Friday, April 15, 2011
Dan Callahan

I was reminded this week (while at the NSA) of a common mistake often made by entrepreneurs in the DoD and IC market.  It is tempting to claim that your firm is an expert at two dozen areas of focus.  On one level, I understand this because the same personality and intellect that would launch a new business tends to see more, do more and want more… than the average professional.  So, I understand (if you’re guilty of this tendency) your “reach-of-the starts” mentality.  It runs in your blood. 


There is also a related tendency to not turn away any lead or business project that you believe you can handle.  You probably feel like you can do many things very well. As a matter of business practice, most entrepreneurs will always consider blue bird business (i.e., business that simply drops into our lap with not real effort expended pursuing it).  But this is not the way to differentiate your business focus in marketing literature or company profiles (i.e., by saying “we can do anything in IT services”.)


Here is the truth:  by definition, you can’t possibly be an expert at more than one thing.  Even two areas of endeavor would be a stretch.  Your firm or small team may be really good at several areas and/or capable in an even longer list, but the point is that the intell community and DoD managers who interact with you, need true experts.  Not just capable contractors, at least in most cases. 


Here is my recommendation, which I hold loosely.  If you can improve on this list, please do. 


A)     Figure out what you do best, and get even better.  This can’t be more than one or two things.  This is what you should lead with in your marketing brochures and company descriptions.


B) Carefully define the area of focus that is broad enough to capture your true talent but narrow enough to be very focused as you look for new business.  This sounds oxymoronic but is a matter of balance.  And this is also an issue of developing a unique company, relative to your competitors.  In the profile describing your company (the one they keep on you, in their procurement database), make sure this is tightly written.


C) This need for expertise is perfect for small companies when you must win business on a differentiated value statement.  It’s okay to build-out more tasks later as your project team grows in size but the changes are high that you will win business based on how your team’s expertise is focused, not similar to your competitor’s list of capabilities.


D) Realize that the managers in the IC and DoD are smart enough to know a company of ten people can’t claim expertise in twenty areas or NIACS codes.  So, work hard at finding a focal area that your team can be a true expert in, and aspire to be the best in the world.  So long as your product or service has true value, the only question remaining is, “who finds this valuable and how much are they willing to pay?”


Finally, be honest and willing to adjust this in light of client needs and feedback from potential customers.    Good selling!