By Abigail Smith, FedHealthIT.com
Rodney Caswell is an advisor to growth-oriented firms helping them develop market strategy, plan and execute capture campaigns, and review and improve proposals. Rodney is a 25-year veteran of the business side of technology transformation and since 2009 has dedicated that expertise to health IT at the Department of Veterans Affairs.
FedHealthIT: Tell us about XLR8 Consulting, LLC?
Rodney Caswell: XLR8 Consulting specializes in setting market strategy, identifying new business opportunities, planning and executing capture campaigns, writing winning proposals, and accelerating wins for our Health IT clientele. Since our founding in 2013, we specialize in business development at Department of Veterans Affairs, with overlap into CMS, HHS, and DHA. We know the people, the technology, the competition and the teammates to fine-tune our client’s go-to-market strategy.
FedHealthIT: Any advice you can give to the new crop of VA T4NG primes as they try to win early and set themselves up for long-term success?
Rodney Caswell: Prepare meticulously, bid well, bid often, and never waste a contract. By now, most have seen how T4NG works. VA TAC is a prolific RTEP machine, and lessons can be learned from the past. I’ve kept track of the RTEP cycles, award cycles, and winners from T4 and T4NG. There are reliable trends from the TAC that the T4NG primes can use to be prepared for the annual flood of opportunities. The leading characteristic of the big winners on T4 (and trending that way on T4NG) has been the willingness to quickly gather just enough information on opportunities (most of which is public) strategically price them, and submit competitive bids. The winners are not afraid of losing. In fact, given the odds, they know they’ll lose more often than win. But if you’re new to T4NG and to VA, you need your foot in the door. The best advice I can give any new prime:
- Understand and create a matrix of your entire team’s strengths. Identify the VA office(s) and people who buy what your team sells and GO TALK TO THEM! It sounds remedial, but I’ll say it: Get the historical T4 data and match those historical purchases to your own strengths. Map those purchases to the offices and individuals at VA who bought them and get to know your future customer. Most customers welcome the opportunity to learn what the competition has to offer. They value white papers a great deal when trying to understand how technology can help them solve their problems. But most of all, they value a vendor who listens. You will want to get to know what makes them tick and the buzzwords they are using. When an opportunity presents itself from their office, you can design a much better response if you understand their corporate culture. You can’t do this job behind a desk.
- Leverage your subcontractor network, reward them with workshare and never waiver from your teaming agreement. A great prime will use every resource they have to network, multiply their ability to develop solutions, get customer face time and write more proposals. The successful T4 primes can all provide war stories of how subs have had the right solution and customer knowledge, then developed a winning proposal with minimal prime involvement. And both share in the rewards.
- Bid often. Without naming names, I can cite a small business prime who came out of the chute bidding everything on the vehicle. They made embarrassing mistakes, lost lots and won a few. They learned from their mistakes and as they progressed became more focused. They gained a reputation for willingness to bid, and eventually gained a reputation for performing. Subs brought them work, and they grew exponentially. Good example. Follow it.
- Never waste a contract. Even for the smallest contract, develop a plan for consistent client quality checkups from all levels of the company. These are not sales meetings. These are focused on quality delivery, staff expectations, and client understanding. But I guarantee that if you purpose yourself to ensure quality delivery and meet with the client on a regular basis, you will have their trust, and you will have their new business too. They may even introduce you to their friends who need a reliable contractor. It happens. Use every reason you can to be in front of your customers.
FedHealthIT: If you are preparing for FY17 and looking to FY18 at VA, where would you make investments now?
- Invest in business. There are 183 T4 contracts (not including T4NG) that are coming up for recompete for the remainder of FY17 and FY18. They encompass the entire spectrum of VA IT. Match them to your strengths and start positioning now.
- Hire a seasoned T4 proposal manager(s) and solution architect(s). Your proposal manager(s) must bridge capture and solutions. The most productive are those who understand VA’s technology landscape and can contribute to the solution. They’ll know the who’s who of competitors/teammates. They can turn a proposal in a week and are relieved if they actually get 10 days. It’s an intense job, but there are many who have lived it, love it, and can deliver. This is not traditional proposal management, and you will spend an inordinate amount of time trying to convince a traditional proposal manager that a one-week-proposal can be done. Pay the experienced ones well, and train the energetic newbies.
- Find your consultants. A well-connected consultant can make introductions, develop strategies and put your roadmap in place less expensively than a full-time A good consultant will know if they can help – and if they can’t, they’ll point you to one who can. It’s how we work.
- Subscribe to G2Xchange. Really. This is not a shameless plug; it’s a valuable business strategy. G2X manages to keep up with VA events, guest speakers, and industry insights.
FedHealthIT: Care to share your thoughts as to how the Kingdomware ruling may affect the future landscape at VA?
Rodney Caswell: Kingdomware is here to stay. It would take an act of Congress to change the law, and there’s little incentive to do so. In this decision, VA is required to restrict competition to SDVOSB or VOSBs if there is a “reasonable expectation” that at least two can bid on the contract and that “the award can be made at a fair and reasonable price that offers best value to the United States.” The median value of T4 contracts was under $4M, and T4NG shows no signs of change – in other words, well within the capabilities of small business. You can expect the preponderance of competitions to be set aside for veteran-owned companies.
This decision, however, does not completely negate large business participation in contracts, but it will definitely be more difficult. Larges and non-veteran-owned smalls will have to partner appropriately and be willing to forego 51% of the deal. At least for now.
In the short term, I’d expect to see few Fair Opportunity competitions. The larges will coalesce around a strategy of acquiescence to the rule. I can only think of three magic bullets:
- Larges and non-veteran-owned smalls will select reliable SD/VOSB partners to co-market opportunities with a willingness to forego 51% of the workshare.
- Larges will lobby VA clients to consolidate contracts to combat a “reasonable expectation” that a small business can be expected to perform.
- Large businesses will find promising SD/VOSBs to create Joint Ventures so that they may be able to participate in the favorable SD/VOSB contracting environment.
In the long term, VA’s implementation of the law may change. It’s my personal opinion that large PMO’s, enterprise-level software development, and even complex infrastructure programs are best served by companies who have the internal resources to ensure that the contract will not fail. They must have the quality assurance frameworks, financial resources, experience and maturity to anticipate, avoid and overcome program risks. Typically, that’s a large business. And typically, those large contracts are analogous to a dollar value or staff size. I believe that VA will eventually establish criteria around the term “reasonable expectation.” I believe that they will seek pre-defined thresholds based on contract size (value or LOE) so that they can reduce labor intensive market research. By setting objective criteria, VA can satisfy the letter of the law, reduce guesswork in the competitive landscape and potentially reap the benefits that large businesses can bring to the table. However, I wouldn’t count on it anytime soon. Nope. There will be a lot of battles to be fought internally and externally.
If you’re a large or non-veteran owned small business, take a deep breath and review my three magic bullets.