A Small Business Guide to Deciding Whether to Bid on Federal Contracts

A Small Business Guide to Deciding Whether to Bid on Federal Contracts

About This Guide

After helping companies enter and grow in the federal market for six years, the biggest difference we’ve seen between companies that succeed and those that fail is that the successful ones develop and implement systems to:

1.Identify opportunities.

2.Decide whether to bid each RFP.

3.Write winning proposals efficiently.

On the one hand these steps sound obvious; on the other hand, very few companies actually do them. 

In this guide we focus on Step 2 and we share the process we teach to rapidly decide whether to bid on an RFP.

A note on verbiage: In this guide we use the word “RFP” to refer to an opportunity at any stage of development (Forecast, RFI, RFP, etc.).  The more correct term would be an “opportunity”, but in the interest of brevity, we’ve chosen to use “RFP” in its broadest sense.


Note on Services Co: While any company can use this guide it is primarily designed for small services companies.  If you are a product company the basic process holds true but the mechanics of some of the analyses may differ.


These are guidelines not commandments: Every RFP is different and while we try to address major variants please treat the observations in this guide as just that, guidance and not a rigid replacement for critical thinking.


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Download the Go/No-Go Guide and Workbook

Deciding to bid in 3 Bullets + The Process We Recommend

The Bid decision in Three Bullets

  • Create the Fastest Path to No:
    With up to 3,000 new RFPs released each day, your bid decision process has to rapidly disqualify MANY more RFPs than it qualifies.


  • Work Iteratively
    In our experience it’s most efficient to start with fast and coarse assessment, followed by progressively deeper analyses that disqualify RFPs at each iteration.


  • At First You’re Going to Get It Wrong a Lot:
    Deciding whether to bid requires a lot of analyses that are difficult for new businesses to make. So don’t beat yourself up if you put a bunch of time into an RFP that was a bad fit, or if you pass on a winner. Initial mistakes are a key part of the learning process.


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The Process We Recommend

  Description Typical effort

Do a Rough Review

Review the RFP to:

  • Ensure it generally aligns with the work your company does.
  • Make sure you have time to craft a winning proposal.

10 min

Understand the RFP’s structure

Search the documents for:

  • The evaluation mechanics.
  • Whether you can deliver alone or will need to team up with another co.
  • Indications that the RFP is wired.

20 min

If you are going to subcontract

Estimate how hard it will be to find a prime contractor.

5 min

Assess cost

Estimate the number of hours needed to put together a winning proposal.

10 min

Assess Value

Research similar RFPs:

  • Try to identify a predecessor RFP.
  • Estimate the financial and non-financial value of pursuing the RFP.

30 min

Assess Chances of winning

Identify the pool of likely competitors and assess your chances of winning.

15 min

Bid decision

Based on the above analyses determine whether to pursue this RFP.

5 min





Felipe Perez
Senior Business Consultant
DC Small Business development Center Network

Effective Small Businesses Owners are always doing cost/benefit calculations, when deciding what to do or not do.  Since both the costs and benefits of bidding on government RFPs are significantly greater than most daily business decisions, a rigorous framework is important and can change a company’s trajectory.

Why We Treat New and More Established Companies Differently

Whether you are a new or an established business, we think the basic bid decision process remains the same.  However, new and established businesses have different opportunity costs and chances to create value, so when appropriate we provide different analyses for each.



New businesses

Established businesses

Who’s the customer

Other government contractors.

The government itself.

The value of Priming

Less important:

  • Prime opportunities are limited for new businesses.
  • It is generally better to work with a prime who can act as a mentor.

Critically important:

  • It builds government relationships.
  • It creates “past performance” that will help them win even larger contracts.

The value from going through the proposal process

Both wins and losses are valuable:

  • Both aid the process of learning to write proposals.
  • Both build relationships with other contractors.
  • Both contribute to a library of stock proposal content.

Only wins are valuable:

  • Win create revenue.
  • Wins Create past performance.
  • Wins strengthen government relationships.

For Help Planning Your Business

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   A frank discussion of:

  • Whether entrepreneurship is right for you
  • Exercises to help you decide
  • An overview of what it takes to be successful in the government market

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   In this next class we:

  • Drill down into the various products and services you could provide
  • Get more clarity into your potential partners
  • Identify and explore your customers
  • Conduct quick tests of your potential business plan to see what the market reacts to

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Why Is There So Much About Poker in Here?

Most sections start with a page about poker strategy. This may seem like a total distraction, but there’s three reasons why poker is relevant here:

First, we think that there are close parallels between the mechanics and strategy of poker and those of government contracting.

Second,  although government contracting can seem abstract, most people have played poker or have at least seen it on TV.

Third, you can see everything happening in poker: there are chips, a 52 card deck, a known number of players, etc. This makes the game easy to use for illustrating concepts.

The FedScout App Does a Lot of the Analysis for You

  • Create searches and alerts so you never miss promising funding
  • Evaluate you chances of winning
  • Get insight into each funding opportunity
  • Free on IOS and Android


Download our free SBIR App

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Or use our browser interface

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Step 1: Do a Rough Review

The Rough Review in Poker

Conventional poker wisdom says that you should “only play good hands”. This makes sense:  it costs chips (money) to play a hand and you are going to see a couple dozen hands an hour, so why invest in a bad one?

