Mario Burgos, 46, has tried lots of ways to make a living--none of which prepared him for his most successful incarnation so far, as an Albuquerque-based government contractor.

--As told to David Whitford

I started my first company when I was 18. Talent management--I had a girlfriend who could sing. I've been an actor, a teacher, a political consultant, and a failed candidate for state office. I transformed an ad agency in three years, from one full-time employee to 13. When the economy blew up, we lost 90 percent of our business in 10 days. I sold my stake and started looking for something new.

Government contracting was not an obvious choice. I've never served in the military or worked for the government. But I look for markets where I can make money. In the recession, that market was the federal government. The customer is beyond big.

In the private sector, you end up specializing in an industry. But on the government side, what the customer really wants to know is, "Do you know how to work with the government?" If you can land that first contract, and perform successfully, the customer will just keep adding zeros.

We didn't get any of the first 10 projects we bid on. Then we won a $650,000 road-repair job. We were one of nine bidders; seven got tossed because they didn't cross their t's and dot their i's. Working for the government is like filling out tax forms. You don't leave things blank.