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The value of getting your agency certified as a small, minority, woman, or veteran-owned business (featuring Dr. Sandra Wills Hannon)

How to open the door to new business opportunities set aside for specific types of firms.
Dr. Sandra Wills Hannon

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Most agencies are looking for any leg up that they can get in the business development process. That’s why some agencies should consider getting certified. No this isn’t a discussion about a seal of approval for the quality of your work, it is about certifying the ownership structure of your business in a category that some organizations prefer.

Dr. Sandra Wills Hannon of The Hannon Group discusses how getting certified has helped her agency win more business, both from government agencies and the private sector. She describes some of the available programs and what it takes to win the certification.

In this episode, Hannon explains that it does take a lot of time and effort to receive the certifications, but she believes that the ROI has clearly been there for her business. She also explores how consultants can help speed up the process, albeit at a cost.

Finally, Dr. Hannon points out that there are certification programs available for just about every type of agency, so you don’t need to feel left out if you are not running a woman, minority, or veteran-owned business.



CHIP: Hello and welcome to another episode of the Chats with Chip podcast. My guest today is Dr. Sandra Wills Hannon, the founder of the Hannon Group. Welcome to the show, Sandra.

SANDRA: Thank you Chip. It’s a pleasure to be speaking with you today.

CHIP: It is great to have you on and before we jump into our conversation, can you tell us a little bit about yourself and The Hannon Group?

SANDRA: Sure. The Hannon Group is one of the few public relations and market research firms based out of the Washington Metro DC area, and we are known by our clients for working with them to establish research-based, evidence-based public information campaigns that work to make an impact on behavior or knowledge of some kind.

SANDRA: Over the last 19 years, we have worked with agencies such as The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Department of Energy to develop public information campaigns to encourage people to do everything from working more safely at work, to getting their flu shot, to living healthier lifestyles.

SANDRA: We have a great team of different specialists, like most PR firms. In our firm in particular though we have specialists in behavior change, as well as advertising, PR, speech writers, photographers, special events planners, strategic planners, et cetera. We’re also known for our specialty in reaching out to highly defined audiences, and over the years we’ve helped our clients reach different multicultural groups, older individuals, younger individuals, LGBTQ, and that sort of thing. And so we really thrive on developing public information campaigns that make a difference and have an impact for our clients and help our clients achieve their different goals.

SANDRA: On a personal level, I’ve been at this for 30 plus years in the industry, started out really young with an undergraduate degree in public relations, and I then held different positions at different corporate [inaudible 00:02:52] offices and PR offices such as Alcan Aluminum and Bell Canada and Concordia University. And then went on to get my graduate degree in communications. And I also taught for a little bit and headed a advertising and PR department at Howard University. From there that’s where my love of consulting began because I started to do a lot of different consulting work as calls came in, and in 2002 that’s when we opened the door to The Hannon Group.

CHIP: Excellent. Well that’s I think a very helpful background as we move into the topic for today. In the past it’s been said that I may be certifiable, but what we’re actually talking about today is how agencies can be certified, probably in a different way than I’ve been accused of being certifiable. And so understanding what the benefits are to being certified, what is it, and so this is an area that I know that you’re quite familiar with and has helped your business. So perhaps explain what being certified means.

SANDRA: Certainly. There are different state and federal agencies that provide what they call certifications. And these certifications can be in different formats. So the certifications can recognize a business, whether it’s small, medium or large, as being certified in a specific industry or area.

SANDRA: And so for example, The Hannon Group has several certifications. We’re certified, number one, as a woman-owned business by WBENC, the Women Business Enterprise National Council, which is the largest third-party certifier of women-owned businesses. We’re also certified by the State of Maryland as a minority business enterprise, and we just graduated out of a program from the Small Business Administration called the 8(a) Program, which is a program that certifies minority-owned businesses. So those are the types of different certifications you can get. You can also become certified, for example, as a veteran-owned business.

SANDRA: So why are these certifications of interest, why are they helpful? Well, these certifications give a flag to different procurement officers from private industry or from government who are searching specifically for a veteran-owned company or specifically for a woman-owned company or a minority-owned company. And there have been over, I’d say the last 20 to 30 years, an effort in different governments, whether it’s federal or state, to kind of level the playing field, such that smaller businesses or women-owned businesses have access to providing great consulting services to different federal agencies. And the way they’ve done that [inaudible 00:06:01] providing these certifications. So in the past there may have been a request for proposal from the different agencies, which is kind of an invitation for businesses to bid and put their hat in the ring, to provide services to different agencies.

SANDRA: Well now these certifications enable contracting officers to streamline that search for support they may need by dedicating some contracts to be specifically for certain certified companies. So you may have an RFP, a request for proposal that’s out there specifically for say small business. And so that gives small businesses an opportunity to throw their hat in the ring, to go after some contract work with specific agency. Whereas in the past if the contracting officer didn’t set this work aside as specifically small business, then you would have large businesses competing with small businesses for the same piece of work. And in the past, quite often the large business would win because their capabilities were astronomical in comparison with the small business, but in fact, outside of the paperwork, the small business was just as capable of doing the work.

