Competing with larger firms for smaller federal contracts

It didn’t take long after the federal government began to pull back on spending that Antwanye Ford noticed a change in the competitive landscape.

His small District-based information technology firm, Enlightened, suddenly found itself bidding in a field crowded with new entrants, including larger established companies that once could afford to ignore such work.

No longer. Funded federal contracts have become all the more precious in these belt-tightening days, and Enlightened has had to adjust, especially when agencies select winners based on a “lowest price technically acceptable” criteria that favors larger firms capable of offering lower bids.

To cut his own costs, Ford has been increasingly relying on independent contractors to bolster his staff. Contractors typically do not get the same benefits as full-time staff — combined, the operation has about 120 employees.

“If folks want to be contractors, it allows us to be a little more cost competitive,” Ford said. “We can charge less to the government for that, and that’s a strategy we’re trying to mix into our service.”

But Ford has realized that he can’t cut costs as easily as larger firms. “There’s a certain point — they can afford to go low because the amount of profit they make, but we can’t afford to get so low,” he said.

To combat larger firms’ low prices, Ford pursues contracts with agencies he suspects are less likely to be affected by the pullback in federal spending, such as the Department of Health and Human Services. He also looks for contracts with agencies or organizations that have established quotas for small-business contractors. His company has been certified to operate in a Historically Underutilized Business Zone as part of the Small Business Administration’s HUBZone program, giving him an advantage in some competitions.

“We can do some of the same work that a larger company can do, but we can fulfill their small-business numbers,” he said.

External pressures have also prompted the company to re-engineer its operations. “Normally we’re doing the innovation for the government,” he said.

To streamline the online contract procurement approval process, developers at Enlightened created an application for both federal representatives and Enlightened employees to complete forms on the firm’s site. Over the next couple of weeks, Enlightened is designing and producing another program to automate the filing of status reports, so that each employee on a contract doesn’t have to fill out paperwork individually.

Ford has also been pursuing academic partnerships to bring additional value to the contracts Enlightened bids on. The D.C.-native has been talking to professors at several universities, including his alma mater, George Washington University, and Carnegie Mellon University.

“We try to be as creative as possible. It’s about survival,” he said.

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Mohana Ravindranath covers IT and small business for the Washington Post and its weekly Capital Business publication.
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