Supporting the New Veterans

Last Thursday I attended a convention and trade show focused on Small Business Owners with Service Connected Disabilities. I would not ordinarily attend this show but one of my clients recently took over a board position with the organization and he thought it might be benecifial since he knows that I have a service connected disability.

The reason I would not have attended except for his recommendation is that my company doesn’t do any business with the government and I was sure that was going to be a primary topic. Our company has gone through all the paperwork to register as a small disadvanteged business, not as being owned by a disabled veteran but as being owned by a hispanic female. You see, when we started the business in 2001, veterans had no preferential status but hispanic females did.

Like a lot of companies starting out, we thought we might as well take advantage of as many opportunities as we possibly could. Doing work as a federal contractor seemed like a good thing. We went to a number of meetings and conferences where we heard all about how a percentage of the total budget is set aside for small businesses and the numbers were staggering. We found out that very few, if any, procurement agents look for what we do. OK, so lesson learned and move on.

My first level of frustration came when I attended my first confernce session. There was a group of like seven bureaucrats who all talked about how much of their budget was available and targeted towards small business. How they are looking to identify qualified companies where a disabled veteran is a majority owneer. Oh yeah, I should mention, majority ownership by a hispanic female doesn’t have the same cache as it did in 2001 and the Bush administration raised service disabled veterans higher on the totem pole.

I had listened to a few of these presenters over the past few years in different venues talking about the same opportunities but to different types of small busines owners. There is a true pecking order of preferences where the more you qualify for the better it is for your company when bidding for work. So, you may be a small business owned by a service disabled veteran and loose a bid to another company with an 8A set aside preference (Higher on the totem pole).

It takes quite a lot of time to uncover potential contracting opportunities and a lot of time to prepare a bid (think thousands of dollars and ten of hours of time). You can get pretty frustrated after loosing five or six bids. I would be remiss to not mention that there are a number of small businesses that make a great living from these contracts. It’s just that for every winner there are ten to twenty loosers and many companies just can’t afford burn $20-30K and three years to get established.

The other thing about the panelists is that I believe their year end performance is based on how many conferences they attend and talk at and how many people they add to their data base. Afterall, if you attend a lot of conferences, then you probably covered the gamut of small business owners covered by the entire budget. And at the end of the year, they can feel good about their accomplishment…

So, enough of the rant part of this post. Since I didn’t have to pay attention to the words, my mind was allowed to roam and, being a business consultant who likes to put things together, pieces of talks started to come together. I heard a great early morning keynote given by Colonel Michael Malone from Camp Pendelton. He talked about how different this war was from Vietnam when he first joined the military. Since he was talking at a convention of service disabled veterans, he mentioned how the number of casualities could have been significantly higher but, in many cases, the injured are taken off the battlefield and being treated in Germany is less than six hours. My experiece in Vietnam was they got you out fast but not routinely out of the country in less than a couple of days. Didn’t mean the care you recieved was less than professional, but I am sure there are a lot more specializations availalbe at the Landstuhl Regional Medical Center.

Colonel Malone mentioned that the average age of the service person in Iraq is 19. Not much different than the average age during Vietnam. He also mentioned that they have a requirement of having a High School Diploma, which was not true during Vietnam.

It occurred to me that there is a whole new group of war veterans with service connected disabilities, who are tech saavy and who need a way to help them adapt and evolve into civilain life, and, as part of that, make a living. Now, if I take the numbers being thrown around by the panelists at the first session, one could easily make a case for being able to make a living in the future off the dollars being set aside.

What needs to happen is a business process that identifies which of these returning warriors have the potential and tempermant to become entrepreneurs. We need a program to train them on the skills they need to startup and grow a business, and provide them the startup capital they require to get started. They also need a network of business mentors they can rely to help over the first couple of years with the rough patches we all encounter as we get started.

Now some of you might say wonder what I am talking about. Afterall, we have the SBA and all the programs they control: Loan Programs, Small Business Development Centers, SCORE consultants, the CCR Registration Program, various programs to certify special classes of small business owners for set aside programs, etc. It is true that these all exist, but if they are working so great, why were there a number of frustrated small business owners with service connected disabilities at the conference last week. I think one problem is the the existing programs are run and managed by bureaucrats not business people. Even if you started a business 20 years ago and went through the growing pains, you are out of touch with the problems of today.

Now, here we are in Southern California. There is a definite entrepreneurial spirit that is alive and well. There are a number of organizations that focus on helping fledging entrepreneurs as they start out along with a pool of equity investors looking for the next new thing. We also have a vast array of service providers that can share experiences in any functional area. Using the new web 2.0 speak my question is: Is there a way to do a business mashup and create an end to end process and support function that can make an enormous difference to some of these returning vets?

If we can get this up and running, we can then use the bureaucrats for what they are really good at; making the connections between these new companies and the government procurement agents who control these significant budgets.

I did not write this to imply that I have the solution, but really to start the conversation. There are a lot of people out there much smarter than I am and I just want to get the conversation started. Who else has some ideas about how we can do this?

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