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A Frenzied Forage for High-Tech Work

"I get no layers of bureaucracy when I call a smaller company. I get CEO-caliber people like Crystal," said Barbara Whittaker, a director of training with Palmetto GBA, which hired Dozier Technologies to help run meetings for companies that pay Medicare providers. "I get somebody who can be flexible with me, and we can make a decision together quickly."

But then there is the crush of defeat when a small company loses a deal or gets bullied out of an initial agreement. It can take five years for the average small company to get its first contract and two years for a new company to break into the federal marketplace. Even then, it might only break even on its first project.

Chakib Jaber, left, with Spin Systems officers Wael Al-Ali and Shourya Ray, said small contractors scrambing for a share of federal dollars must "learn the ropes" to be successful. (Rich Lipski -- The Washington Post)

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"It's so beyond competitive, it's even beyond cutthroat," said Sophia Nelson, a senior counsel at Holland & Knight, who also attended the lunch at which Rothwell spoke. "By the time these contracts hit the paper, they're probably already taken. Somebody in the government would say, 'What do you mean? It's a competitive bidding process.' Well, okay. Yeah, right."

Weeks after the luncheon, in a tiny conference room in an office park off the Dulles Toll Road in Sterling, three founding executives of Spin Systems hashed out business strategy and housekeeping. Ray urged that the company's Web site be updated to reflect improved revenue, from $1.1 million last year to $2.4 million this year. No detail was too small, not even how many people to invite to the holiday party (40), in an effort to watch costs.

Then Chakib Jaber, vice president of sales and marketing, mentioned a promising contract with an unusual requirement. The National Cancer Institute, part of the National Institutes of Health, needed help managing its grants portfolio but wanted the contractor to have an office within five miles of the institute.

"Who writes in an RFP that you need to be within five miles of NIH?" Jaber said, figuring the institute already had a bid winner in mind. Not so, said Jack Campbell, chief of the cancer institute's Research Contracts Branch. But the requirement has been removed from the online version of the RFP, and Campbell acknowledged that such a request was inappropriate. "We got away from the five-mile thing because it didn't make sense," Campbell said. "It looked very restrictive."

Jaber said Spin Systems might lose the bid but could benefit from a face-to-face debriefing afterwards, a meeting companies can request by law to learn why they lost out on a bid.

"The only way I can meet them is by losing the bid, so I've got to take the hit," Jaber said. "We need to learn the ropes."

Spin Systems is helping the U.S. Air Force develop a database to track the medical histories of employees on military bases around the world so authorities can spot trends in anomalies. The $2 million job has led to other projects, such as writing new software to route all Air Force faxes through a central clearinghouse. But it also has led to conflicts.

When Spin Systems saw a related problem it wanted to tackle, it asked a medium-size company to join it as a subcontractor because that firm had computer networking skills that Spin Systems did not have. At the last minute, the medium-size company brought in a much bigger player, squeezing Spin Systems into a much smaller role. The firm rejected the idea of playing third fiddle and ultimately lost the bid.

"You live and you learn," Ray said.

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