On Tuesday, September 10, Public Spend Forum hosted a panel discussion featuring representatives from the small business and startup community with an interest in selling their products and services to government.
Host Raj Sharma was joined by an esteemed panel including:
- Shelly Kapoor Collins, Founding Partner at The Shatter Fund
- Spence Witten, Vice President of Global Sales at Lunarline, Inc.
- Surnish Nirula, VP of Business Development at Studio216
- Gentry Lane, CEO of ANOVA Intelligence
The purpose of the webinar was to kickoff Public Spend Forum’s global study on Barriers to Entry with another candid discussion about what our supplier panelists are experiencing in the market. This webinar serves as a complement to our recent discussion on the same topic featuring procurement leaders and innovation specialists from within the government.
Raj kicked off the discussion by getting straight to the point, asking panelists to describe their single biggest hurdle to successfully entering the government market. What follows are highlights from the discussion; for a full review on these hot government takes, we invite you to watch a recorded version of this webinar here.
What is the single biggest hurdle that small companies face when entering the public sector market?
- The financial burden; especially for seed-stage companies that put all their capital into product development, it’s hard for them to spend the time and money necessary to win a government contract.
- The investment of resources challenge is compounded by a lack of transparency and the fact that entire departments of government can change with a new administration. For startups with a focus on return on effort, this can be a real barrier to entry.
- Adapting commercial sales practices to the government market is another challenge, as sales teams can get quite frustrated with the time, effort, and opacity inherent to government procurement.
What tips do you have for adapting commercial approaches to the government market?
- One key to adapting these practices is to have an advocate inside your target agency who can help you get to know the ropes and advance things on your behalf
- Government buyers are wary of continuous conversations with vendors, so your sales teams need to understand the pace and tempo of dialogue with these individuals.
- Sometimes you just need different skill sets. The longer sales cycle (which is process-oriented) takes a certain type of business development professional who understands these factors.
On the longer sales cycle, how do startups best justify the amount of time and effort required to get a contract?
- The attractiveness of the government market, both in terms of the spending but also in the sense of pride we can feel in helping government clients, are key points.
- Just impressing upon management that traditional quarterly KPIs and measures aren’t appropriate for the public sector. A sales professional can seem to do nothing for three quarters, but then land a major contract in the fourth quarter that makes their year. This is how it goes sometimes!
What agencies are doing innovative things (like for instance, DIUx) to help ease these barriers?
- The National Science Foundation has a great new initiative for Fast Tracking grant applications that works very well. We need other agencies to get on board with these methods!
- A common set of standards, adopted across all public entities, would be so helpful, but maybe not plausible
- Some agencies may want to consider outsourcing the acquisition of their own innovative technologies. It’s unrealistic to expect them all to be experts in innovation sourcing.
- Just give startups a chance to get a foothold so they can start to climb up! It can be as simple as a micro consulting effort, or a test project for low dollars. Anything helps!
What are some of the successful measures you see startups taking to win business?
- Attending the conferences, both large and small, as well as industry days. Any chance you can get for face time with leaders is huge!
- But you have to understand that it’s not just leaders that you have to court; it’s the program and mid-level managers who own the budget. If you’re not paying attention to them, your progress can grind to a halt.
- When you do have the opportunity for face time, make sure you are prepared! If you don’t have a compelling case for why an agency or buyer should care about what you offer (as well as your differentiators), you’re not going to make an impression. This necessitates a lot of focus and understanding about the problems your target agency is trying to solve.
What advice would you give government professions who wanted to make the procurement process easier for startups and emerging businesses?
- When you are talking to these entities, try to be specific. Give them good information that they can act on, names of people they should try to approach, guidance on what they can do within the limits of the law to advance their case.
- Even an update that says there is no update can be useful; the worst thing for startups is feeling like they’ve been “ghosted” by you, so keeping in contact can ease a lot of anxiety and keep them engaged through the long process.
- If the FAR doesn’t say you can’t, then you have an opportunity to try it! Interpret the FAR correctly, read between the lines and try new things.
For a full readout of all the advice shared by our panelists, make sure you watch the recording above! And if you’d like to participate in our upcoming Barriers to Entry study, drop us a line!
You can also watch other relevant videos from Public Spend Forum on our YouTube channel!