“I’m Certified, Now What?”

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“I just found out my certification was approved…now what?” This is a question Freida Curry, director of the Illinois Procurement Technical Assistance Center at the Women’s Business Development Center (WBDC), hears every day.

The world’s biggest buyer of consumer products and services, the federal government, offers contracts to most types of businesses including those in the service sector, manufacturing, production and construction — everything except retail. The first step is to know what departments you’re going after and get registered on the System Award Management website (www.SAM.gov). There’s ample information at www.sba.gov/community as well as through workshops, free webinars and business counseling provided by the WBDC.

Just because you’re a ‘small business,’ you’re not too small to land one of these contracts. However, according to Ms. Curry, “Just because you’re certified doesn’t mean you’re entitled or necessarily eligible to do business with government entities. Government contracts aren’t just handed to business owners. It takes work. You have to do the research and market your business to the appropriate people/agencies, plus deliver a great product or service at a competitive price.”

If you can’t fulfill the requirements of a project because, for example, you don’t have the right certifications or adequate collateral, you can create a team with another business that fills the deliverable gap, says Ms. Curry. “Maybe your business is too small to serve as a prime contractor, but you have the right tools; try leveraging your size by becoming a sub-contractor.”

Ms. Curry, who’s provided business counseling to hundreds of Women’s Business Enterprises (WBEs), admits the process can seem overwhelming. “Don’t get discouraged,” she continues. “Once certified, the odds are in your favor to win the business.”

Government contracts are available at the local, state and federal levels, but business owners who succeed have a strategic plan in place with a focus on government agencies committed to buying their type of product or service. “It’s an exciting opportunity to tap into a market that otherwise wouldn’t be available to you,” says Ms. Curry. “Not only are you [hopefully] expanding your capacity, you’re helping the government fill their goals.”

Government agencies have goals for contracts available to women, minority, disadvantaged and veteran-owned businesses. But the work to find and bid on these contracts takes time, attention and often help. The federal government has an across-the-board goal of 5 percent for WBEs also certified as a Women Owned Small Business, a self-certification required for doing federal contracting.

With the basics in place, the next step is to understand the bidding process with the end goal of winning the contract and selling your products/services to the federal government. Finding opportunities to bid is as easy as inputting your criteria in FedBizOpps (www.fbo.gov) or signing up to receive emails from local Procurement Technical Assistance Centers like the WBDC, which sends opportunities on a regular basis. Once you find a contract you’re interested in bidding on, when you get an Invitation for Bid – a document issued by the agency through FedBizOpps – you decide whether it’s appropriate for your company to pursue that bid. Bids typically include a delivery schedule and some can be quite short.

Arabel Alva Rosales, founder/president, AAR & Associates Ltd., which is WBE and 8a certified, emphasizes, “Once you get the job, you have to produce.” She’s experienced first-hand the value of providing quality work on time – her contract with the Environmental Protection Agency was extended. “And they paid quickly – within 30 days,” she affirms.

After identifying the bid opportunities, the next step is the bid submission. Some government agencies shop for the lowest price while others value experience. It’s important to have that information. Ms. Rosales notes there are upfront costs associated with the bidding process – costs which should be taken into consideration when compiling a bid.

On occasion bidders may be asked to make an oral presentation, especially if the agency has narrowed down the number of bidders. Even after the presentation, bidders may be asked for more information. “Don’t get discouraged,” says Ms. Rosales. “If they’re asking for more information, it’s a good sign. Be patient, and keep providing them whatever they need.”

Is the time and effort worth it? Just ask Ms. Rosales and any number of other successful WBEs. “It’s all about the bottom line,” she affirms. “If you’re making a profit, it’s worth it.”

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About Hedy M. Ratner

Hedy M. Ratner is founder and co-president of the Women's Business Development Center, the largest, oldest and most comprehensive and successful women's business assistance center in the U.S. She blogs about entrepreneurship, working women, success stories, small business and more in “Windows to Business Success.”