Posted on Oct 01, 2003

A Match Made in Small-Biz Heaven

Buyers looking to meet suppliers, and no time wasted on small talk: Too good to be true? Not at the SBA’s Business Matchmaking conferences 

Buyers looking to meet suppliers, and no time wasted on small talk: Too good to be true? Not at the SBA’s Business Matchmaking conferences

Mary Hamill knows what it takes to create and run a small business. She has been doing it since 1996, when she launched Global-5, a public relations and marketing outfit based in Orlando, Fla. A year ago, she was intrigued when she heard about Business Matchmaking, a program designed by the U.S. Small Business Administration (SBA) and the Hewlett-Packard (HPQ ) to help small-business owners secure government and corporate contracts. The program had its official launch almost in her own backyard, with its first event — think of them as a business version of “speed-dating” — in Orlando.

She drove across town and registered for the program. Just months later, Global-5 secured a $3 million contract with the U.S. Navy. A year later, it also inked a $2.5 million contract with Florida’s Transportation Dept. as a result of a Business Matchmaking event.

EVENING THE ODDS. Hamill has since doubled her staff to 18 employees to handle the extra work. “Those folks are very committed to the success of small business.” Hamill says of the Matchmaking staff at the SBA’s Jacksonville office, who send her e-mails and updates on new events several times a week. “It’s very impressive. They deeply care about small-business concerns and go out of their way to help business owners everyday.”

HP and the SBA came up with the program to establish a one-stop opportunity for entrepreneurs, most of whom don’t know how to tap into the huge market for government and corporate business, thus missing out on the roughly $55 billion in government contracts that the law demands must go to small businesses each year. Traditionally, approximately 80% of federal government contracts are awarded to businesses headquartered within 50 miles of Washington, D.C.

By matching small companies around the U.S. with federal, state, and local government agencies (as well as large corporations) looking to fill actual contract opportunities for products and services, the program hopes to even the playing field.

READY TO BUY. Launched in March, 2003, the goal of involving small business in fields beyond their normal scope is an old one, and the results of previous initiatives have been mixed. This time, the SBA realized technology was needed to make the latest efforts more successful. Thus the partnership with HP, which has so far resulted in six “matchmaking” events involving 4,375 small-business owners, 110 major corporations, and nearly 150 government agencies. While no exact figure has been released, the government estimates that “millions” in new contracts have been awarded as a result.

Some of that money went to Best Products in Arlington, Tex. Donnie McDaniel, the industrial-supply outfit’s vice-president, secured a $2.5 million contract at the first matchmaking event he attended, in Washington, D.C., last fall. Like a half-dozen other Business Matchmaking events held throughout the country, the event featured 15-minute, one-on-one appointments with government and corporate officials who arrived with bona fide procurement needs. More than just an exchange of business cards, as is the protocol at traditional trade shows, the matchmaking events emphasize meet-and-greet sessions centered around specific and pending procurement opportunities.

The Washington event had one uninvited guest: Hurricane Isabel, which disrupted the travel plans of some attendees. It didn’t rain on McDaniel’s hopes, however, as he still managed to secure meetings with several buyers. One was with BAE Systems (BAESY ), a large international defense contractor. From that meeting, McDaniel and Best Products walked away with a contract that will generate 250 purchases orders per week — and $2.5 million in annual revenue. As a direct result of the D.C. event and another he attended in Houston, McDaniel estimates his revenue has risen by between $50,000 to $100,000 monthly.

CUSTOMIZING CUSTOMERS. “We try to go to every single one of these meetings, anywhere in the country. We’ve attended four of them, and at every one we’ve been to, we’ve been awarded a contract,” McDaniel says, who adds: “I’m a poster boy for the matchmaking program!”

Of course, taking on a huge chunk of new business means investment in infrastructure and technology at a small company. But McDaniel isn’t complaining. “It’s a catch-22 for small business, because you can’t bid on larger contracts if you don’t have the technology in place to handle them, but most small businesses are reluctant to invest without having a contract in hand. Once you make that initial investment, however, you have everything in place that you need to take on additional contracts.”

The two-day matchmaking events include free, half-day preparatory workshops and interactive training sessions that focus on identifying procurement buyers, writing and submitting successful proposals, marketing and sales, and securing access to capital.

Once the cramming is done, the meetings begin. After the event, the small businesses that attend get electronic access to the Small Business Networking Center, which includes a user group and a procurement target list customized for each company. The target list includes contact information for public- and private-sector buyers who have confirmed that they’re interested in offerings that match those of the small business involved. For companies that have already attended one event, workshop attendance and registration fees are waived at future events.

Business Matchmaking events are scheduled to be held in Detroit in June, Philadelphia in July and August, and Austin and Los Angeles in September. For more information on the program or to register for a coming event, go to the Business Matchmaking Web site.