Employment Game

What “they” don’t want you to know about finding a job…

Write to Become an Earner II : SBIRs and FedBizopps

After getting canned from Encorpera on my 50th birthday I found a job with a tech company by finding the key players on their website and sending my marketing info, as described in Employment Game.

The owner gave me quite an education in salesmanship. Or I should say he revived my interest in the subject as I have encountered characters like him in the past. The guy was in his seventies and had been a salesman since the 1960s, claiming to have been one of Xerox’s top sales reps at that time. Salesmanship being an old and honored profession in the industrial midwest, I believed him as he exemplified the traits I had seen in others who broke out of the employee mold and became earners.

He could easily have retired but seemed to enjoy coming to the office, raising hell with his staff, and getting on the phone to dig up business and contracts. When he wasn’t doing that he would flog his engineers to keep them from milking every last penny out of him.

If you run into a fellow like this hang on for as long as possible and learn everything you can from him. When you claw your way out of the trenches you begin to get a glimpse of the challenges business owners face. Most people prefer to crawl back to the warmth and security of the trench where they can grumble over every mouthful of food while complaining about the unfairness of it all.

SBIR (pronounced “sib-er”)

He had been working “SBIR” contracts for a number of years, and every cycle submitted several proposals. SBIR means Small Business Innovation Research, a federal program mandating that a percentage of government research dollars goes to small businesses. The topic listings are available online and anyone can write SBIR proposals.

Typically he would submit on a dozen topics and there would be a storm of activity as he pushed his office staff to complete the proposals and get them submitted on time. He had built a core technology that appealed to various defense agencies and managed to win a SBIR contract or two on just about every solicitation.

He lost the contract I was hired to work on, a real letdown for me after a long dry spell. So I attempted my own SBIR proposal, and damned if I didn’t win $100K to study the minutia of paint drying. This was a huge boost for me professionally. I had gone from zero to hero with just one winning proposal which positioned me as an earner in my industry.

After that I started pursuing SBIRs with a vengeance and wrote proposals for several companies. Turns out it was beginner’s luck and the game is much tighter to win than that. But while I wasn’t winning I was extending my professional contacts significantly. When I would call companies to explore teaming on a SBIR, the fact that I had won a SBIR contract was enough to get an invitation to meet with them.

The SBIR Phase I award is typically about 70K to 100K and establishes the feasibility of a proposed technology. Phase II provides up to $1M to develop a marketable prototype. In Phase III the contractor seeks partnerships with corporations who can provide additional support to match government funding. The ultimate goal would be a deployable defense technology as well as a commercial product that would stimulate job growth.

Ideally SBIR funding is seed money to help small companies develop marketable products and create jobs. There are companies out there that rely solely on SBIR funding as their business model, aka “SBIR Farms”. I don’t know how they manage that as it takes a lot to complete a research project or technology demo and still have any money left over for profit.

There is also a related program called STTR, which stands for Small Business Technology Transfer. It is conducted through universities and can be an avenue for you if you make some connection with them and team for a proposal.

How You Can Use SBIRs to Make Money

There are a couple ways you can find work through the SBIR program.

The first is simply to seek out prospects who have won SBIR funding and approach them for work.

Check out http://www.dodsbir.net/awards to find out who in your industry has picked up a grant. In the excitement of winning they may be looking for technical help. For a Phase I there may not be enough money for them to hire you but getting a short contract is definitely a possibility.

If your prospect has won a Phase II award, there may be greater need for your services.The $1M grant is just about enough to fund prototype development over a two-year period.

Writing SBIR Proposals

The second avenue for you is to write a SBIR proposal yourself or offer to help a prospective company do it. I won a sales job by checking out the SBIR solicitation for topics relating to what startups in my area were involved in, and after finding a topic that was a good match for a company making protective coatings, contacted the owner  about writing a proposal. He liked the idea and I worked with his chief scientist to write it.

We did not win but he was impressed with my proposal and called me up with a consulting offer to market his technology. He asked me what my job title should be and I told him “Sales Engineer”, an honorable profession. He said he should have hired me a year earlier. That company folded when his parent corporation pulled the plug but not before I won a few sales for him, which lead to my next consulting job.

Mind you, it would be difficult to make a living strictly writing proposals. Companies are not likely to pay you to write one for them. A credible SBIR proposal will cost about $5K of your time, especially if they don’t have good working material to start with. That would be in the form of publications, patents, prototypes, or significant industry experience.

There are some finer points you should know before attempting a to win a grant through these programs. I will cover the nuts and bolts of writing and submitting SBIR proposals in another essay. In the meantime, scan previous solicitations to get a feel for the topic RFQs (Request For Proposals). This site lists past solicitations : DoD SBIR Archive


There’s another source that has a lot of this kind of information, known as Federal Business Opportunities, or “fedbizopps”. This is the central website listing all goods and services contracts for the US government. That includes everything from janitorial services to laser weapons.

It lists upcoming contracts to be awarded and how to submit proposals or capability statements to win them. In the old days this came out in paper format and was eagerly scanned by small businesses looking for sales opportunities.

I have written quite a few of these with a lot of positive feedback but little actual award. Apparently by the time it makes it to fedbizopp, the contract is already wired even more than a SBIR. “Wired” meaning that some company already has a relationship with the federal customer and is designated to get the contract. The government will go through the contract award motions to appear on the level. How did the companies get that relationship? By building it slowly over time through salesmanship.

At least with a SBIR you have a chance outside the main proposer as they often give out multiple awards for a single topic, whereas for fedbizopp there is usually only one, and they usually have the inside scoop.

However, it is still a great source of award information. A nice thing about their site is that you can set custom search filters and it will automatically send you emails when new contracts or awards appear for that topic or locality. Take a look at https://www.fbo.gov and set up a “general public” account to start getting intel on local companies who are awash in  federal monies.





One comment on “Write to Become an Earner II : SBIRs and FedBizopps

  1. Neil M White
    December 11, 2015

    Good advice here. I live in the UK and there are loads of companies that need help spending government grants. Thanks for posting.


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