Episode Show Notes
Episode 1 features Lakeview Consulting President Micki Vandeloo and San Diego, Orange, Imperial PTAC Regional Director Brett Housholder. Micki and Brett discuss the current state of manufacturing funding at the various federal, state, local, and private institution levels. In addition, they explain the qualifications for funding, how to write a proposal, and the “dos and don’ts” when submitting an application.
Micki Vandeloo is President of Lakeview Consulting, Inc. Micki helps fund the success of the manufacturing community which includes manufacturers as well as the for-profit and non-profit companies who support them. With more than 25 years of experience in the manufacturing industry, she has led her clients to success by helping them clarify project goals, plan new services and programs, and secure grant funding to support their missions. Micki’s team of grant professionals at Lakeview Consulting has collectively obtained more than $260 million in grant funding and written over 850 grant proposals.
Brett Housholder is the Regional Director at the San Diego, Orange, and Imperial Procurement Technical Assistance Center (PTAC) for Southwestern College, where he oversees a program that helps businesses in the Counties of San Diego, Orange, and Imperial learn the processes of selling their goods and services to government agencies at the federal, state, and local level. Before joining the team in San Diego in the fall of 2017, Brett spent five years as the Program Manager for a similar program with the Wyoming Small Business Development Center. In both of these positions, Brett has learned about government regulations and certifications available to minority-owned, woman-owned, and veteran-owned businesses that give those companies an advantage in competing on government contracts and has helped businesses go through the certification processes, find contracting opportunities, submit bids, and win contracts.
00:01:18 - Introductions
00:03:29 - Definition of a grant and how it differs from public and private funding sources
00:05:00 - Different kinds of funding awards available from the government apart from grants
00:06:50 - How grants and contracts are paid
00:11:16 - Current state of manufacturing funding at the various federal, state, local, and private institution levels
00:16:28 - What aspects of a manufacturing company a grant can support
00:19:39 - Funding opportunities that may exist specifically for manufacturers
00:20:27 - Sources of funding outside of that earmarked for manufacturing that SMMs might access
00:22:10 - How a manufacturer qualifies for funding of contracts
00:23:41 - Discussion of qualifying for grant funding
00:28:07 - How to determine which funding is applicable to your company
00:30:52 - How to learn about contracts with open opportunities for manufacturing
00:33:01 - How to write a proposal for a grant or contract application
00:34:19 - Follow instructions exactly when submitting applications
00:42:28 - What reviewers look for when they evaluate applications
00:45:26 - Qualifications of reviewers
00:48:45 - Summary of dos and don’ts when submitting applications
Gregg Profozich [00:00:02] In the world of manufacturing, change is the only constant. How are small and medium-sized manufacturers, SMMs, to keep up with new technologies, regulations, and other important shifts, let alone leverage them to become leaders in their industries? Shifting Gears, a podcast from CMTC, highlights leaders from the modern world of manufacturing, from SMMs to consultants to industry experts. Each quarter we go deep into topics pertinent to both operating a manufacturing firm and the industry as a whole. Join us to hear about manufacturing sectors’ latest trends, groundbreaking technologies, and expert insights to help SMMs in California set themselves apart in this exciting modern world of innovation and change. I’m Gregg Profozich, Director of Advanced Manufacturing Technologies at CMTC. I’d like to welcome you.
In this episode, I'm joined by Lakeview Consulting President Micki Vandeloo and San Diego, Orange, Imperial PTAC Regional Director Brett Housholder. Micki and Brett discuss the current state of manufacturing funding at the various federal, state, local, and private institution levels. In addition, they explain the qualifications for funding, how to write a proposal, and the “dos and don’ts” when submitting an application.
Welcome, Micki. It’s great to have you here today.
Micki Vandeloo [00:01:18] Thanks, Gregg. It’s great to be here.
Gregg Profozich [00:01:20] Micki, can you take a minute or two and just tell us a little bit about yourself?
Micki Vandeloo [00:01:24] Sure. My name is Micki Vandeloo. I’m the president of Lakeview Consulting. Lakeview Consulting is an organization that provides grant consulting and other resources to help manufacturers fund their success. We are based in the Midwest in the St. Louis area. We’ve helped clients get over $260 million in funding. We are a team of seven grant professionals. Just really excited to be here to talk about my favorite subject, manufacturing grants.
Gregg Profozich [00:01:49] Appreciate you making some time. I think it’s going to be a great conversation.
Micki Vandeloo [00:01:52] I do, too.
Gregg Profozich [00:01:53] Hey, Brett. Welcome. I appreciate you being here today, as well.
Brett Housholder [00: 01:56] Hey, Gregg. Thanks for having me. I’m looking forward to it.
Gregg Profozich [00:01:58] Brett, can you also take a minute or two and tell us a little bit about yourself?
Brett Housholder [00:02:01] Sure. My name is Brett Housholder, and I am the Regional Director for the San Diego, Orange, and Imperial Procurement Technical Assistance Center. That’s way too long of a name, so we just go by PTAC for short. We are essentially a no-cost resource for small businesses that want to learn about government contracting. It can be a very complex and sometimes overwhelming process. We receive some federal funding and some state funding from the state of California to help small businesses navigate that process.
Gregg Profozich [00:02:28] Well, thank you both for being here. I’m really excited about our conversation today. I’m looking forward to hearing about your perspectives and your insights. Let’s get started. We’re here to talk about how SMMs, small and midsize manufacturers, might access some of the sources of funding available across the economy from the federal level to the state level and even in some cases to some private sources and private institutions. This funding can come in the form of grants and aid, commonly called grants, or in the form of government contracts and awards. To put things in perspective, the federal government spends over $500 billion annually on grants and aid. This money flows through to state and local governments and also non-governmental organizations. Now, it’s true that not all of that money goes to manufacturing, but a significant portion of that does, some portion of 500 billion, with a B. The question is: how does a small or midsize manufacturer access the funding that’s available? That’s what we’ll be discussing today. For some context — Micki, I guess we’ll start off with you — what is a grant, and how is it different from other public and private funding sources?
Micki Vandeloo [00:03:29] The basic definition of a grant is money provided to a manufacturer, in this case, to conduct a project that addresses and meets specific funder outcomes. Outcomes are defined as what’s going to change as a result of a project. For example, in a training project, the outcome might be you’re out upskilling employees. In a recycling project, you’re diverting materials from landfills. Basically, that’s the definition of a grant. The way it’s different from other funding sources, there’s a three-fold way that it’s different. One is that with a grant there is an agreement between the funder and the recipient, whereas, with a tax credit or some other funding source, that agreement may not exist. The second way in which a grant is different from other funding sources is that it is not paid back. In the case of a loan, for example, if you get a loan from any funding source, that loan is going to have to be paid back at some point. A grant does not have to be paid back. The third way in which it’s different is that grants are very, very fluid. Tax credits might exist year to year; contracts in many cases exist year to year, some dependent on budget cycles, but grants specifically are very dependent on federal and state budget cycles and on political priorities. They tend to be very fluid.
Gregg Profozich [00:04:49] Thank you, Micki. Brett, this one’s for you. Micki talked to us a little bit about what grants are all about. What are the different kind of funding awards that are available from the government apart from grants that manufacturers might access?