CHIP: So these certifications really open the door then to greater opportunity if you’re able to meet the qualifications of the various certification programs.

SANDRA: That is exactly it.

CHIP: And now I know a lot of folks are … They’ve heard about some of these programs, they perhaps know they exist, but I know that there are many agency owners out there who say to themselves, it’s a lot of paperwork, there are a lot of hoops I have to jump through in order to get certified. Can you talk a little bit about what the process is like, how easy or difficult is it, and what should an owner expect as they’re thinking about applying for one of these certifications?

SANDRA: Yes, the process can be quite extensive and quite demanding. So I won’t sugar coat it any other way. In our case, for example, to get 8(a) certified, it took approximately 18 months of backend, of filling out paperwork, of going back and forth, and responding to requests for additional information, and proof of our rates, and proof of our clients, et cetera. So it-

CHIP: And did you do all the work yourself or did you … I know there are consultants out there who help people too, and I don’t know if you have experience with them.

SANDRA: Absolutely. And I would advocate that if somebody was patient and just accepted and embrace the fact that this is going to be several months out, and a process that you just have to pay attention to and just follow, they can do it themselves. And there are a lot of other companies out there who will charge $10,000 or so, or $5,000 to complete the paperwork. And if you have that kind of resources, I suppose it would be great to accelerate the process because they’re highly experienced and that’s all they do. So they’re highly experienced and they can complete the paperwork more accurately, and probably have less requests for follow-up information. So that is advisable if you’re of interest to accelerate, but if you are not wanting to spend several thousands and thousands of dollars in the process, it can be done on your own.

CHIP: Yeah. So you shouldn’t be afraid of the process, but you should understand it’s going to take some time, it’s not an overnight success kind of approach.

SANDRA: Right. And it’s not a process that your average layperson can’t understand. And I think, on a personal note, it took me several years before I was ready to apply for the 8(a) certification because I was quite intimidated by the paperwork, and intimidated by the whole process, but actually when I started to do it, it was really not that bad. So I really encourage people, if they’re interested in becoming women-owned or 8(a) certified or veteran-owned certified or small business certified, I encourage you because while on the one hand there’s a ton of governmenteze language, it’s not something that a business owner would not be able to understand.

CHIP: Since you’ve got at least three of these certifications right now, how do they compare in complexity? Was 8(a), because it’s a federal program, more difficult, less difficult perhaps than the others, or are they all, they’re just different and have their own requirements?

SANDRA: I think 8(a) was the most stringent, most complex, and the certification that took us the longest to get. However, having said that, it has been the most rewarding, and has had the most impact on our business and jettisoned us to a much more mature company. Prior to that, we were basically a small business with a lot of consultants, but now we’re a business with employees, with a 401K plan, and benefits, and a nice business space. So it really has made a difference.

SANDRA: But having said that, none of these certifications are anything that can be done in a month or something like that. Because they want to make sure, the certifying body wants to make sure that the company is legitimate, does what it says it can do, and legitimately has the clients, has the expertise, has the financial wherewithal to actually conduct business. Because what this certification does is it kind of gives you a, for lack of a better word, it gives you … You’re blessed, and so you’ve already gone through the ringer, so then other federal agencies don’t have to go through an extensive review of your capabilities and your background because that’s already been done. So it’s kind of a situation where you go slow to go fast.

CHIP: Right. It sounds like it’d be fair to say it’s a pretty invasive process as far as the information they’re requesting.

SANDRA: Oh absolutely. Invasive in terms of, you have to be prepared to reveal all your financials, at least going back three years, you have to be prepared to show your contracts, to provide evidence that the hourly rates that you say you bill, you actually have billed. You have to be prepared to show your net income going back three years, your tax returns, the whole nine yards. And again, it goes back to what I was saying earlier, it’s part of the vetting process so that once you’ve passed this, to use your word, invasive process and you’ve come out on the other side, then you have the green light and you’re good to participate and compete with fellow certified firms, and the government doesn’t have to go into all that every single time you’re bidding on something.

CHIP: Right. Now do any of these certifications help you outside of the government sphere, or are they really designed for helping you just with government contracts?

SANDRA: The newest one that we have is WBENC and that’s, as I mentioned before, the Women Business Enterprise National Council, and we are certified by them as a woman-owned business. And they deal a lot with private sector. So we’re very excited because that certification will help us, has helped us get an entree into more private sector work. So that is very exciting for us.

CHIP: And a lot of these larger private companies are frequently looking to expand their contracting to various segments, whether it’s women or minority or small businesses, or those kind of [crosstalk 00:14:51].

SANDRA: Absolutely. They are looking to diversify their roster of vendors and contractors. They’re looking to be more inclusive. But similarly as in the situation with government agencies, the private sectors also though want to deal with certified companies, for the same reason, they’ve already been vetted. So it’s already a known fact that these companies are fully established, have good operations, solid operations, solid financials, such that that’s one whole element that these private sector businesses don’t have to worry about. They just have to put out an RFP to say here’s the PR or market research work that we want, please provide a proposal and then you’re competing just on that level.

