Government Contracting Q&A with The Knowledge Stack

The Knowledge Stack (TKS) helps small businesses respond to government RFPs and bids, and win government contracts. Similar to how OpenGrants is making grants more accessible and equitable, TKS is doing similar work for government contracting. h this Q&A session, OpenGrants’ Head of Growth Kate Newton chats with TKS Founder Jo Letke about the government contracting space, common challenges, and how to navigate them.

OpenGrants has partnered with TKS to streamline access to RFP & Bid Management services for our users. OpenGrants members are eligible for $4,000 off government contract engagements with TKS. Learn more on the OpenGrants Perks Page.

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Kate Newton

Let’s get started here. For some quick context, for those who may be tuning in my name is Kate Newton. I run growth here at OpenGrants where we make grants easy for startups, nonprofits, and small businesses. We are stoked to be partnered with The Knowledge Stack. And I have Jo Letke here, the founder and CEO of The Knowledge Stack or TKS as I think they shorten it to sometimes.

I’m excited to hear how you guys help with the RFP and bids process. We find that many of our network and users that come to us for grants also are interested in your world . We have a lot of collisions in this space that we can dive into. But first Jo would love to hear a brief intro from you and how you started TKS.

Jo Letke

Thank you, Kate, and great to be here and to be interviewed. So basically the RFP world and the grants world are like cousins. We’re in the same family and whenever there’s a need, RFPs are basically a paraphrasing of that need. And companies may go after funding, they need funding.

So there’s just a ton of overlap. And I, just a quick background on our partnership Sedale and the OpenGrants team. We’ve been pretty close the last few years. And they’ve been with us since I think 2020 through the heart of the pandemic. It’s been really interesting to follow these developments through these interesting times, with things changing, supply chain complexity. I started TKS back in 2019 after working in the corporate enterprise space, seeing that small business owners were having such a tough time getting access to resources and expertise, and I wanted to make it more accessible for people and and level the playing field, because there’s really this uneven like unfair advantage that if you are an incumbent, you can just come in and show the fact that you’ve been there for 15 years and that you have all these references and you understand them and you typically get it, even though the small startup or the mom and pop has the innovation, or they have the thing that’s gonna drive real value.

Sometimes they’re not the ones selected. So I thought that was a travesty and I wanted to correct it.

Kate Newton

Yeah. That’s awesome to hear you say, I think that parallels a lot of the way we think about grant funding and that it’s this awesome resource and should be this really great resource for innovation, but it’s not super accessible.

Approaching grant funding is really hard. And I think approaching, bids and contracts is in the same lane there. Did you stumble upon that problem? Because you were going after a contract yourself or in some other way?

Jo Letke

So I was managing a team of over 20 coordinators, writers, estimators.

And we were bidding pretty extensively at volumes that are unheard of in the small, smaller company, smaller startup world. And when I tell people that we were doing, three wins a week and trying to transition into these contracts where it’s major statewide contracts. Multiple times in one week that, that was surprising for many people.

And how do you do it? What’s your secret? And even going to conferences and talking to people about, oh, I’m in the, GovCon space or I’m doing contracting well. Wow. That’s really tough. And I really don’t know how you do it. And I’m thinking I’m actually quite good at it. and I don’t know why you’re signaling that.

More challenging than you. But I think it comes down to really understanding what works and applying the expertise when needed and a few other things. But yeah, we can certainly dive into that.

Yeah. Walk me through, the business model of The Knowledge Stack and how you’re approaching those problems, how do you solve that accessibility problem?

Jo Letke

Yeah. So we’re quite different than say just hiring a writer or hiring someone like a consultant, just to see it or to give their blessing or to review it. We follow it from pre sometimes pre RFP. So before the city, government even issues, the scope of work, we follow it from there all the way to the contract signing and.

Every little phase and every little thing between, there’s friction there’s gonna be uncertainties and things where it’s what do I do in this case? They’re asking me for this and I don’t have it, or it’s pending. And then we can step in and we can give that guidance. So when you work with us, you’re paying a deposit to get started and to build this relationship.

