You Have to Play to Your Strengths

Janice Hamilton, CEO of JMH EducationA few weeks ago I met Janice Hamilton (pictured left), the president and CEO of JMH Education, based in New York.  I caught up with Janice at the Give Me 5 luncheon to highlight the Women Owned Small Business rule adopted by the SBA effective February 2011.  (See Karen-Michelle Mirko’s account of this historic event, and my Facebook photo album from the lunch.)

JMH Education is in the business of education marketing.  They help corporations, associations and government agencies “reach and teach” — meaning, they make important messages easy to understand by large numbers of the public.  They also help organizations “market” their messages to the public.

Even though JMH Education is a relatively small company of 12 people, the company has been involved in several high-profile public education campaigns. For instance, one of their projects is Smokey the Bear (about forest fire safety).

JMH is a poster child of a woman-owned small business that has seen success from getting on the GSA schedule, and delivering on government contracts.

In the following interview, Janice shares her insights on being a small business and what it takes to successfully get U.S. government contracts.

How did you get into government contracting?

Janice Hamilton: We got into government contracting by doing a really good job with a client that was a public-private consortium, getting the food safety message out.  One of the people from the public sector saw the work we did and liked it and wanted to use us.  But we weren’t on the GSA Schedule.  They encouraged us to get on the GSA Schedule. We didn’t know what we were getting into [laughs].  Yet, it’s been terrific over the last 12 years.

How do you decide which government opportunities to go after?

Janice Hamilton: We work to our strengths.  We identify those agencies that fit the strengths of our company.  We play to our strengths of health and wellness, environment, and financial literacy – and then it’s a natural.  We don’t go off and try to get contracts in areas that don’t fit our capabilities, that don’t fit our strengths, because you’re just spinning your wheels on proposals.  There are a gazillion others out there that might fit.

What’s the secret of your success in government contracting?

Janice Hamilton: We got in a little easy, because we were asked.  But you know, it isn’t that easy to stay in government contracting.  You have to work at it … make those relationships … keep those relationships on an ongoing basis … and make sure your work is stellar.  By doing that, we’ve had one agency recommend us to another.  And then another group will see what we’ve done.  We’ve now done work with FDA, USDA, CDC and NIH — and it continues to grow.

Relationships, relationships, relationships.  That’s so important.  Relationships with the contracting officer.  Relationships with the program managers.  Relationships with the ombudsmen.

Build those relationships.  People like to do business with people they know, people they like.

But it’s also really important to get a good portfolio of past performance to show you can deliver what you say.

How large is your company?

Janice Hamilton: Our company is relatively small – we have 12 people.  We’re small but we’re mighty!  So you don’t have to be a big company.  But one thing we do is, when we see business that is partially in our space, we work with a strategic partner that can help fill out those needs.  That’s how we’ve gotten some of our big contracts.  We couldn’t have done it alone.  The teaming, the strategic partnerships – they’re very important.

Has government contracting helped your business grow?

Janice Hamilton: We’ve certainly grown through government contracting.  But one of the most important things is that it has allowed us to continue being a viable company through the economic downturn.  We were able to continue doing government work when the corporate and association work was slim.  Having that mix was extraordinarily important to us.

You mentioned that you stick to your company’s core competencies.  Was that a tough lesson to learn? Did you have a hard time at first saying “no”?

Janice Hamilton: Yes!  Very definitely.  We would see business in other agencies that we knew we could do.  But they weren’t looking at the competence we had in taking an intricate message and breaking it down to be easily understood by a large group.  Instead, the government agency wanted us to have done something previously in the particular field or content area, for instance, in oceanography.  We had a great concept, and great strategic partners.  But that wasn’t enough.  We learned to stick to what we know.  And just in the FDA and USDA alone there are so many agencies we can work with, and we have good past performance, so … [opportunities are plentiful].

You recently won an award – tell us about that:

Janice Hamilton: We were nominated by WIPP for the American Express OPEN  Victory In Procurement award.  We were named the “Government Contractor of the Year.”  It was just awesome and very exciting and such a great tribute to the dedication of my team, who want to do great work.

One thing about the small business market is that employees in small businesses tend to identify more personally with customers.  They are closer to customers, than perhaps in a large corporation where they may never deal with customers. So does the award mean a great deal to your team?

Janice Hamilton: Oh, yes, that award meant a great deal to them.  To be nominated to begin with – it feels like the Academy Awards.  And then to be recognized by two stellar organizations such as American Express OPEN and WIPP!  You know, it’s to say “hey, we worked hard and, by gosh, it pays off.”  And the team also does what they do because they really love it.  They feel like they are making a difference in people’s lives.

Thank you, Janice Hamilton, for sharing your insights into growing your business through government contracts.

Anita Campbell Anita Campbell is the Founder, CEO and Publisher of Small Business Trends and has been following trends in small businesses since 2003. She is the owner of BizSugar, a social media site for small businesses.