Knowledge is power for small businesses
- By Matthew Weigelt
- Oct 02, 2008
Know your small-business regulations.
That's one of the first
pieces of advice agency small-business
directors give to companies
trying to get a foothold in the federal
"Please, please, please, read the regulations
to learn the requirements that
apply to you," Teresa Lewis, director of
the Treasury Department's Office of
Small and Disadvantaged Business
Utilization (OSBDU), told a gathering of
small-business owners in August.
Brigitte Blackburn takes the advice a
step further. The vice president of Kilda
Group LLC, a service-disabled veteran-owned
small business in Annapolis, Md.,
carries a copy of the acquisition regulations
with her when she meets with
government program managers to
Blackburn's regulation of choice is
President Bush's Executive Order 13360,
which details contracting with service-disabled
veterans and requires agencies
to set a goal of directing at least 3 percent
of their contracting dollars each
year to small businesses owned by such
If an agency is struggling to meet its
small-business goals, having the regulations
at your fingertips can be a persuasive
sales tool, Lewis said.
Lewis is part of a vocal group of federal
officials that helps businesses go
after government contracts by offering
marketing advice and matching large
companies with small-business partners. Officials also try to get their agencies
to set aside more contracts for
"We are door-openers," said Debbie
Ridgely, director of the Health and
Human Services Department's OSBDU.
OSBDU directors say they believe
smaller firms are an important component
of federal contracting, and the
work on their behalf "touches
Lewis and her employees
search through Treasury's
contracts seeking ways to
unbundle them and set
aside sections or whole contracts
for small businesses.
Because of her role as a
Lewis said she's known as a
troublemaker at Treasury. "I
wear my moniker proudly."
"The OSDBUs are a very
vocal group. I mean, they're
very vocal," said Robert
Burton, former deputy
administrator of the Office
of Federal Procurement
Policy. But that's necessary if they are to
fulfill their role as small-business advocates,
OSBDU directors say they are trying
to break agencies' age-old ways of
thinking so acquisition officials will
consider small businesses at the earliest
stages of planning. And they are
employing various methods to call contracting
officers' and program managers'
attention to small businesses ?
everything from handing out awards for
meeting small-business goals to changing
However, program managers can
present one of the toughest hurdles to
broadening small-business access to
contracting opportunities, Lewis said.
Program managers can be accustomed
to working a certain way and have established
relationships with contractors
that have supported their programs.
They question why they should give up
that relationship to contract with a small
business. The OSBDU directors try to
convince them it's worth it, she said.
The Energy Department "is like the
biggest ship in the whole ocean," said
Theresa Alvillar-Speake, the department's
OSBDU director. "Turning that
ship around is a big challenge."
That's when carrying the
regulations with you can
help, Lewis said.
Contracting officers understand
contracts, and they are
aware of small-business
contracting goals. Program
managers might not be as
"They don't live it and
breathe it every day, so they
don't understand the intricacies,"
Lewis said she has seen
resistance even when opportunities
open and market
research shows there are
small businesses that can do
the work. OSBDUs will push and, if
need be, advise the resisters of the
In addition to goals for companies
owned by service-disabled veterans,
there also are regulations for
Historically Underutilized Business
Zone, 8(a) and other categories of small
businesses. Using the regulations can
help small businesses get a second look
from contracting officers and program
managers, experts said.
The small-business community has to
work alongside the agency OSBDUs to
increase their opportunities, Guy
Timberlake, chief executive officer of the
American Small Business Coalition,
wrote in an e-mail. "The fragmented
small-business community needs to collectively
demonstrate" why agencies
should hire them.
Lewis said small businesses with
expertise and white papers on how to
solve an agency's problem will be taken
seriously and get a second meeting. But
those that are unprepared are "a stick
in the eye to the government and
industry small-business advocates,"
Timberlake said. Thus, agencies will be
resistant to and have little confidence
in small businesses.
Lewis and other OSBDU directors say
small businesses need experience, and
mentor/protégé programs offer the companies
a chance to "do the work and
crawl through the weeds of the issue."
The programs also help big companies
and small firms team up on set-aside
contracts. Lewis encourages small businesses
to play an active part in the work. Don't let the mentor do it all while taking
a cut of the money, she advised.
Agency OSBDUs and industry organizations
also regularly host breakfast
meetings, luncheons and industry days
when small companies can have face-toface
meetings with representatives from
large corporations. "It gets a foot in the
door," Ridgely said.
One recent Friday, Diane Dempsey,
director of small-business relations at
BAE Systems Inc., had breakfast with
executives from two small businesses.
She and representatives from several
other large companies were looking for
Dempsey said she often finds good
cohorts at networking breakfasts.
"We're all partners in crime here," she
said.Matthew Weigelt (email@example.com)
is acquisition editor for Federal Computer
Matthew Weigelt is a freelance journalist who writes about acquisition and procurement.