The Rough Review

During the rough review, two kinds of RFPs should be eliminated: those that are a bad fit for the company and those that do not offer enough benefit to be worth the time.

Objectives: Since a full bid analysis can take at least an hour, it’s worth it to first do a high-level sanity check to make sure the RFP is generally a good fit for the company.

Data you’ll need:

  • If you are using Beta.SAM, you will need the basic information on the RFP page.
  • If you are using the FedScout app, you will want to look at the dashboard or report for the RFP.


  • Assess these three factors to estimate if the opportunity is valuable:
    • The value of the work
    • The value of the customer
    • The value of any potential partner relationships
  • See if you have the time to produce a winning proposal.
  • If the answer to both is yes, we recommend doing a full review.
  • If the answer to either is no, we recommend passing on the RFP.


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Rough Review: (for New Companies)

As a new company, you need to make sure that any RFP you pursue will help you build partners relationships, find customers, and grow your proposal content library.


Build a library*

Customer relationships

Partner relationships

Should you go to Step 2?


We will use this proposal content again and again

This is a customer we want to work with again and again


We want to bid with this team again

Yes! These are critical relationships and win or lose, you’ll still get tons of value from this experience.


We might bid with this team again

Yes.  Even if you never work with this team again, you’ll learn a lot. This is a great place to make and learn from rookie mistakes.

This is a customer we will probably work with a couple more times

We want to bid with this team again

Yes! The most important thing to do right now is build relationships with potential partners.

We might bid with this team again

Probably.  This is a low-risk environment to develop proposal writing skills and to grow a content library, but there may be better opportunities out there.

We will use this proposal content once or twice more


This is a customer we want to work with again and again

We want to bid with this team again

Yes! The most important thing for you right now are relationships with potential partners.

We might bid with this team again

Probably. As a small government contractor, customer connections are less important than many you might think, but it’s probably worth practicing proposal writing.


This is a customer we will probably work with a couple more times


We want to bid with this team again

Probably. As a new government contractor, partner relationships are the most important thing to have so even though its meh otherwise you should probably pursue.

We might bid with this team again

Probably not. The only exception would be if the other people on the bid team are known as great proposal mentors, or if the opportunity is very attractive financially.


Probably won’t use it again


This is a one-off customer


We’ll probably never bid together again

No. There are 2,000-3,000 opportunities put out every day, wait for a better one.


Rough review: (For Established Companies)

While established companies should think about work fit and relationships, we’ve found that this happens almost automatically.  Instead established company rough review should focus on: the financial value, the strategic value, and whether they have a decent chance of winning.



Rough Review Part 2 (All Companies)

There are prizes for second place. If you are going to pursue an RFP, make sure you can invest the time needed to have a shot at winning.

Do you have 100 hours between now and the due date? Every proposal is different.  Some take one person a day, some take a team a week.  But after helping lots of teams write proposals, we think that you should go into the process planning to spend at least 100 hours. So look at everything that everyone on your team is doing and figure out whether you have 100 hours available before the due date (for a more detailed assessment of the likely hours that you’ll need see Page 32).

Who’s going to do the work? Every proposal has to be owned by one person. Figure out who that person is and Identify how much time they have available.

What won’t this person do to make room for the proposal:

  • Identify what tasks are coming off that person’s plate to make space for this proposal.
  • Remove those tasks or reallocate them to other team members, as necessary.

If you can’t find or create 100 hours: You probably want to pass on the RFP.

If you can find/ create 100 hours:

  • Protect them from other distractions.
  • Make sure they know who else is involved, such as:
    • Sub-Section writers
    • Editors
    • Pricing experts
    • Compliance experts
    • Etc

Step 2: Understand the RFP’s Structure

Structural Review in Poker

In poker, information is your most important resource and depending on your position at the table you may have to make decisions with more, or less, information.

In poker the dealer is last to act, meaning they don’t have to bet until they’ve seen what everyone else does.  This gives them a huge informational advantage. 


Say the dealer has a relatively weak starting hand.  If they have to decide early in the hand they’ll probably fold rather than invest chips into a low probability hand. 


But if they get to decide late, the information they’ve collected by observing other players could tell them the following two things:

  • Everyone else has weak hands.
  • They only have to invest a small number of chips to see the next deal.

In this case, the player can stay in the game and see if they can strengthen their hand in the next round of betting.

Understand the RFP’s Structure

In this step, we want to search the RFP documents for any issues that would prevent us from bidding or that would influence how we approach the pursuit of the RFP.

Objectives: Identify RFP elements that would affect whether you bid or not, such as:

  • Whether the evaluation criteria favors you.
  • Whether you meet the priming requirements.
  • How much time will be needed to write the proposal.
  • Whether there is evidence that the RFP has been “wired.”

Data you’ll need: The documents attached to the RFP.


  • Conduct a series of keyword searches to help you find key passages in the RFP.
  • Collect the relevant passages.
  • Decide if it is worth continuing to evaluate the RFP.

The Elements Of the Structural Review

During this phase we are going to examine some structural elements of the RFP. Depending on what we find, we could shift from planning to prime, to planning to sub, to deciding to pass on the RFP altogether.

1. The Evaluation Criteria

Most experienced government contractors start reading an RFP by looking at how a winner will be chosen.

How to find the evaluation section:

  • Keyword search each document for the prefix “evaluat”. This method will catch the words evaluate, evaluation and evaluated within the document.
  • Look for text related to:
    • The evaluation process.
    • The evaluation criteria.

