small business ownerWomen own 29 percent of all businesses and are opening companies at a rate 50 percent faster than the overall growth rate. But overall, women-owned businesses only account for about 4 percent of the country’s total business revenues—reflecting exactly zero growth since 1997, according to the most recent State of Women-Owned Businesses report.

A recent change to government contracting rules aims to break that stalemate.

It used to be that women-owned small businesses (WOSBs) and economically disadvantaged women-owned small businesses (EDWOSBs) only had an advantage in winning federal contracts for bids up to $4 million ($6.5 million for manufacturing bids).

Under the recent enactment of the National Defense Authorization Act for 2013, that ceiling no longer exists. The caps have been removed, which means that WOSBs and EDWOSBs can now compete for contracts of any award size, as long as other requirements are met.

“Now agencies have greater flexibility in setting contracts aside for women-owned small businesses,” says Denise Rodriguez-Lopez, a former small business advocate within the U.S. Department of Transportation who now runs the KMJ Company, a contracting consulting firm.

But don’t get too excited. “It’s still difficult to get a contract,” says Rodriguez-Lopez. “There are a lot of people looking for contract opportunities.”

If you’re a small business owner who is looking to penetrate the government market and compete against the slew of other companies, it’s important to have a plan in place. Here’s how to narrow the scope of possibilities to a target you can likely hit.

  • First, find out if your industry is on the “historically underrepresented” list. Government agencies and contractors are supposed to try extra hard to hire WOSBs in those 83 industries.
  • Find out which agencies buy what you sell. “You have to know what you’re going after and target opportunities that actually exist,” says Rodriguez-Lopez. The best way to research is to use SAM.gov (the federal government’s System for Award Management website) and FBO.gov (the federal government’s Business Opportunities website) to see what agencies have already bought what you sell. Prior contracts can help you see the experience and pricing of current suppliers and give you a sense of the types of companies you may be up against.
  • Choose a couple of high-potential agencies and plot a strategy to get to know them. This involves introducing yourself to the agencies’ small business advocates, as these professionals can help you navigate the purchasing maze within the agencies. Some of the best opportunities are at meet-and-greet events, where you are guaranteed to get some face time with agency buyers and small business advocates.
  • Complete the paperwork to become certified as a WOSB and to register with SAM.gov and FBO.gov. When you are ready to respond to a request for proposal, you will have the paperwork out of the way.
  • Make the most of the contracting guidance available from the regional affiliates of the Women’s Business Enterprise National Council. Each regional group has specialists that can help you win contracts at every level of government.
  • Regularly search FBO.gov for “sources sought,” which is the step before the agency puts out a formal request for a proposal. This is your chance to make sure the purchasing agents are familiar with your company, in your own words, before you must restrict your proposal to the formal process.
  • Keep the agencies’ small business advocates up to date on your company’s growth and accomplishments. You never know when they might have a small project that could be your big break.

The removal of the contract cap is an exciting opportunity for WOSBs. With some planning and research, you may be able to compete with the other companies looking to win government contracts.

Joanne Cleaver doesn’t just write about entrepreneurship and finance for national publications and websites. As a longtime freelance writer and editorial project manager, she lives it. Her most recent book is “The Career Lattice“ (McGraw Professional, 2012), which shows how lateral moves power career growth.