Ever lick a self-adhesive stamp and live to tell the tale? Thank Roger Cohen. At least in part. Cohen is the guy who helped get self-adhesive stamps through the proposal phase and into the phase in which they reside in all cashier drawers at the post office.
Cohen learned a lot in the seven-year process of getting those stamps ready for commercial sale while working for a Japanese company early in his career. Then again, by the time self-adhesive stamped debuted in the U.S. Postal Service in 1989, Cohen was pretty solid on what it took to get an idea from the drawing board to consumers’ hands. He had been an expert in writing proposals for government contracts for a decade by then. Even if he was doing it for Japan.
Cohen, president of Cohen International, a government contract consulting firm in Nyack, New York, will speak on writing strong proposals at the SBIR/STTR proposal writing and university partnerships workshop on Tuesday, November 26, at 8:30 a.m. at the NJEDA Commercialization Center for Innovative Technologies in North Brunswick. Other speakers include Randy Harmon of Foundations Business Development Group; Anthony Faugno of EisnerAmper; Thomas Richardson of Research Alliances; and Judith Sheft of NJIT. Cost: $70. Visit www.njsbdc.com/sbir.
Cohen earned his bachelor’s in policy and planning from Cornell in 1978. In 1981 he joined Nichimen America, a Japanese electronics company with an office in New York, as a marketing and sales associate. He became a business development associate in 1984.
In 1987 Cohen became the U.S. manager of corporate planning and development for Komori Printing Machinery Company of Tokyo. He presented the company’s currency-printing machinery to the U.S. Treasury Department and wrote $50 million worth of proposals and bids to the U.S. government. It was during these years that he helped make self-adhesive stamps a real thing. And it wasn’t as easy as you would think. Beyond the security measures (you can’t have something people could replicate on a home printer), the glue needed to be sticky enough to adhere after people licked it and yet non-toxic. Because yes, people used to licking stamps still do that with self-adhesive stamps.
Cohen earned his MBA in international business from Tokyo University in 1990, but he does not speak Japanese. “Japanese is a hard language to learn,” he says. In 1991 he founded Cohen Associates, which helps companies devise the best proposals for government contracts and develop business relationships with Asian companies.
He also teaches classes in writing proposals, which goes in line with the fact that Cohen considers himself primarily an educator like his parents. His father was a high school guidance counselor and his mother taught special education.
Not your typical sales pitch. Writing an SBIR/STTR proposal is at heart a sales pitch — to commercialize your tech startup by asking the government to be a customer or grantor. But “unlike regular sales, where you can speak to the customer about your product and explain how it solves a problem or provides a particular advantage,” Cohen says, “with a government contract, the only way you can communicate is in writing.”
And what the government wants to see in writing is very specific. Agencies participating in SBIR/STTR bidding want three questions answered in proposals, Cohen says: What exactly will your technology do? How will your technology solve the problem the agency has outlined? How will your company become a commercialized entity?
Moreover, what each of the 11 agencies that participate in the SBIR/STTR program want to see depends on the agency. The Department of Defense, the largest awarder of federal SBIR contracts, spells out exactly what it wants in the topic (the short description of the research an agency wants to sponsor). “The Department of Defense outlines a specific problem and what they want as a solution,” Cohen says. “Sometimes they’ll even outline a technical approach they’d like to see.”
On the other hand, the National Institutes of Health, the government’s second-largest sponsor of SBIR research, outlines general problem areas. “The topics are much more flexible,” Cohen says. So it pays to know what each agency wants and how each approaches contracts or grants for tech startups. And knowing the routine of each agency can help in other ways.
Wasted opportunities. Admit it. The thought of submitting a written proposal to a large federal government agency just about drips with the glue from all the red tape. But amid the bureaucracies are opportunities to get to know actual people.
In the DOD, for example, the person who writes the topic for bidders is often the same person who reads proposals submitted, Cohen says. And he or she is allowed to talk to you until there are 30 days left to the submission deadline. Cohen’s advice? Talk. The topic writer can help you clarify and focus your proposal.
This also works in NIH proposals, which are read by an outside team. You can still talk to the topic writer up to 30 days before the deadline. The writer knows what the team will look for, Cohen says, and can give you valuable input. Cohen doesn’t call the lack of relationship building a mistake, per se. More of a thing most new bidders just aren’t aware of. But proposal writers make plenty of mistakes.
Mistakes techs make. First and most common error tech startups make in government proposals? “People don’t read the instructions on the solicitation,” Cohen says. Agencies will lay out everything they want to see in a proposal. Granted, solicitations can be long and complicated, but they will always spell out what the agency wants. Much of Cohen’s consulting zeroes in on the details he helps clients see in solicitations they didn’t fully read.
A related error is that companies write proposals how they want, not how the agency wants. Government agencies, Cohen says, might get a dozen proposals or hundreds for any solicitation. So they all have a formula. But people don’t pay as much attention as they should to what’s being asked for.
A major problem with tech companies, Cohen says, is that scientists tend to fall in love with their technology. That’s ideal for developing the technology itself, but in a proposal to the federal government, pontificating about the ones and zeroes or spinning rapturous yarns about the history of the technology itself is a surefire ticket to rejection. Remember, the agency wants a solution to a problem, not a treatise on mechanics or history. Tell the agency how you can solve its problem and remember that the agency wants to know how you will commercialize your technology and your company. This is another error tech startups make — they forget to tell how they will develop an independent company, Cohen says.
Give yourself time. Far too many new bidders think they will have plenty of time to get their proposals in, Cohen says. Technically, they do (usually 60 days). But these companies, he says, often feel they can just upload the proposal at 11 p.m., an hour before the deadline. And they are stunned when there’s an error with no time to fix.
Cohen gets lots of frantic calls from bidders about this. Especially when someone submitted something once and it went smoothly and they expect the same from a different agency. But each agency does things its own way. Cohen’s advice: submit early and go over your proposal. If there’s an error, you’ll have plenty of time to re-submit.
And make sure your company is registered in the agency’s database, he says. If the agency doesn’t recognize you as a company, you cannot submit, and it’s best not to find that out in the actual 11th hour.
“It’s easy to write a crummy proposal,” Cohen says. “It pays to have a conversational relationship. The topic writer is often the one who reads proposals.”