And then the full total, once we send in your proposal that full total covers not only the first phase, but also the second, the third. And then if there’s other phases beyond that, and those can include interviews, presentations follow up supplemental requests and TKS handles all of that.

So then basically we’re just telling you where to go, how to sign and what day it starts, essentially.

Kate Newton

Okay. Got it. And so in a more typical, consultant process, What would that look like? It’s just like hiring someone on an hourly basis or how is that a bit different?

Jo Letke

Yeah, it’s different because we are quoting for the edge that we’ll need to win this thing.

And then we’re quoting for how many phases we estimate the contract. The precontract will be. Meaning, is it just gonna be a simple, you submit the quote and then you’re selected or is it gonna be quote presentation? Like I was mentioning those other phases. Yeah. And then we’ll basically price, according to how intense we think the bid is gonna be.

Got it. Because we know typically what these purchasers do and we have an insider look into how they behave as purchasers.

Kate Newton

Got it. Got it. And so if I’m, a business, who’s either thinking about contracts or I’ve already found one that I, wanna dive into at what stage do you typically engage?

Jo Letke

Wow. Yeah we engage with a lot of newcomers. A lot of people that they’, they may have had three or four great instances in the past where they’ve worked with a few nonprofits where they’ve worked. Larger enterprises or bigger, more complex buyers than just other small businesses. Those are great because they the comparability is wonderful where we can just say this hospital that you worked with over here, that’s very similar to accounting.

We’re very similar to how this public hospital or this other government entity works. And so we can take that win and that that story, that narrative. Excellent, delivery. And we can basically transfer that over in the narrative for our clients and do it in a way that is gonna highlight the things that the purchaser wants to see.

The other and what I’ll mention too, is the other thing that we have as, as far as clients. We do work with purchasers too. We have a few okay. Enterprise buyers that we handle and GPOs, which is a group purchasing organization. And they ask us to do RFPs. So we do that for them as well.

So we’re on both sides of the fence and we see it pretty clearly for them.

Kate Newton

Imagine it’s definitely helpful. I think, to work from both sides. What about the folks that maybe don’t have the, that previous contract experience or previous story that are maybe just getting started? So maybe like smaller startups or small businesses that are going after contracts.

What does that look like? You guys, do you work with those folks or do you help prep them?

Jo Letke

We do. And we have a few that we’re nurturing and definitely if you are not sure if you’re ready, please get in touch with us because we can look at your materials, have at least explore it because who knows, maybe there’s something in your resume or there’s something that can translate well over into maybe a smaller one.

And then once you have that anchor client, we call them anchor clients. Once you have that. Other cities are gonna, you can build off of that because they’ll look back and say you have this anchor and you’re not too dissimilar to other vendors we’ve worked with. So we’ll give you a shot.

Kate Newton

Do you find finding that first client, and is it typically at the city level is really key for folks finding like that first one?

Jo Letke

Yeah, so it doesn’t have to be. In fact, we had one and she’s in the educational professional development space and her first client was actually a state. So it was a state government.

And that’s typically seen as larger, but in this case, the budget made sense. It was small enough where it didn’t get a lot of competition. It was in Wyoming. So it was more remote. So she ended up, that was her first client on the government side. and it was a statewide agency, so it was pretty impressive that okay.

She went from zero to that. And then from there we were able to build it into several other statewide contract.

Kate Newton

Okay, very cool. I love hearing like the success stories and, we touched a little bit on that. There’s an overlap sometimes between our, our grant funding world and the contracting world.

Do you have any other examples that come to mind of folks that have either maybe won grant funding and then you come up, you with contracts or, or vice versa?

Jo Letke

Yes. We actually worked quite closely with a video production company and they won a a city gov government bid last year and the government agency wanted them to basically capture.

this neighborhood that was B that was lost to to history because of Reno over time, redevelopment, gentrification changed this neighborhood. So the city wanted this video company to capture the neighborhood and tell the story. And. But with the budget and the constraints of time, it was just like get some B roll if you can, but it’s not gonna be this huge story.

And they saw that and they said let’s do you know, to the contract specifications, let’s get what they want us to get. But they also planned in a A moment where, you know, we, we want to tell a bigger story. We don’t just want to show it and then have it cause that’s what happened to that neighborhood anyway.

