How to Present Your Case for a Certificate of Competency

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In a recent post, I explained how government agencies use the Small Business Administration (SBA) Certificate of Competency program to mitigate their risk in working with a small business.

As a follow up, TAPE CEO and President Louisa Jaffe will expand on what small business owners need to emphasize when seeking a certificate of competency.

Ultimately, to present a case to the SBA you need to demonstrate financial viability, understanding of the proposed work and the ability to do it, and documentable, repeatable management processes.

To begin, prepare a binder where you will have copies of everything neatly organized. This binder must be able to speak for itself as to your competency.

There will be a standard list of things the SBA wants to see, such as your articles of incorporation, your operations plan, and your financials, but since a certificate is ordered for a particular project or award, you must also be prepared to be specific about why you can do that particular piece of work.

You must be able to present yourself, preferably in person, to the SBA, even if you have to travel to another city to do that. Be prepared to explain exactly why you can do the job that is required, and to back up that explanation with the documentation in your binder.

For your financial viability, that means evidence of a line of credit, whether it is a letter of credit from your financial institution or from another lender. You have got to show them not only that you are prepared to take on the work of this contract, but also to pay people – that you can financially handle this project.

Your personal interaction and communication skills are also very important. You want to present yourself very well, be dressed appropriately for business, and be able to tell your story. Practice talking about how you started your company, about your company values and business culture, and your plans for how you will take care of employees (such as benefits, and job descriptions with metrics that are written for success, not failure). The SBA puts great importance on best practices concerning employees.

Something that small businesses often overlook is the importance of detailing your executive structure and management practices. Even if your company is still very small and you do not have much structure, you need to demonstrate that you will know what to do with structure as your company grows, and how to manage a small business structure for success.

For example, you will want to discuss that you have a CFO – chief financial officer – in place, and a plan for handling the financial operations of the business. (There are reputable accounting firms who will serve as your CFO on a contract basis so the CFO does not have to be an employee of your company.)

Similarly, the certificate applicant will be required to demonstrate that there is someone to handle operations (running the project[s]), and someone to handle business development (acquiring new work).

Even if there are only one or two people collectively holding all of those positions right now, the SBA wants to see that you have provided for those key responsibilities, and that the business owner understands these three separate functions (financial, operations, development) with a plan for managing them.

As well, you need a specific plan that outlines your management practices for your own employee and for sub-contractors. You must be able to demonstrate to the SBA that you will be able to manage both large and small subcontractors with repeatable and documentable processes.

What the SBA does not want to see is a small business just appearing as a front for a large business. You must explain how you are your own business entity, how you will keep track of what is going on, and how you will handle accountability.

Depending on the size of project, this may include communication practices between the project manager and other leads, particularly if those leads are in another company (a subcontractor). You need to demonstrate how you will stay on top of what is going on in the project at all times, even if some or all of the work is happening in a different city from your own business.

Even if you are not ready to go through a formal quality management program certification such as the ISO 9001, you can create your own transparent plan that serves as an umbrella of all of your management systems; management systems are repeatable and documentable processes – key systems that keep you accountable for every aspect of your business.

If you have accountability and transparency, you will be golden. That way you can sit in front of the SBA and say here is our plan, here is how we will implement these processes, here is how we will document how well we do on these processes, and here is how we will upgrade these processes as we go, if we find we need to do something differently.

The SBA is not looking for someone who is perfect and never makes mistakes, but for someone who is agile enough to see when something needs to change, change it, and document that change.

With all of these documents and artifacts in hand, collected in a professional binder with your logo on the front, you will go in looking very organized and well put together, and you should have no problem getting your certificate.

By the way, when the time comes, this identical type binder of information will go a long way towards qualifying your company for a bank credit line. But that is a topic for another day.


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