What to do once you find it:

  • Copy and past all the text about evaluation into your workbook.
  • Look for language in the evaluation section along the lines of:
    • “Lowest Price Technically acceptable”
    • “Best Value”

This is known as the evaluation regime, copy that to the workbook.

What to do with these insights:

  • Look at any evaluation criteria that are mandatory (e.g. “contractor must have at least three past performance” or “Contractor must have passed a DCAA audit in the last two years”). 
  • If you don’t meet these mandatory criteria you have three choices:
    • Pass on the RFP.
    • Build/join a team with a prime that meets the criteria.
    • Build/join a team that collectively meets the criteria.
  • Determine whether the evaluation regime aligns to your business*
    • If the regime does align then, continue with the evaluation.
    • If it doesn’t align, you probably want to pass on the RFP.

2. Past Performance

Frequently, before the government will let you prime a contract, they will want to see that you have done similar work before (this is known as past performance).

Finding the Past Performance section:

  • Keyword search each document for “performance,” and “experience”.
  • You are looking for sentences that speak to “prior experience,” “past performance,” etc. 
  • Frequently the words will appear next to one another, but sometimes they won’t (For example “Vendor must provide three examples of their performance on similar projects in the last three years”).

What to do once you find it:

  • Copy and past all the paragraphs about past performance into the workbook.
  • Look for the number of past performance you have to show, and what qualifies as past performance.

What to do with these insights:

  • Compare the number of past performances that you have to the number the RFP says you need.
  • If you have enough, then you can go after this contract alone
  • If you do not have enough, then you have three choices:
    • Pass on the RFP.
    • Build/join a team with a prime that has the past performance.
    • Build/join a team that collectively has the past performance (Note: first confirm that the RFP allows you to pool past performance)


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Lisa Wood
State Director, VA PTAC

Read, read, read, and then read the RFP again

Key Personnel: the Hidden Evaluation Criteria

The government frequently specifies key personnel (and their qualifications) who must be involved in the execution of a contract. For example, the RFP may state that a project manager is key personnel, and that they must have a PMP.  As part of your proposal you will have to provide the resume for your candidate, show that they have a PMP, and show that they are either an employee or someone who holds a contingent hiring agreement with your company.

How to find the key personnel:

  • If you are lucky, the government will use the words “key personnel” so start by searching for that.
  • If you’re unlucky, and can’t find “key personnel” search for a couple common key personnel titles like technical lead, project manager, and project lead
  • If you find any key personnel, look for text about what those key personnel have to have.

What to do once you find it:

  • Copy and past all the information about each of the key personnel into your workbook.
  • Call out/ bold any criteria or qualifications that the key personnel must have. Such as:
    • A certain level of education (e.g. masters of XXX).
    • A certificate (e.g. PMP).
    • A certain number of years of experience.

What to do with these insights:

  • Look at any mandatory key personnel requirements and determine how you are going to meet the requirement:
    • Do you already have someone on staff who meets the requirement?
    • Do you want to find someone that meets the requirement and negotiate a contingent hiring agreement with them?
    • Do you want to find a company that already has someone who meets the requirement and partner with them?
  • You can’t win without qualifying key personnel, so if none of these options work, don’t bid.

Wired RFPs

A wired RFP happens when a contractor has had so much influence on the requirements and structure of the RFP that it becomes very difficult for anyone else to win.

Unusual Key personnel requirements: This is easiest to explain through an example:

  • Imagine the RFP is for Cyber Security services. The RFP states that the project manager is Key Personnel, and that they have to have a law degree.
  • Few companies have project managers with law degrees and it will be hard to find one.
  • If you see this it’s a pretty strong indicator that a connected company has had a lot of influence over the RFP and is being positioned to win.

Unusual past performance: This is similar to the key personnel hypothetical, but this time there is a very specific and unusual past performance requirement in the RFP.

Highly proscriptive in the “how”:

  • It’s normal for the government to define how service providers will perform those services and how products should function.
  • But if you start seeing unreasonably specific requirements regarding how a service will be performed or unusual technical specifications for a product that’s a red flag.

Vague language:

  • The opposite of the above.  If the RFP doesn’t give enough information to really understand what the government wants its an orange flag.
  • On the one hand it could be because there is an insider who knows what the government actually wants and is using the vague language to keep others out.
  • Or it could be that the person writing the proposal just wasn’t clear.

Short response/ odd release day:

  • The time between an RFP’s release and when proposals are due tends to be short, but if it is very short, especially when compared to the length of the proposal its a good indicator that the RFP is wired.
  • Similarly if the RFP comes out on a weekend its an orange flag.

What to do with these insights:

  • Its hard to say what you should do here.
  • On the one hand, another vendor has the advantage.
  • On the other hand you absolutely have a chance of winning, especially if it’s a Low Price Technically Acceptable (LPTA) evaluation regime.
  • Unless you have reason to believe “the fix is in” we suggest continuing with the review process and adjusting your chances of winning at the end.

Step 3: Estimate Your Chances of Finding a Prime

Find a Prime

If you can’t or don’t want to prime an RFP yourself you will need to find someone who can and will.  Given that finding a prime is make or break we recommend getting a sense for what your chances of success are.


One Note: We are just focussed on your chances of success and we will cover the process of searching, pitching, and negotiating with a prime in another guide

Objectives: Determine your chances of finding a prime.

