(This post originally appeared on Philly.com)
This week is National Small Business Week, a period set aside to recognize the contributions that nearly 30 million small businesses in this country make to the economy. For the U.S. Small Business Administration, this week is like the Super Bowl.
That’s because the SBA – which was created more than 65 years ago – uses this time of year to increase awareness of what it can do to help support those businesses, which include 750,000 that are located in the 40 eastern counties of Pennsylvania alone.
Some of my clients are aware of the agency. Many are not. I’m not sure why. But here’s what I do know: The government spends billions of dollars every year on contracts, loans, programs and services specifically devoted to small businesses. So why not take advantage? To that end, here are ways to profit from a relationship with the SBA.
Get help winning a government contract
The federal government procurement rules have a mandated goal that 23 percent of all contracts be awarded to small businesses – those with less than 500 employees. Are you getting a piece of the pie? I don’t believe enough of us are.
For those companies looking to win government work, the best place to begin is by getting certified through the SBA. There are special programs that can help if your for-profit business is owned by a “socially or economically disadvantaged individual,” owned by a woman or minority, or is located in what the government defines as an economically depressed area. There are other accommodations for business owners starting community development corporations and small agricultural cooperatives, too. You can see whether you’re eligible by taking this test.
Once you’ve determined your eligibility, you can take advantage of the SBA’s very detailed step-by-step guide for applying for government work. Or you can join a program specifically geared for small businesses and leverage counseling and help resources that will walk you through the process.
According to Michelle Christian, administrator for the agency’s Mid-Atlantic region, which is headquartered near Philadelphia and serves Pennsylvania, West Virginia, Delaware, Maryland, Virginia, and D.C., more than $138 billion was obligated to Mid-Atlantic contracting businesses during the government’s last fiscal year, of which more than $41 billion was targeted to small businesses.
Putting together a business plan. Getting the books in order. Managing people. None of this is easy and oftentimes we look for consultants or experts to help us. But why pay for these services if we can get them for free?
The SBA has a network of resources that exist solely to help small businesses grow. For example, the agency provides funding to Small Business Development Centers in the area which offer consulting and educational programs (check out the ones at Wharton or Temple, for example).
SCORE — a national group of mostly retired business executives — can offer you a personal mentor who is likely experienced with all the challenges you have and can offer real-life advice. If you’re a veteran, a woman, or a minority, or you’re looking to get into overseas exporting, you’ll find specific groups within the agency that focus on those areas.
And don’t ignore the face-to-face help that the agency’s local employees can provide.
“There’s a perception that government entities can be inaccessible, and I have to say that the SBA’s Eastern Pennsylvania District office defies that,” said Sherwood Robbins, managing director of Seedcopa, an SBA-certified development company located in Exton. “Most of the employees have been there a long time, have an especially deep knowledge of the agency’s programs, and spend a lot of time out in the field directly communicating with the businesses who can benefit.”
If you’re a start-up, you may be also able to take advantage of the agency’s Emerging Leaders Initiative, which is sort of a Shark Tank-inspired boot camp where more than 5,000 start-up owners across the country have had their business plans assessed and coached by a board of established entrepreneurs.
According to Christian, the SBA and the U.S. Department of Agriculture recently teamed up to help small farmers around the country and in this region grow and elevate the quality of life in rural communities.
To support these efforts, the two agencies are offering educational programs to farmers that more fully explain the new benefits made available for them in the 2017 tax reform legislation, as well as relaxing the rules for funding and capital access for rural companies. The government has also expanded Historically Underutilized Business (HUB) Zones and Opportunity Zones to include many rural areas, which makes it easier for businesses that move or work in those areas to get government assistance. If you’re one of the many farmers in the area, these programs should not be ignored.
What the SBA is most known for, however, is small-business loan guarantees. There are dozens of banks in the Philadelphia area that partner with the agency so that they can offer loans guaranteed by the federal government that wouldn’t normally be available to a small company.
For example, across the 40 counties of the Eastern Pennsylvania District, the agency’s popular small-business 7(a) loan program increased its lending by 15 percent in the last fiscal year – a total of 1,568 loans for $604.1 million, with an average loan size of $385,319. And God forbid there’s ever a disaster in the area, such as Hurricane Sandy, the agency has the ability to directly lend funds to small businesses and consumers in order to help them get back on their feet.
“The biggest surprise for me was just how easy everything was,” Matt Jesson the owner of Green Lawn Fertilizing, a West Chester-based lawn care provider that received a $720,000 SBA-backed loan, told me. “I remember the approval process being very fast and there not being an abundance of paperwork to fill out.”