Brett Housholder [00:05:00] Well, given that my program and our area of expertise is government contracts, I’m going to focus quite a bit on those. Micki did a good job of explaining how grants are a little bit different. Contracts, on the other hand, it’s basically an agreement with a deliverable, and there’s an agreed-upon price. There’s always some fluidity on the more complex contracts that prices or costs might change throughout the course of the contract. But typically, there’s a fixed price and an agreed-upon deliverable that must be delivered in order to receive payments, whereas, with a grant or a loan, you get that money upfront. As Micki pointed out, it’s not going to be repaid. But in addition to contracts, you’ve got a very specific type of grant that I think it would be important for manufacturing businesses to know about, which is an SBIR or an STTR grant. That’s small business innovation research and small technology transfer grants. Those are essentially for companies that might be a little bit more innovative, might be heavily tech-based, that develop new products or new processes to solve problems that government agencies have. It’s an agreement with that agency that you enter into that they’re going to provide you some funding at different levels to try to take an idea from conception to actually commercializing it. Those are very specific grants that our program helps out with a little bit. But, again, our focus is heavily on the government contracting side.
Gregg Profozich [00:06:21] Thank you, Brett. Brett, you mentioned different kinds of contracts, the fact that government contracts have an agreement with a deliverable and agreed-upon date, and there’s different flavors of how they’re paid, whereas a grant gets paid upfront. I know from CMTC we have a cooperative agreement with the Department of Commerce through NIST/MEP. We spend money serving small manufacturers, and then we submit expenses. Those that are allowable get reimbursed. Tell us a little bit about those different flavors and angles there and some of that potential minefield you can get into if you don’t really understand that deeply.
Brett Housholder [00:06:50] I think I’ll start with the simplest type of contract award a business would receive, which would be a firm-fixed-price contract. That’s very straightforward, where you come up with a bid number, and you submit it, and they accept it, and then, that is what you’re going to be paid. It’s in the name, firm-fixed-price. The number is the number, and when the period of performance is over, that’s what you’re going to be paid. There are other types of contracts that are a little more interesting and a little more variable, I guess I would say. One of the most common ones is an IDIQ, which is indefinite-delivery, indefinite-quantity. This one’s a bit of a unique animal because it can be awarded to multiple businesses at the same time. What it essentially means is the government agency has decided we know we’re going to need a certain amount of whatever product at certain intervals, but it might change from year to year, month to month. Basically, it’s a blanket contract awarded that says for these five vendors, let’s say, we’re going to guarantee that through the life of this contract, which may be three to five years, you will be guaranteed to earn a certain level through task orders or delivery orders. But again, it’s a flexible situation, where the government doesn’t know exactly how much or how often they’re going to need something, so they give themselves some flexibility to say we’ll give you at least this much, but we might order more throughout the life of the contract. Then, when you get into the larger scale, more complex projects, you have all sorts of different variations of ways that the government can pay. There’s something called a trade-off consideration — essentially, where they won’t necessarily award it to the lowest price, because the project is of such a complex nature that they feel that they are justified in spending a little bit more on it in going with a company that they feel is better qualified to perform on it. One of the myths in government contracting that we try to help our clients get past is that the lowest bid is always going to win, because in certain cases, and especially larger-scale manufacturing contracts, they will pay a little bit more in order to go with the most qualified bidder. Then, in between those extremes of firm fixed price and then, larger projects that have a little bit of flexibility in the cost throughout the life of the project, you’ve got all sorts of other contracts, where there’ll be incentives paid based on how quickly something is completed. You might get a firm fixed price plus an incentive if it’s completed in a certain amount of time. Again, within that range, there’s dozens of different ways that the government can structure a contract. But the most common things you’re going to see are those firm fixed price, the IDIQs, and then, the larger-scale projects that have that flexibility built into them.
Gregg Profozich [00:09:38] Got it. A lot of different flavors and a lot of different nuances of understanding. You said a minute ago that for the firm fixed price you get paid at the end. I’d imagine there are payments throughout the portion of the contract, or is it one lump sum at the end?
Brett Housholder [00:09:49] Oh, absolutely. It all depends on how it’s structured. There might be periodic payments, maybe once a quarter if the contract is for a year. If it’s a shorter contract, you might actually just look at a 90-day period of performance paid all at the end. I fear that throughout this podcast I might be saying “it depends” a lot, but when it comes to government contracting, there are so many different variations that it really is situation by situation type of thing.
Gregg Profozich [00:10:16] Which is, I think, one of the main reasons we want to cover this today is to demystify things a little bit and give people from the outside who don’t have either of your depth of experience an understanding of it can be a little easier; it doesn’t have to be as complex. If you have the right support, you can definitely get through it and potentially access some of these funds. I think I want to focus there. Thank you so much for that.
Micki Vandeloo [00:10:35] One thing I’d like to clarify. You had mentioned that grants were money provided upfront. In many cases, specifically training grants, the training has to happen, and then the client will get reimbursed because they have to prove they actually did the training. Then, in other cases with grants, you might get a portion of the money upfront, and then, there might be a portion at the end; there might be periodic payments. Just to clarify that.
Gregg Profozich [00:10:58] When there’s payments across the period of performance, I’d assume they are milestones?
Micki Vandeloo [00:11:02] Yes, there are. Usually quarterly, or semi-yearly, or yearly milestones you would have to meet in order to get the payment.
Gregg Profozich [00:11:08] A question for both of you: what is the current state of manufacturing funding at the various federal, state, local, and private institution levels?
Micki Vandeloo [00:11:16] I’ve never seen it quite as active as it is at this point. I’ve been saying that for two years, by the way, since the CARES Act first came out. Since CARES Act came out, there have been a plethora of manufacturing grants and funding manufacturers can apply for. It’s been a very quickly changing grant landscape. Every week there’s new grants; every week there’s grants that expire. I guess one thing just in general I would say at both federal and state levels are there’s just, again, a growing number of grants that the CARES Act funding is supporting. Most of those have to do with things like broadband expansion and other issues that were discovered during the pandemic. For example, there was a big discovery that rural manufacturers didn’t have a lot of the resources that companies that were in more urban areas did. Meat processors have a very at-risk supply chain at this point. There’s basically two or three big meat processors that run the industry. Now there’s been funding that’s been put out there for meat processors to expand their capabilities and to actually put together processing plants, where there haven’t been those types of funding before. Supply chain issues that were highlighted during COVID are being addressed even now through grants that are available to different manufacturers. Like I said, broadband was one thing; rural food supply chain; workforce. There’s been a huge increase in workforce, particularly at the federal level, but even some at the state level. More states now instead of doing training grants that just fund a manufacturer to participate in training will now also fund the development of training, will fund the development of workforce training activities, because they want to incentivize new workforce training activities. Those types of grants are also out there now. Semiconductor manufacturing, interestingly enough, because of the issues that we saw with China and not being able to get chips. Many of us still find that we can’t order cars or find cars, especially not at a reasonable price. Now there’s a federal grant that’s out there to incentivize increases in semiconductor manufacturing in the United States. A quickly changing landscape. I can tell you that my projection is that it’s only going to continue to change and grow. There’d be more opportunities for manufacturers either to directly or indirectly benefit from those grants.
Gregg Profozich [00:13:48] Brett, anything to add to that?
Brett Housholder [00:13:50] Yeah. I’m going to take it from a slightly different perspective. When I talk about the current state of government contracting at a federal and state level, I tend to be a dork about numbers and figures. Gregg, earlier, you mentioned some pretty impressive numbers about award dollars that go out annually to manufacturers. I actually did a little bit of research before we started today. There’s a website that I think would be a good resource for listeners if they’re interested in doing some research on spending by the United States government. It’s called usaspending.gov. It details all types of spending that the federal government does every year, whether it’s contracts, grants, loans, anything you could think of. I pulled some numbers from there. At the federal level in fiscal year 2020 only on manufacturing contracts, there was over $260 billion awarded in the United States. Then, for our listeners in California, $24 billion of that went to the state of California, which was the second-highest total in the country. I should present that with a disclaimer because you hear those numbers, and that’s obviously a massive amount. In the manufacturing world, that does include very large contracts on Department of Defense like fighter jets that Lockheed Martin will be getting. For the small and medium-sized manufacturers, you’re probably not going to be going after those massive contracts like Lockheed, but there are still, again, over $260 billion in the country, $24 billion in the state of California. At the local level, it gets a lot harder to really nail down that figure, because the federal government does a great job of compiling all of these numbers. The local agencies since there are so many different smaller county and city-based government agencies, it’s really difficult to get those numbers and come up with an estimate. But at the federal and state level, obviously, in the manufacturing industry there, it’s like Micki mentioned, probably as high as it’s ever been.