CHIP: Now are you seeing a lot of other agencies who are getting certified as well? I mean, what does the competitive space look like when it comes to being a certified agency?

SANDRA: I think I’m seeing a lot more agencies going for certifications. And there’s another one that we haven’t discussed yet and it’s called the GSA schedule, General Services Administration Schedule. And that is similar to a certification in that you have to go through a rigorous process to get on the schedule, and that can be really time consuming as well. But I’m seeing a lot of larger businesses getting on the GSA schedule as well as small businesses.

SANDRA: So yes. And again that’s an effort to diversify the different revenue streams for different businesses. So, it’s great to have a lot of government work, but it’s been my experience that, have other types of work, like private sector work creates more of a balance on your revenue stream. And I think the same is recognized in larger businesses and larger PR firms or market research firms that people want both government and private sector work for different reasons.

CHIP: Right. Now, you mentioned that the GSA schedule, and obviously one of the benefits there is you don’t necessarily have to fall into one of the specific buckets that most of the other certifications require. I mean obviously you cannot be a veteran-owned business unless you are a veteran, for example. So there really is a certification program for every agency if they want to pursue it.

SANDRA: Absolutely. And I highly recommend it, because once you’re on that schedule then you can get yourself registered to get different alerts for different types of requests for work, or requests for proposal. So where the Hannon Group is, for example, getting alerts on work in communications and advertising and marketing, market research, that sort of thing. And then every day I get an email or two about different opportunities about work that’s being bid through the GSA schedule. And what’s nice about this, Chip, is that it’s not just one agency, it’s all agencies. So it’s a highly efficient way of monitoring what’s out there. Then as you see the opportunities that come to you, you and your team review them and figure out which one you want to pursue. And I’m very happy to say that within two months of getting on the GSA schedule, the Hannon Group was awarded a contract with CDC.

SANDRA: So it’s really a great way to streamline on both sides because once you’re on the GSA schedule, depending on the amount of the contract monetary value, contract procurement officers sometimes just have to get three bids, that’s all. You’re just competing against two other companies. I mean that is really streamlining things [inaudible 00:19:14] you’re competing about 10 or 15 or 20 other companies bidding on the same piece of work. So that’s one advantage.

SANDRA: The other advantage is, because it’s just three other companies, the whole process for reviewing the proposals and then finally getting an award is much quicker. And when people [inaudible 00:19:36], so that’s the other great advantage. So I highly recommend, if anyone’s thinking of pursuing government work, I highly recommend the GSA schedule.

SANDRA: I must say that is the one certification that we did bring in an expert to help us with the financial component of that proposal because the hourly rates, et cetera, and the costing for the different services that one offers has to be very accounting based. I’ll put it that way. So you just can’t pull an hourly rate out of the air, it has to be based on your expenses and your profits. So it takes a certain level of accounting sophistication that we didn’t have in house. And in that instance, for that portion, we did get some outside help to help us finalize that portion of the proposal.

CHIP: Yeah. Now once you have the certification, what does it take as far as maintenance? Do you have to provide information every year in order to maintain your status or how does that work?

SANDRA: Well, the maintenance is different for different certifications. So for example, the GSA has a stipulation that once you’re on the schedule you have to get a GSA contract within the first two years, otherwise, if you don’t, then you will no longer be on the schedule. With 8(a) for example, there are a lot of reportings, there’s quarterly reportings, and then there’s annual reportings. And the quarterly reportings they want to see your financials every quarter and then annually they want to see how much 8(a) work you got and how much non-8(a) work you received, and they want to know the financials, and et cetera. So it’s a little bit more arduous. For WBENC every year, who certifies as a woman-owned business, they require an annual report as well.

CHIP: Well, we’re coming near the end of our time together. Is there any other advice that you would give to folks as they consider the possibility of getting their own agency business certified?

SANDRA: Yes, I would strongly encourage people to look into it because really, for us anyway, the pay off was well worth the months of continually going through the process. It was well worth it. And as I said, it took us from being a sole proprietorship into a small consulting practice, to a now small business, and it accelerated our growth as a business and now we have, because of all the guidelines that we have to follow, we now have a really stronger financial system, management system, we offer all kinds of different HR benefits, and 401K, and we have learned so much about talent acquisition, and so it really does help if that is your goal, it really does help take your business to another level.

CHIP: Well great. This has been a lot of practical advice that I think agency owners will be able to apply to their own businesses. If someone’s interested in learning more about you, Sandra, or about The Hannon Group, where should they go?

SANDRA: Well, please come visit our website at thehannongroup.com. We’re also on LinkedIn, you just need to type in The Hannon Group. And we’re also on Facebook, The Hannon Group. And I encourage anybody if they want to, to also shoot me an email and my email is Shannon@thehannongroup.com, and Chip it’s been an absolute pleasure.

CHIP: It’s been great having you. Again, my guest today has been Dr. Sandra Wills Hannon, the founder of The Hannon Group.

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