A few months ago I had the opportunity to sell one of our database software products to a prospect with about thirty users. My heart sank when I learned that the prospect was the Department of Justice. No, I don't have anything to hide from the DOJ. Except for that one time years ago when I wrote off those Phillies tickets against my business after they had blown a late lead. Look, they played terrible and I needed a break, OK?
The reason why my heart sank is because whenever I hear of a potential for doing business with the government I have to turn down the business. The paperwork, the certifications, the bidding, the bureaucracy...for a small business who's not familiar with the system it's almost impossible. I'm not alone. Most of my clients hate working with the government. Any government. I had to turn down this opportunity because frankly, I'd have more luck doing business with the Justice League than the Department of Justice. Other than the constant splashing from Aquaman, it's just easier.
Last week, the President announced a reorganization of certain Federal agencies and that he would elevate Karen Mills, the current chief of the Small Business Administration (SBA) to his cabinet. Unfortunately, elevating the chief of the SBA to a cabinet position has no affect on my business, or most small businesses.
I'm sure the President has good intentions. He wants to help small businesses. He has a record of supporting legislation that is small-business friendly. But this is a political move that only says to me "hey... I care about you. Please vote for me this November." I count 22 people as part of the President's current cabinet. This group includes Hillary Clinton, Leon Panetta, Tim Geithner and the heads of the Justice, Labor, Transportation and Energy departments. And that doesn't include his wife. Do you really think he's going to have a lot of time to listen to what Karen Mills has to say? Frankly, I'd prefer that the President pay more attention to the Transportation guy -- maybe my flights will arrive on time more often.
Not that the SBA doesn't do great work. They do. For the first time in memory I can actually name their chief (Karen Mills...see?) from memory. She's competent. She's a tireless cheerleader. Under her watch the organization hit an all-time record in small-business lending this past fiscal year: over $30 billion in lending supported to over 60,000 small businesses. That's good stuff, but what about the other 29,353,039 firms/establishments?
The SBA doesn't need to be in the President's cabinet to be more effective to all those millions of small businesses. It just needs to do other, more important things.
First, the SBA needs to better define its market. They have already set standards for defining what a small business is -- but only if they're looking for government work. Does my business qualify? I've never applied to get government work, so I'm not really sure.
The SBA should be more clear as to who is their customer (and who is not). How about this: "A small business is any organization (for or non-profit) with less than 200 employees which is located near an airport industrial park and is managed by someone who wishes he were doing something else anywhere else." That definition, or something close to it, would pretty much cover most of those 29,353,039 All kidding aside, I want to know if I'm an SBA customer or not so I can make use of their services.
And what would those services be? If I fall within the definition I would expect the SBA to be the government's customer service arm for small businesses. To me, that should be their main function. What do just about all small business owners have in common? Yes, we hate collecting accounts receivable. We don't like being forced to contribute to our customers' stupid charities. And we're definitely paying our computer guys way too much money to fix problems. But it's not just that. We all have, at some time or another, the distinct displeasure of having to do business with the Federal government.
And we're all under-resourced. Ever get a notice from the IRS? Or a "regulatory guidance" from the EPA? Or lose a passport? Or a letter from the immigration department about that guy working the slitting machine out back? Or have to fill in the forms required to ship a product to China? We can't afford lawyers to do this for us. We don't have people to figure out the answers. We're small business owners. We try to avoid dealing with the government. It's part of our DNA. And when we do have to deal with the government few of us know where to begin.
Which is why if I'm a certified, card-bearing "small business" as defined by the SBA, I should be able to call them and say "I've got this problem -- please deal with it for me." The SBA should be the one-stop shop I go to whenever I have to communicate with Washington. Their employees, who are representing their small business customers, should be experts at this. They should be trained to handle the problems that a small business owner has when working with the government. They should be allowed to make the calls and speak to agencies on our behalf. They should be authorized to explain to our twelve year old kids why they can't go to that rap concert in the city this Saturday night. They can get the information we need. They can help clear the paperwork and make our lives easier. Now THAT'S a service!
And not just with our government; for any government. Small businesses are told all the time about the opportunities for doing business overseas. How there are markets dying for our products. How riches await for anyone willing to sell American goods to a hungry foreign market. Really? Ever try this? The guys that have figured out how to profit in China, India and Australia (yes Australia, you think it's easy understanding those guys after all those beers they drink at lunch?) are themselves pioneers. They make their own contacts. They figure out the rules independently. They get some, but usually little, help from the government.
And yet the U.S. government can provide a lot of help for those of us looking to do work overseas. So can many states. But figuring out their resources needs, well, resources. Who do I call? What do I need to do I want the SBA to be my resource for this. I don't want advice from them. I want them to do some of the work. Again, if I'm defined as a small business then by definition I don't have the resources to do this myself. I need help -- a person to help fill out the forms, make introductions, move the paperwork along both internally and with other governments.
This is all nice, but how can the SBA pay for these services in these times of limited cutbacks? Here's my advice: stop with the advice!
When you visit their website you'll see all sorts of links to articles, seminars, programs and partners who can help us run our businesses. No offense, but I don't know many business owners who pay much attention to the advice of a 50 year old lifetime government employee on how to run his business. The SBA shouldn't be in the business of telling us how to run our business. There are plenty of experts, teachers, coaches, consultants, brothers-in-law, next door neighbors, uncles from Minnesota and other highly qualified professionals available to provide this kind of help. The SBA should be in the business of helping us do business with the Federal government. By re-allocating its efforts to this end, I'll bet there will be plenty of resources available to provide this much needed service.
The SBA has done an amazing job helping small businesses get financing. This is mostly through the guarantee of bank loans. But they can do more. I don't want to go to FedBizOpps and be forced to enter GSA-hell (that's the General Services Administration certification you need to do business with the Federal government). I need an advocate who will streamline this for me.
As a qualified "small business" in the eyes of the SBA, I should be directed to them first when I want any money from the U.S. government. That's not just loan guarantees. That's grants and government contracts too. One of my perks for putting up with all the headaches of running a small company is that the SBA will help me -- no guide me like a blind man -- through the process of getting a government contract or grant. Again, I'm not looking for advice. I'm looking for feet on the ground assistance in talking to agencies, filling out forms, working the system.
I heard that Karen Mills' time in the President's cabinet may be limited. If his proposed re-organization gets approved then she'll be replaced by someone else representing whatever is going to come out of the re-organization. It's kind of a bummer for her I'm sure, because if you're going to take a meeting you might as well take it in the White House, am I right? Maybe a few less cabinet meetings will give her time to ponder the future of the SBA. Because there's so much more to do.
Another version of this post appears on The Philly Post.