Gregg Profozich [00:15:40] Absolutely. Those are some impressive numbers—$260 billion for the nation in contracts and $24 billion to California. If we just use that as a proxy and said eight or ten percent of the grants and awards were also available, that’s a significant number, also. Another $50 billion potentially there. There is a lot of funding out and available, a lot of funding driving various initiatives and various objectives. I think what Micki mentioned earlier with semiconductors and supply chain issues being addressed, I think those are good uses of our tax dollars. We just need to figure out how to get them in the hands of everybody who can contribute. There’s a lot of funding out there, obviously. What aspects of a manufacturing company can a grant support? Does it need to be seed funding? Can it be for R & D? I think you mentioned the SBIRs and STTRs. Operations, property plant, and equipment. What’s in bounds? What’s out-of-bounds? What’s in play here?
Micki Vandeloo [00:16:28] I found that there’s about six or seven categories of activities that manufacturers can get funded for. The first one is R & D and commercialization, which would be your SBIR/STTR funding. But also, a lot of states now have instituted what’s called technology-based economic development, TBED. States that have done that have also created programs like SBIR/STTR matching funds. A state might help reimburse or help match an SBIR award that a company might get by 50% or 75%, which can be a pretty big increase in the award for a company. Commercialization. You might have proof of concept awards. A lot of states have what’s called proof of concept, where the state will pay them $20,000, $25,000 to create a proof of concept for technology that they have generated. The second category is facilities and capital expansion. In that case, it would be things like capital investment, expansion of facilities, new facilities. A lot of those types of activities are funded by tax credits, but there are some states, including the states of Indiana and Connecticut, that have created innovation grants and industry 4.0 manufacturing readiness grants that will actually fund capital investment training. Almost every state has a training grant. In California, it’s the employment training panel. There are various training grants and, in many states, recycling. Most states have recycling grants to get material diverted from landfills. In Missouri, for example, they have the market development program which funds manufacturers up to $250,000 to invest in equipment that processes recycled material. Energy efficiency and renewable energy. USDA has the REAP grant program that’s available to manufacturers that are in USDA-eligible areas which, in general, are communities of 15,000 people or less that are not directly contiguous to an urban area. That will help support costs of solar panels, wind energy, and more energy-efficient equipment. Exporting. Almost every state has what’s called the STEP program, STEP, state trade export program. That helps fund exporting activities such as trade show missions, translations of websites, creation booth building for international trade shows. Then, the tech program would be the last category, which funds outsourced activities for manufacturers that have experienced negative revenues and had to drop employment due to trade imbalances. That’s in that other category. It’s a very specific program, but it is a category of activity that can be funded.
Gregg Profozich [00:19:17] A lot of different areas of manufacturing can be covered by grant funding—R & D, facilities and capital expansion, training, recycling, energy efficiency, renewable energy, exporting, and then, tech, as well. What funding opportunities exist specifically for manufacturers? Are there any that’s guaranteed or earmarked only for manufacturing?
Brett Housholder [00:19:39] It’s a tough question because when the government comes up with an opportunity that they have a need for, they will assign a NAICS code, essentially, North American Industrial Classification System. Any NAICS code that falls under the manufacturing umbrella, then, obviously, those are available only for manufacturers. Again, because I like numbers, and I think it drives home the point, I did some research before we started today. There are currently at the federal level—this is just federal—42,000 open contract opportunities that have “manufacturing” somewhere in their title, description, or NAICS code. You’re talking tens of thousands of opportunities every year.
Gregg Profozich [00:20:17] Forty-two thousand. That is an impressive number. Are there other sources of funding outside of that earmarked for manufacturing that SMMs might access?
Micki Vandeloo [00:20:27] The SBA centers will offer a loan guarantee, and then, loans for small businesses. This is typically where I send a manufacturer or company that hasn’t been in business for very long. Companies that are start-up or want funding for very specific items like trucks to deliver their product or things that are traditional business expenses, that’s a better fit for something like an SBA loan or a USDA loan, if they’re in a USDA eligible area.
Gregg Profozich [00:20:56] SBA is better suited for helping with the start-up company, and there are some other funding sources for more established companies. SBA or the SCORE program for getting up on your feet and accessing and getting through this first couple years. Once you’re up and running into a much more mature phase, I think I hear you say, Micki, there are other sources that are better accessed. Brett, anything to add?
Brett Housholder [00:21:16] Yeah. Since we’ve started talking about the SBA a little bit, I just want to give a shout-out to another great resource in the state—the Small Business Development Centers. They work with businesses in the start-up phase, that expanding phase, mature companies, but they also have a lot of great resources available to help businesses access other sources of capital and loans. If you’re not familiar with your local Small Business Development Center, that’s a good resource, as well.
Gregg Profozich [00:21:42] I think that’s a great point. They are all over the state of California. Not too far away from pretty much anybody and great resources that can help you get your books in order, prep for how you’re going to apply for a loan, what a bank is going to look for, what your financials should look like, and all those kinds of things. Great resource there in the SBDCs. Let’s move more into the operational stuff. We talked about sources of funding, and how you qualify, and what it applies to. How does a manufacturer qualify for funding?
Brett Housholder [00:22:10] Well, I’ll start with the contracts, because this is one of the areas where you hear the stories about how much red tape and how many hoops you have to jump through to win a government contract. Unfortunately, I can’t debunk all of those myths. There’s a few pieces you absolutely have to have in place before you’re awarded a government contract at the federal level, at least. The first is a nine-digit code that you have to have assigned to your company called a DUNS number, which is Data Universal Numbering System. That process is actually being phased out for another acronym called the Unique Entity Identifier, UEI. I again apologize for all the acronyms. You have to have this number assigned to your company. That’s how the government identifies you. Then you have to do a certain registration called the System for Award Management. We call it SAM for short. After those two things are done, you’re eligible. Then, you actually have to go through the process of identifying opportunities, finding the ones that are a good fit, and figuring out is it worth the time and effort to put in a proposal on this, or are we not quite ready yet. The very basic things you have to have in place are that DUNS number and the SAM registration. One thing I would caution anybody listening to this. If you don’t have those, and you try to go out and do that on your own, make sure you don’t pay anybody a single dime for that because those are absolutely free of charge. Unfortunately, there are a lot of consultants out there that realize it’s complicated, and people don’t understand exactly how to do it, and they’ll charge a fee for it. Those can absolutely be done free of charge.
Gregg Profozich [00:23:41] Great advice. Thank you, Brett. I need to have a DUNS number and have to be registered on sam.gov?
Brett Housholder [00:23:47] Correct.
Gregg Profozich [00:23:48] Any difference for grants, Micki?
Micki Vandeloo [00:23:50] For state grants sometimes you’ll have to register on a portal. You won’t have to have the extensive information that you have to have for SAM registration usually, but you have to prove you have a presence in the state in which you’re getting the grant. In many cases you’ll have to say how many employees you have, because some grants will only let you apply if you have X number of employees. For example, for some of the COVID funding that’s gone out for manufacturers in small businesses, some of it is only for manufacturers with less than 50 employees; some is only for manufacturers with less than 10 employees. You have to make sure you have the right number of employees. Also, to qualify you really should have a good project in mind, a well-planned project in mind. You can’t just say, “Well, here’s a grant. I’m going to create a project,” because that typically doesn’t work very well. Also, to the point of start-ups, with the exception of SBIR/STTR, you generally have to have two to three years of audited financials to apply for any grant. That is a general requirement that just exists. For training grants, for example, you might have to submit a couple of years of financials. Those are kept confidential. The other thing with training grants is they used to ask for Social Security numbers of all the trainees so that they could prove that the trainees actually worked for the company that was applying. Now they ask for the last four digits, or they don’t even ask for the information; they just ask the company to certify that those people are employed by the company. That’s changed a little bit.
