Nancy Goshow is the founder and managing partner of Goshow Architects, one of the largest female-owned architectural firms in New York City. The firm’s recent projects include school and university buildings, courthouses, commercial buildings and houses in the New York metropolitan area. Goshow also serves on the executive advisory board of Women Impacting Public Policy (WIPP), a partner in the American Express OPEN Government Contracting: Victory in Procurement (VIP) for Small Business program. We recently spoke with her about the role of government contracts and the importance of 8(a) certification in her firm.
How important is government work to your business?
It’s important to us because the government is one marketplace where the top potential buyers of our services have an incentive to give us an opportunity to compete. Because the opportunities have been there, the public sector has really built my business.
Goshow Architects is certified as an 8(a) company by the U.S. Small Business Administration (SBA). How does the 8(a) program work?
The federal government makes competitive “set-aside” solicitations for a portion of all the goods and services it buys. In contrast to wide-open solicitations—where anyone can bid—the set-aside solicitations are aimed at firms meeting certain criteria. In order to bid on these contracts, firms first have to be certified.
The 8(a) certification is for small firms that are socially and economically disadvantaged. To qualify, a firm can’t exceed a certain size limit, which varies by industry, and has to be able to show that it is socially disadvantaged, meaning minority-owned or disadvantaged in some other way—in my case, my challenge was working as a woman in a predominately male industry. It also has to meet certain economic criteria.
What difference has 8(a) certification made in your ability to get federal government contracts?
We had spent a long time trying to break into federal government work, but it’s very difficult when you’re a small regional firm like mine competing against huge national firms.
Once we were 8(a) certified, we began competing against a smaller pool of competitors, which gave us the opportunity to actually be considered. Without 8(a), that probably wouldn’t have happened.
Given how 8(a) certification has helped your firm, would you recommend it for any small business seeking work from the federal government?
Firms shouldn’t get the certification just to have it. They first need to do the research to understand the opportunity. Does the federal government buy what they sell? If so, how does it procure that product or service?
I believe that this research should be part of a firm’s overall strategic assessment that looks at their strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats. If the assessment finds that government contracts represent a real opportunity and they qualify for certification, then it’s worth pursuing.
Once a firm decides to go after 8(a) certification, what should it know about the process?
First, that it’s a lot of work. The SBA requires a huge quantity of documentation on every aspect of the business and its owners. They want to see everything, so you need to make sure that your financial house is in order and that your business is being run very cleanly.
You also have to stay on top of the process. Once you submit all your paperwork, the SBA comes back to you with questions and gives you a specific number of days to respond. If you’re not on the ball, you may end up having to start the process all over again.
There are a number of firms that provide assistance in the 8(a) certification process. Would you recommend working with one?
I did most of the process myself and then hired someone to review what I’d done and to identify some of the things that needed to be tightened up. I was glad that I had the outside assistance, but I don’t think it’s necessary to hire someone to manage the entire process. An outside person will need you to assemble all the documentation anyway, so a better route can be to assemble the paperwork yourself and then have someone review it.
Where else can firms go for help?
The SBA website has very comprehensive information on the 8(a) program and how to apply for certification. There is also extensive training available through the Give Me 5 program from Women Impacting Public Policy (WIPP) and American Express OPEN.