Data you’ll need: None


  • Identify what value you bring to a prime.
  • Estimate your chances of finding a prime.

The Chance That a Prime Will Want to Team With You Is a Function of the Value You Bring


The value you bringing to the prime


  • You can provide an unusual past performance, key personnel or have another unique value that makes it much more likely the prime will win.

  • You have a deep relationship with the customer.

  • You/your company is a recognized expert in some piece of the work that the RFP calls for (preferably work that the prime doesn’t want to do themselves).
  • You identified the RFP and brought it to the prime.
  • You are willing to write big sections of the proposal
  • You are willing to do the work cheaper than other people.


What to do with these insights:

  • As a small a lot of your time will be spent reaching out to, pitching, and being rejected by primes.
  • So if you have any of the items on this list we suggest:
    • Continuing evaluating the RPF assuming that you will find a prime.
    • Set aside significant time to find your future prime.
  • If you don’t have anything on this list it is going to be hard to pitch a prime successfully so we recommend passing.

Step 4: Assess the Cost to Pursue

Assessing Pursuit Cost in Poker

To win in poker either:

  • Everyone else leaves the hand (folds).
  • The betting ends, the players reveal their hands, you have the best one.

Both methods generally require that you invest a lot of chips, and since there is only one winner its a good idea to get a sense for the likely cost before you start playing.

Assessing the Cost to Pursue

If you go after an RFP you are going to spend a lot of time with the customer and teammates and writing.  Lots and lots of writing.  So before you commit to that kind of investment lets estimate the likely time it will take.

Objectives: Estimate of the hours needed to have a reasonable chance of winning.

Date you’ll need: The page length of the proposal.


  • Estimate the time required at each step of the proposal process.

  • Convert time to dollars.

  • Estimate other costs.

  • Sum all the costs.

Time Costs

The hour estimates below are directional at best and can be much more or much less.  Despite the inaccuracy I think it is helpful to put a stake in the ground and make your best guess as it will help you make much more rigorous decisions as a team.

Proposal phase


Amount of time


Shaping includes all the influencing a company does prior to the release of a formal document.
  • Writing white papers on a given topic.
  • Having lunch with the customer.
  • Etc.
  • 10hr: White paper
  • 5hr: Prepping a “leave behind” and lunch

RFI/sources sought response

Writing a response. 2hr: Per page

Team building

  • Building the team to go after the RFP.
  • Finding key personnel.
  • 6hr: Find/vet a new teammate
  • 5hr: Find/ vet new key personnel

RFP Writing

  • Analyzing the RFP document.
  • Writing the proposal.
  • Managing and integrating text from various writers.
  • Editing.
  • Checking for administrative compliance.
  • 5hr: Per finished proposal page
  • +1hr: Per page if multiple companies are involved

RFP Pricing

Building a price that is both profitable and competitive. 0.5hr: Per proposal page


Hard Costs


Description Cost

Hard costs

  • Hard costs tend to be small when compared to the  time costs.
  • But if you are just starting your business your time is impossible to price so the “cost” is kind of imaginary.
  • Whereas these costs are very real.
  • While there are many small costs trips to see the customer are the only ones that “move the needle”.
  • $1,000/person: A flight, one hotel night and meals
  • $500/person: A flight, no hotel and meals


Converting Hours Into Dollars


Our recommendation

There are a lot of ways to compute the hourly rate for the hours you’ve totaled up:
  • Price them at zero since everyone is on salary and this is extra work.
  • Price them at the fully burdened cost  per hour that you pay yourself/ your employees.
  • Price them at the “opportunity cost” (the amount you bill yourself/ your employees to the government).

Its good to get in the habit of thinking about your time in terms of an hourly rate but at this point keep it simple:

  • $25/hr: If you are going after your first contract
  • $35/hr: If everyone working on the proposal is an owner
  • $40/hr: If its a mix of owners and employees
  • $50/hr: If everyone working on the proposal is an employee


Step 5: Estimate the Total Value of Pursuing

Estimating Value in Poker

There’re three key to estimating the value of a new hand in poker:

  1. Understanding how the players have behaved in the past.
  2. Tracking the value of previous hands.
  3. Segmenting the data you have collected.

What we can estimate from the outset:

Without knowing anything about a given hand, we can make some value estimates by looking at prior player behavior:

  • The roughest analysis would be the average pot size from the last 100 hands.
  • A better analysis would be to segment our estimates into the following player-count situations::
    • The value when two people are in a hand.
    • The Value when 3+ people are in a hand.
  • An even more refined estimates would be to segment our estimates based on specific players (for example the average value when player 1 and player 5 are in the hand).

Refining estimates based on each round of betting:

Each round of betting gives indications about the strength of each player’s hand.  For example:

  • If someone raises aggressively, it is likely that they have a strong hand and feel confident about raising the stakes.
  • If someone calls, it likely means that they don’t love their hand but want to see more cards in the hopes that the newly dealt cards will significantly strengthen it.

Estimating the Total Value of Pursuing an RFP

Having a sense for the reward you could win can help you calibrate how much work you should put in and what kinds of odds of success you should tolerate.  A small chance of winning a large amount of money may be worth it, but a small chance of winning a small amount of money probably isn’t.


  • Understand the value you will receive if you win the bid.
  • Understand the value you will receive by going after the bid whether you win or lose.

