When Theresa Daytner founded Daytner Construction with her husband in 2003 as a commercial construction consulting outfit, she was not planning to pursue government work. But by the end of 2010, she made 90 percent of her $18 million revenue from federal contracts, up from 10 percent (of $1.5 million revenue) just two years earlier. She expects sales to continue to rise because she’s poised to pursue contracts through the government’s new Women-Owned Small Business (WOSB) Federal Contract Program.

“Some horses are taller than others, sometimes you need a leg up, and then you can ride,” she says, describing how programs to support women owned business have helped her grow.

How She Got Started

Daytner gamely started to learn more about federal contracting after meeting Olga Martinez, who heads construction firm Allright Diversified Services, at a Small Business Administration conference in 2004. Martinez, along with other contacts from the event like Jose Nino, who was Hispanic Business Advisor to President George H. W. Bush, helped Daytner to understand the intricacies of government contracting—from filing requirements to personal introductions. So when private sector work stalled in 2007, government contracts became more important to Daytner’s pipeline. “Hedging paid off when the bottom dropped out of commercial," she explains. "For us it is a safety net.”

First Daytner had to muddle through complicated layers of paperwork. “If you are going to apply for any type of [government] contract vehicle, you have to really look at how you start—from legal documents to financial accounting,” explains Daytner. “If you are going to have a long-term business model, you are going to have to do these things anyway.”

In 2004, she landed her first contract with the U.S. Navy from an existing client, who introduced her to a contact at the Navy. “That was huge for us,” allows Daytner. “If you can get a referral, that’s bank.”

Daytner then started bidding for federal contracts as a woman-owned minority business after she got approval under the SBA’s Section 8(a), which has assisted minority-owned businesses since 1953. (Daytner owns 75 percent of her firm, and is Hispanic.)

Her first government projects were in construction project management but she soon realized there was government contract money to be made serving as a general contractor.

Government Contracts Face Other Challenges, Too

Though she has racked up business that way, Daytner is still on a learning curve and tries to minimize the risk of putting time and effort into pitching work she and her team may not win. The economic malaise has not helped, either. Daytner says that government contracts have gotten more competitive. During the first half of this year, Daytner has not had any federal contracts approved and has been waiting for more than a year on one proposal.

The waiting has had a ripple effect on her business. Daytner had to let go of two of her employees earlier this year and she is down to eight staffers from a height of 12.

That said, with Daytner’s vision and drive, the Women-Owned Small Business (WOSB) Federal Contract Program could be a boon to business. Daytner registered on a new national database and provided all the necessary information to be considered for the program. “We have a leg up, since we are already doing work with public agencies and corporations as a certified and approved woman-owned business,” she says.

She is also strategizing how to evolve to best position her firm for what’s coming. Though “commercial general contractor,” the category Daytner’s construction business falls into, is not one of the 83 the Small Business Association (SBA) lists as underrepresented by female owners (and would qualify her), Daytner is looking to partner and expand her offerings to include architectural or engineering services to win new contracts. The SBA already approved Daytner’s firm for a mentor-protégé program with larger regional player, James G. Davis Construction Corporation, which could help her land subcontracts.

And despite a slow first half, Daytner still expects to bring in at least $18 million in revenue this year.

An example of Theresa Daytner's persistence: In July, she took her two teenage daughters with her on a four-day, 184.5-mile bicycle tour of the historic Chesapeake & Ohio Canal to raise money for the San Mar Children’s Home. Her take: $2,870 so far. And when this reporter spoke with Daytner, she was doing a tenth inning e-mail blast to her friends and colleagues to donate.