Gregg Profozich [00:25:16] If I’m just a brand-new start-up company, the two to three years of financials might be a problem. Go talk to the SBA, and the SBDC, and SCORE first.
Micki Vandeloo [00:25:24] Unless you’re a technology company, then, you can definitely apply for SBIR or STTR.
Brett Housholder [00:25:29] The two to three years of financials is actually a really good segue into one other thing I wanted to talk about, how manufacturers qualify. The federal government has what it’s called set-asides, where they will award a certain percentage of contract dollars only to small businesses, for example. Beyond that they will also award a certain percentage of contracts to businesses owned by certain types of individuals or located in certain areas. It’s a really great way to narrow down the competition. I just wanted to mention really briefly, because when the comments about two to three years of financials came up, it made me think of to qualify for some of these different certifications, you have to have that established financial history to show that you’re a reliable and responsible contractor. For companies that are 51% or more owned by women, there are set-aside opportunities only for those types of companies. Veteran-owned and service-disabled veteran-owned small businesses, there are contracts available only for those. 8(a), which is an SBA program which covers socially and economically disadvantaged owned small businesses, that’s another set-aside opportunity. There’s one called the HUBZone, which is historically underutilized business zone. That has less to do with the person or the individuals that own the company and more to do with where the company and its employees are located. It’s an economic stimulus type of program for areas with above-average unemployment and a below-average income. If the business and a certain percentage of its employees are located in a HUBZone, they are eligible for those types of contracts. Then, at the state level and local level, there’s all sorts of different programs where they give prioritization to smaller minority, veteran, woman-owned small businesses, as well.
Gregg Profozich [00:27:06] The set-asides are important, and that actually may move me up the qualifications ladder if I’m applying for something, I think I hear you saying.
Brett Housholder [00:27:13] It will also narrow down the competition by a very wide margin when you consider how many companies compete at the high level versus small businesses. Then, you think as a woman-owned small business, for example, you’re narrowing the competition down even that much further.
Gregg Profozich [00:27:29] Because it’s a set-aside, if I understand correctly if you don’t meet the qualifications, you can’t access that pool of money.
Brett Housholder [00:27:35] Exactly.
Gregg Profozich [00:27:36] You have to be woman-owned, or veteran-owned, or in a rural area, or any of these different qualifications that are the structure of the set-aside itself.
Brett Housholder [00:27:43] Correct.
Gregg Profozich [00:27:43] Micki, you talked a little while ago about having a well-defined project. Let’s explore this just for a moment or two, if we can. I have a project. I’m developing a new technology. I think if I can solve this technology problem, I can take leaps and bounds forward, possibly get it patented, grow competitive advantage, grow my company, et cetera. I just don’t know how to fund it. How do I figure out which funding might apply to me?
Micki Vandeloo [00:28:07] Sure. There’s several different aspects of a well-planned project, and those then lead to what types of funding you can go for. What I ask companies when they say things like, “I want to train my employees in order to upskill them,” I ask them, “Well, what activities are you specifically going to be doing? Are you going to be developing the training? Are you going to be just delivering the training? Is there going to be a certification? Is there going to be a credential? Is it an apprenticeship program?” I have to learn what they’re doing. Then I need to learn who’s going to do it. Are they going to have an outside provider do it? Are they going to do this work internally? Then I ask, “What’s it going to cost for you to do it? Is it going to be a $10,000 project? Is it going to be an $80,000 project?” Then, finally, “What’s going to be the outcome?” The outcome is what the funders fund. In grants, they totally look at the outcome. If the training is being delivered or being developed to upskill employees to allow them to get better jobs, that automatically puts them in a pool for training funding because that’s what training funders want to see. They want to see that at the end of the day, that person has more skills and is better able to get a better job than they have right now. In the case of facility expansion or capital investment, it’s a little bit more on the job creation side. Funders like to see job creation. It’s very economic development benefit-oriented. It’s job creation, capital investment, economic impact. If you’re putting in a piece of equipment, the things I’m going to ask you are, “What type of equipment is it? Is it more energy-efficient than the old equipment? Are you replacing equipment, or is this a brand-new piece of equipment? What’s the outcome? What is it allowing you to do? Is it allowing you to expand markets or just to expand capability to address current markets?” Again, the cost is important. I also need to know in that case where they’re located, because going back to the USDA, there are only certain areas of the country that are eligible for those types of grants. I really walk clients through that process when we’re going through our initial discovery call. A lot of times they’ll tell me what they’re doing, and then I’ll ask those kinds of clarifying questions just to make sure that they’re a good fit for the grants they might be able to apply for.
Gregg Profozich [00:30:12] I would imagine by doing those question-and-answer sessions in that discovery, you’re figuring out is it an R & D grant? Is it a training grant? Is it a recycling grant? Is there an energy efficiency element to it, and we should be over there?
Micki Vandeloo [00:30:23] Exactly.
Gregg Profozich [00:30:23] You may be applying in two different areas, because it’s training in energy efficiency?
Micki Vandeloo [00:30:27] Exactly. A lot of times clients will come to me and say, “Hey, we’re going to do a huge project.” Well, what elements does it contain? Is it training? Is it facility investment? What I tell clients is generally it’s not one grant that will fund a large project. It might be a combination of two or three different grants that fund different aspects of that project. Absolutely.
Gregg Profozich [00:30:45] Brett, anything on sources of the 42,000 contracts with open opportunities for manufacturing? How do I learn about those?
Brett Housholder [00:30:52] The easiest way to do it is that System for Award Management website we mentioned earlier, sam.gov. It now has incorporated a previously separate website that the government used to post all of their opportunities that are estimated to be at over $25,000. SAM is now where you find those opportunities. There’s a contract opportunity section of that website that I will say is semi-user friendly, but it can take a little bit of a learning curve to figure out how to search that most effectively. We have counselors on our team that help clients with that all the time—get more comfortable with doing those searches. One nice thing about that site is you can also set up an update reminder, where you put NAICS codes in, and you say hey, anytime there’s a new manufacturing opportunity with this NAICS code, notify me. You’ll get an email that says a new opportunity has been posted from this agency. Once you get comfortable using that site and master using its automated updates, it can be a big time-saver. Primarily for the federal government, sam.gov is where you’re going to find those opportunities. Then, the state of California uses a system called Cal eProcure where they post all of their opportunities. Again. it’s pretty easy to search. Once you get comfortable, it’s second nature.
Gregg Profozich [00:32:04] There are government portals out there now, and they’re making improvements to those systems to make it easier to find, and connect, and identify things that might apply. The email functionality sounds really great. I know my NAICS code, right?
Brett Housholder [00:32:16] Exactly. Especially for most of the clients we work with that are on the smaller side of small businesses, anywhere you can do things more efficiently and save time, it’s a huge advantage. These companies that are 5 to 10 employees, they don’t have someone they can dedicate full-time to just going out there and monitoring for opportunities all the time. They have those automated systems to notify you is a big deal.
Gregg Profozich [00:32:39] Let’s shift gears a little bit here and talk some about the process of getting a proposal. Now we know the different kinds of funding that are out there. Now we know how we might access those opportunities for funding. Now we have a project we think funding might apply to. Now, what do I do? It’s the proposal process. What does the proposal look like for writing a grant or for a contract application? Either of you can go first about your respective area of expertise.
