maybe aren’t PTAC clients already.
Yury: So for Maine businesses or the business owners, what are the most popular products and services that you see Mainers selling to the government?
Bryan: Yeah, sure. So I see a lot of manufactured goods as well as services. It’s a little hard to put my thumb on one particular industry because it is so vast. The government buys everything in every imaginable quantity, from just a couple to a couple of hundred thousand some things. So it’s hard to put a real industry on what’s out there. One of the other things we’re able to do for business is conduct a little bit of market research to see, “Hey, do you sell something? When was the last time the government bought that and who bought it and how did they buy it? And is it a contract that’s a three-year contract and it’s going to be coming up in another year and maybe you want to go after it?” We can assist a business, go through that.
Yury: Are you familiar with any businesses in Maine that solely exist to sell to the government?
Bryan: I think there are very few. And when you’re talking about like who’s an example of a PTAC client, from my region that I cover in the state, I always use the example of Bath Iron Works because most people can wrap their head around the fact that Bath Iron Works builds ships for the Navy. Another example of a client is there was a father and son who had a small landscaping business and they wanted to be able to bid on mowing the lawns for the city of Gardiner. And I spend far, far more time with the father and son business, in terms of assisting them through registrations and how to submit a proposal than I ever would with Bath Iron Works. I can’t lay claim to say that PTAC helps Bath Iron Works win/destroy your contract, unfortunately. But what we do, do is we can assist Bath Iron Works find subcontractors that might be able to do part of some work.
Yury: Part of the work. Yeah, gotcha.
Rich: Well, it’s interesting. So you’ve got this father and son who were looking to mow lawns and it sounds like you did a lot of handholding. How much hand holding is Maine PTAC doing for companies that this really feels like this is… I don’t know. This is brand new. This makes me nervous, perhaps scary. Just asking how much you holding people’s hands?
Bryan: A good amount. I work out of a few different office locations, but I spend a lot of time on the road meeting with businesses at their place of business. Sometimes that means it’s their kitchen table. Sometimes that means we meet at Starbucks or Dunkin Donuts. There is a lot of kind of initial… Especially like with that father and son example where they need some assistance just getting through the registration stuff and kind of the basic parts and that’s fine. That’s what we’re there for.
Rich: And right now as we head into 2020, are there certain areas that you think are ripe for companies selling to the government? I wouldn’t have obviously thought about mowing lawns. I would’ve thought about BIW. Are there things that you would like businesses in Maine to know that like, “Hey, here’s some services that we expect. There’s need for in 2020 from the government.”
Bryan: Yeah, sure. On the federal side, there’s been a lot of buzz around cybersecurity and IT. There’s some big changes that are coming through the Department of Defense with requirements that businesses that win contracts and then those prime contractors giving subcontract work that the cybersecurity protocols need to be basically up to a certain level and they’re releasing those. And that’s going to happen as of this coming summer, summer of 2020. A lot of these regulations are going to start showing up in contracts and so there’s going to be a lot of IT work basically out there and a lot of businesses looking to get certified up to a certain level or even just to subcontract that work to somebody.
Yury: Are there any advantages, for minority or women owned businesses in government contracts?
Bryan: Yeah, sure. So Maine PTAC assists businesses obtain and apply for the SBA certifications. So that includes women-owned small business certifications. The AA program, which is a minority owned business certification, HUBZone certification, and veteran-owned businesses certifications.
Yury: Are there any advantages to have those certifications?
Bryan: Yeah. So if the government has a contract, they can do a set aside specifically for… So let’s say a veteran-owned small business, they can do a set aside so that only veteran-owned small businesses can compete for that. And a lot of times what the government will do is they’ll do a little bit of research to see if there are at least two small businesses that can compete for those contracts. And if there are, let’s say two-veteran owned small businesses that can, then they can set it aside and essentially make the competition pool a little smaller.
Yury: That is interesting. That is exciting to see the ways that they are leveraging the economy and growing specific sectors.
Bryan: Yeah. And one thing I should mention too with those… Not only is it the government has some specific numbers or percentages that they’re trying to hit with those goals, they also expect prime contractors to meet those goals where they’re subcontracting. So somebody like Bath Iron Works, who I used earlier, when they put out or when they respond to a solicitation, they have to submit a subcontracting plan with how they’re going to reach those certain numbers. How many women-owned small businesses, they’re going to be able to subcontract with how many veteran-owned small businesses they’re going to contract with and how they’re going to outreach to them. So it’s a real benefit for those folks too.
