Selling to Uncle Sam

Written by ProfitGuide Staff

After hurricane Katrina struck the Gulf Coast in August 2005, the U.S. government faced an onslaught of bad press for its delayed response. For Chungsen Leung, president of Toronto-based Universal Building Solutions, that criticism represented opportunity. Sensing he could help the U.S. feds with a solution to their PR nightmare, he immediately went to work creating a new product: an easy-to-assemble house that can be delivered and built affordably. It wasn’t too long before he was granted a US$15-million contract for the delivery of 350 units.

That the U.S. federal government buys from Leung’s relatively small Canadian company might surprise you, but it shouldn’t. The world’s largest customer, which spends US$500 billion annually on goods and services, is perfectly willing to buy from Canuck companies of any size. “Don’t just think guns and bombs,” says Judy Bradt, CEO of Washington, D.C.-based Summit Insight, which advises Canadian entrepreneurs on selling to the U.S. government. “Government buys every conceivable product and service.”

But understanding just how to get the U.S. feds to buy from you can seem daunting. Here’s what you need to know.

Get the proper experience
The U.S. government wants to know that your products will arrive at the right place at the right time. That kind of credibility comes down to experience selling to the U.S. “You should already know how to get your people, product or services across the border,” says Bradt. Not currently exporting? Contact Canada Border Services Agency to get the right visa and a NEXUS pass for border clearance before making your pitch. “You’re going to have a lot of new things to cope with,” says Bradt. “Border crossing shouldn’t be one of them.”

While not necessary, it’s also helpful if you already sell to the government in Canada, since Ottawa’s procurement processes share similarities with Washington’s. Also, your Canadian contacts may know their U.S. counterparts and can act as references. “Our own government helped us with research and development, as well as making connections,” says Lesley Rust, president of Carignan, Que.-based Proparms Ltd., which specializes in bomb-disarming disrupters and has been selling to the Canadian and U.S. governments for 25 years.

But the Canadian government will help you win lucrative U.S. contracts, regardless of whether you’re a client of theirs. For information on how, visit the Government of Canada’s “Sell2USGov” website, or the Foreign Affairs and International Trade site.

Look for clues
Leung’s analysis of press coverage of Washington’s handling of the Katrina situation tipped him off to his big opportunity. Since then, he has won two comparable contracts with international NGOs and U.S. government agencies that specialize in disaster management. “The U.S. government is under a lot of scrutiny,” says Bradt. “There are studies, reports and news stories on the Internet about government doing things badly. Those are the kinds of clues to look for when trying to understand their challenges.”

Partner up
Some government departments are bound by law to reserve a portion of their spending on products and services from U.S. suppliers, as outlined in the North American free trade agreement. But there are ways around these barriers. One way is by partnering with U.S. businesses that already sell to Washington. “Be ready for a teaming strategy,” says Bradt. “If a small U.S. company wins a large government contract, it may need help to fulfill it.” The Canadian Trade Commissioner Service is a good place to start looking for potential partners.

Be visible
Prior to Leung pitching the U.S. government on his product, he listed his company in a United Nations aid directory and participated in as many disaster-management conferences and trade shows as he could afford. “We did our groundwork beforehand to make sure we had elevated our visibility to the point that people were aware of us,” he says. For Rust, getting in the face of the U.S. government meant joining the International Association of Bomb Technicians and Investigators.

Fact is, if you can demonstrate how you’ll solve a problem, the U.S. government will duly consider you as a supplier. “It’s not a question of whether it will buy what you’ve got,” says Bradt. “It’s whether you’re willing to do what it takes to pursue and win that business.”

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