As a four-star general in charge of the army's materiel command, Richard H. Thompson thought the government's procurement system worked reasonably well. Then, in 1988, he retired, started a consulting firm -- and discovered what it's like for an entrepreneur to work with the U.S. government. "The system has become nearly constipated," he says now.

Gary Bottorff, another retired officer, agreed -- and worried that the complexity baffled small companies. So Bottorff enlisted Thompson to form Government Procurement Assistance Center Inc. (GPA), in Woodbridge, Va., a computerized clearinghouse of federal procurement information for small businesses. "I was just ecstatic when I found out about it," says client Richard Smith of RHS Corp. Smith thinks his $1,200 annual fee ($2,400 for companies with $7-million-plus in sales) is a bargain for identifying relevant bids and government personnel who have bought products like his.

However, after five months, GPA only has about half a dozen small-business clients like Smith. "The small and midsize guys don't know what to ask us," admits Thompson. Instead, GPA is consulting for the clients who do know what to ask: big corporations.

-- Martha E. Mangelsdorf