SBIR Hell, Urban Fantasy, & Baking Your Proposals

“SBIR Hell,” we used to call it. There’s a way for small firms to avoid it if you know how to bake your proposals.

SBIR Hell: Contracting Officer POV

From a seasoned Contracting Officer’s point of view, SBIR hell started the moment the PR (purchase request) packages finally hit my desk, often days or weeks after Congress said I was supposed to have the contracts awarded and there I was, looking at the proposals, funding, and everything in between for the first time, and spending my yearly bonus on Ibuprofen for the impending headache.

Weird, but even though I needed a time machine to get it all done by an already-passed deadline, nary a prospective SBIR contractor ever proposed that technology.

Always the last in the process, I couldn’t get much done to award the winning proposals until I had the requirements packages in my grubby little hands–and then it was usually 2 frantic weeks of intern tiger teams and “production-lining” the process for what was then considered an amazingly fast award once they hit the Contracting office.

We’ve gotten better on the Government side since I spent 8 (extra-duty) years coordinating the Contracting part of the SBIR process for the Lab and another 2 years for the Test Wing. We’ve streamlined a lot, using best practices from years ago and more open mindsets from the present to make some real differences.

SBIR Hell: Small Business POV

To my Contractors back then, their version of SBIR hell started a few months before mine–that last couple of frantic weeks (ahem, days) as they and a multitude of unsuccessful small firms put together their proposals and tried to figure out what exactly to propose and how to write a proposal. I personally awarded 30-35 Phase I’s a year (not counting Phase IIs and IIIs), and invariably all but one or two had the same proposal date because they were in a mad scramble to finish the night before the deadline.

We’ve significantly improved that process, but even in 2019, I think for a lot of small businesses, the pressure is still what they consider SBIR hell, at least for a few days. I talked to small firms in my sphere this week who were planning to throw something together after the Super Bowl and quite a few others were making last minute revisions over the weekend. I’m sure someone turned in a proposal early, right?

“Baking It In”

If I could give only one piece of advice to small businesses seeking SBIR contracts, it would be to bake success into their proposals. Yes, of course, I’ll explain.

I like to take lessons on innovation and success from other industries and apply them to Acquisition. There’s great benefit to that because structures and the disruption or strengthening of those structures apply across many industries if we dare to look, regardless of the product or service offered. It’s a sort of universality of all industries, no matter how different they seem on the surface.

A couple of years ago, I decided to try my hand at writing a genre of fiction that was new to me: urban fantasy. I was familiar with other genres and had had some success with them but this was new., and it was important to recognize that I had homework to do.

The best advice I received was to do my research, hit all the tropes (the common features found in any book of that genre), hit the right page count, package it so it would be recognized, and bake my desired final result into the entire book from the very beginning, even before I wrote the first word. Yes, beginning with the end in mind and all that.

If you’re writing a SBIR Phase I proposal, you may not see the immediate similarity in writing your proposal and in creating a story about mythological creatures with magical powers, but trust me, it’s there.

I learned a new way of writing fiction. It meant reading and studying other works in the genre to see what was successful and why, which tropes worked and which didn’t, what had been overdone–and baking that knowledge into the manuscript so it would be marketable when finished.

It meant having a good understanding of what worked before writing the first word, and who the audience was, who would buy the story, and which other authors would recommend it for box sets or newsletter swaps–and then baking that knowledge into how I wrote the book so it would be marketable when finished.

It meant knowing who edited this kind of fiction, which book cover designers knew how to design the artwork so it screamed the genre type to avid readers of that genre, and how to connect to authors who used similar themes in that genre–and then baking that knowledge into the final product so it would be marketable.

It meant knowing that a book in this genre is expected to be around 50-60,000 words, likely part of an trilogy or extended series, and always hits the same basic plot points on the hero’s journey outline–and baking that knowledge into the story before even the first scene is plotted.

Everything, from before writing the project, throughout the writing, and at the point of hand-off to editors, artists, and advertisers, all these ingredients are baked into the cake that is the final product. Nothing extraneous or in opposition to the chosen recipe for success and its ingredients.

You don’t just grab ingredients from the pantry and toss them in a pan and then into the oven. No, you decide what you’re going to bake and then everything else is a part of that recipe.

If the ingredients are already in the oven, it’s too late to figure out what kind of cake it’ll be or who might like the taste of it. You have to start early. Doing all that upfront work will shape that cake’s future before you pop it in the oven. Early preparation allows you to bake in the success you want when you serve that cake.

In the Publishing world, this means I’m not writing a 300,000-word novel about a dimension-hopping sasquatch princess with a lovely but non-laser-beam-magical flower on the cover and zero appeal to people who want to buy urban fantasy novels. Sure, I’m free to do that if I just want to write it and have no plans to make money at it.

In the Acquisition world, this means you’re not writing a 50-page proposal about a cool idea and a hot technology that the Government has no interest in and no funding for. And yes, you’re free to write it but don’t be disappointed if it doesn’t go anywhere. You have to bake the likelihood of funding into that proposal.

I can’t alleviate the likelihood that you’ll still be working on your SBIR proposal the night before it’s due, but if you start the preparation process–the research and the…plotting…early, I can promise that it will go much easier when you’re looking at a deadline crunch.

Start early. Bake it in. Avoid SBIR hell.

C 2019

Lorna Tedder


Lorna Tedder
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  • Rapid Acquisition Consultant
  • Recently retired Contracting Officer, unlimited AFMC warrant 1991-2018
  • Nationally recognized Innovation Thought Leader in Government acquisition
  • Rapid acquisition teacher, both FAR and non-FAR based contracting
  • Master brain-stormer and advisor to program offices across the DoD
  • Expert in developing junior and mid-level personnel to become innovators in Government acquisition
  • 3 decades of first-hand experience and success with Other Transactions, Oral Proposals, 10 USC 2373, Broad Agency Announcements, unique pricing arrangements, Price Based Acquisition, Award Without Discussion, streamlined source selections, multiple award IDIQs, UCAs, waivers, omnibus tool creation, Quick Reaction Capability teams, and strategic sourcing.
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