Brett Housholder [00:33:01] I’ll start on contracts because there are some very basic ones that you might see an RFQ, request for quote, or an RFB, request for bid. In those cases, it’s pretty straightforward. You’re going to submit a quantity of whatever product you’re providing and a price. In those cases, it does typically come down to the lowest price wins. Then, you get into the more complex projects, and you’re going to see what’s called an RFP, which is a request for proposal. The big difference here is those are going to contain not only just a price proposal, where you break down here’s the costs, here’s the employees that will be working on it. It’s also going to include a technical proposal, where you get more into the explanation of this is how we’re going to effectively perform on this contract. You have to go into a lot more detail on how you plan to achieve the outcome that the contract requires. RFPs are typically the toughest types of contract awards to get, because it takes a lot of effort on your end to read through, first of all, the solicitation document. I don’t want to intimidate anybody, but it’s not uncommon for those to be in the hundreds of pages sometimes. You have to figure out okay, here are the most important things. What are they requiring? What’s the deliverable? What are my instructions on how to submit it? I cannot stress enough how important it is when you are responding to an RFP that you follow the instructions. You don’t want to be disqualified for some minor detail that you overlooked when it comes to formatting of the document or not answering a required question. The worst one, of course, would be missing the deadline, because those deadlines are very official. If it closes at 5 PM Eastern this Friday and you submit it at 5:01 PM Eastern this Friday, you’re not going to get it. Following instructions is important. Then, understanding the evaluation criteria. On the larger RFPs, the government is very good about outlining up front here’s how we’re going to evaluate and rank the proposals, and here’s our most important factor, second-most, third-most. Price always comes into it, but a lot of times on the larger projects they’re going to look at past performance. The way to think about past performance is like your experience section on your personal résumé—what you’ve done in the past, how similar it is to what you’re being asked to do on this project. Have you done it for the government before? If not, have you done it for a private sector customer before? The proposals, it’s a lot more complex. The great thing is we can walk through that with our clients and help them identify areas. Here’s what the government asked you to do. Here’s what you’re planning to submit. Here’s the gap between what they asked for and what you’re submitting. We can help you make sure that you don’t overlook any of those details.
Gregg Profozich [00:35:47] I do want to talk a little bit more about that review process. Subsequent question coming up on here. You mentioned following the instructions and following them to a T. The executive summary shall be no more than two pages, and your font will be nine-point something. I use 10, it’s out. My executive summary went over one sentence, one line, two words onto a third page. It’s over. They literally throw it away, don’t look at it. It’s that stringent?
Brett Housholder [00:36:13] Yeah. It sounds nitpicky, and it sounds cold, but that’s the way it is. In defense of being that particular about the submissions, it is a good indication. Look, if you’re serious about performing on this job or this contract and you can’t even follow the instructions on how we asked you to submit your proposal, why are we going to trust you with this hundreds of thousands or millions of dollars’ worth of contract award?
Gregg Profozich [00:36:39] No, I get it. But it is that stringent, that regimented, letter of the law. Expect that when you’re doing it. We’ve written a few proposals like that, too. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had to wordsmith the paragraph to get the carriage returns to go back onto only two pages. Or the whole proposal must be less than 20, and we’re two paragraphs into page 21. Oh, my God, what do I cut?
Brett Housholder [00:37:00] Yeah. That can be the hardest part. The instinct, I think, when you’re responding to these is you want to provide so much detail, because it feels like it lends credibility, but then you realize I have a limited space. There’s got to be a prioritization that I have to do on what is the most relevant.
Gregg Profozich [00:37:15] I would guess that that is a very important aspect of this and an important learning process for the organization submitting, right?
Brett Housholder [00:37:21] Yeah, absolutely.
Gregg Profozich [00:37:22] The forcing of that prioritization of here’s exactly what we are and aren’t going to do; here’s exactly what we’re saying. So, there’s a good side of that stringent process.
Brett Housholder [00:37:28] A lot of small business owners—deservedly so—want to focus so much on I started this company with one employee in the garage, and now we have 100 employees and a 20,000 square foot warehouse. They think that is more important than answering the question of the technical proposal of how is the work going to be done. You should absolutely be proud of growing your business, but it’s not necessarily the place in your proposal to talk about it.
Gregg Profozich [00:37:54] Micki, on the grant side?
Micki Vandeloo [00:37:57] Well, I absolutely echo everything that Brett said on the need for detail. The same thing holds for grants. Grants have the same very stringent requirements. In many cases, it’s because the reviewers use that as a way to weed out proposals if they have a lot of them to review. We have a basic process we use with clients and that we encourage clients to use when they find out about a grant. The first thing we tell them to do is review the RFP not just once but twice. We use RFP, request for proposal, or its Notice of Funding Opportunity at the federal level. Read it not just once but twice. Make sure you understand. Highlight all the requirements; highlight the evaluation criteria, because that’s ultimately what you’re going to have to put in that proposal. Get a good understanding of the RFP, first and foremost. Then what we do is we put together a list of needed information. When we’re working with clients, we help them do this. We do this for them. We say, “These are the specific types of information we’re going to need to complete this proposal.” This is something that manufacturers can do themselves, as well. It’s a list of needed information. Then we create a timeline because you’ve got this period of time between when you get the RFP or the NOFO and when that RFP or NOFO is due. You create a timeline saying okay, this is all the activities we have to do; this is all the information we need to gather. When are we going to have the draft done, and when are we going to have the final product done? I always, always, always, always tell clients not to submit on the deadline. You want to submit at least one to two days if not a week before the deadline. If you’ve ever worked in grants.gov or any of these government portals—I’m sure the same thing is true, Brett, with the ones you work with, as well, SAM or any of them—they go down. They have maintenance and usually, it’s when everything’s due, for some silly reason. The other thing is when there’s a lot of people uploading documents to grants.gov, let’s just say, it tends to shut down; it tends to get overwhelmed. We don’t want that to be a reason why an application is not accepted. You create the list of needed items. You create the timeline. Then you execute the timeline. Once the application is done, and you have all the required information, and you confirmed you have all the required information, then you just submit. Sometimes that state portal, an application portal, or something like grants.gov, or any of the federal portals. Then you wait.
Brett Housholder [00:40:23] One thing I would add, just because Micki is absolutely right—those systems go down at the worst possible times—if you know that something has a deadline, like I said, at 5 PM Eastern on Friday, try to submit it at least 5 PM Eastern on Thursday just in case you run into one of those issues. It’s a nightmare to have to scramble at the last minute like that.
Gregg Profozich [00:40:43] At CMTC here we’ve done a few proposals, also. We submit things to SAM. Typically, our practice is if it’s due Friday the 14th, we will submit on Friday the 7th. Then, we will look at it on Monday the 10th or whatever that date is and confirm that everything we uploaded got through because sometimes an attachment doesn’t go or one of the sections—the budget narrative—didn’t come along with the Excel sheet or that kind of thing. Then you have some time and some buffer there. Then, typically, if we’ve looked at the proposal again and had another conversation now that we stopped working on it and thinking about it, and then in the middle the night you have that Eureka moment, you can make a change, and you can still submit it again up to the deadline. If it doesn’t go through for some reason, you still have a proposal that’s in. It’s not quite as polished or nuanced, but you can always work on changes later. The point is get it in with some buffer because you can always update or revise later as you come up towards the deadline. But at least you’re in there; you’ve made the qualification. Those SAM outages, and planned maintenance, and unplanned maintenance is even worse. They’re not necessarily coordinated with the filing deadlines and the proposal deadlines. The IT side takes things down. If there’s a significant security risk, they’re taking it down, period, because there’s much larger systems at stake, and they can’t worry about the fact that you can’t submit on the last day of the proposal submission deadline. There’s something larger here going on, and it’ll go down. We always like to try to do that the week before, and then you have that buffer time to make sure all your documents got uploaded. Then, also, if you want to make changes, you can always polish it a little more and submit. Let’s talk a little bit about… I’d imagine that both of you have reviewed funding proposals or at least had proposals that you were part of reviewed. From your experience, what do the reviewers look for when they evaluate applications? What’s the right stuff to win?
