Richard Zuschlag is CEO of Acadian Ambulance Service, a private ambulance company based in Lafayette, Louisiana. He received an honorable mention in Inc.'s 2005 Entrepreneur of the Year feature. Here, he discusses his process for bidding on and winning government contracts.
Q I'd like to work with the Department of Veterans Affairs. Should I go through the U.S. General Services Administration?
Richard Zuschlag responds:
It depends on what kind of work you're interested in. If there's a specific VA program you'd like to bid for, contact the agency directly. It's also a good idea to ask the purchasing agent at a local VA hospital for advice on landing a national contract.
If you don't have a specific VA program in mind, working with the General Services Administration is a good idea. The GSA, which matches federal agencies that need goods and services with qualified vendors, can give your company access to nationwide contracts with myriad government agencies, including the VA. But first, you'll have to apply for a GSA number. And it could take as long as 18 months for the GSA to vet your company and process your paperwork. While you're waiting, consider taking on smaller projects for VA hospitals in your region. That will help you develop familiarity with the agency and establish you as a trusted vendor.
Above all, keep in mind that it takes an extraordinary amount of patience to deal with government agencies. At our company, someone dials 911 and we move fast to save a life. But the government moves more slowly, which can be very exasperating. In some instances, it's taken more than a year for us to put together contracts with the state of Louisiana. These days, I put a lot of effort into teaching my top lieutenants not to become frustrated with our government contacts. I tell them to focus on the three p's: politeness, patience, and persistence. When we're trying to put together a government contract, we call our contact at any given agency once a week and ask for updates in a very nice way. If we can't get a progress report--or a yes or no answer--within five or six weeks, we call a higher-up. If we're kind, straightforward, and positive, the agency is likely to work with us. Being pushy or ugly, on the other hand, will get you in trouble every time.