So yeah, that company went out and applied for a grant and got this grant successfully given to them based on their. Prior city experience doing that small, smaller, like B roll kind of thing. And so now they have that history and that footage to show from the B roll plus, they have this new grant, which they’re gonna use to.

Get more footage and capture the history in a more in depth way. So I think there’s, there are these kind of like mini opportunities. And I talk about this a lot where each RFP has this potential to open you up to new things and open new doors beyond just the one invoice or the one, thing that you’re supposed to be doing.

It, it opens you up to new worlds. And so that’s why it’s so interesting to me as.

Kate Newton

Yeah. Oh, absolutely. I think a lot of folks think, there must be a lot of barriers and prerequisites to working with government. I know that comes up a lot for us. In your mind, what are some of those.

Prerequisites or just tips you think people should think through to better prep their organization to work on a contract?

Jo Letke

Yeah. We get this a lot too. We get this should we go after this certification? Should we get this license or should we have this in place before we start?

and I’ll say if your industry, requires it, obviously, if you’re a licensed contractor, if you’re a professional services person that does, let’s say speech pathology you’ll need that, that, that specific license to do speech pathology, that we can’t avoid that. But when it comes down to minority business or women owned or veteran disabled now I’ll say for those, if the preference is aligned with it.

And the preference makes sense. Like it’s a, it’s more than 5% and it’s not just a set aside for. Only then. Yeah, absolutely. It makes total sense. If you’re gonna get, let’s say a 10% preference because you’re a women owned business, then that makes absolute sense. Sure. But if it’s a small percentage, if there’s, just a, a a goal, but there’s not a preference percentage, then maybe it doesn’t make sense for you.

And I will say that newcomers, that don’t have these things, they still get these contracts. So it’s not like you have to set aside months in advance. In order to get everything in order because I think it’s just better to start. And once you’re, once you’ve and I’m sure that’s how the grants world works as well.

Once you begin, then you figure these things out and you’re a lot quicker for the next one. And then, you can have that advantage of momentum and be better than your competitors.

Kate Newton

Yeah, certainly agree with that. And I think it’s also, our favorite answer, which is also an annoying one, is it depends.

It depends on the opportunity and what you’re looking at. And so it’s always good to, to just begin and then find out what those big questions are that you need to solve. Are there any other kind of myths you wanna debunk, about this space? Something you find yourself.

I don’t know, clarifying over and over again, or I guess when you first take on new clients.

Jo Letke

Yeah. We have a lot of those. So in, in my space, it’s we don’t do government or we don’t do federal this or that. Hospitals certain hospitals are quasi public universities.

You’re basically shutting yourself off to these major institutions. That do, go through the RFP process that do procure the other Major thing that I like to go after and look for is when it’s like a cooperative. When it’s a member owned, buying cooperative where there’s 4,000 different buyers, and then all you have to do is submit on that one RFP.

So it’s getting that maximum ROI for the time spent in the investment where you can open yourself up to thousands of new. Potential buyers. And so I think those are great opportunities. And I would say the myths too, or is that that government’s not using, whatever I do say you do marketing, you do advertising, or you do copywriting or, whatever That.

Oh, they don’t need it or there’s no campaign that’s gonna be relevant to my thing, but it what’s crazy is that we’ve done things where we’ve bridged, blockchain developers with major counties at this, like huge counties that are asking for pilots. For blockchain.

It’s that’s unheard of. And then you have AI or you have these interesting like marketplace S niches where they do these interesting things with technology or with web, three pointer or whatever. And And trust me, there’s either a pilot that’s active right now that where people want to do it, or someone’s talking about it in a Markcom department and they’re asking how do we get these people?

Kate Newton

Yeah. Yeah. People might think their market is, if you’re not considering even any of these kind of public entities or government, they might be cutting down their own market a little bit there. It sounds like. Would love to get to, a bit of, a couple basics here in terms of just how do people find you and start working with you.

I know that it sounds like location wise anywhere in the us and clarify me if I’m wrong there. And then stage wise, always good to start that conversation. For folks that are wanna just explore this space or have already in this process in some way what’s the best way to, to get in.

