Tessie Catsambas smiles as she remembers the days when her company, EnCompass, was small and had just started its USAID partnership journey. “When we started EnCompass,” recalled Catsambas, the company’s Chief Executive Officer and Chief Financial Officer, “we were just two [staff] and a year later, we were three. Our first USAID subcontract came a couple of years later, and was not huge, but for a tiny company like us, it felt big.”
That was 1999–2000, when Catsambas, a new mom at the time, co-founded EnCompass as a virtual company, in part, to “test a model of virtual work” that was more flexible, more inclusive, and, at the same time—she was convinced—more effective. At that time, the firm’s external motto was “innovative approaches for organizational excellence” and its internal motto was “work that fits your life.” The company has proved both mottos to be true through its success and growth. Decades ahead of its time, EnCompass has watched as virtual work took off in the international development sector during the pandemic, validating the model the company had pioneered 20 years earlier.
EnCompass, which is known for its expertise in training/learning and facilitation, leadership and organizational development, and technical assistance and evaluation, recently graduated from its small business status and today has more than 225 employees and over $30 million in sales. Over the past two decades, the company has successfully navigated the path from a small USAID subcontractor to a large prime implementing partner.
Having blazed a trail that can seem daunting for small businesses just getting started, Catsambas is eager to share what she has learned about the USAID partnership process. “I'm from Greece, and that's something I really appreciate in the United States: in American culture, power is opening doors, and I love that about America,” said Catsambas.
Our News & Insights blog editors spoke with Catsambas, who, in that spirit of support, offered six tips, described below, for small businesses in international development hoping to expand their partnership with USAID.
1. Be Patient
Catsambas recommends to nascent organizations that they should manage their expectations around income and profit for the first year or so. “In the beginning, it's better if you can resign yourself to making very little for a year. For us [EnCompass], that's what it took—a year of just covering expenses.” During this time, Catsambas and her colleagues networked, built their organization, and learned from others. Catsambas stressed that young organizations must be patient and know that it takes time, even a full year, for any seed they plant to grow.
2. As a Subcontractor, Your Prime Is Your Client
Similar to EnCompass’s path, most businesses begin their USAID partnership journey as subcontractors. Beginning as a subcontractor enables an organization to learn the process firsthand, and being successful with all initial subcontracts is critical to growth, as it sets the foundation for your reputation and fosters an organizational culture of excellence. Catsambas noted, “The big ‘Aha!’ moment for me personally in terms of subcontracting was realizing that your client is your prime, not USAID.” Treating your prime with respect creates the environment necessary for a beneficial working relationship. Additionally, Catsambas recommended “managing your subcontract actively” by sharing information and proactively asking questions.
3. Communicate Regularly with Your Prime
Catsambas stressed the importance of sub/prime communication. One way EnCompass ensured open lines of communication as a subcontractor was by requesting “a quarterly meeting with our prime manager, just 15 minutes to discuss any outstanding issues. We always ask for appreciative feedback [...]. What do you love about what we're doing? What are we doing really well? Where can we improve? So that has served to prevent problems. It has even served to expand our subcontract.” Catsambas noted that, in those meetings, EnCompass could remind their prime about their capabilities and could sometimes be connected with additional opportunities for related future work.
4. Start with Smaller Prime Contracts from Other Organizations
EnCompass had the fortunate advantage that Catsambas already had substantial experience with USAID contracts through her previous work experience at URC. That background, combined with EnCompass’s success on its early subcontracts, gave it a strong knowledge base to tap into in order to compete for prime opportunities. But the company didn’t go straight to pursuing USAID prime contracts, which are typically very large. Instead, it cut its teeth on smaller prime contracts with other US agencies, the United Nations, foundations, and large nonprofits.
With that experience under their belt, EnCompass staff eventually competed for and won their first USAID prime contract in 2006 to run a training contract that offered courses to USAID staff in orientation, supervision, working across cultures and other topics, which EnCompass won in large part because of the firm’s early focus on networking and making connections with experts in the field.
5. Network and Learn
Recalling the early days of EnCompass, Catsambas pointed to the importance of networking and learning from others who have wisdom and experiences to share. “Sometimes you're so small that you can't even conceive of what role you could play,” Catsambas said, “so talk to other small businesses and talk to large businesses and ask them to describe to you the kind of roles small businesses play for them.” Get to know the partner landscape in your industry or sector and where your organization can fit in. You can begin researching and contacting similar organizations in the WorkwithUSAID.org Partner Directory.
6. Know Your Company’s Goals and Values
Growth like EnCompass’s does not come easy, and Catsambas emphasized that it may not be right for all organizations. Leaders should know their own objectives, motivations, and aspirations and should recognize that growth requires investment, which may, at least for a time, come at the expense of profit. “Not everyone has a vision of growing a company. And that's okay, that's a different way.”
Above all, Catsambas recommends, stay true to your company’s priorities and values, and approach corporate decisions thoughtfully. “We recognized we didn’t have to do something just because it was always done that way. We also were not going to reject something because it was always done that way. We were just going to think it through anew, based on our values of inclusion and flexibility,” said Catsambas. Being guided by vision and values has kept EnCompass’s reputation strong and has given it confidence as it has navigated the complexities of its journey from subcontractor to prime partner.
Do you have advice for small businesses looking to advance their partnership with USAID? Share your tips in our Work with USAID LinkedIn group.
Learn more about subcontracting in USAID’s “Building Strong Sub-Partnerships” training module.