Jewish World Review Dec. 24, 2004 / 12 Teves 5765

Small biz gets tech hookup to fed deals

By Mark Kellner | America's small businesses - long celebrated as the chief job-creating engine in the country - received an early Christmas present last week: the Small Business Administration, and Hewlett-Packard, its private sector partner, announced a new round of "Business Matchmaking" conferences for 2005, as well as an online "virtual matchmaking" session that will pilot in Phoenix, Albuquerque, Kansas City, Tampa and Denver, before rolling out nationwide.

There might be a sense a déjà vu for Hewlett-Packard: the technology firm, as is well known, began as a small business which operated in a garage. HP is supplying funding for the program, as well as the know-how and other resources to make the live and virtual events a success.

"This is one of the most successful public-private partnerships that the SBA has been involved in and the kind of thing the government should be looking toward," SBA Administrator Hector V. Barreto said in a telephone interview last week. "We've been doing this together for about two years and it's really exceeded our expectations."

What the program does is hold open sessions where small business can come in and be "matched" with potential federal agency buyers. Meeting one-on-one, the small businesses - including those owned by disabled and other veterans, women and minority group members - can walk away with the chance to bid on federal procurements, or to team up with larger firms as subcontractors.

Mr. Barreto said that so far, the sessions have resulted in "over 23,000 one-on-one appointments between small businesses and buyers of every federal department and agency. At same time, small businesses have already logged over $26 million [n deals, with more in the pipeline. This is a real program with real results."

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The administrator, who has a background in owning and running small businesses, said the Business Matchmaking venture was designed to help firms find ways to grow. "One of the big challenges of small business is getting access to the contracts and procurement opportunities they need," Mr. Barreto said. "Anything we can do to help them get more businesses, they take care of the other problems themselves."

While mindful of its own small business roots, HP's Michael Pinkert, the firm's regional manager for small business, also admits what could be called an enlightened self-interest in helping small and medium-sized businesses, a category the tech industry has shortened to "SMB."

Mr. Pinkert said SMBs are "very important financially. Two-thirds of our revenue worldwide comes from SMBs. And, 9 out of 10 SMBs in the U.S. have an HP product. We have a very real, vested interest in seeing the SMB sector stay alive, well and healthy."

Towards that end, Mr. Barreto said, "HP really provides a lot of the key elements that make this successful. They underwrite the cost of this, bring technology assistance, bring their contracts and business relationships with large corporations. It's a comprehensive association that we have."

The matchmaking meetings run on technology - computers are used for registration, initial "matching" and of course for follow-up. Call centers and other infrastructures support both sides after the event. All that takes money and know-how, things which government are very happy to leverage.

For HP, Mr. Pinkert added, "It's the right thing to do" To help grow business and drive the economy. If we can facilitate small businesses doing business with government and larger companies, that's a positive thing."

Technology will play an essential role in the "virtual" phase of business matchmaking. The entrepreneur unable to attend a matchmaking event can log on and get these appointments either via the Internet or a phone call, Mr. Barreto said. He believes this will let more businesses in on the opportunities around.

Recalling the current numbers, he added that with the virtual program, "We could double that in one year with all of the activity. And, HP is with us every step of the way."

If this all pans out - with a key technology helper - America's small business could have even more to celebrate this time next year.

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JWR contributor Mark Kellner has reported on technology for industry newspapers and magazines since 1983, and has been the computer columnist for The Washington Times since 1991.Comment by clicking here.

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