Under mammoth gold chandeliers, Vinod Srikanth, senior director of Synergii, worked a wood-paneled room at the Army Navy Club in downtown Washington. His quarry: government officials and major-league contractors who could award homeland security business to the five-year-old Springfield company that creates complex computer systems.
"We don't know people in the agencies," Srikanth said after a seminar Tuesday on the homeland security market. "They're inundated with phone calls and e-mails." And when you finally make a crucial contact, he added, "you've got one shot" to make your case.
The morning's speakers were interesting, if predictable, and the pie chart projecting a $33 billion budget in 2005 for the Department of Homeland Security was a real crowd-pleaser. But the opportunity to network with government big shots and corporate titans before and after the speeches was the real draw for about 150 business people who came to the event sponsored by the Washington DC Technology Council.
Small technology businesses in the Washington area have learned that breaking into the homeland security business is a lot harder than they'd expected after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, created a large and urgent new market for everything from biometric security systems to massive databases. Just getting a call returned or a proposal considered is a victory.
"You basically have to do a lot of marketing," said Liz Sara, a consultant who is trying to line up homeland security work for Mind Over Machines, a Baltimore Web development and network services company. "You find the program managers, you walk the halls. It's a lot of blocking and tackling."
Synergii and Srikanth are new to the game. The company began focusing on the government market only two months ago.
Its first step was becoming certified by the government as a "disadvantaged business" through the 8(a) business development program, which offers such status to minority-owned and other firms that qualify. Contracting policies encourage big companies to set aside work for businesses with the 8(a) designation, which Srikanth lists on his business card. The second step was joining the Small Business Administration's Mentor-Protégé Program. It matched Synergii with McLean consultancy BearingPoint, which helped teach the company how to compete for federal contracts.
Srikanth did his homework before the seminar at the Army Navy Club, reading up on one of the guest speakers, Barry West, chief information officer of the Federal Emergency Management Agency. But West didn't take questions after his remarks, and he scooted out before Srikanth and others in the audience got a chance to lobby him.
Srikanth was equally eager to talk with Jeff Ellis, who manages homeland security programs for Lockheed Martin in Bethesda. As audience members lined up to talk to the speakers, the two shook hands, and Ellis invited Srikanth to send him an e-mail.
Ellis said he gets multitudes of phone calls and e-mails from small-company executives. He tries to answer all of them for fear the defense giant will miss the perfect solution to some big problem. "You have to get them to the right people," Ellis said. "It's connecting the people and giving feedback."