Jo Letke

Yeah. So we used to have a extensive questionnaire where, we would ask you all these questions and I think what’s better is just to have a conversation explore is this the right fit? And then do you F. Are you ready for the long grueling, bidding cycle that these things have.

Cause sometimes it can go three months down the road with no response. And so are you okay with something that might have a bigger payoff, but might take a while, especially with these newcomers. So yeah, we just like to have a talk and it’s really just setting up a 15 minute chat with us through our our calendar.

And then we we connect you with the absolute best person to have that conversation with. So if you do marketing or if you do DEI is a big one we’ll set you up with a person who sees these contracts every single day and they absolutely are the. People to be in front of because they would know if there’s an active thing here or there’s something to look at there they would just tell you rather than, let’s try this out.

Let’s see if it works. We have people that are pretty brutally honest if it works or or doesn’t.

Kate Newton

That’s so important knowing that maybe it’s not a good fit is just as important knowing if it is a good fit. So you save a lot of time. There that’s something we tell people, looking for grants all the time as well is should be really honest front and tell ’em if it’s not a good fit.

Exactly. We also are stoked to offer a perk through you guys and a bit of a discount for our members would love to hear about that from you too, Jo, we have a $4,000 off perk.

Jo Letke

So this is after looking at your other perks and saying, to, as a team, we want to have a more tangible perk.

And so yeah it’s definitely one that’s gonna get you started and. That’s, pretty much our first engagement total cost is around there. That’s the average could go up based on the size and the complexity of the bid or the intensity of our expectation around the phases. But.

That’s gonna really get you in the door with government agencies. And it’s gonna get you thinking about this space and considering all the options and hopefully, our goal is to set you up so that not only are you competitive, but this is a, is another revenue model for you as we all enter this interesting time where people are talking about recession and this or that, Buyers they are consistent.

The invoice is there. So it’s just a matter of positioning which we do really well. And we can help you with that.

Kate Newton

Awesome. And for our users, you can find, this perk with The Knowledge Stack under your profile within OpenGrants. If you’re not an user with us yet, we’ll touch some info about how to sign up.

Jo, I’m wondering anything we didn’t cover or that you wanna highlight questions. I didn’t ask that. You wanna make sure we get to them.

Jo Letke

Yeah. So these agencies, they’re smart. They are going through some staffing shortages. They’re feeling pains themselves. Any time where you as a small business or you as an owner can supply, Value beyond just what you’re doing and offer some assistance and say, look, you don’t have to manage our contract the typical way.

Our approach that we’re gonna build into this thing is gonna include like a custodial thing where maybe the milestones will be easier on you. They’ll the buyers on the government side will see. They’ll appreciate that. And I think you’ll have a better chance of getting it. And our goal is to see everyone who has a great idea in those types of positions where they can sell it and scale and just make that idea even better.

I think you can do that if you are willing to work with these people and offer value beyond just what you do. On a spreadsheet, but you’re more understanding from their perspective what they need and you’re will, and you’re reasonable and you’re willing to change and mold to to that.

I think that’s my one. Hopefully you guys can take that away and and use something with it.

Kate Newton

Yeah. Those are great insights. And it sounds as we do talk about, market downturn, this might be in some ways, a perfect time to be looking at some of these strategies.

Would you say that’s true?

Jo Letke

Yeah. I it’s one strategy among many. I would say don’t just throw it all into one, unless you’re a traditional services company, like security or landscaping where yeah. RFPs might be a hundred percent of your. Total capture in terms of revenue, but, look at it as just maybe 10 some portion of your client list.

I would say the names of having cities and counties does wonders when it comes down to valuation and what your company is ultimately worth. Just having those those clients, those references are amazing. So yeah, I, I definitely think it’s worth investigating. It’s not for everyone, but maybe it’s for you and we can help you talk about it and explore it.

Kate Newton

Awesome. Thank you so much, Jo, for just breaking the down with me today. We’re excited at OpenGrants just to, to be partnered with you guys at The Knowledge Stack and really appreciated of everything you do. And hopefully can provide a lot of kind of parallel value for our users here.

Jo Letke

Thank you so much.