There's $787 billion in the economic stimulus pot, but it can't help you if you don't know how or where to get it. Data on stimulus money is publicly available, but pinpointing what's relevant to your business is a daunting task: $400 billion-plus is being distributed at the local and state levels, and there are more than 89,000 of these agencies around the country.
That's where organizations like National Strategies, Inc., Onvia and Business Matchmaking come in.
Three Simple Things to Do
1. Do your homework. Read up on the stimulus package at the official Recovery.gov website. Figure out where and what type of projects you should pursue.
2. Do your research. Find the funding stream that fits your business. Go to the websites of the specific agency or department running the program and dig in.
3. Do your outreach. If you notice a potential opportunity, make your availability known. For instance, the Department of Energy recently released a list of the dollar amounts being sent to each U.S. city. If your local energy department is getting a few million, walk in that door and tell them what you have to offer.
With Recovery.org, public works information aggregator Onvia provides a similar service. The site captures all government spending information from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 and reports it so business owners can identify and pursue the appropriate projects.
Michael Balsam and Eric Gillespie, respectively Onvia's chief solutions officer and chief information officer, say the purpose was to carve out stimulus-specific projects for small- to medium-sized businesses, and provide those businesses with opportunities to bid on work.
You can sift through information based on project type and location, and if you register, Onvia alerts you when matching projects appear in the database. "In many cases we are the trigger for our clients to pursue business," Gillespie says. "The government is the last client standing . and what we do serves to help businesses get access to projects from the government."
Balsam says Onvia is the only central portal that not only notifies clients of new postings, but also provides access to additional materials when they arise. "At each step of the process, we're going to be adding supporting source documentation," he says. "As the money is set aside, we notify the public of that; when a request for proposal is made available, we'll post the documents online. Incidentally, this is not something the government can do."
Go Where the Grass Is Green
Where do the greatest opportunities lie? In energy efficiency and sustainable technologies, says NSI's Gordon, not only because of the billions earmarked for the cause, but also because the entire stimulus bill is full of "green" components. In fact, he recently spoke to one particular company in the energy industry whose CEO expects to hire another 50 employees based on the work available from government contracts. "That's a big win for the stimulus package."
But most important, business owners need to be ready to seize on contracting opportunities because the bill is pushing for all money to be committed by September 2010. "It's on your shoulders since you're looking at a relatively short time frame. If you sit back . it's not going to come," warns Gordon. "But if you take the bull by the horns, develop a plan and match what you're offering to these various streams of money, you could be in the game."
If the red tape is what's holding you back, the folks at Business Matchmaking are ready to help. And, says executive producer Chuck Ashman, the process isn't as difficult as you might think.
Ashman sees the stimulus package an as opportunity for business owners to break into contracting and procurement. "Our attendance application and interest on the website is up about 60 percent in the past 90 days," he says--the biggest increase since the company was founded six years ago.
Beginning in June, Business Matchmaking will embark on a 15-city tour to train business owners on ways they can benefit from all the extra money going into state agency coffers. "We'll take the top buyers from state and federal agencies, and people from the Small Business Administration, and [explain the process] to companies that have never sold to a government agency, but who have an appetite for it," Ashman says.
In addition, Business Matchmaking has partnered with the small business arm of American Express to launch a program that helps companies in the same industry collaborate and go after contracts together. "A lot of small-business owners have the desire to sell to a federal agency, but can't handle it alone," Ashman says.
Jump These Hurdles
The major problem is that small-business owners are intimidated by the red tape they think exists when dealing with the government. At one time, the process may have been complicated, but that's no longer true, Ashman says. For example, getting on the government registry is simple: Make one free phone call to Dun and Bradstreet to get what's called a DUNS number, use that number to register in the Central Contractor Registry and you're eligible to work with the government.
Much of the information is available on the internet--sometimes exclusively so--so it's also important to be comfortable working online. Then, look into programs that give you a leg up, especially if you're a minority, a woman or even a disabled veteran. "There are a tremendous number of companies eligible, but they haven't taken advantage of the opportunity," Ashman says.
The main obstacle to get over is the intimidation factor, but NSI's Gordon points out that business owners should prepare for what comes after, too--the transparency and reporting requirements. "Make sure you've got people trained to deal with the government. Every company is going to have to report the dollars they received and how they were used and the impact of those dollars."
Any reticence is understandable, though. "I'd call it busy-ness. The toughest commodity for a small-business owner is [time]," Ashman notes. "If someone says, 'You've got to go to this training program and learn how to get certified,' I'm sure they'd say, 'Sure, but only if you can do it at 2 am on a Thursday.'"
Fortunately, Business Matchmaking, SBA and SCORE are taking it to businesses, and these stumbling blocks are being addressed. Ashman's also optimistic that policymakers and politicians are noticing that small business is where jobs are and should be created. "The most encouraging thing I see with the stimulus package is an across-the-board recognition of the significance of the role of small business."