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TAPE recently attended the annual National Veteran Small Business Conference in Detroit, Michigan. With the expressed goal of helping Veteran-owned businesses maximize opportunities in the federal marketplace, conference organizers definitely made good on that promise.

Traditionally, these kinds of conferences are great for getting you in the door of the industry and getting some tips, but you end up just meeting a whole lot of other folks like you – other small businesses, but no customers.

What the Veterans Administration does differently – and incredibly well – with this conference is that they bring together:

  • Entrepreneurs who serve the federal market
  • Industry experts who can help you through the process
  • Top decision makers from government agencies – actual customers!

Aside from giving keynote speeches and presentations, these procurement decision makers (PDMs) also attended meals and mingled with conference delegates at the regular tables, where VA staff helped facilitate introductions and conversations.

There were also recruitment sessions where PDMs from the Veterans Administration as well as other agencies talked candidly about their requirements, and which ones they’d be likely to procure in the small business arena versus the open arena. We went to as many of those as we could, in order to hear from those folks we thought might have work for us.

They also had round tables; intimate gatherings of 10-12 people around a table, where select businesses were invited to participate in discussions with senior decision makers such as:

  • The Under Secretary of Health for the VA, who heads up the Veterans Health Administration, the largest function within Veterans Affairs
  • The Office of Information Technology, who have a contract budget of $3.5 billion
  • The Under Secretary of Benefits from the Veterans Benefits Administration; the people who determine and manage all benefits other than hospital benefits, including job training, and who also manage the organizations that assess the disability claims that veterans file when they leave or retire from the military. This is a really important function because that percentage of disability determines what level of pension someone gets.

At TAPE, LLC we were invited to several of these sessions. Do you know what I found really appalling? At each one, there were empty chairs around the table. That means that one or more of the invited businesses did not attend. They lost out on a golden opportunity to get their name known and make important contacts. In fact, in one of these sessions, we witnessed the decision maker from one of these big agencies instruct someone in his entourage to set up a meeting with one of the invited businesses, which could very well lead to getting a sole source contract. And so the dance begins!

In a future post, we’ll talk about getting the most value out of the conferences you attend. You can find customers this way, as long as you choose the events that will get you in front of the right people – the customers you can best help, and who have the money to hire you.

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