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Great ‘Que Takes Planning

In barbecue contests, timing is everything. Each of your four entries (chicken, ribs, pork and brisket) have to be turned in within 5 minutes of a precisely defined time; late entries are disqualified.  To meet this schedule – and to make sure the meat you offer the judges is at its tender, juicy, and flavorful best – requires careful planning and flawless execution at the contest itself.  But it’s the preparatory work done before the contest that separates winners from losers.

Losers buy their meats the day before they travel; winners order meat ahead of time so it can be properly aged (30 days or more for brisket!) and prepped. Losers wait until they arrive in the competition’s town and pick up consumer-grade charcoal from a big box store; winners buy specialized charcoal and wood to match their team’s desired flavor profile.  Losers work without a plan; winners develop and test complex checklists, schedules, and procedures so that their work onsite is efficient.  To put it simply, winning takes time, and teams that start too late are not likely to hear their name called during the awards ceremony.

Effective competitive analysis and Price To Win efforts start early – well before formal solicitation requirements are known. They follow consistent processes for gathering and analyzing competitive information.  They rely on proven models for projecting solution costs and prices.  They provide actionable intelligence that you can use to shape the opportunity, moving the competition away from lowest cost.

Start early, keep working until the final turn-in.

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You Can’t Enter Every Contest

From an economic standpoint, competitive barbecue makes no sense. In a Kansas City Barbecue Society event, teams turn in six individual portions of four meats: 6 (chicken, ribs, pork, and brisket).  A typical entry fee is $300; travel and transportation costs for pulling your big rig total $200 or more; charcoal, wood, ice, rubs, sauces, and incidentals add another $200.

And meat – oh, the cost of meat: most teams cook 36 to 50 pounds of incredibly-expensive Wagyu brisket to turn in six perfect slices.  Meat costs can easily top $500.  When all is said and done, the cost of a typical contest easily tops $1,000.  And sad to say, prize money when (if!) you win may not cover those costs.  And we haven’t even talked about the costs of beer and other “adult beverages”…

As a result, pitmasters limit the competitions they enter to those which will help them achieve their goals. In my case, I focus on competitions within driving distance of my home which have (a) decent prize money, (b) a relatively small number of competitors, (c) a high proportion of certified (vs amateur) judges, and (d) good public attendance (i.e., good marketing) potential.  I’d love to compete in a contest near my daughter’s home in Nebraska, but that wouldn’t help me increase my catering business’ name recognition in the central Maryland area I can reasonably serve.

In the business world, similar constraints apply.  Winning companies pursue opportunities that will help them achieve business goals.  Notice I did not say “perform profitably.”  In today’s hyper-competitive world, businesses commonly pursue money-losing efforts because they achieve longer term objectives like improving name recognition or supporting growth into adjacent markets.  They ruthlessly discard pursuits where they have limited customer intimacy, poor knowledge of potential competitors and solutions, or have no discriminating solution.

Like winning pitmasters, they pick and choose their competitions – and believe that they will win every bid they submit.

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Backyard Chefs Like to Cook; Pitmasters Like to Win

Amateur chefs tend to have a pretty short attention span.  They watch Bobby Flay toss something on a grill, say to themselves “Man, I could do that!”, then run to the store, assemble ingredients, light a fire, and make up a mess of something good.  Their goal is to recreate a recipe; their objective is to make it edible. Their measure of success is, well, nobody barfs when they taste it. Backyard chefs like to cook.

Pitmasters, on the other hand, have a much longer view of their world. They have more at stake; they compete against well-prepared competitors for significant prize money, or against restaurants (and other barbecue teams) for lucrative catering gigs.

As a result, winning pitmasters set larger goals (“cook an award-winning whole hog”) and develop objectives to measure their path toward achieving those goals (for example, “Buy a big pit.”  “Learn how to control temperature across the entire cooking surface.”  “Find a reliable source of high quality butchered hogs.”  “Learn how to dress and prep a raw hog.”  “Build a winning rub and injection.”).  Their measure of success is tangible: awards, prize money, and – thanks to the exposure barbecue enjoys on TV – lucrative deals for packing and selling their “secret” rubs and sauces.

Pitmasters like to win.

In the business world, far too many companies rely on the “mushroom theory of management.”  They perform minimal planning; they operate in an ad-hoc environment that results in scarce resources being spread across many unsuccessful pursuits.  Like backyard chefs, they are happy with a win, but shrug off losses, figuring “oh, better luck next time.”