Data you’ll need: This opportunity’s basic RFP data.


  • If you are subbing, ask the prime for this data.
  • If you are the priming, then find it by:
    • Downloading a list of similar contracts.
    • Looking for a predecessor RFP.
    • Identifying the key data.

The Elements of Value

Most people think about value purely in terms of revenue if you win, but if you are a new entrant there’s a lot of value in just pursuing the RFP



Building government relationship: You will spend a lot of time with the government customer if you win, allowing you to build the relationship.

Generating revenue: The revenue/profit you earn if you win.

Gaining past performance: When you successfully execute a contract you get “past performance” which will help you win more work

Building partner relationships: You start building a strong partner network

Building proposal/BD skill: You learn how to write proposals and manage the business development (BD) process, critical skills that are often learned by “apprenticing” to a veteran contractor.

Building a content library: You start building a library of high-quality content you can “pull off the shelf” and recycle to efficiently and effectively respond to future RFP.




Our Approach to Estimating Value:

The government tends to “repeat” contracts (re-competes). We can gain a lot of insight into a re-compete RFP we’re interested in by finding its “predecessor”, and by looking at other similar RFPs that have come out in the past. But finding them is challenging.

The RPF we found and are interested in:  This is the current version of the RFP that we are trying to analyze. We need to find two critical data points about this RFP, which are its likely value and the pool of competitors likely competing for it.

The predecessor to RPF we are interested in:  This is the previous version of the RFP that we are analyzing (typically released 1-5 years before this RFP was released).

  • The predecessor’s data is the most valuable because it is the most similar to this RFP.
  • Because it has already been awarded to someone, we can get its value and competition data.
  • Not all new RFP’s have a predecessor.

Similar RFPs:  These are RFPs that share similarities with our RFP:

  • Because these RFPs are similar to the one that we are interested in, the data from them is relevant.
  • Because they have been awarded we can get value and competition data.
  • Seeing who has won similar RFPs can help us predict who is likely to bid on this RFP.

Distracting RFPs:  The other (not similar) RFPs in the databases:

  • There are literally millions of these.
  • Because of the volumes we generally have to use excel to finds what we are looking for.


Step 1: Collect Similar RFPs

There are roughly 5 million RFPs in the database so lets start by identifying a rough pool of similar ones.

Collect contracts for similar work: 

  • Go to Beta.SAM [HERE] and login.
  • Under NAICS choose this RFP’s NAICS.
  • Under PSC choose this RFP’s PSC.
  • Under Federal Organization choose this RFP’s Federal Organization.
  • Under Type of Notice choose Award Notices.
  • This will give all the award notices for similar RFPs.

Select last five and a half years of contracts:

  • Government buying changes so we only want relatively recent RFPs.
  • Under Response date/Offers Due:
    • Select custom date.
    • In From field enter a date roughly 5.5 years ago.
    • In To field enter today.
  • Download the results as a CSV.

Review the text:

  • Open the excel and look at the titles column.
  • Delete rows with titles that indicate that the RFP is not similar.
  • Ideally you will be left with 10-20 rows.


Step 2: See If There Is a Predecessor

Now that you have a list of similar RFPs lets see if one of them is a predecessor to our RFP.

Look for very similar descriptions: 

  • Look at the description column and compare that to the description of this RFP.
  • In general the government recycles a language from predecessors RFPs.
  • So if you see a lot of “plagiarized” language it’s a strong indicator that you’ve found the predecessor

If you find a predecessor: 

  • Take the Award ID from the excel.
  • Search for that Award ID in Beta.SAM.
  • This will bring up the full award data for the predecessor.

If you don’t:

  • Don’t worry, there may not have been a predecessor.
  • There are other ways to get the data you need.


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Step 3: Collect Value and Competition Data on All Similar RFPs

Unfortunately Beta.SAM does not give you competition data so we are going to get that from a second database.  It’s annoying but easy

Go to USAspending:

  • Go [HERE]
  • Take each NoticeID in your excel and enter it in the AwardID box.
  • Hit search.
  • It can take a month or two for data to migrate fro m beta.SAM to USASPending so don’t be surprised if recent RFPs don’t appear.

Look at the listing:

  • Matching results appear on the right.
  • Click on the “Award ID”.
  • If more that one result comes back choose the first one.

Find the key data in the listing:

  • In the RFP (called an award in this system).
  • Find:
    • The current and potential end dates.
    • The current and potential award amount.
    • Under Competition Details find and record “Number of Offers Received.
  • Record these in your workbook.


A Second Check on the Predecessor

If you’ve identified an RFP that you think is the predecessor here is a way to test that hypothesis

Does the end date line up:

  • Look at the Current End Date and the Potential End Date for the “predecessor”.
  • If either date is 3-12 months from now that is a good indicator that this is the predecessor.
  • If both dates are before today, or more than 12 months from now its unlikely this is the predecessor.

The Non-Financial Elements of Value

Quantifying the value of a relationship or skill building is difficult but we’ve tried to give a sense for what they might be worth.


