Government contracting can give small businesses access to a portion of the $500 billion dollars the government spends each year on goods and services, but for most small business owners, finding a way into this market is challenging. Networking is one critical tool to gain entry because it can put you in front of important government agency representatives and other key contacts.
In preparing for OPEN’s next Victory in Procurement event—Grow Your Business Through Government Contracting on June 16 in Miami—I’ve been thinking a lot about how important networking really is. Our Miami event, for example, will offer working sessions on important topics including researching contracting opportunities, the GSA Schedule, certifications, and “teaming” (or partnering), but a significant portion of the event is focused on networking. For instance, we’ll be offering matchmaking sessions with buyers and sellers, as well as forums where attendees can meet fellow business owners and industry experts. (You can learn more about the event here.) But effective networking requires a strategy.
So for advice on how small business owners interested in pursuing government contracting can make the most of networking events, I recently turned to Mike Zizza— Strategic Accounts, Federal Services Division, at Hypower Inc—who leads federal business development for all of Hypower’s divisions.
There are many organizations—including government agencies and trade associations—that hold events for prospective contractors, but events can range from very specialized to quite general, and only some will be relevant for small businesses. Before attending any event, be sure and do your homework.
1. Research the event sponsors, speakers and fees
“I look for name brands and recognizable sponsors when I choose an event,” says Mike. “I also check out the topics covered as well as the speakers and their bios. It’s good to see specialized speakers who are currently active in government contracting. Speakers who have been out of the game for too long won’t necessarily provide good information.” While some very worthwhile events can be expensive, Mike also points out that “a high attendance fee can be a red flag,” so he recommends that you investigate before you commit.
2. Set goals for the event
Whatever event you attend, go prepared. “Keep your company’s goals in mind, and have a clear picture of who your customers are,” Mike recommends. “You also want to keep an eye out for businesses you could potentially team with to get business.” And like any networking event, it’s critical to be prepared with marketing material, business cards and a short “elevator speech” that will tell others who you are and what you offer. Mike also suggests having a goal for how many people you want to meet to keep you focused.
3. Don’t overlook other small businesses as the real experts
In a crowd, it can often be tough to know who to talk to. “One way to identify the best contacts is to note who’s asking good questions during sessions. And talk with speakers if you have the chance,” Mike advises. If you don’t have the opportunity to talk with a speaker in person, follow up by e-mail or phone later.
4. Jump into the exposition hall
While some business owners may be tempted to pass up the exposition hall, that’s often a mistake. “Don’t be afraid to get to know people and see what’s being offered in the exposition hall—sometimes that’s where the best leads come from,” Mike observes.
5. Learn while meeting
Even if you’re new to government contracting, one networking opportunity you shouldn’t pass up is a matchmaking session. “Schedule as many sessions as you can because people are often surprisingly forthcoming and you can learn a lot. I have conversations with competitors and potential teaming partners all the time. Just soak up as much information as you can,” Mike advises.
Whatever your level of expertise in government contracting, honing your networking skills will help move you one step closer to the next great lead. If you’re interested in the chance to develop new contacts with teaming partners and government officials, I hope you’ll put your networking skills to the test and join us in Miami.