I was recently asked to contribute to an article in Startups magazine all about how small businesses can work with the government. The focus was on how small businesses can work with government and what options are available to them.

The new Procurement Bill, winding its way through government, should make it easier for smaller businesses to win bids from government departments thanks to decreased red tape and lower upfront costs. However, many small business owners find the idea of bidding for government work daunting.

In theory it’s supposed to be easier for SMEs, but the processes are cumbersome and the language used can be archaic. It often feels like you’re not dealing with a real person either. It’s a big-time commitment for what may be little, or no work guaranteed either.

However, there are steps you can take to make it easier, and the process does get quicker over time. Here are my top tips for getting started and tips from the article:

1.  Get signed up

Sign up your business with relevant government and public sector procurement websites. These publish opportunities regularly and you’ll get a notification when something aligns to the criteria you’ve set.

You may need to get onto a framework in the first instance. Which although doesn’t generate any work itself, it gives you the chance to submit mini-bids for work. This should ultimately be easier as you’ve already been pre-approved but the initial hurdle is really high for SMEs.

Useful websites to register on include:

2.  Get your documents in order

Bidding for your first government contract will be cumbersome, there’s no way to avoid this. But if you save your work (don’t lose it to an IT failure at the last minute – it happens…) and have your documents ready it will speed up considerably. Have your accounts and insurance policies saved and labelled clearly by years, as well as other relevant policies, CVs/ team bios and case studies or testimonials. Don’t assume you’ll be able to knock up a case study or testimonial at the eleventh hour either. You’ll be relying on your customers or clients to contribute here too so get your requests in early.

3.  Be appropriately picky

It sounds obvious, but it’s easy to get sucked into bidding for work you don’t want to do, at a price you can’t afford. Be specific and don’t bid for everything as they can be really time-consuming and exhausting. Only bid for what you know you can deliver really well.

On a more specific note, get ahead of VAT. As in, ensure that you know when you’re pricing whether this contract will take you over the VAT threshold if you win it. If it does, you can include VAT on the pricing and get advice from your accountant.

Also, don’t rely on winning this work – see it as an additional project or contract. You can’t decide on when projects are procured so it can feel like you have to be very reactive to them. Usually when you are just about to go on holiday or start the Christmas break!

4.  Read the small print

There should be prompt payment commitments for SMEs from government so this encourages small businesses to work with them. Check whether your contract will allow for this and also get ahead of the game with getting your payment details filled in so you’re already set up on their procurement system. Government tenders come with payment schedules, meaning that you often have to wait to hit milestones to be paid. There may also be other contract issues you hadn’t noticed at first glance. You could be months into a contract before you see any finances coming your way so you’ll need to plan your cashflow carefully.

5.  Just do as you’re told

Do what you’re asked to do – and exactly that. Word and character limits are provided for a reason so stick to these otherwise your answer may be void. Don’t include marketing information or extras as they usually won’t be read. The same goes for graphics and images – if they haven’t been asked for, they may not count and you’ll struggle to enter them into the format of the bid too. Read the questions carefully, more than once, and answer them exactly. You’ll generally see scoring criteria and weighting for the marks awarded so allocate enough time and energy on the right sections – a 50% section means it’s clearly a really important area for them, whereas 5% may be more of a compliance answer.

6.  Plan for the worst and hope for the best

If you have to download the documents from a portal and upload your reply, do check this out ahead of time. Make sure you understand how it works completely. Allow enough time to submit your response with room for error in case you have an IT issue at the last minute. Also keep track of all the documents you need to complete or review. Quite significant documents can be sitting under a hyperlink. It’s usually the “add any additional information” button which gives SMEs the cold sweats if you’re unprepared. The procurer is under no obligation to give you an extension if you miss the deadline.

7.  Call the experts in

There are ways to streamline the process by using online templates that can cut down on time. But if you are unsure, expert consultancy could well pay off. Also ChatGPT can give you a first draft if you’ve got writers block. Don’t rely on it though or let it skip over key details or your answer will be too generic. At a minimum proofread your answers, then ask someone else to proofread them again.

Hopefully these tips won’t discourage small businesses to work with government, but I feel for a time-strapped SME it’s important to go in with your eyes wide open.

Photo by Wesley Tingey on Unsplash