Low Value

Mid Value High Value

Building government relationships

  • Unlikely to do work for this customer again
  • Relationship value: $0
  • You will do $500K-$2M in work at this customer over the next 1-3 years
  • Relationship value: $50-200K
  • You will do $2-5M in work at this customer over the next 1-3 years
  • Relationship value: $200-500K

Building partner relationships

  • Unlikely to work with this team again
  • Relationship value: $0
  • You will do $500K-$2M in work at this customer over the next 1-3 years
  • Relationship value: $100-400K
  • You will do $2-5M in work at this customer over the next 1-3 years
  • Relationship value: $400K-$1M

Gaining past performance

  • The past performance gained from this bid is unrelated to my core work
  • Past Perf. Value: $0
  • The past performance gained from this bid is related to a secondary service line
  • Past Perf. Value: $100K
  • The past performance gained from this bid is related to a primary service line
  • Past Perf. Value: $200K

Building a content library

  • The proposal content built for this bid is unrelated to my core work
  • Content Value: $0
  • The proposal content built for this bid is related to a secondary service line and I’ll use it again
  • Content Value: $15/HR
  • The proposal content built for this bid is related to a primary service line and I’ll use it again
  • Content Value: $30/HR

Building team skills

  • I’m teaching myself how to do proposals
  • Value: $20/hr spent
  • I’m doing this proposal with a more experienced contractor who will coach me a little
  • Value: $40/hr spent
  • I’m doing this proposal with a veteran contractor who is going to mentor me a lot
  • Value: $60/hr spent


Summing it Up

What you should have: Now that you have: 

  • A list of values from similar RFPs.

  • A value from a potential predecessor.

What to do: We’ve hit the limit of where science can take us, and everything else is art.

If you found a predecessor: Then that RFP’s value is probably your best guess for the value of this RFP.

If you didn’t find a predecessor: Look at the distribution of values among the similar RFPs:

  • Are they all pretty close together? If so that is strong evidence that this RFP will be in that value range.

  • Are they all over the map? If so use your best judgment based on the similarity of the work in each and any light clustering you do see.

Coming to a decision:

  • There is no right answer here and don’t agonize over this.  The RFPs you have give you a range of potential values.

  • Make your best guess as to where this RFP falls in that value range and add it to your workbook.

Step 6: Estimate Your Chances of Winning

Estimating the Chances of Winning in Poker

To estimate your chances of winning your need to understand your strength relative to other players. The two cards you are dealt and the community cards determine your absolute strength.  But poker is not a game of absolutes.  You could have a VERY strong hand, but if someone else has a slightly  better one you get nothing and they get everything.

Your cards tell you have how strong your position is

Watch the other players to estimate their strength

  • Bold initial betting: Indicates a strong hand just from the initial deal (e.g. a pair of high cards).

  • Some betting after the flop: Indicates that the player may be close to completing a flush or straight.

  • Bold betting after a new card(s) is dealt: Indicates that the player either completed a straight or flush or got two pair or a three of a kind.

  • Weak betting following strong betting: Indicates that the player was hoping for a straight or flush and missed it.

Estimating Your Chances of Winning

W.e’ve talked a lot about the value you can derive even if you don’t win, but lets be honest if you’re going to put a lot of energy into an RFP choose one you’re likely to win.


  • Estimate the level of competition for this RFP.
  • Estimate how your chances of winning compared to the other likely bidders’ chances.

Data you’ll need: The results of your value analysis.


  • Estimate the number of likely bidders.
  • Evaluate yourself against a list criteria that will make it more of less likely that you will be the winner.
  • Conduct the same analysis for the other likely bidders.

Your Base Chances of Winning

Estimating win chances is difficult, and these numbers will change, but it helps to start from a baseline.

Estimating the  number of bidders:

  • Basically this is the same as the value analysis.
  • If you found a predecessor the competition for that RFP is you single most telling data point.
  • If you didn’t find a predecessor look at the range of bids among the similar RFPs.
  • Make your best guess about where this RFP will fall in that range.

If you found a predecessor:

  • The company that won the predecessor (known as the incumbent contractor) has a 60% chance of winning.
  • This isn’t a hard number but in the reports we’ve read incumbent win rates tend to hover around 60%.
  • Divide the remaining 40% by the number of companies you think will bid on this RFP.

If you didn’t find an incumbent: Divide 100% by the number of companies you think will bid on this RFP.

Who Are the Likely Competitors

As in poker your chances of winning are about the strength of the competition as much as they are about your strength.  So let’s get a sense for who those competitors might be.

Who ’s the competition:

  • Getting the most accurate answer to this is really hard and takes connections and market intelligence that most small businesses don’t have.
  • So instead we recommend going to the Value page of the workbook and using the list of companies that have won similar work.
  • As before if you found a predecessor that company is almost certainly going to bid. And the other companies are a maybe, but they should be representative of the kinds of companies that will bid.

Researching them:

  • Because there is so much information about the government market you can do a lot of research on the competition.
  • It can feel reassuring to spend hours learning about each company but it is time consuming so we recommend limiting yourself to five minutes per company.
  • We will be releasing another guide on market research but for the time being the best resources to use are:
    • beta.SAM
    • USASpending
    • Talking to other companies you know in the space.

Chances of Winning Adjustments

Now that we have a baseline and a sense for who else might bid lets adjust our win percentages to get a sense for who is favorably positioned within the pack.


Note: We don’t know how to quantify the factors below, so we just recommend putting a check in your workbook next to companies that are better positioned than you, and a minus if they are worse positioned than you.

Customer connection

  • How connected is each likely bidder to the client?
  • Are you more or less connected to this customer than your competition?

