Successful Partnerships Hinge on Honesty, Follow Through

Government contracting is all about competition — and collaboration. For small businesses that want to break into this industry, mentor-protégé programs and joint ventures can help them with both.

Mentor-protégé programs help small businesses learn the ropes from a large or another small company experienced in applying for and winning federal contracts. Protégés benefit by getting help navigating the federal procurement process and bureaucracy; introductions to useful business contacts; financial support in the form of loans, equity investments and bonding; and assistance identifying contracting and partnership opportunities.

Mentors also benefit from these programs by finding small businesses they could partner with. For instance, mentors and protégés can form joint ventures to bid on government contracts set aside for small businesses, including those owned by women, Veterans and socially and economically disadvantaged persons.

Mentoring and Being Mentored

When protégé company Aptive Resources formed a joint venture with its mentor company, ERPi (now ECS), good things began to happen. Through Aptive HTG, Aptive has been able to secure a place on several large contract vehicles, including the Integrated Healthcare Transformation (IHT) indefinite delivery/indefinite quantity (IDIQ) contract and the Transformation Twenty One Total Technology Next Generation (T4NG) IDIQ with the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA). Both contracts have contributed significantly to Aptive’s growth.

More recently, Aptive has taken on the reverse role as mentor to a new small business, Artemis ARC.

The relationship provides Aptive an opportunity to pass on the experience and knowledge it has gained from being a protégé and has been a positive experience for both companies.

“We can learn best practices from a company that has been successful in a space we’re trying to grow into,” said Alyson Glick, president of Artemis. “We get guidance on how to do back-office support and on some of the certification processes we have to go through as a service-disabled, Veteran-owned and woman-owned small business. And Aptive, which is growing into a robust, larger company, now has a trusted small business it can partner with, which helps contribute to continued success for both companies.”

Together, the companies formed Arrow ARC, Aptive’s second joint venture stemming from a mentor-protégé relationship. Arrow recently won two contracts: one to do all the large-scale event planning and coordination for the VA National Veterans Small Business Engagement conference in November and another to manage a national marketing campaign to recruit more health care professionals to join VA.

Partnership Pros and Cons

Like any business relationship, there are both pros and cons to joint ventures. One advantage is that companies can complement one another by filling each other’s gaps in capabilities, past performance and customer knowledge. This is an important advantage, especially for small businesses, since government contracts have grown larger and more complex. Joint ventures also let companies share costs and resources, enabling a single company to bid on projects that might otherwise pose too great a risk.

Being in a joint venture with a small company also enables large companies to mentor and support them as they grow into larger companies.

“The ultimate advantage of a joint venture is that it establishes a robust relationship between two companies with complementary services to improve delivery outcomes for customers,” said Ben Barker, Aptive’s chief strategy officer.

For Aptive, choosing a partner for a joint venture or any type of partnership depends a lot on trust and a strong working relationship, according to Barker. “We don’t just hitch our wagon to a company and then wait for an opportunity. We proactively identify markets and service capabilities to jointly pursue, with the understanding that prospective customers are getting the best capabilities from both partners.”

Not every partnership is a match made in heaven, however. “You may be very excited about some partnerships that might end up not working out,” said Jordan Atkinson, Aptive vice president for client development. For instance, after winning a contract, “a partner may not be helpful in executing the work.” 

Making the Right Choice

To ensure potential partners are a good fit, Aptive does its “due diligence,” according to Atkinson. That includes finding out what type of work potential partners have won, whether they have worked with and are familiar with agencies or clients Aptive is interested in, what other companies who have worked with potential partners say about the experience and whether they have the skills and capabilities Aptive is looking for. 

“We build a capability matrix for every deal and seek companies with the skills needed to accomplish the customer mission,” said Barker. Aptive uses a wide variety of tools to determine which opportunities to pursue and who would make the best partners.

“We assess an overall fit based on experience and capabilities and then move to an interview process,” said Atkinson. “It’s more of a personality fit after that.”

Aptive looks for partners that share its core values in terms of how it conducts business, supports customers and treats employees, according to Barker. “Those values have to align — and if they don’t align, we don’t partner.”

On the flip side, Aptive is an honest and loyal partner to the companies with whom it does business. “If we tell a partner we’re going to do something, we do it — and we do it well and on time,” said Atkinson. “There’s good news in the industry about Aptive as a partner, which has been very helpful.”

Aptive follows the two golden rules of partnering: be honest and follow through, according to Atkinson. “Aptive does that very well,” he said. “And that’s what we want from our partners. It all starts with being honest and doing what you say you’re going to do.”