Business Rx: He's got the right service; now it's a matter of marketing
If you have a business plan and know there is a need for your service, figuring out how to reach your target market doesn't have to be top secret.
Jim Hennessey is quick to say he would not call himself a businessman. For 25 years, he worked for the federal government performing background checks on people seeking security clearances. When he retired in July 2008, he realized there was a market to help people facing a federal background investigation for a security clearance. Plus, he enjoyed demystifying the process that he spent his career performing. Hennessey found that there aren't many options for people who need help navigating the security clearance route -- there are lawyers who specialize in security-clearance law, but many charge high rates, the majority don't have firsthand knowledge of the process, and they usually only get involved once a person is denied a clearance. With the encouragement of his family and two friends in business, Hennessey set up a one-man shop, JLH, from his home office in Rockville.
In the Washington region, security clearances are a great career asset. Federal and military employees and applicants, government contractor personnel, federal appointees and others whose work may call for interaction with sensitive information must go through the complex and often confusing clearance process. The faster they can navigate the process, the faster they'll get their results -- saving organizations time and money.
"I do in-person and online consultations. I clarify the often difficult and unclear instructions that come with the various security forms, answer all questions, concerns, and give guidance about the entire three-part process (the application, the background investigation and the adjudication). Many times the instructions are not very clear and many folks don't understand many items asked, which isn't a lot of fun. For people up for a government security clearance, not obtaining that clearance can have major rippling effects on their career.
"I really enjoy this work, and it seems there is a need for my services; I just need to somehow get the word out there. I get some business through security-clearance forums online. But business seems to come all at once, then a dry spell. I don't mind if I have to spend money for advertising, but being on a budget, I would like to know that my advertising dollars are well-spent."
Asher Epstein, managing director, Dingman Center for Entrepreneurship at the University of Maryland's Robert H. Smith School of Business
"Any time the value proposition for your service is crystal clear like this, the sales efforts are so much easier. You know that people need your service -- every day that they are not 'cleared' is a day of lost productivity for the company. That's a really good thing, but that doesn't help you with the bigger issue -- making sure you have consistent deal-flow.
"It's very difficult to find one-off type customers, so go to some of the top defense contractors and companies that are hiring hundreds of people a year that need security clearances and market yourself as the resident expert that will help make sure the employees get through the process in a timely manner. Identify the top 10-15 largest government contractors in this region and start by approaching the smallest, then working your way up and scaling up your pitch. I don't think you need to advertise. This is all about word of mouth. No company is going to pick someone out of the Yellow Pages for security clearances -- they are going to want someone who really knows what they're doing, and your credentials speak for themselves.
"Another thing to think about: When you're doing a service-type business, I think it's a lot easier if you begin to think of your services in terms of packages and products rather than billing by the hour. It's also better for your clients because they won't be worrying about checking their watch and getting nickeled-and-dimed every time they call or e-mail you. Standardizing what you offer becomes a compelling way to simplify your market position."
"I see great potential in the idea of aiming for the types of companies that have large numbers of employees that need to be cleared instead of putting a lot of my effort and resources into getting a client here and there. Also, the idea of marketing my service as a set-price package is something I hadn't thought of, but that certainly makes a lot of sense."
Looking for some advice on a new business, or need held fixing an existing one? Capital Business and the experts at the University of Maryland's Dingman Center for Entrepreneurship at the Robert H. Smith School of Business are ready to assist. Contact us as firstname.lastname@example.org.