Experience doing this type of work

  • How experienced is each likely bidder?
  • Are your more or less qualified to do the work than your competition?

Connection to this RFP

  • How connected is each likely bidder to the RFP?
  • Have you been more or less engaged in the shaping and evolution of this RFP than your competition?

Predecessor winner position

  • Is there evidence that the incumbent is strong or weak?

Customer interest in change

  • Is there an indication that the customer wants a change?

Indicators of being wired

  • Based on our review of the documents were there any unusual elements?


The Final View on Competition

We’ve got our baseline, we’ve got our adjustments, now lets put it all together

Complete your workbook:

  • You should have each company that has won a similar contract in a column in the workbook (and the predecessor winner if you found one).
  • There should be a baseline win rate for each company:
    • The same number for all.
    • If there is an incumbent their baseline will be 60%.
  • There would be a list of checks and minuses under each company based on the adjustments you’ve recorded for them.

“Sum” it up:

  • Keeping in mind that the total win rate has to equal 100% start adjusting the win rates for all the companies to reflect the adjustments you recorded until the totals add up and give a sense for what reality might look like.
  • As with all things here precision is probably impossible and definitely not worth trying to achieve.
  • All you need is a directional sense for what your chances of winning are.

If you can’t beat ‘em join ‘em:

  • Government contracting is a team sport and if you don’t like your win chances reach out to the companies in your workbook who have a better shot and see if you can team with them.


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Step 7: Decide Whether to Pursue

Deciding Whether to Bet in Poker

Arguably the core concept of poker is “pot odds” which asks:

  • Given my current hand what are my chances of getting the card or cards I need to win.
  • What do I get if I win (both in terms of chips already in the pot and the chips I think will be added to the pot before I win).
  • How many chips will I need to spend before I see whether or not the cards I need turn up.

If the potential value times the chance of winning is greater than my cost then I should continue betting and playing.  If it is less then I should fold.

My chances of winning

My strength:
  • The strength of my hand if these were my only cards.
  • The strength of my hand if I got certain other cards.
  • The chances that those certain other cards will be dealt.
  • The number of cards left to be dealt.
The other players’ strength:
  • Based on the behavior of other players how strong do I think their hands are.
Would I win:
  • Based on my strength and the other players strength what are my chances of winning.
Value Based on my read of the players in this hand and my analysis of our previous hands how large do I think this pot will be.
Cost Based on my read of the players in this hand and my analysis of our previous hands how much will I have to spend to see if I get the cards I need to win.


Putting it All Together

We have all the information we need to decide whether this RFP is worth an investment of 50-100 hours, so now we just need to see if the cost, value, and chances of winning balance out.


Objectives: Take our cost, value, and chances of winning and synthesize it down to a decision whether to bid.

Data you’ll need:

  • The Cost analysis.
  • The Value analysis.
  • The chances of winning analysis.
  • List all the elements of cost, value, and P-win in the worksheet.
  • Multiply your chances of winning by  the sum of:
    • The value of any government relationships.
    • The value of the past performance.
    • The financial value.
  • If you are a new business add the value of the partner relationships and the proposal content.
  • This is your Risk Adjusted Value (RAV).
  • Compare the RAV to the costs you computed:
    • If the RAV is higher we recommend pursuing the RFP.
    • If the RAV is lower we recommend passing on the RFP.

The Formula

The formula for new businesses

The formula for established businesses

The chances of winning

The chances of winning


The  value if you win

  • Financial
  • Past performance
  • Government relationships

The  value if you win

  • Financial
  • Past performance
  • Government relationships
+ >

The value you will get whether you win or not

  • Partner relationships
  • Proposal library content

The cost to pursue this RFP

The cost to pursue this RFP  


Example Formula for a New Business

The chances of winning

10% $22,500 $72,500

The  value if you win

+ + +

The value you will get whether you win or not

$50,000 $50,000
> > > >

The cost to pursue this RFP

$7,600 $7,600 $7,600


The risk adjusted value ($72,500) of pursuing this RFP is greater than the cost ($7,600) so we would recommend pursuing it!

More SBIR and Government Market Resources

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Our resources section has everything you need to:

  • Understand the SBIR program
  • Explore the Government Contracting market
  • Get help registering your company
  • Master key GovCon topics

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A Note on Building a Proposal Content Library

Established contractors can produce proposals much faster than new entrants in large  part because they have template language that they can use again and again, thus allowing them to produce high quality RFPs quickly.


The faster you can build a library of high quality and relevant proposal material the more RFPs you’ll be able to respond to and win.

How to know if an RFP will lead to quality content: The type of work asked for in the RFP, and by extension the proposal content you will create, is captured in three parts of the RFP dashboard:

  • NAICS code description.
  • PSC code description (this is an under appreciated data point).
  • The abstract.

Read these and think about how closely the work described aligns to the kind of work you want to do.

Proposal sections you can re-use: Every proposal is different but most proposals touch on: 

Most Reusable

  • Resumes tailored to a particular type of work.
  • Write-ups of your experience doing similar work.
  • Your pricing for this kind of work.
  • How you will manage this work.
  • How you will execute this work.
Least Reusable

Low Price Technically Acceptable (LPTA)

How does LPTA evaluation work

  • LPTA evaluation is simple.
  • The government takes all the proposals and “stacks” them from the lowest bid price to the highest.
  • The evaluation committee takes the first one (the lowest priced).
  • They read it and if the proposal, and the proposing company, meet all the requirements in the RFP they win:
    • What if the proposal will likely lead to shoddy product being delivered?
    • What if the people to be employed on the contract meet all the requirements but are obviously unqualified?
    • What if the proposal is going to lead to a host of terrible second and third order effects?
  • Doesn’t matter, if it is technically acceptable (compliant), they win.

