Doing Effective Business Development Research in FedBizOpps

One thing proposal writers in the government contracting sector between proposals is search for new business development opportunities. One of the key tools in this search is FedBizOpps (also fbo.gov, short for Federal Business Opportunities). This search engine helps companies search for proposed or current solicitations from the government for specific products or services.

The FBO search engine is actually pretty robust, as it allows you to search opportunities based on multiple factors–which is important because the U.S. Federal Government is a HUGE organization with multiple agencies and sub-agencies, each with their own special business needs.

Search parameters for a basic search include:

  • Posted date (with a drop-down menu that allows you to search items posted anywhere from the last couple days to the last year)
  • Set-aside code (to search for opportunities set aside for small businesses, woman-owned businesses, historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs), and other special categories)
  • Place of performance, including specific states or U.S. territories
  • Type, which allows you to search for current solicitations, pre-solicitation notices, or even awards of opportunities so you can see who was actually awarded a specific contract
  • Keyword / Solicitation # – this is a text window that allows you to search for specific solicitation numbers if you happen to know them or specific topics
  • Agency, which allows you to search agencies (e.g. Department of Defense, NASA) or sub-organizations within those agencies (e.g., Defense Logistics Agency, Marshall Space Flight Center)

Advanced searches allow you to get really specific with your opportunity search, as it adds the following:

  • Multiple states (as opposed to the single-state searches in the basic search window)
  • Zip code
  • Set-aside codes (again, you can check more than one as opposed to only one on the basic search screen)
  • Opportunity/procurement type (again, you can check more than one box)
  • Recovery and Reinvestment Act Action (if you’re searching for work under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, a.k.a., “the stimulus”)
  • NAICS code – tasks designated for businesses with specific North American Industry Classification System codes
  • Specific product/service codes, e.g., weapons, hand tools, furniture
  • Justification & Approval (J&A) Authority – this is an interesting one. FBO does not just post opportunities for work but also awards of contracts, as noted above, or notices for when the government feels that a specific contract must be awarded to a large company or a single company (rather than a specific category). One thing you might see it called is JOFOC (a Justification for Other than Full and Open Competition). This is a situation where the government believes that only a specific company or type of company can do a specific type of work. In order to justify a JOFOC or single-source award, the awarding agency has t comply with specific parts of the Federal Acquisition Regulations (“the FAR”) and state its case for why it is awarding a contract in a particular way. As a search parameter, you can check boxes that show contracts awarded based on specific need: only one responsible source, unusual or compelling (national interest), international agreement, etc.
  • Posted date range
  • Response date
  • Last modified
  • Contract award date

You can see, then, that FedBizOpps is a robust tool for doing opportunity and historical research. How detailed you want to get in your search depends a great deal on your business’s particular needs. In my business development role, my usual searches have involved particular keywords and specific agencies within the government (DoD, NASA). With keyword searches, the tricky thing is to use the right terminology–calling things what the customer is likely to call them or what industry calls them. And even when you narrow down your search parameters, you can still find yourself facing a couple dozen pages of different opportunities. Because the uses of FBO are so varied, I’ll just pass along some general tips for those of you asked to “go look for business.”

  • Again, use keywords as the government uses them.
  • Focus on actual solicitations rather than pre-solicitation notices because pre-solicitation notices, while they provide useful information, usually don’t have money behind them (yet).
  • That said, there are times when it’s useful to go through Requests for Information or “Sources Sought” notices. These are notices of interest by a government agency: they know they need a particular product or service, but they don’t know how much it might cost or how complicated it might be to build the product. Responding to an RFI is a way to get your company’s name “on the list” should an actual contract solicitation be released.
  • If you’re doing an active search for opportunities you can write a proposal response to NOW, I wouldn’t go back much farther than 90 days. The reason being, if it’s an active solicitation, they rarely have due dates more than 90 days out.
  • Keep in mind your proposal team’s bandwidth: how big is the proposal document expected to be? What is the due date? How many people do you have on vacation at the moment? Can you get a good proposal together in the time granted?
  • Are you already doing the sort of work sought by the solicitation? That will determine how easy it is to show your past performance or value proposition to the customer.
  • Does the opportunity represent work your company has wanted to get into but hasn’t yet? If so, you’ll need to show how your business could add value. You also might need to find an organization (as a prime or subcontractor) to be your partner on the proposal–and that takes time to set up as well.
  • Be on the lookout for signs that a solicitation might have been written with one particular contractor in mind. Officially, the government is supposed to have full and open competition; in reality, the companies closest to a particular agency are most familiar with that agency/command’s needs and so are usually the best able to meet the need. Examples of solicitations that seem “custom-made” for one particular company include a lot of very specific business requirements; a large proposal page count with a very short deadline; or specific clearance or business location requirements for the personnel that usually only an existing on-site contractor can fulfill. It’s not that you can’t or shouldn’t compete in those circumstances, but it’s best to be aware of the uphill battle you might face and the challenges you’ll have proving that your company can offer a product/service clearly superior to the on-site contractor. And who knows? That solicitation just might have been written for you!

Government contracting is its own special flavor of business, and it can take a while to learn how it works. However, once you learn the ins and outs of how the game is played–and it is a game, nothing I’ve seen in 10 years has convinced me otherwise–the easier and more effective your business development process can become.

About Bart Leahy

Freelance Technical Writer, Science Cheerleader Event & Membership Directior, and an all-around nice guy. Here to help.
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