Brett Housholder [00:42:28] Well, on a very basic level—again, I hate to keep making the same points—did you follow the instructions? Did you give them everything they asked for? That’s an easy way to get disqualified at the very beginning. If they asked for four things and you provided three, then, they’re not even going to read the rest of it. Follow the instructions. Beyond that, getting back to the evaluation factors, in government contracts at the proposal level they certainly will tell you not the answers to the test but they will give you an outline of here are the top three factors we’re going to use to evaluate. Priority number one is this; two is this; three is this. They’ll give you sometimes even the scoring system they’ll use to say you’re going to get… Sometimes it’s a color rating system; sometimes it’s a numerical system. Again, going back to that myth about price always being the determining factor, that’s not always true. Especially the higher you get, the price becomes less important than the experience of the contractor and the viability of the contractor to perform on that project. I mentioned earlier there’s often a trade-off consideration. Price will factor in, but it might not be the top priority. The top priority might be: is your past performance sufficient enough to prove to us that you’re able to finish this project successfully? A lot of times past performance might be the most important evaluation criteria. A lot of times they’ll ask you to submit bios and résumés of every employee that’s going to be working on that project, and they’ll use that as a factor. Does this team have the right experience? Not just this company that has done these contracts but the individuals working on the project, are they qualified? I can speak from personal experience for our program because we apply for federal and state grants every year. They very much ask us: if we award you this cooperative agreement, who’s going to be on your team to make sure that you successfully meet the outcomes that we’ve asked you to do? Don’t overlook the importance of the individuals that are contributing to the project, as well, because that can often factor in, too.
Gregg Profozich [00:44:29] It sounds like you’re saying make the full case. Make sure you have an organization. Make sure you have the resources. My boss always says, “Did we answer the mail?” There are four things that says that this proposal is asking for as outcomes. Have we addressed all of them, and have we inspired confidence that we can perform and deliver each of these four outcomes that the proposal requires? It can’t be three out of four; it’s got to be four of four.
Brett Housholder [00:44:54] That’s really where working with an outside resource… Take it outside of your company or your organization, and have somebody else look at it because you’re so deep in the weeds with all of these proposals that it’s easy to get that tunnel vision and overlook something. If someone else reviews it, they can say, “Okay, for the first three, it sounds like you gave it what they’re asking for, but on point number four, I don’t know if you clearly made your case.” Again, taking it outside of the people that are working on it to get a fresh set of eyes is a huge strategy to use.
Gregg Profozich [00:45:26] The reviewers, are they necessarily experts in the topic, or are they folks who work in the government and are assigned? Review this and see if it seems like it answers the things that the NOFO, or the RFP, or the RFQ is asking for.
Brett Housholder [00:45:39] It can be a mix. Sometimes the review team is going to have a subject matter expert that will be able to tell whether the technical proposal is going to meet the needs, but it will also just be a team of people from different departments within the agency. It’s not a room full of people that know all of the intricate details of the work that needs to be done.
Gregg Profozich [00:45:59] We’ve had some proposals we’ve done and had an outside reviewer actually score it for us and then come back and give feedback. That was an incredibly helpful process, I think, in doing that, because it really makes you question. We thought we hit it out of the park on this one. You did. The other two you barely even touched. You swung and missed. Tighten those up, make them better, et cetera, et cetera. Micki, anything to add from your perspective?
Micki Vandeloo [00:46:21] I can say that on the federal level, especially with technology grants, we work with a lot of technology companies. The reviewers for technology grants such as SBIR and STTR, while they are technical people, they are typically not versed in maybe the exact technology that those companies are proposing. If they’re not very, very careful in the way they describe their technology—if they use a lot of what I call tech speak, if they use a lot of acronyms, a lot of very specific industry nomenclature—that reviewer likely isn’t going to understand what they’re trying to say. Many times on the very technological proposals, if I can read it and somebody that is not technical can read it, it’s perfect. If you have to go through and look at a dictionary, or if you have to go and do Internet research to try to figure out what they’re saying, it’s not a very well-written proposal. That would be the one point I would make on the review. The other thing in grants, it’s very specific, very, very specific down to the point where they want to define the outcomes in a proposal in a very specific way. There might be 10 questions under a broad category of the proposal. If they’re asking you, for example, about your organizational capacity—you were saying, Brett, and I totally agree—don’t discount the fact that your capacity to do the work is very important to the reviewer. But they also might ask not only what past experience do they have but what kind of experience do they have in delivering these programs. What type of experience does your organization have in partnering with the partners that you are proposing to work with on this project? There’s some very detailed evaluation criteria that all has to be addressed in that 10- to 20-page narrative. Even at the state level, states are really starting to mirror federal proposals for things like workforce development training grants. They really want a very specific set of criteria met, and they want you to describe how you’re going to meet those criteria very specifically. If anything, I see states becoming more rigid in what they’re requiring from applicants as far as being closer to federal grants. Now, federal grants can be anywhere from 10 to 40 pages of narrative. State grants are typically not that complex, but they do require a very specific set of information.
Gregg Profozich [00:48:45] If I’m understanding correctly about the whole process here, number one, make sure you follow instructions; number two, did you meet the top requirements? Follow instructions. Make it 20 pages if it’s supposed to be 20 pages, 20 or less. Don’t go over. Did you meet the top requirements? There are four things that it has to do. Did we really deliver on those four? Use an outside resource as a reviewer to provide feedback, and make sure, especially on technical proposals, that you connect the dots. Make it plain-speak enough to have a non-technology expert understand it but technical enough that a technologically savvy reviewer gets that you know what you’re talking about. It’s striking that balance, I think is what I hear you guys saying. Just one or two more questions here. I want to talk a little bit about best practices, and I also want to talk about dos and don’ts. They may be the same thing or opposite sides of the same coin. I’ll just throw it out there as both. What are the best practices for winning a grant or a contract, and what are some of the dos and don’ts in the application process? It doesn’t hurt to repeat, because some of these things are key, and they’re easy to overlook. Let’s drive that point home.