What does LPTA mean to you:

  • The bad:
    • Large businesses tend to have great customer connections and insights which allow them to propose exactly what the customer wants and nothing more which gives the an advantage over less connected competitors.
    • LPTA comes down to whether you think you can deliver an extremely cheap solution. Most people we know start companies because they want to hire amazing (expensive) people and exceed customer expectations.
    • If this is you LPTA is wrong for you.
  • The good:
    • Large businesses tend to have high overhead rates, which makes it difficult for them to successfully compete on price.
    • If you are willing to bill yourself and your team for less than you’re worth, and you keep your overhead razor thin you can win in an LPTA environment, get your foot in the door and then start selling higher value work.

Best Value

How does Best Value evaluation work

  • Best value is a bit more complex.
  • Under Best Value the government lays out a list of criteria that proposals will be evaluated against.
  • Because a basket of factors are used the evaluation committee has to read all the proposals, and then make a decision weighing the quality of each proposal against each criteria.
  • While price is not the only consideration in a Best Value evaluation regime in our experience it is still the most important single consideration.


What does Best Value mean to you:

  • Generally in a Best Value RFP the government will provide a scoring sheet that give a bit of detail about how you will be evaluated. 
    • For example if one of the evaluation criteria is the quality of your management plan then they will create a score of 1-4 for that section with a brief description of what a “4” would look like etc.
  • Because best value evaluations are made across multiple dimensions the government doesn’t have to take the lowest bidder which gives you room to propose “higher quality” or more innovative solutions.
    • But it also means that well positioned bidders who really understand what the government “is really asking for" can dial in their proposal and their price to win.


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What Makes a Good Team



You can meet all the requirements in the RFP: This is binary, you could have an amazing team but if you don’t check all the boxes you’re out of the running so look at everything the RFP asks for and see if you meet it, and remember, some requirements have to be met by the prime and some can be met collectively.  Make sure you get this right:

  • Number and type of past performance.
  • Recency of the past performance.
  • Access to qualifying key personnel.
  • Certifications and qualifications.
  • Admin (like having a security clearance or particular accounting system).


Strength of Past Performance: A lot of winning comes down to the quality of your other work so:

  • How similar was the work: Did someone on the team perform the previous version of this contract (the incumbent), is the past performance really similar or is it a stretch to make a connection to this RFP.
  • How was the team evaluated on that work: After every contract the prime should get rated on their work.  A good rating will help while a bad rating will hurt your chances.


Relationships: Does this team have close personal and/ or professional relationships with the customer.


Template content: Does the team have a lot of content on the shelf that will make it easy and fast to produce this proposal?



RFPs and the contracting process

Opportunity: A government need that the government is willing to pay you to solve.  An opportunity can be at various stages of development: they can be concepts, early statements of the need, or even full RFPs that lead to contracts.

RFI: A request for information.  These are an early articulation of the government’s need. Companies can respond to them to help inform the government’s planning for a future RFP.

RFP: A request for proposal.  These are formal articulations of the government’s need with details on how to propose a solution.  If a proposal is selected, the proposal’s writers receive a contract to implement their solution.

Predecessor RFP: The government has recurring needs, which means there are often recurring contracts to deliver solutions for those needs.  As such, if an RFP comes out for a given service, then there is a good chance that a similar contract came out in the previous 1-5 years (the predecessor).  The predecessor can be very informative about how to approach a current RFP.

Re-compete: The current iteration of a recurring contract. It is the contract following the predecessor RFP.

Incumbent: The company that previously won and is currently fulfilling the predecessor contract.

Past performance: An officially recognized piece of work that a company has done for the government.  It can be used to validate proficiency as a government contractor generally or in a specific technical area.

IDIQ: Indefinite Delivery Indefinite Quantity.  A master services agreement with in the government market.


RFP evaluation

Best value: The government weighs a variety of factors to decide who wins.  So price is still a (the?) major factor but the most expensive proposal could win if their approach, speed, quality, etc is especially compelling and valuable

LPTA: The lowest price proposal that meets all of the requirements wins.  So conceptually the government “stacks” all the proposal from least to most expensive.  Reads the first one (the least expensive) and if they meet all the requirements they win


Roles and activities

Prime an RFP: The prime holds the contract with the government. As such, they are ultimately responsible for delivering the work and contract compliance.

A Prime: A generic term for a company that generally primes contracts.  Informally, this term refers to the largest government contracting companies. Note that even the largest primes still make much of their revenue through subbing.

BD: Business development, the generic term for all activities related to winning new contracts and expanding work opportunities.

Shaping: Activities that occur before any formal need statement has come out and are designed to influence the government’s thinking around creating a future RFP.

P-Win: Probability of winning, the estimated chance you will win an RFP.

Risk adjusted value: The value you will get from pursuing and winning an RFP multiplied by the chances of winning (the risk).



Beta.SAM: The free government website where active RFIs and RFPs are hosted. It contains some historical contract data.

USASpending.gov: The free government website that contains all historical contract data.