How Defense Start-Ups Can Break Into Federal Contracting
5 minutes

How Defense Start-Ups Can Break Into Federal Contracting

May 26, 2023

The war in Ukraine is providing more opportunities for defense start-ups to display their expertise and win praise from government officials, but these new companies still have hoops to jump through if they want to benefit from the Pentagon’s coffers. The defense contracting landscape for tech start-ups is full of promise — if they play their cards right. If you are a start-up looking to get into the defense market, you can set yourself up for success before you even start the contracting process.

The Current Landscape for Defense Start-Ups

Beginning a contracting relationship with the federal government is no small feat for any business, but tech start-ups with turbulent funding and limited connections face even more hurdles. A defense start-up has an advantage in that they offer cheaper and more innovative weapons systems (like satellites, AI, and C4ISR solutions) when compared to the major corporations that hold the DOD’s attention. These advantages have led to many short-term contracts between the military and various start-ups, but these agreements don’t always offer enough funding or support to keep start-ups afloat or please their investors.

The federal government isn’t known for having speedy or easygoing contracting and procurement processes, and going directly for a contract often won’t keep your start-up afloat. Getting in with the federal government, and especially the defense sector, means playing the long game.

"The big defense companies, they don’t really kind of invest in the tech,” Sean Gourley, the founder of Primer, a small artificial-intelligence firm, told The New York Times. “They just invest in how to navigate this bureaucracy. That kind of sucks, but that’s how you’ve got to play this game."

If you are a start-up that has tried to go through the contracting process before, you might be familiar with the “Valley of Death” — that middle ground where you’ve secured a deal with the DOD, but now you have to hope your funding doesn’t run out while awaiting decisions from various levels of defense bureaucracy. This scenario is all too common, but it isn’t inevitable if you plan correctly.

Defense start-ups with valuable solutions to offer shouldn’t lose hope. The federal government wants to award opportunities to small businesses and start-ups, and they allocate a certain amount of funding every year to do so. Read on to learn how you can navigate maddening federal bureaucracy and get in with the right crowd.

Three Ways You Can Start Winning Defense Contracts as a Tech Start-Up

1. Become a master of your target market.

To get in with the right crowd, you need to find out what that crowd wants to hear. Subscribe to defense newsletters, blogs, and publications to learn about the military market overall. Defense One is a great place to start.Then, read white papers, reports, forecasts, and databases from industry experts to niche down into the sector you want to target. Forecast International’s aerospace and defense forecasting, market analysis, and product database is the perfect source for these. You can also invest in market research to help guide your path. GovTribe breaks down data and creates customized reports, while Market Connections offers brand research, new pursuit and capture research, and competitive profiling. Both give you the edge you need in this market.

With the right resources, it won’t take long to identify the area where your solution will be the best fit.

2. Develop relationships with stakeholders ahead of time (or even while your solution is just an idea).

Before you start bidding on contracts, it’s important to make your company name and offerings well known. Use account based marketing (ABM) to get yourself in front of the right people. An ABM campaign can include blogs, ads, emails and other forms of content directed at a specific set of people instead of broad strokes. Rather than marketing to anyone who will listen, spend your time focusing on the buyers and stakeholders that hold the keys to the contracts you want. With a successful campaign, you might even find that the exact solutions you offer become a requirement for the RFP.

GovExec has Demand Generation Programs to tailor your go-to-market strategy, custom content geared towards your target audience, and lead nurturing services to build trust long before the sales pitch. These campaign strategies accelerate when combined with GovTribe. There, you can find and pursue contract opportunities and identify the stakeholders you should target.

3. Nurture connections with other industry leaders.

Make your presence known both online and offline. Attend or sponsor industry events, like the Defense One Tech Summit or Washington Technology’s Top 100 Showcase, to not only meet the people you’ve been targeting with ABM campaigns, but also your current competitors. This is an industry that is heavily reliant on teaming, so don’t silo your brand. Once you’ve developed a strong network, often this can lead to the development of contracts specifically for your start-up or potential teaming opportunities.

Take advantage of the numerous free and discounted industry events presented by Washington Technology. They provide a direct line to contractor executives who need cutting-edge IT systems and solutions to serve the government market, and their expert coverage and analysis fuels strategic decisions around partnering, RFPs, and resource development, enabling the readers to competitively build relationships, bid smartly and win contracts. Defense One is another outlet that allows you to stay ahead of breaking news and connect with the ideal market. With impactful events throughout the year featuring the who’s who in the defense contracting arena, Defense One’s events build your network, set the stage for action-inducing conversations, and feature cutting-edge insight and technology to keep up with the future of defense.

Or, meet the contact behind the contracts right at your desk with the GovTribe Personas feature. Uncover powerful insights into government buyer and industry behaviors, interests, and purchasing patterns. Personas gives you an unparalleled competitive edge in government contracting. With this data, you can craft personalized messaging that drives awareness and builds trust with the contacts that matter most, teeing you up for a home run.

As a start-up in the government contracting market, it’s easy to be intimidated by the hill you have to climb. However, if you’re willing to invest in the right marketing strategies and focus your efforts in a few key areas, the reward is more than worth it. You’ll gain access to the largest customer in the world: the government market.

Find out how GovExec can help you break in and win.
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