CHICAGO (TheStreet) -- Despite what TV pundits say, big government may actually be good for small business.
Federal agencies pay billions each year for goods and services, and they're encouraged to steer some of that money toward smaller, independent businesses. But fear of paperwork and bureaucracy scares off a lot of owners.
The good news: Just about everything you need to know is online, and it's easier than ever to get your company qualified. About a quarter of all government contracts are supposed to go to small businesses, although that share hasn't been achieved. Agencies are looking to contract with companies like yours, and if your business is owned by a woman, minority or veteran, all the better.
So how do you get started? Before you can apply for contracts, your business must be enrolled in the government's database,
(CCR). Registering is relatively straightforward: You provide information on the size and revenue of your business; your tax ID number; a DUNS number from Dun & Bradstreet (which you can also apply for free online); and electronic funds transfer information so invoices can be paid electronically.
The next step is to find projects for which you're qualified. All government contracts worth $25,000 or more must be posted on the
Web site. These are jobs that require competitive bidding. Depending on their complexity, they may also involve a fair amount of paperwork. You can search by region to see what's being offered in your area.
Tracking down smaller-scale contracts takes more legwork. Government contracts worth between $3,000 and $25,000 use a more simplified purchasing process and are posted on an agency-by-agency business. Anything under $3,000 is considered a "micro-contract" and isn't subject to the same review process.
Searching through every federal agency for contracts may seem overwhelming, but remember that partnering with small businesses has become a major government priority. Just about every agency has a small-business liaison office that you can contact for advice and guidance. Some, such as the
, have even set up dedicated Web sites.
To make your search more effective, think about where your products or services make a good fit with government needs. For example, a farm cooperative might contact the
Department of Agriculture's small-business office
, while an alternative-energy startup should investigate opportunities at the
The General Services Administration, which provides office furniture, IT services, telecommunications, transportation solutions and many other services for federal agencies, has a huge range of needs, making it a good place for small businesses to target. The GSA has a network of small-business advisors who can help you navigate the bureaucracy. Visit the GSA's
Web site to find contact information for the advisor who covers your region. The site also has links to webinars on topics such as marketing to the federal government.
Another helpful local resource is the nationwide network of Procurement Technical Assistance Centers (PTACs). Staffed by counselors experienced in government contracting, these centers are funded by the Department of Defense, so most opportunities are at military bases and other defense-related locations, but they work with some civilian agencies as well.
One advantage to working with a PTAC counselor is that they know the players: They have first-hand experience working with the government employees who do the purchasing, giving you an inside advantage. In addition to individual counseling, PTACs also offer seminars and procurement histories, so you can see what kinds of contracts other area businesses have been awarded. There are more than 300 offices across the country. Visit the
Web site to find the closest one.
Although the Small Business Administration doesn't match businesses directly with government contracts, its Web site has a good overview on how to
navigate the process
. The agency's
is also the government's central subcontracting clearinghouse. Prime contractors -- the big companies with the resources and connections to land huge government contracts -- are often given specific subcontracting requirements to make sure small businesses get a cut of the deal. If you can't get a contract yourself, working with another company that has one may be the next best thing.
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Elizabeth Blackwell is a freelance writer based in Chicago. She is the author of Frommer's Chicago guidebook, and writes for the Wall Street Journal, Chicago, and other national magazines.