Adriana Flores’ family has been in the business of selling musical instruments for the past 88 years. Her grandfather, Alfredo Flores Sr., forced to flee his country for the U.S. during the Mexican Revolution in the early 1900s, began selling repossessed pianos bought from the bank where he worked during the Great Depression.

In the 1960s, Flores’ father began running the store — today the Alamo Music Center in San Antonio, Texas, — and took two important steps to expand: selling other types of musical instruments and registering to apply for federal government contracts.

Flores, now the store’s vice president, estimates that since that time, the store has sold the government thousands of musical instruments while also serving local customers. Government contracts account for about a sixth of the company’s business, she says.

Each year, the federal government spends roughly $400 billion to $500 billion on contracts, with a goal of allocating 23% of contracts to small businesses. Even businesses in industries that don’t scream “government necessity” can qualify for federal contracts — there’s a need for everything from tubas to office supplies to janitorial services.

What does it take to get your piece of the federal contracting pie? Here are the key steps.

Register your business

Register your business on SAM.gov. The free process involves getting a nine-digit identification number, called the D-U-N-S Number, for each location of your business, as well as designating one or more North American Industry Classification System, or NAICS, codes that describe the goods or services your business offers. 

In addition to the 23% small-business procurement goal, the government also sets goals for providing work to traditionally disadvantaged small-business owners, including disabled veterans, minorities and women. To qualify, you must get certification from the U.S. Small Business Administration.

Consider subcontracting

If your small business is really small (think a one-person interior design service), subcontracting may be the more efficient and accessible path to federal contracts. When awarding a large contract, the government often requires a primary contractor to subcontract out a portion of the work to one or more small businesses. By teaming up with primary contractors, small businesses can gain experience in government contracting and help their bottom line.

The government maintains a database of federal primary contract opportunities, and the SBA runs a database of subcontracting opportunities. 

Write a proposal

If you find a primary contract opportunity in the database that you’d like to pursue, your next step is to submit a proposal. Writing a proposal can be daunting, but it’s important to provide the specific details the contract asks for in the exact format requested.

The process is tricky, but it's possible to find help along the way.

The government’s procurement process “is a fair but complex process filled with acronyms, regulations and requirements,” says Ed Coleman, chair of the Washington, D.C., chapter of SCORE, a free small-business mentoring service. “Before responding to (a request for proposal), I would recommend that the small business take free and/or low-cost workshops to learn about the federal process.” Workshops are available through the SBA, SCORE or a local Procurement Technical Assistance Center.

The SBA also offers the All Small Mentor-Protege program to match small businesses that are new to government contracting with a mentor that can help them through the entire process. 

Fulfill the contract

Delivering the goods or services promised in the proposal is a lot to manage, Flores says, especially if the contract involves orders to multiple agencies. Alamo Music Center has integrated the process into its business strategy by designating employees to be in charge of seeing the contracts through.

“There’s a lot of crazy rules you have to follow because you’re working with the government,” Flores says. For a typical retail customer, she notes, you simply sell an item, give the bill and get paid within a set term, “but with the government, you have to put everything into a special system, everything has to match up perfectly, and if it doesn’t, it gets rejected and you have to go back and do it again.”

Though the process can be complicated, for Flores and Alamo Music Center, fulfilling contracts means more than just money; it also allows them to participate in representing the country abroad.

Many bands who receive musical instruments from the contracts travel around the world, Flores says. “They perform for different embassies or countries. So they are representing the U.S. out there in the world, and they are using our products to do it.

“It’s kind of cool we can be a part of that.”