Multilingual Solutions Presdient Laurie Campos in her Rockville office. (Jeffrey MacMillan/For Capital Business)

The idea came from an overzealous Oprah Winfrey fan who opted to buy every product and follow every morsel of advice the then-talk show queen endorsed.

Laurie Campos Sandler decided she’d use that same tack after attending a “matchmaking” event last month that linked federal agencies seeking contractors and women and minority small-business owners like herself seeking deals with the government. When she returned to her Rockville office after the session, Campos Sandler compiled a list of about 40 recommendations she was given to better position her language translation firm to win new contracts — and then she began following up on every one of them.

Campos Sandler ordered the $20.93 “Blueprint to a Billion” book a Commerce Department official suggested, hoping it might help her approach the stratospheric heights of Winfrey. She sent an e-mail to the manager of Fannie Mae’s supplier diversity program outlining her past performance on a contract with the Air Force and her desire to provide translation service at the mortgage finance agency’s foreclosure prevention workshop.

She even started changing her body language to make herself appear more friendly — smiling more, modulating her voice to register emotion and avoiding folding her arms or putting her hands in her pockets, which can make people appear to be hiding something.

Even though federal agencies are routinely trying to reach out to a wider selection of contractors, especially women and minorities, the procurement process can be difficult to negotiate. The bar to qualify and compete is getting higher and higher, some business people say, and may grow tougher as budgets tighten and the government looks to do more work in-house.

“It’s a cumbersome process,” said Campos Sandler, president of MultiLingual Solutions.

Many small businesses don’t have the staff or time to endure the process, no matter how eager the government is for a broader contracting force.

“They have a lot of outreach programs but you have to do the work — and it's a ton of work,” Campos Sandler said.

Expanding the pool

The government during the past year has introduced a number of efforts aimed at expanding the pool of women and minority contractors.

Early this year, the U.S. Small Business Administration introduced a set-aside program for women-owned contractors and revised regulations in its so-called 8 (a) program to ensure that contracts go only to the people it was intended to help: owners from disadvantaged groups.

The new Dodd-Frank law includes a provision requiring about 30 federal agencies that regulate financial institutions to establish outreach efforts to boost the number of minority and women vendors. Moreover, federal procurement officials from a range of agencies are participating in a growing number of matchmaking events and even offering training clinics to give contracting wannabes a detailed road map for how to win their business.

“Like in baseball, you have to understand the rules,” said Carlos E. Guzman, senior national business development specialist at the Commerce Department’s Minority Business Development Agency. “They have to be knowledgeable of the [federal acquisition regulations]. I give them books to read and some homework assignments to improve their knowledge.”

The federal government’s procurement spending in the Washington region has risen dramatically over time, to about $78.6 billion in fiscal 2009 from about $29 billion in fiscal 2000, according to the Center for Regional Analysis at George Mason University.

But overall, the government has fallen short of its procurement goals for spending with U.S. small businesses. In 2009, the government spent just 22 percent or $96 billion of the $442 billion it set aside for small businesses, according to the U.S. Federal Contractor Registration, a St. Petersburg, Fla.-based company that helps businesses win contracts with the government.

“There are not enough qualified, properly registered businesses,” said Dan Driscoll, the company’s treasurer. “If there were, the government wouldn’t have a problem meeting that goal.”

Any business seeking a federal contract must first register with Dun & Bradstreet to obtain a DUNS number, a nine-digit identifier. The second prerequisite is to go through the government’s prequalification process by filling out a 180-field form that will put the business in the Army’s central contract registration database.

Then, if someone from the company is lucky enough to meet a government procurement officer, the real work begins. The journey to approval, if everything goes well, on average can take 12 to 18 months, officials said.

“There are more expectations than there are opportunities,” said Alan Chvotkin, executive vice president and counsel of the Professional Services Council, an organization that represents government contractors. “Pursuing federal government business is not for the faint of heart.”

Tips from a GSA coach

Campos Sandler was among several hundred small-business owners who participated in a matchmaking event sponsored by the Latino Coalition and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. The group says participants have signed $8 billion in contracts in the nine years it has sponsored the event.

At that session, held at the Omni Shoreham Hotel in Northwest Washington, business owners sat across tables from procurement officers from several agencies, including the Justice Department, General Services Administration and the Defense Intelligence Agency.

Laura Rojas, president of the D.C.-based Washington Consulting Corp., and two of her partners met with an official from the GSA to inquire about how they might apply their experience helping foreign governments become more efficient. Sounding like a coach, Kevin Pope, the agency’s small-business technical adviser, outlined strategies for them to pursue a contract with the GSA and other agencies.

Pope urged them to go to the agencies’ Web sites and study their mission statements and find out what products and services they buy. He said the company should market itself to the ones whose needs they are most qualified to meet.

Then he gave Rojas and her partners a specific lead: A contract for an information technology program will be going out for bid soon. Pope suggested they “do their homework” and investigate the contract and consider teaming with another small business on the bid.

He offered to pass around their “capability statement” — a resume-like document for people seeking government contracts — and introduce them to division heads seeking contractors and acquisition people who award the contracts.

“Come back 30 days from today,” Pope said. “I’ll bring you to GSA.”

The $62 million payoff

Business-to-business matchmaking events have become big attractions in the Washington region. Business owners know that just one federal contract can bring them millions of dollars in revenue and take their firms to the next level in growth.

That’s what happened with Campos Sandler.

She started the business in 2002 to provide translation service for the military and hospitals, operating it for years with a small staff housed in a tiny top-floor office in a private school. Last year, the Air Force awarded the firm a contract that will pay up to $62 million.

The contract, she said, allowed her to expand her staff from 25 to 100 — adding back -office personnel in human resources, accounting, project management and even a chief financial officer — and move into a sprawling suite in a downtown Rockville office building. Revenue, she said, rose to $14 million in 2010 from $4 million pre-contract. She said she expects revenue to climb to $21 million this year.

Campos Sandler said the contract was a set-aside under the SBA’s 8(a) program for owners from disadvantaged groups. She said it took her years to complete the paperwork for the program. For instance, she had a tough time proving she was Hispanic because her grandparents were born in a small town in Mexico where there were no birth certificates. She eventually satisfied that requirement by submitting a letter verifying her ethnicity from a priest at the Rockville church where she grew up.

Since the conference in late May, Campos Sandler said she has spent 35 hours on her checklist. As she learns more through reading books recommended by speakers and her follow-up conversations with procurement officials, she is creating new checklists.

“We’re going to track all the real opportunities — revenue — that comes out of the [business-to-business matchmaking] meeting and all the advice I got out of the conference,” Campos Sandler said. “It will be interesting to see what transpires a year from this conference.”