Life is full of experiences that can teach us valuable lessons. In my previous business, I was a government contractor. We worked with a number of agencies, garnered several certifications for our business, and worked tirelessly to develop and market our brand. I learned a lot about business and life, and I wanted to share some of my lessons learned during this time. Although I learned these functioning as a government contractor, their relevance extends to business in general and even life in general, in some cases.
- Relationships are key. This clearly transcends government contracting, but I definitely saw it in action as a contractor. Building relationships with agency small business representatives, contracting officers, decision-makers, and other business owners are all critical to success. Not to mention building relationships with vendors that currently do or potentially will support your internal operations. Every contract award we received started with a positive relationship fostered by one or more of the partners. Relationships are everything. Remember and honor that in all life activities and you will do well.
- Certifications are tools. There are a number of certifications available to businesses including the SBA 8(a) Business Development and Small Disadvantaged Business certifications. The problem is that some businesses are under the impression that if they get the certification, the work will magically follow (without any significant effort). The reality is that the certification is a tool. You still have to build relationships, scout and bid on opportunities, and learn when and where to leverage your certification. Certifications can be very useful, but you must recognize them as the tools that they are.
- Know your costs. As a contractor, the government (or any client for that matter) expects you to know your costs. You should be able to clearly define and provide supporting evidence of your General and Administrative as well as Overhead costs. It is important that you understand what goes into each of these cost categories and be able to allocate job costs appropriately. The Defense Contract Audit Agency (DCAA) handles a lot of contractor audits for a variety of government agencies, and they could show up at your door based on your contract requirements and activity. Be prepared to answer with confidence if they come knocking.
- Stay in your lane. We’ve all heard the phrase “jack of all trades and master of none.” Many contractors will stretch their service capabilities and move away from what they do best in an effort to win more work. My mom was an office director in a federal agency, and she warned me not to be one of those contractors that she sees that claims to be able to do everything. As a government buyer, she found it very off putting. I used to tell my business partners that we could stand on the side of the road and sell peanuts under our business name, but that doesn’t mean that we should and that it won’t tarnish our brand. Don’t try to be the jack of all trades. Clearly define your areas of expertise and develop a plan to target and win work in those areas.
- Never stop learning. The world is always changing. Laws change, the people in charge change, technology changes. Never get complacent in what you think you know. You have to stay up to speed on the potential needs of your customers which means being abreast of issues confronting them. You also have to be aware of any new requirements (HR laws, accounting practices, etc.) that could affect how you run your business. Continuous learning and improvement is critical in business and life.
These are just a few things that I learned in my role as a government contractor. What lessons have you learned in your life roles?