Rich: I remember years ago when I lived down in Boston during the Big Dig and that was a big thing about making sure that there were enough subcontractors who were minority owned and women-owned businesses. So see, that’s continuing to happen.
Rich: So we talked a little bit about the father-son mowing lawns, and I find that fascinating. The one message I really want to get across to people is like almost any business might be able to sell to the government. What are some of the more unlikely services or products that you’ve helped place over the years?
Bryan: Yeah, sure. So the example that Ken Bloch, the program manager for the Maine PTAC uses is there is a gentleman who sings at the Togus VA on Sunday afternoons and he is a federal contractor. He’s paid through the VA. So he had to go through a whole lot of registration things just like anybody else would. So that’s kind of the [crosstalk 00:14:51].
Rich: Do they put that out for bid and then like do they listen to people sing?
Rich: I’m just wondering how all that went down.
Bryan: Yeah, for that it’s probably a micro purchase so it’s under a certain threshold.
Bryan: So they’re able to just pay him directly, but he still has to get registered.
Rich: Yury, maybe you can make some money with your juggling skills.
Yury: Oh yeah, absolutely. Let’s do it right now. Bryan, when I think about working with the government or for the government, it sounds like there’s a lot of bureaucracy and the red tapes associated with it.
Yury: Is it generally accurate and how do you actually help to eliminate or get rid of some of those unnecessary pains?
Bryan: Sure. So with all federal contracts, there is a section of regulations, FAR, the Federal Acquisition Regulations which are going to be in any contract. Understanding those so that a business knows what they are signing up for is really, really critical. And I worked with businesses and I’m completely comfortable to say I can talk about four off the top of my head, and usually when I get that question about, “Hey, what does FAR 52.19 mean?” I tell people, “I don’t know. Let me get back to you.” I’ll see if I can translate the government speak into something that a common business owner would be able to understand.
Bryan: And more often than not, they are straightforward. Simple things that most folks are doing anyway. But every once in a while, something will catch someone’s eye and there’ll be like for instance, the Buy American Act is in most contracts and I had a client come to me and say, “Hey, I use Canadian steel. Is that okay?” “No, it is not.” We need to figure out how we can proceed and proceed it in meeting the requirements for that contract.
Rich: So everything you’ve said today gets me excited. I’m like, “Oh, I was telling you before the show, we’ve got some aggressive growth goals at flight in 2020 so this would make a great opportunity to be able to go out and get more sales.” But there’s this other side of me, and maybe this is just a misbelief or something, but that the government is always going to go with the cheapest vendor. And we are not the cheapest, we’re about value. We’re not about the lowest price possible. And I just don’t want to get into some sort of bidding war. So is it always the cheapest vendor that’s going to win?
Bryan: It is not. The government issues a lot of best value contracts, which is what you’re talking about, where it weighs the price against the quality of service that they get. And so that can include things like past performance, that can include things like if there’s some kind of warranty or guarantee, some kind of service plan after the fact, if a product or a hard good. It’s not always just lowest price technically acceptable.
Rich: All right. It’s good to hear that. I’m always worried when they say they take everything into consideration and then it always ends up being the cheapest vendor. I’m going to trust you, Bryan. You know more than I do on this.
Yury: Bryan, what are some of the things that small businesses don’t know about selling to the government?
Bryan: I think most businesses aren’t aware of the amount of time that they have to put into it at the beginning. And then one of my favorite phone calls is the phone call I get from a client that says, “Oh my gosh, I’ve won. Now, what do I do?”
Yury: Congratulations, right?
Bryan: Right. That panic sets in of, “Now, I’ve really signed myself up to doing this.” So I think there’s a lot of time that somebody needs to put in up front with identifying opportunities, what’s a good fit, putting together proposals. Somebody might put together two, three proposals before they’re considered or before they really have a chance to win one. And so that is difficult. And most of my clients, they don’t depend on government contracting. They’re successful either in the private industry or they do residential sales. They have a business already and the government contracting is just kind of icing on the cake and it can help them through if it’s a seasonal business, he’ll help them through some lean times. I basically just put more opportunity forward for them.
