How to Bid on U.S. Government Contracts

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If you’re a freelancer, you may have worked with all kinds of clients including corporations, sole proprietors, universities and non-profits. However, there is also a rather large U.S. government marketplace out there as well (just in case you forgot). Government clients can be found at the regional, state and even federal level. Government contracts can be quite lucrative and span years, even decades.

With the ongoing Great Recession (and no, I don’t believe it’s over yet), even the government has had to let employees go as cutbacks continue being made. This is also where you, the freelancer, come in. Before you start emailing various elected officials, however, keep in mind that most U.S. government work is bid on through qualified contractors. And like all government processes, there is a set procedure for becoming qualified to bid on government contracts. Nevertheless, if you are patient and diligent, the payoff can be huge. Here is how you can get started with offering your services to the government.

1. Become legit.

Register your business name by obtaining, at the very least, a DBA, also known as a “doing business as” from your city hall. Depending on your state, this might cost $20-$50. Also, obtain an Employer Identification Number (EIN) and a Dun & Bradstreet (DUNS) number. These numbers can be obtained online and should be free (and pretty quick).

2. Become listed.

Register your business and freelance services at the System for Award Management (SAM) database; this enables government procurement officers to find you (as well as for you to check out your competition). Federal Acquisitions Regulations (FAR) require that you register in the SAM before being awarded any kind of contract; however, the SAM is also a great marketing tool, allowing potential agencies and other contractors to check you out and maybe even contact you for work.

Once you are in the SAM database, obtain your North American Industry Classification System (NAICS) code from the U.S. Census Bureau. In short, the U.S. Census Bureau wants this information from you so it can analyze small businesses working with the government and publish various demographics. For your own purposes, you will need this code in order to accept government work.

To actively bid on those juicy federal contracts, you’ll have to become pre-approved as a bidder with the U.S. General Services Administration (GSA). According to the GSA website, “the primary contract vehicle is the GSA Schedules, or Multiple Award Schedules, program.” There is a ton of useful information on the GSA website about how schedules work and how vendors (i.e., you) can prepare successful bids.

Another good bidding site is the federal business opportunities website FedBizOpps.

3. Become insured.

The CYA nature of most government contracts requires that the vendor’s business be insured. If you have homeowners or renter’s insurance, you can add a business insurance rider to your policy for as little as $100/year. This rider will cover about $2,500 in damages, including broken equipment, damage to the home office itself and lost wages. For another $25 or so, you can expand your coverage to $5,000. Business insurance coverage is pretty useful for unpleasant surprises such as your computer getting fried during a lightning storm.

4. Pimp your online profiles.

Generate a snazzy profile on LinkedIn and be sure to feature any kind of government work you ever did on it. Also, optimize your profile for frequently searched keywords like “contractor” and “government,” as well as agency keywords like Department of Defense (DOD), Department of Energy (DOE), Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS), etc. Fill out your profile completely, add your relevant skills, and try to get some of your former clients or supervisors to leave you a few recommendations.

Likewise, create a professional freelance website and prominently list whatever examples of government work you have available. This does not mean you had to be directly employed by the DOE,  DOD, etc. Many private companies work with government agencies as contractors; if you were ever employed or contracted by any company claiming to have an affiliation with the government, then you did indeed work for the government.

5. Consider subcontracting first.

Winning a government contract is a major accomplishment- kind of like completing a marathon. It may be hard to get your foot in the door without some experience or referrals. Start small by subcontracting with companies that already hold contracts with the government. These companies subcontract because government contracts are typically huge and span hundreds of thousands of dollars. The GSA even offers a link to a subcontracting directory where you can look up businesses to pitch your services to. The GSA also offers a link to the U.S. Small Business Administration Subcontracting Network, where current contractors post “notice of sources sought” for small businesses.

6. Consider going regional first.

If you feel a bit overwhelmed by the feds, don’t fret. You can work at the city/county level for years and get paid quite well for your work without having to jump through all those federal system hoops. It’s not too difficult to find regional government jobs either; sites like LinkedIn, Indeed and JustHired are filled with small city agencies looking for programmers, software application developers, graphic design artists, writers, etc. Best of all, once you’re hired you can even go out and interact with your clients face-to-face; this is a golden opportunity to network and obtain referrals for bigger gigs.

Is government work harder than “regular” work?

I’ve worked with contract organizations under the DOE, DOD and the DHHS. I wouldn’t say the work is harder by any means. There are the usual standard operating procedures and safety trainings that you need to know and follow; however, you also see such procedures implemented in the corporate world.

What is different is that government agencies are pretty tight-lipped about their business and you can get in big trouble for openly talking about your work, especially on social media sites like Facebook. Also, if you do any work on-site, consider all your computer use time to be monitored. So don’t go playing Angry Birds on government computers, even if you’re not “on the clock.”

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