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-Protege 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."
Frank Clark, partner at Washington-based Q-Industries, said the big contractors need the little guys, like his company. "The large companies are desperate," he said. "They don't have everything." Through networking, Clark landed work with Lockheed Martin as a subcontractor on homeland security projects (for an agency he said he's not allowed to name). Q-Industries builds Web sites and does other custom work for government and commercial clients.
The guest speakers offered some practical tips for those new to the government market.
Ellis of Lockheed urged small businesses to "pick out your niche" and become expert in it. Equally important, he said: "Be credible. A lot of guys claim they're WMD [weapons of mass destruction] terrorism experts."
"You have to learn the vocabulary and the process," said Penny Pickett, the Washington DC Technology Council's new president. Dena Kisala, vice president at Reston information company Input, said getting to know the budget process is invaluable. She said the expected $33 billion homeland security budget for 2005, up $2.7 billion from the previous year, is likely to include big money for border defense, transportation security and bioterrorism prevention.
Mike Lucey, manager of the emergency response technology program at the National Technology Transfer Center, said the surfeit of would-be homeland security contractors doesn't make life easy from the government side either. Lamenting how difficult it is to separate the good pitches from the bad, Lucey said he wishes there were an "honest broker" who could give independent assessments of the best systems. Lucey said the top three projects of the research foundation, which works closely with FEMA, are high-tech tracking systems, bio-agent detectors and casualty locators.
John Sanders, chairman of the Washington DC Technology Council, put together and moderated the event at the Army Navy Club. He watched with approval what he called "the guys hustling business," the after-meeting networking. "What else is there to talk about?" asked Sanders. "It's the bottom line."
Srikanth, one of the last to leave the meeting room, seemed confident, even excited, about the chase. He said he knows the field is crowded, but now he had some personal connections he didn't have a day earlier. "We're going to get work from these agencies," he said.
Shannon Henry writes about Washington's technology culture every other Thursday. Her e-mail address is email@example.com.