Brett Housholder [00:49:49] My first best practice is going to sound like something that’s very oversimplified, but it’s so true: be persistent. As a small business and especially, a small business that is new to any public agency contracting, it can be hard to win that first contract. It’s going to take a few attempts to figure out the process and get comfortable with identifying the opportunities and submitting the correct information, and finally getting that win. One of the most gratifying parts about the work I do is helping those clients get to that first contract, and they have that aha moment of, “Oh, wow, I can actually do this.” Persistence above anything else is going to benefit you a great deal. On a more practical side, I would say one thing that is super important for companies that are just getting into contracting, instead of going after a contract as a prime contractor your first time, a great way to get some experience and get your foot in the door is to work as a subcontractor on a larger project. There are certain projects that have percentages that have to be awarded to smaller contractors as subcontracts. Again, getting back to those certifications, if you’re a woman-owned small business, a veteran-owned small business, a minority-owned small business, a HUBZone business, you can have some subcontracting opportunities, where the prime contractor that’s bidding on it is required to submit a subcontracting plan and say this percentage is going to go to this type of business. If you have no experience, subcontracts are a great way to get your foot in the door. One thing I also wanted to make sure I highlighted is when you’re marketing to the government, it’s a little bit different than the marketing you would do in the public sector, because the government has so many pieces of information that they’re interested in that your private sector clients would never care about in a million years, like your DUNS number, your certifications, your NAICS code. When you’re preparing marketing materials for the government, it’s going to look a little different than a standard brochure would be for the private sector. On that same note, when you’re presenting yourself to a government agency, whether you’re reaching out via email just to introduce yourself or you’re attending a networking event or a matchmaking event and you walk up to their table, and you want to talk about your company and see if there’s opportunities, the biggest piece of advice I could give, which is probably the biggest “do” in the “do” category, is do your homework ahead of time. There are resources out there. We can help you figure them out. There are resources out there, where you can see which government agencies purchase your product or your service the most often, what quantities they purchase it in, what the award amounts are. If you approach a potential government customer and say, “Hey, I noticed last year you spent X amount on this NAICS code, and I see that you have a couple of opportunities posted on sam.gov coming up. I think we’re a really good fit for these projects. Here’s some past performance we can show you that shows you why we are a fit.” I can’t tell you how many contracting staff I’ve talked to at government agencies who say, “When these small businesses approach us at these events, oftentimes it’s, ‘We provide this. What can we do for you?’” It goes so much further if they see that you’ve done a little bit of research and realize this is why you specifically, your government agency, this is why you’re a good fit for what we provide. Doing the homework ahead of time, I can’t stress enough how important that is. I want to let Micki jump in with some of her advice, too.
Micki Vandeloo [00:53:09] Sure. Thank you. On the grant side, a few of the best practices that I’ve seen is really thoroughly plan your project. A grant funder funds well-planned projects. The basic elements of a project plan are the need that you’re meeting, what you’re going to do, how you’re going to do it, who’s going to do it, your budget, and then, what are the outcomes going to be. Again, what’s going to change as a result of doing your project? Remember those when you’re putting together a project that you’re considering for grant funding. It will allow you to do better research, and it will also allow you to determine more accurately what a fit is for your project.
Gregg Profozich [00:53:44] Can you go through those again? They’re very important, and there’s a lot of them there.
Micki Vandeloo [00:53:47] The need you’re going to meet, what you’re going to do, how you’re going to do it, who’s going to do it, your budget, and your outcome, what’s going to change. All those things, by the way, mirror elements of a grant application. A grant application always starts off with a need, and then your approach, and then the organizational capacity—the budget is always part of it—and then a measurement of the outcomes, how are you going to measure the outcome. This absolutely mirrors any grant application that’s out there.
Gregg Profozich [00:54:20] Perfect. Thank you.
Micki Vandeloo [00:54:21] My second best practice is stay on top of opportunities. Per my point before, the landscape on grant funding is extremely fluid right now and has been, like I said, for the last two years. The best thing you can do is regularly, once a month at a minimum, go out there and look for grants both at the state and federal level. Then, the third-best practice is make sure that your strategic plan aligns with projects that you are asking to be funded. A lot of times I will talk to clients, and they’ll say, “We saw this source of funding, and we really want to export.” Well, if their strategic initiatives don’t lead to exporting, if you haven’t talked to your team about exporting your product, if you guys haven’t had those discussions about exporting prior to that grant being there, you’re not going to put together a very convincing case. What funders really want to see is that these projects are strategically driven. I know, Gregg, your organization does a lot of work with organizations on strategy. Strategic plans and the activities associated with them are what should drive grant research. It shouldn’t be the other way around. It shouldn’t be the grant has this; therefore, we want to do this because we can get a grant. That happens far too often. Let your strategic plan drive your grant-seeking and grant acquisition activities.
Gregg Profozich [00:55:39] Those are the best practices. Any don’ts?
Brett Housholder [00:55:43] I have a few don’ts. We touched on this earlier. Don’t provide additional information in your proposal or your bid that they don’t ask for. They’re already asking for enough, and you want to make their job as reviewers as simple as possible. Stick to the script, essentially. Another thing that sometimes companies are tempted to do is they’ll read through a solicitation. Let’s say it’s for 100 laptops of a certain model. They’ll say but that’s really not the best laptop for what they want to do. So, we should reach out and suggest, “Hey, instead of what you’re asking for, why don’t we provide this other substitute?” The government is never very open to those types of discussions. If they ask for a specific product, prepare a response for that specific product. Again, just to hammer the point home, don’t miss a deadline, and give yourself plenty of lead time to make sure you can overcome any unforeseen complication. Do not provide additional information; do not try to substitute something in a contract, and do not miss a deadline.
Gregg Profozich [00:56:50] Micki, any?
Micki Vandeloo [00:56:53] Yeah. I have a couple of dos and some don’ts. First of all, do be convincing. Do tell your story well. Don’t neglect parts of your story because you need to save pages. Make sure what you’re putting in there is the most important and most pertinent to the grant. Do use current data. Don’t use 10-year-old data when you’re putting together a grant application on labor market information, because it very much will not be accurate. It will be very inaccurate. Don’t neglect “silly” requirements. I have “silly” in quotes. To the thing we talked about before, actually, you can use those to your advantage. For example, most funders ask you to do one-inch margins on your pages. The traditional margins for Microsoft Word are wider than that. You can actually gain pages on a proposal just by reducing the margins to the minimum required by the funder. Use those “silly requirements” when you can to your advantage. They may not require a 12-point font. By making it a 10-point font you can get a lot more wording in there for a lot less effort. Then, don’t expect an immediate answer. To my point before about waiting once you submit the proposal, it can take weeks or months to find out if you get funding. In some cases—this is what I have to caution manufacturers on—you need to have that runway. When you apply for funding, for example, for a piece of equipment, they’re not going to let you spend money on that equipment until you find out if you’ve gotten the funding. That may take weeks or months. Be prepared to wait. Wait on those capital investments, and wait on the training that you want to do until you get the funding approved; otherwise, you’re not going to be able to access the funding. Unfortunately, you don’t get any immediate answers when it comes to grant funding.
Gregg Profozich [00:58:38] Well, there’s been a ton of great information shared today. I really thank you both for your time and for opening up your expertise to me and to our listeners. Before we wrap up, is there anything else you feel that it’s important to cover?
Micki Vandeloo [00:58:50] Well, I just encourage any manufacturer to be open to the idea of grant funding. I know it’s something that a lot of manufacturers don’t know a lot about. It’s a pretty intimidating subject, as are contracts, I would guess. I would just encourage manufacturers to contact us if they want to talk more about funding that might be available to them. We do have a database that we offer to manufacturers to help them stay on top of those grant opportunities. I’m more than happy to talk to any manufacturers about that database and how we can help them.
Brett Housholder [00:59:20] I would add to that, for small businesses the most important thing, I think, is to be aware of the resources that are out there to help you. Programs like the PTAC, and the Small Business Development Center, and Women’s Business Centers, and SBA receive funding to provide support for small businesses, and 99% of the time there’s no cost associated with the services. I can’t tell you how many clients have come into our office, or the last two years come into our Zoom meetings, and said, “I wish I had known about this resource years ago, because I spent so much time and energy trying to figure it out myself.” Just being aware that there are so many different amazing programs out there providing small business assistance. I just want to also stress one thing, because there are so many PTACs and so many SBDCs all over the country. Our program, we do work with companies in Imperial, Orange, and San Diego County, but if you have listeners located outside of those areas like you mentioned earlier with the SBDC, there’s a PTAC somewhere nearby that can help. If you’re not from San Diego, Orange, or Imperial, there is somebody out there that can help. My biggest piece of advice is just figure out what resources are out there. If you don’t know, reach out to one of us, and we’ll point you in the right direction.
Gregg Profozich [01:00:36] If I’m in Stanislaus, or Bakersfield, or Eureka, or Redding, I can still get support. I don’t have to call someone in San Diego.