Winning companies take the time to develop corporate goals and objectives.  They develop high-level strategies for achieving their goals within a defined window of time. They communicate these items across the company, so that business units – and business developers – can help the company win by putting together – and executing – their own sub-goals, objectives, strategies, tactics, and plans. They are ruthless in rejecting pursuits of opportunities that do not support corporate goals, reserving finite resources and funds for those which do.

Like pitmasters, they love to win – and burn with the white-hot fires of hate when they lose.  In business, be the Pitmaster.

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Proposal Writing: Feature versus Benefit

Often times when companies present their solutions before the government, they talk a lot about themselves.  When you’re thinking about themes, working a brainstorm session with your team, or actually writing your proposal, be sure that you’re focused on your customer.

Features are attributes of your solution.  Be it products or services, features are those things that can differentiate you from the competition:  lower cost, smaller size, more power, larger supply base, extended life.

Even great features can be meaningless in a proposal, however, if you don’t highlight the value they bring to your customer.  Benefits highlight value.

Your solution is lower cost.  If your customer is looking to spend big money, your feature is meaningless.  But in a difficult economy, where maximum value means getting more bang for your buck, low cost is a huge benefit.

Base your features around your customer’s needs and wants, and they become benefits.  Once you can prove the benefit of your solution, you’re well on your way to winning!

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The Successful Project

Pigeon ManagementAt Richter & Company, we don’t believe in fly-over “pigeon” management.  You know the kind — a member of management staff enters the room clueless, sprays less than welcome “stuff” in your direction that changes the course of your project, and moves on to the next unsuspecting crowd.

In order to prevent this kind of unwelcome interruption, it is essential to get management “buy in” early on in the process of pursuing an opportunity.  If management is informed and involved, it is much less likely that they’ll burst in during your final efforts, demanding a major change.

Here are Richter & Company’s top five ways of getting (and keeping) management involved in the capture/proposal process:

Start early!  Nothing is worse than procrastinating on a large scale program where hundreds of people are involved.  If you plan on pursuing a specific opportunity, begin preparation as soon as possible.  Everyone will thank you, trust us.

Clearly define objectives & deliverables, but don’t mention exact numbers.  A $25 million opportunity may make your job easier when pitching to the people in charge, but if it results in being a program of only half that size, you’re in trouble.  Instead of pinpointing an exact figure, stress the importance of the program in terms of your company’s business strategy.  Define exactly what is going into a project:  the expectations, the scope and the timeframe.

Create manageable parts.  Assign jobs.  Assign timeframes.  Stick to the schedule.  Make sure these manageable parts are fluid and can adapt with the changing needs of a program.  There will be changing needs, there are with every program.

Be accountable.    Reliability is key for all players involved in pursuing an opportunity.  Make sure you’re doing what you’re supposed to, and your team members are doing what they’re supposed to.  If a WBS is due the fifteenth of the month, make sure it’s done by the fifteenth of the month.

Maintain visibility.  Be proactive; make progress charts (or e-mails, spreadsheets, or presentations) part of your action plan.  Not only does being updated on a project make for a team morale booster, but management will appreciate being “let in” on the status of a project.

Communicate, communicate, communicate!  The more management knows about an opportunity, the more they can look out for your interests.  And the more they’ll defend your interests.  Keep management “in the loop,” and they can anticipate and plan for the needs a project will present.

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A Process of People

The process of government acquisition is designed to be as objective as possible.  But it’s important to remember that the people issuing government requirements and awarding government contracts are just people.

At Richter & Company, we’ve seen some poorly written RFPs lately.   The acquisition force is facing a wave of retirements, meaning there are some inexperienced acquisition personnel trying to put together cohesive RFPs for the first time.  Often, the people writing the requirements aren’t the end users, so there’s disconnect between what the government is saying it wants, and what it actually wants.  No matter.  It’s important to try to get as many questions as possible responded to before the RFP is actually issued.  After that, answer the mail.  Talk about what the Government needs and how you will respond, while responding to what’s written.  And, it might not be a bad idea to prepare for a protest.

The selection of an awardee is a highly human process as well.  Identify the source selection board you’re proposing work for.  Speak to and respond to their desires.  Prove the benefit of your solution in a concise, compliant and compelling proposal.  Address areas where your proposal carries risk.  And ghost your competitors by highlighting your strengths in areas you know they have weakness.  Offer low cost!  No contracting shop has ever gotten in trouble by awarding the lowest offer.

Richter & Company and our trusted partners can help you address the people behind government acquisitions.  Contact us for more information regarding our services to help you win.