“This is a sales channel,” Baker said of government contracting. “It’s the same as Twitter or Facebook or Instagram. You’re putting fact-based information about yourself out there into the world… and you might end up getting something out of it.”
Baker was one of roughly 180 Iowa businesses who spent last Aug. 23 chatting with each other and listening to local and nationally renowned experts discuss the finer points of things such as prime-subcontractor relationships or the importance of solidly researching what federal agencies need. This was the third such conference sponsored by CIRAS’ Procurement Technical Assistance Program (PTAP) as a way to educate businesses on the wealth of opportunities that are available by contracting with federal, state, and local government agencies. The fourth is scheduled for this coming Aug. 10, again at the Iowa Events Center in Des Moines.
“Every agency out there has a mission,” said keynote speaker Guy Timberlake, chief visionary officer and CEO of The America Small Business Coalition, an organization that helps companies find, qualify, and win business in the government sector. “If you can align your business to that mission, then you’ll become an asset to them. That’s code for: You’ll get business.”
Timberlake, who spoke during three different sessions and worked individually with conference attendees both before and after the Aug. 23 event, was joined by a host of national and Iowa-based experts. In addition, participants were able to network with various contracting personnel and chat with exhibitors from government agencies.
“This was a tremendous opportunity for businesses to get their questions answered and to build relationships with people who could be partners down the road,” said CIRAS government contracting assistant Jodi Essex. “We’re glad so many people could take part in it.”
In addition to Timberlake, conference participants could listen to attorney Steven Koprince, author of “The Small Business Guide to Government Contracts,” spend an hour debunking common contracting myths. [No, if your company has grown too much to be a considered a “small” business, you can’t avoid the issue simply by failing to file income taxes.] Meanwhile, CIRAS staffers in a session next door encouraged attendees who might be frightened of federal-level contracting to pursue the “low-hanging fruit” of selling to local governments.
Small towns, school boards and prisons all have budgets, too, CIRAS government contracting specialist Mary Zimmerman told the group. “Just like anyone else, those sites need someone to do the cleaning,” she said. “They need someone to do the mowing. They need someone to supply goods and services to them.”
Other sessions included a panel discussing the interplay between large and small businesses in subcontracting relationships and representatives from Rock Island Arsenal and Offutt Air Force Base discussing their roles in advocating for small businesses during the procurement process. Consultant Karla Williams then closed the day by warning attendees that looming federal requirements will put more onus on individual businesses to protect computerized federal information.
“This conference is very valuable,” said Hari K. Nallure, president of ePath USA, a technology company that’s now looking to expand on its past work for the Iowa Department of Revenue by pursuing federal contracts. “We learned a lot of stuff, and we also learned about how we can improve ourselves.”
There’s always more to learn, said Larry Eason, owner of Cedar Rapids-based Larry’s Landscaping. Eason’s company has been mowing various rest areas for the Iowa Department of Transportation since 2011. He said he attended this year’s Iowa Vendor Conference simply because he wanted the chance to network and to stay in touch with the issues of the moment in government contracting.
“You have to position yourself,” Eason said. “If you don’t come out, you won’t know what’s going on.”