Brett Housholder [01:00:42] You can reach out to us first. We’ll just redirect you and say, “It’s not going to be us that works with you, but this PTAC located in Riverside,” for example, “provides the same services we do.”
Gregg Profozich [01:00:51] Awesome. All right. I’m going to try to do a quick summary here and just reiterate some of the things we’ve covered. If there’s anything that gets missed or you want to cover and want to add it at the end, I’ll leave some time for that, certainly. We talked a little bit today about grants and government contracts and the differences between them, some of the different kinds, and the elements of them. Both are funding, in a sense, available to achieve specific outcomes. A grant that doesn’t require payback comes with an agreement and tends to be a little bit more fluid, meaning they can change from year to year based on budgets available, and political whims, et cetera, et cetera. Government contracts are agreements to work and deliver a specific deliverable at an agreed-upon price by a certain time. A number of different kinds. We’ve got SBIRs; we’ve got STTRs as some of the grant opportunities there for innovation, Small Business Innovation Research or Small Business Technology Transfer research. We talked a little bit about the fact that the grant landscape has gotten a lot more active since the CARES funding came out, and it’s likely to stay that way for a while. Supply chain issues have highlighted that. To the government’s credit, they’re addressing some of the things that were weaknesses in our supply chain and in our economy that were identified through the pandemic: supply chain issues, semiconductors, workforce training. A lot of funding is available around those things. Everybody has workforce. Everybody has supply chain. There might be some ways to access some of that funding and solve some of the problems that your industry or your company is experiencing. We talked about the fact that there’s $500 billion—half a trillion dollars—in grants that go out every year across the whole federal government but specifically, $260 billion awarded contracts, also, in manufacturing, and $24 billion in California, which are some significant numbers. There’s a lot of funding going out. Funding is available for a number of different categories from R & D to facilities and capital expansion to training, recycling, energy efficiency, and renewable energy, exporting, and then, technology. There are a lot of open contract opportunities right now for the federal government, over 42,000 of them that mention manufacturing. The way that one qualifies for funding is to get registered on the various portals. One of the ways is to get registered with a DUNS number that will soon be replaced by a UEI and then, also to register on sam.gov. For state grants, there’s often a portal the state will have you register on, and it helps them do things like verify your presence in the state and collect some demographic information they need to make sure you qualify for the funding. Once you’ve got that in place and you can apply, the keys are to have a well-thought-out project in mind. Is this something we do that matches our strategy? Is this something that fits to the letter of the law of what the funding is for? How do we best put that together, then? There are set asides of funding for special characteristics: women-owned, veteran-owned, rural, et cetera. If your organization meets those criteria, there’s funding available you might access. One of the best ways to do that we talked about was to see if you can partner as a subcontractor on a larger government contract. There are various ways of accessing the funding. From a contract perspective and a grants perspective, contracts are usually issued an RFQ or an RFB, sometimes an RFP—request for quote, request for bid, or request for proposal. Of the three of those, the request for proposal is a little tougher, because it has a technical section on how the objective will be achieved. They’re all looking for past experience. Grants process—we’re going through that—is to review the RFP twice, if you can. Highlight everything. Go through requirements and the criteria. Make sure that you’ve got a good, clear understanding. It could be an RFP, request for proposal, or it could be a NOFO, Notice of Funding Opportunity from the federal government. List out the information needed. What is everything the proposal is asking for, and what do we have? What do we have to create? What do we have to assemble? How do we put it all together? Put together a timeline for either your contract or your grant proposal. Make sure you meet it before the deadline. Try to submit at least two to seven days in advance, because the government systems do often go down for scheduled or unscheduled maintenance. Then, make sure you execute your plan. Write it well and submit it. In that writing process, it’s good to make sure specifically that you’re following the instructions. You’re matching your proposal to the top one, two, five, whatever that number is, requirements of what the outcomes are supposed to be, and demonstrate very clearly that you’re going to do that. Then, it’s a great idea to bring in an outside reviewer to provide some feedback. That way, you can make sure you connect the dots, and the reviewers can understand exactly what you’re proposing. Especially when you’re doing technical proposals, make sure you connect the dots, because the reviewer may not be as technically savvy as yourself or as the person who created the RFP or the NOFO in the first place. You have to connect the dots and make it make sense to them. Best practices for contracts or grants: be persistent. You may not get the first award you apply for but a few attempts to get that first contract. Work as a sub, if you can, on a larger contract as a way to get your feet wet. Marketing to the government’s going to be a little different. Your materials might need to look a little different. You may need to change it for requirements of information they want on it. Be flexible, and prepare to pivot to do that. Especially if you’re going to be contacting anyone in government procurement, do your homework, and do your research. Come to them with, “I work in your industry, and it looks like you have these open proposals. I think we can help you because…” as opposed to walking up and asking, “Hey, we work in this industry. Is there anything you have for me?” type of thing. If you come prepared, you’ll go a lot further. Make sure that your proposals are well-planned, and stay on top of opportunities. Grants landscape especially changes very fluidly. Federal budget getting approved opens up new opportunities every year, and things can come online throughout the year. Notice the funding opportunities and RFPs. Stay on top of those. Make sure that what you’re submitting in your proposal aligns well with your own internal strategy. Don’t chase money for the sake of money. Chase funding from the government for the sake of advancing your strategic objectives, and look for that synergy as you’re going forward. When you’re writing a proposal, also don’t provide anything that’s not asked for. Be maliciously compliant. Answer exactly what they’re asking for and no more to make sure that you don’t have fluffy sections in there and things that are going to distract the reviewer and take away from the weight and the gravity of your proposal. Don’t try to substitute. Meet the requirements. The government says what they want, and they’re not going to change it even if your solution is better. Follow the instructions to a T. Then, use the quote-unquote, as Micki described, silly requirements to your advantage. If it has to be one-inch margins, use that to your advantage. If it has to be nine-point font, use that to your advantage. Follow those, and make sure that you meet those. Then, once you’ve submitted your proposal—hopefully, two to seven days in advance—don’t expect an immediate answer. The government moves on the government’s time, but they do have a deadline for when they have to get everything out, and they typically will release them in bulk. Just be waiting and watching, and see how successful you’ve been. Anything I missed on there? Anything I misstated, Brett or Micki?
Micki Vandeloo [01:07:48] No. Perfect.
Brett Housholder [01:07:50] I think that was great.
Gregg Profozich [01:07:51] Well, Micki, Brett, it was great to have you here today. I really appreciate you joining me today and sharing your perspectives, your insights, and your expertise with me and with our listeners.
Micki Vandeloo [01:07:59] Thank you for having me.
Brett Housholder [01:08:01] Absolutely. It was fun.
Gregg Profozich [01:08:02] To our listeners, once again, thank you for joining me on this conversation with Micki Vandeloo and Brett Housholder in discussing government funding opportunities for SMMs. Have a great day. Stay safe and healthy.
Thank you for listening to Shifting Gears, a podcast from CMTC. If you enjoyed this episode, please share it with others and post it on your social media platforms. You can subscribe to our podcasts on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or your preferred podcast directory. For more information on our topic, please visit www.cmtc.com/shiftinggears. CMTC is a private nonprofit organization that provides technical assistance, workforce development, and consulting services to small and medium-sized manufacturers throughout the state of California. CMTC’s mission is to serve as a trusted adviser providing solutions that increase the productivity and competitiveness of California’s manufacturers. CMTC operates under a cooperative agreement for the state of California with the Hollings Manufacturing Extension Partnership Program, MEP, at the National Institute of Standards and Technology within the Department of Commerce. For more information about CMTC, please visit www.cmtc.com. For more information about the MEP National Network or to find your local MEP center, visit www.nist.gov/mep.