Yes, I did say shrimping… catching those tiny (and not so tiny) critters we all like as delicacies. In mid-November, my wife and I went to Daytona Beach for a long weekend getaway. My brother-in-law, who lives in Deland, a short distance from Daytona Beach, invited us to the Winter Shrimping Seminar that was hosted by Captain Lee Noga, a 100% service disabled veteran who has a passion for shrimping (her story may become the topic for another post). To my surprise, I had a wonderful time. and learned more than I ever thought could be learned about the sport. Then I had what you might call a Forrest Gump Epiphany – shrimping can teach us a lot about Federal Contracting. Just to clarify a small point: I am not speaking of commercial shrimping (which was the focus of Forrest Gump), but of sports shrimping that limits a boat’s catch to 5 gallons (approximately 30 lbs.). Sports shrimping offers a bigger challenge, as it is man against shrimp – and the shrimp manage well despite their tiny brains, which is something that Captain Lee points out early in the seminar. I highly recommend that anyone who is in that part of Florida try the sport. I am sure Captain Lee will help you in any way she can – that is just her nature.
The afternoon started out at Riverbreeze Park in Oak Hill, Florida, where about 100 or so people came out to hear Captain Lee share her expertise and enjoy a barbecue pot luck, complete with some of the best venison chili I have ever tasted. We spent several hours lounging in the sun with Captain Lee and the various sponsors showing us techniques for catching shrimp, how to use the various pieces of equipment, and giving pointers on how to position the boat and find the shrimp without falling in the water. In the late afternoon, we went out on our boats and found our ideal (or not so ideal) spot, where we set up the lights and nets, then waited for the sun to go down. We were on the Intercoastal Waterway with Manatee and Dolphins swimming around us. I must say that it was a real pleasure watching the sun go down with dolphins swimming less than 50 feet from the boat. After she sun set, the fun began and we worked for several hours to catch our haul of 69 shrimp – much less than we expected, but it was fun.
The next day I retreated to Crabby Joe’s (see picture above), which is where I wrote the first draft of this blog.
Now, why do I think Federal Contracting is similar to shrimping? This comparison was not immediately obvious – it came in bits and drabs. But, the more I thought about it, the more obvious the analogy became. I have come up with a list of a dozen points of comparison that I will present in a series of four posts over the next week or so. This comparison as the basis for my book, soon to be published, with a working title of Shrimping and the Art of Federal Contracting (and other interesting analogies). So, if you have any thoughts, suggestions, criticisms, or just want to vent, please post a comment at the end of this article or send a private note via the Suggestion Box.
Now, let’s start with the first three points:
#1. You will only catch shrimp if you go where the shrimp are. Oak Hill, Florida is one of the major shrimping locations in the nation. You won’t have much success if you try shrimping in other locations. Shrimp just do not travel far from their breeding grounds. Similarly, The Federal Government also has preferred locations of opportunity, such as DC, Atlanta, San Diego, Denver, San Antonio, and more. You need to know where your target customers have their operations and how they handle their procurements. Then you need to set up your efforts focused on those locations. Keep in mind that the operations and procurement shops may be in different places.
#2. Conventional wisdom is not always a good guide. At the end of the seminar, I heard many long-time shrimpers say that Captain Lee had just informed them that “everything they were doing was wrong”. I contend that this is true in the Federal contracting environment as well. Many of us still market the Feds using the same tactics that we used 10 or 20 years ago. You will hear platitudes related to “customer intimacy”, “bidding practices”, “processes’, and the like. We need to debunk these beliefs and understand our prey, be they tiny critters with small brains or government agencies with large organizations. Don’t rely on a “proven process” to build your business. One thing I can say about the Federal Government is that they are changing and each office has its own peculiarities. Be open to new approaches.
#3. Not all shrimp are equal. I learned that there are brown shrimp and white shrimp. Brown shrimp run in the winter and white ones in the summer – mostly. White shrimp are less bothered by light, while brown shrimp loathe light. Brown shrimp taste better them white shrimp, but white shrimp are great when fried. And there is no such think as an Oak Hill Red… these are just white shrimp with red legs while in heat. While agencies and contracts are not as simple a shrimp, we must understand that not all agencies and not all contracts are alike. The Federal Government is not a homogenous entity. It is composed of three Branches, each with its own rules. The Executive Branch under the President, which is where most of you will be building your business, is composed of Cabinet Agencies, independent agencies, and Federally chartered corporations. Even though all operate under the Federal Acquisition Regulations (FARs), each has its unique mission, budget, and style. Do not make the mistake of marketing to all agencies in the same way. I will talk much further on this topic in future articles.
This is just the beginning. These first three items focus on strategy – know your target customers and position yourself where they do their business. Do not let the conventional wisdom of old-timers (of which I am one) divert you. I think you will find that you know your business better than anyone else.
Stay tuned for the next installment where I will address the variations in the Federal market and you you can get started.