By Kevin Switaj
Those of us in Government contracting know the dog days of summer are not just about hot days, baseball, and backyard cook-outs. It’s also often our busiest time of year. This year, besides the normal onslaught of year-end stand-alone solicitations and task orders, we have seen a dramatic uptick in IDIQ activity.
Of particular interest to firms that are Small Business Administration (SBA) 8(a) certified is the upcoming STARS III procurement. The current STARS II contract, according to Bloomberg Government, has seen a spend of $8.7 billion across 61 agencies. FY 2018 saw the highest spend on the contract to date, with over $1.5 billion committed. STARS III, if recent trends hold, provides 8(a) firms with the opportunity to rapidly grow while creating a strong footing in new markets and with new clients.
So, how can your company get a piece of this critical contract? This article provides an overview of what we know about this massively important opportunity, and five key dos and don’ts for preparing your strategy to be successful in gaining a slot on the contract.
What Do We Know?
The Government released a draft solicitation for STARS III on 9 August 2019 on FedBizOpps. This was a comprehensive draft release, with the expected instructions and evaluation criteria (Part E of the draft solicitation), required forms and templates, and additional key information. The draft documentation does not include an estimated release date for the final solicitation. However, most industry insiders feel it is likely to be released sometime during the first quarter of fiscal year 2020.
The draft solicitation provides key pieces of information for potential offerors, including:
- The contract will be 8 years (a 5-year base with a 3-year option), which is a reduction from the STARS II’s 10-year period of performance.
- The Government prefers task orders to be either fixed price or performance based.
- Any firms who bid must be SBA 8(a) certified small businesses at the time of submission. This includes any mentor-protege joint ventures and any subcontractors a firm uses on its bid.
- There are six Functional Areas, each tied to a specific NAICS code:
|Functional Area||NAICS Code and Size Standard|
|Functional Area 1: Custom Computer Programming Services||541511 – Custom Computing Programming Services ($30M)|
|Functional Area 2: Computer Systems Design Services||541512 – Computer Systems Design Services ($30M)|
|Functional Area 3: Computer Facilities Management Services||541513 – Computer Facilities Management Services ($30M)|
|Functional Area 4: Other Computer Related Services||541519 – Other Computer Related Services ($30M OR 150 employees for value added resellers)|
|Functional Area 5: Data Processing, Hosting, and Related Services||518120 – Data Processing, Hosting, and Related Services ($35M)|
|Functional Area 6: Emerging Technology-Focused IT Services||541512 – Computer Systems Design Services ($30M)|
- Firms can bid on whatever Functional Areas they are eligible for (up to and including all six).
- Firms will be evaluated on their corporate experience and past performance. Firms may submit up to three Government or commercial contracts for each Functional Area as examples of relevant experience. Each contract can only be used once in a submission (meaning you cannot submit the same contract for different Functional Areas).
What Do I Need to Do to Prepare?
A vehicle like STARS III is different than a normal capture effort. It does not require in-depth client intimacy and identification of key hot buttons and needs. Instead, winning a spot on the vehicle is simply the entry ticket to compete on task orders, where you will need to conduct traditional capture in order to win business. Given this difference, firms do not need to have a long prep cycle to win a spot on STARS III. Instead, focusing around five points of preparation – both DOs and DON’Ts – will help firms be ready to bid when the final solicitation comes out.
DON’T Look to Subcontract
The draft solicitation permits subcontracting as long as all firms on a bid are 8(a) certified. A common pitfall for firms is to look to cover all possible Functional Areas of an IDIQ as either a Prime or sub from the start. However, for STARS III, is there any real value in being a subcontractor at the IDIQ level? Based on the draft, subcontracting is permitted at the task order level. Therefore, I really feel there is minimal value in subcontracting at the IDIQ level. Instead, focus your bid on the Functional Area(s) where you have a strong likelihood of success and identify other potential Primes where you can team after award on individual opportunities in other Functional Areas.
DO Bid for As Many Functional Areas as Possible
This is a key question for STARS III offerors. The Government allows offerors to submit up to three experience examples to “demonstrate relevant experience within the Functional Area.” There is risk in submitting too few examples: If you only use one example and the Government deems it not relevant, then you will be unsuccessful in that Functional Area. Therefore, offerors should carefully consider where their core strengths are. What are the primary, critical functions of each project? How well does it align to the detailed requirements for each Functional Area? What evidence do you have to back up the assertions you are making? I would advise firms to submit bids in Functional Areas where they confidently believe they have sufficient, substantiated performance with multiple examples where possible.
DON’T Wait to Prepare Your Response and Materials
The Government details what documentation offerors need to provide to be successful. Offerors need to complete Attachment 5, which includes Project Identification, Project Reference, and Project Description fields. In addition, offerors need to provide verification of the information in Attachment 5. This can be done through the FPDS record and/or a copy of the contract award form and statement of work. Finally, offerors need to provide past performance information that validates at least satisfactory performance. This can take the form of either a copy of the project’s CPARS report or a completed Past Performance Survey (Attachment 6).
Too many firms fall into the trap of waiting until the final solicitation is out to begin putting together content. They often worry about wasting resources on developing content that might not be needed based on the final. However, for STARS III the Government has provided enough documentation, and even attachments, that waiting until the final is a losing proposition.
Putting together the components to be responsive and compliant will be the labor and time intensive part of submitting a successful bid. Well-crafted responses will include an annotated statement of work, a well-written and substantiated Attachment 5, an accurate FPDS record, and the required past performance documentation. Therefore, you should start early. Begin pulling the required documentation now. Prepare responses for four or five relevant projects per Functional Area when possible. The more up-front work you do, the better off you will be when the final solicitation comes out.
DO Ask for Clarification
The Government is allowing for feedback using the provided response template. Questions and suggestions are due by 3:00pm CT on September 6, 2019. If there are concerns you have, raise them in a constructive manner. In addition, if parts of the solicitation are unclear, be sure to document and submit them. The draft solicitation period is the ideal time to bring up any issues and concerns you have. These contributions from industry allow the Government to refine the RFP and release a stronger, more competitive final solicitation.
DON’T Do it All Yourself!
Many 8(a) firms are, by definition, small businesses where employees wear multiple hats. Rarely do 8(a) firms have the financial resources or pipeline size to have full-time proposal resources. Despite that, many firms believe they can do it all themselves. This is another pitfall in responding to Government solicitations. While this may work for data calls when you are subcontracting or responding to small acquisitions, large bids like STARS III requires a specific set of skills. Given the importance and potential financial upside of a STARS III bid, firms should look to put their best foot forward. Proposal consultants specialize in knowing what works, and what doesn’t, in bids like STARS III. Finding the right resource provider for you can take a bit of time and the consultant will cost money. In the end, however, for a critical opportunity like STARS III, the investment is worth it.
STARS III represents a critical opportunity for 8(a) firms. Winning a spot on this vehicle can dramatically shift a firm’s growth trajectory. Taking the right steps now can help minimize your headaches and improve your probability of a win later.
About Kevin Switaj
Kevin Switaj is the President and CEO of BZ Opportunity Management, a specialist consulting firm focused on providing high-quality, comprehensive proposal development, contracts, and training support. He and his firm work with a range of small and mid-sized Government contracting firms to maximize their probability of success. To reach Kevin, follow him on Twitter (@DrSwitaj) or email him here.