SBA takes business beyond the Beltway

SBA Matchmaking site

Small businesses in the Midwest met potential federal clients or partner companies at a matchmaking event last week in Chicago in the federal government's latest effort to recruit potential contractors from beyond the Washington, D.C., area.

The matchmaking events are three-way efforts by the Small Business Administration, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and Hewlett-Packard Co. The first event this year, in Orlando, Fla., in March, drew 620 small businesses and resulted in 2,500 meetings among companies or among companies and agencies, according to SBA Administrator Hector Barreto.

Although SBA has regional offices nationwide to help small firms get on their feet, 80 percent of federal contracts go to businesses within 50 miles of the Capital Beltway, Barreto said.

"This is, I believe, a new way of the government doing business with small business," he said. "Before, if you were a small-business owner, you had to navigate this complex process, and you had to come to Washington, D.C., to have access."

The Office of Management and Budget has also begun traveling the country. Its officials, most recently chief technology officer Norman Lorentz in May, have made three trips to California to recruit Silicon Valley businesses. Mark Forman, administrator of the new OMB Office of E-Government and Information Technology, spoke last week in Dallas.

The American Electronics Association (AeA), a trade association for technology businesses, hosted the events in California and Dallas, as well as federal sales seminars in Atlanta last week.

"It's a global world today, so there are very few borders," said Mike Levin, executive director of AeA's southeastern region. "I think also the government is trying to get out and meet people directly."

The matchmaking events are intended to demystify the process of contracting, Barreto said. "We did a couple of these events last year, as a pilot. They exceeded our expectations, but the first one this year really blew the doors down," he said. "We had small businesses travel from 18 different states. It really surprised us."

Businesses typically have difficulty dealing with the federal government, Barreto said. Newcomers struggle to grasp the convoluted contracting process, and businesses outside Washington, D.C., are unfamiliar with the government.

"Most government agencies have a significant network throughout the country. The problem is that much of the decision-making is done in Washington, D.C.," he said. "It's occurring in the central offices in D.C. This is a way to decentralize part of the procurement."

It's too soon, however, to judge the matchmaker events' effectiveness.

Although some businesses get contracts on the spot, it's often the beginning of a relationship, he said. "You've got to stay in relationship with the small business. It may be a week later, a month later. It could be a year later before something occurs. We can't guarantee anybody a contract, but we're trying to create the right environment for business to take place."

As a barometer of the events' potential, more than 35 agencies sent representatives to Orlando, he added. "They wouldn't be coming unless they were serious about doing business with small business," he said.

Companies from outside the Washington, D.C., region, whether small or large, often bring a fresh vision to solving technological problems, said Howard Stern, senior vice president of Federal Sources Inc. James Kane, FSI's president and chief executive officer, accompanied Lorentz to California.

"Most of the technological innovation that we see is happening out there. You have a lot of folks doing some really creative, innovative stuff," Stern said. He said the Beltway marketplace produces the same old stuff. "We want some new things."

Efforts like SBA's and OMB's can be productive, said Gerald Gordon, president and CEO of the Fairfax County, Va., Economic Development Authority. His organization has a forum twice a month in conjunction with SBA.

"The people who come in are obviously in need of this kind of advice," he said. "The attendees are usually experienced from other businesses, but they're just now starting their own. They have the science or technology, but no idea what to do. At the lower levels, the change and successes are much more dramatic. They're starting from zero."


Making a match

Upcoming Small Business Administration match-making events:

* Birmingham, Ala.: July

* Washington, D.C.: September

* Anaheim, Calif.: October

* Houston: December


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