Yury: Are there any particular points in the proposal that the businesses should focus on or they are just like contract specific?
Bryan: Yeah, I mean it depends on the contract. There are some standard RFPs that have a set kind of layout. And within that layout there is kind of an area where they’re going to say, “This is what we’re going to judge the proposal on.” And usually I tell people after you’ve made sure that what they’re asking for is something you can do, you need to look at that section and determine is something like past performance, a real key indicator. I had worked with a business that was submitting something to a municipality and they had a very good proposal and it was very, lowest price, technically acceptable focus, I should say.
Bryan: And looking through that section I said, “Hey, they’re saying right here they’re giving 30 out of 100 points is going to be past performance and 20 out of a hundred points is the price.” So that tells me you need to brag more about your past and have more testimonials and have more success stories to point to than just what the bottom dollar is.
Yury: Well, when we’re talking about humble brag to win those extra points, is there a specific limit? I’m just trying to figure out when enough is enough.
Bryan: Yeah. Sometimes within the standard lay out there, they give you a limit of proposal not to exceed more than 10 pages. And a lot of times that is… And some of those guidelines, they really are so that when people who are looking at them, if they are going through 40 different proposals, they’re really looking for a reason to throw two of them away. They don’t need 42. And so if you submit a 12-page proposal, you’re just making it easy for them to decline.
Yury: So there is actually real human on the other sitting and reading. There is not like a machine that’s looking for keywords and stuff?
Rich: So the flip side of the government always looking for the cheapest vendor, are these stories that we hear about that NASA pays $800 for a screw. How well does the government pay compared to say a typical business, and do they pay on time?
Bryan: They do. And so the government… I should start with the SBA announced this year, so the PTAP program, the Procurement Technical Assistance Program started in 1985 with an authorization from Congress and it’s funded through the Department of Defense and run by Defense Logistics Agency. So that’s where the funding for our program comes from along with support from Maine DECD. We use those state dollars to leverage the federal dollars. They announced this year… Or I should say back in 1985, the Department of Defense was spending 1% of all contracting dollars going to small business and they were looking for some good publicity, just like what you’re saying, for a lot of overspending items. And so they have a goal of 23% of all contracting dollars be awarded to small business. I should say 2018, the SBA announced that they had reached that goal for the sixth year in a row and it was close to 25%.
Yury: When we talk about percentages, the number sounds very small. What exactly does it equal to? Can you give us like a range?
Bryan: Yeah. And that number there, it was $120 billion for basically 25% of federal spend.
Rich: Wow. So $29 billion? I don’t have a calculator on.
Bryan: Yeah. I think you’re right, especially with the categories there, the socioeconomic programs for the SBA. It sounds like, when you hear that women-owned small businesses have a 5% goal. That sounds really, really small and is it really worth a woman-owned small business going for the certification? And I think that the biggest thing to keep in mind is just, it is a huge pie. And so even a 5% slice of that pie is still a huge number.
Yury: Awesome. Now, we get to the part where I’ll ask my favorite question. Bryan, what one thing would you change if you could, to improve the business ecosystem here in Maine?
Bryan: I think a lot of small businesses here in Maine should consider government contracting has an additional source of income. I mentioned earlier about how most of the businesses I work with, almost all of the businesses I work with, federal contracting or I should say government contracting isn’t their bread and butter. It’s not what they depend on. They really diversify, and this can be a great opportunity and a real benefit for Maine’s economy and bringing and keeping jobs here with local manufacturers. It has a real, real big benefit.
Yury: Yeah, I agree. That is a fantastic point. Thank you.
Rich: This is great, Bryan. And if people are ready to learn, if they’re in a position to sell to the government, if they want to learn more about Maine PTAC, if they want to learn about you, where can we send them?
Bryan: They can go to maineptac.org and on that website there’s a lot of good information. Businesses can sign up as a client right there, and we respond to reach back out to businesses. Like I said, more often than not, I try to physically meet with businesses at the beginning just to see if they are a good fit, what opportunities are out there. if there’s any kind of marketing that needs to be done ahead of time, I can show them some of the tools.
Rich: Awesome. Thanks so much, Bryan. This has been great and probably you’ll be hearing from me soon.
Bryan: All right. Thank you.
Yury: Thank you for coming.