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Course helps businesses deal with feds

Entrepreneur Eric Fiterman has done business with federal agencies for a few years now, and he knows the ropes. He developed Spotkick, a web security app, and he’s CEO of BankLook, a company that puts that technology to work. But he readily admits he needs help negotiating the tangled web of federal government contracting.

That’s why he’s enrolled in an upcoming class called “Marketing to Win Government Contracts,” one of 11 offerings at the Government Contracting Institute, a new educational series co-sponsored by bwtech@UMBC Research and Technology Park at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County — the park where Fiterman’s company is based.

“Doing business with the government is fairly complex,” Fiterman said. “There are resources on how to market and get service-based contracts with the government, but the process isn’t so clear to me as a technology products provider.”

Gloria Larkin, president of TargetGov, a Baltimore-based company that helps businesses with the contracting process and a co-sponsor of the course series, agreed.

“Some sort of education is very necessary, because this is a very unique market,” said Larkin. “Some things that would be totally acceptable in the private sector could actually be illegal in this market.”

Maryland’s economy is deeply intertwined with federal dollars. Businesses in this state won $27 billion in federal contracts in fiscal 2010, according to the U.S. Census, and Maryland’s Department of Business and Economic Development estimated those dollars supported about 230,000 jobs.

The Government Contracting Institute aims to satisfy the demand among Maryland businesses trying to break into this market. A number of other organizations hold seminars on government contracting, but Larkin said the institute’s will be more advanced than the “101-level” classes usually available.

The price reflects the level of instruction that Larkin is aiming at: each class at the institute costs $995, although entrepreneurs involved with bwtech@UMBC, like Fiterman, are eligible for a discount.

Fiterman says if it leads to significant business growth, “it will be a very good value.”

“Spending a few hundred dollars to be able to learn how to deliver thousands or hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of business to government is absolutely worth it,” he said.

The first class, on Jan. 15, will provide a gap analysis of the federal contracting business, which means helping business owners identify where they are and map out the steps to get where they want to be. The second, on Jan. 29, will help businesses identify their target government audience. The full schedule and registration details are available at TargetGov.com.

Classes will be taught by industry experts and will cover a range of topics — “everything from sequestration and legal issues, not to mention the accounting requirements, the transparency reporting requirements, all the way down to how to build your business and market to the government,” Larkin said.

For instance, new rules sometimes require government agencies to select the most cost-effective or energy-efficient contractor, Larkin said, while other changes address communication between officials and business owners.

“It’s about repositioning a business to fit the new requirements of the federal market,” Larkin said. “That’s really the core of why this is so timely, because it’s no longer ‘business as usual’ in this market. Whether you’re a large business or a small business, it’s time to refresh your process.”

By Jan. 15 of course, the federal contracting picture may look a little less rosy, particularly if the federal government goes over the fiscal cliff. Ellen Hemmerly, executive director of bwtech@UMBC, said that with fewer dollars available, federal contracts will be harder to come by.

“The government is always a huge customer, but I think with the potential for a cut in government spending, companies are going to have to be even more savvy about going after the opportunities that exist,” said Hemmerly. “So getting specific training on how to be most effective in going out after them is really important.”

Even if lawmakers broker a deal before year’s end, Larkin said, companies should still expect belt-tightening in Washington.

“Whether we reduce our budget voluntarily or mandate it through sequestration, it will affect Maryland and Maryland employers,” she said. “The budget will be reduced one way or the other, so now, in order to deal with lower spending, companies — whether they are large or small — must be able to address the requirements more specifically.”

Fiterman approaches the fiscal cliff with an optimistic outlook. As the government looks for ways to cut costs, small businesses — especially those founded during the recession — may have a leg up on the competition, he said, because they already know how to deliver quality service with fewer resources.

“I let you do with five people what previously took 25,” he said. “That’s an advantage.”

Budget agreement or not, said Fiterman, “that doesn’t mean everything will come to a grinding halt. The government is still going to keep buying things — they have to.”