Are you a veteran? Do you own a small business? Then you have an advantage over those who only watched the war on CNN. Specifically: Veteran-owned businesses have preference when bidding on government contracting jobs with the Department of Veterans Affairs. Each year, the VA sends about $3 billion to small businesses. Are you a plumber? An engineer? A landscaper? They are begging you to take this money.

(Across the wider government, 23% of federal contracts are targeted at small businesses, and service-disabled veterans are eligible for preference in these contracts. The Small Business Association can help with that; this piece will focus only on getting set up for VA contracts. Notably, this program is intended to eventually include the entire federal government.)

So what’s the catch? To actually get approved for VetBiz, you will have to navigate one of the most convoluted, Kafkaesque registration websites ever designed, and half the time, the information links you need to click will not work. This is not an exaggeration. And the paperwork process to get your business verified as veteran-owned is exhaustive.

But do not worry: I have been through the process. I am here to help you.

PRE-APPLICATION with the VA

Your gateway to doing business with the VA is the Office of Small & Disadvantaged Business Utilization. Their job is to help veterans “gain access to economic opportunity by leveraging the federal procurement system and expanding participation of procurement-ready small businesses.” The people you will be speaking with are good at their jobs, as you will learn, but your first step should be to give the website a good once-over. Once you feel like you have a grip and are ready to get verified, go here.

You will need a Vendor Information Pages account. Eligible business structures include pretty much everything from sole proprietorship to C-corp. But the critical element is that the business is veteran owned, and veteran controlled. It should be your full-time job. You must have 51% ownership. You must have total and absolute decision-making authority.

So far so good? Now for the necessary paperwork. There’s a lot of it. In addition to completing the expected, detailed online forms, you will also have to digitize and upload a lot of legal paperwork to prove that you are a legitimate business. This includes:

  • Business / occupational license
  • Resume
  • Personal taxes (Form 1040)
  • Form K-1 / Schedule C (three years)
  • Payroll ledger / W2
  • Bank signature card
  • Previous five contracts
  • Management agreements
  • Operating agreements
  • Business voting structure
  • Shareholder agreement
  • Business formation paperwork
  • Minutes from most recent board meetings
  • Articles of organization
  • Stock documentation
  • Franchise agreement
  • Joint venture management paperwork
  • Mentor-protege agreement
  • “Additional documents” (oh there will be many).

Now, you might be looking at this list and thinking: Whoa whoa whoa—I am an interior designer/electrician/dog walker! I don’t have stock certificates and minutes from the most recent board meeting! I am the board!

Do not panic. For any document that does not apply to your company, you will need to draft a “dated letter of explanation” (DLOE) stating precisely why you do not have, or require, the requested paperwork. For example: The application process might ask that you file an IRS tax form 941. If your business accounts for its taxes with the IRS differently, your letter must state so and explain why.

VERIFICATION with the VA

Once you upload each of the documents requested (give each document a meaningful name, both for your own records and for theirs), someone with the Office of Small & Disadvantaged Business Utilization will contact you. He or she will have questions. Some are very basic: I transferred between military branches, and for whatever reason, the system pulled up only older DD-214 that didn’t list my time in Afghanistan. So could I please provide my actual, final DD-214? Easy stuff.

But later, once we got into the weeds, I was writing several letters a week. Remember how the business must be 51% owned and managed by a veteran? I live in Louisiana—a community property state. So my wife had to write a letter stating that she relinquishes 2% of my LLC.

If you’re up on your paperwork, and your business is legitimate, the process is basically a lot of that. It’s not hard, but it’s exhaustive, and you will be digging out files you never thought you’d need again. In other words, do not be in a hurry while you go through this process. I am seriously on top of my paperwork, and it still took about three months from start to final approval. In some instances, you’re just limited by other people. For example, you will need a DUNS identification, and that takes time. (The company behind that also has to verify your business information, though the process was painless.) And depending on the type of business you run, you might have to think through some things. For example, what are your business hours? If you don’t have a storefront, that’s not necessarily a question you’ve ever needed to consider. My business hours are ALL DAY EVERY DAY. (I’m tired.) But if you are bidding on a contract, you will need something set and official. Because when you do get a contract, the VA will need to know when they can call you.

ACCURACY COUNTS

Befriend your case officer. You’re going to be spending a weird amount of time together. He or she really will do extraordinary things for you. Indeed, mine always felt like a companion guiding me through a complicated process. It felt like he wanted me to succeed. But that didn’t mean he let things slide. Look, when I say this process is thorough, I don’t mean “comprehensive.” No, I mean thorough. The best example I can give is this. One of the documents you must file are your tax returns (personal and business). I got a call a couple of weeks after submitting them and my officer had found a problem. A problem? A problem. He could not account for $17 in one of my tax forms from two years ago. Seventeen dollars.

My accountant missed it. I missed it. The Internal Revenue Service missed it! But not the Office of Small & Disadvantaged Business Utilization Center for Verification and Evaluation. So I had to first order transcripts from the IRS and make things right with them.

The point here is that these men and women are reading your paperwork. Closely.

And paperwork is going to be the thing that gets you. If, when setting up your business, you were sloppy, that’s going to come back to bite you. If you work full-time for somebody else, and your business is your hobby, you’re very likely to be rejected. If you lie, that’s going to get you banned. (Don’t lie!)

Here is the good news. Every step of the process, you will receive emails letting you know exactly what you need to do next. (I had no idea how to order tax transcripts. I’ve never had to do it before! But the email explained everything.) The website frequently let me down when I needed further information on some arcane point, but the email correspondence with my case officer and the actual document management portal were both rock-solid.

Moreover, there were, throughout, webinars to help me navigate the system. And once you are approved, the webinars continue on what comes next: how to bid for contracts, and so on. I never wondered: Yikes, what do I do now?

At the end of the process you get a decision. The whole thing felt a lot like applying for a security clearance, only for every block on the SF-86, you also had to prove it with paperwork. I was approved, but I was also meticulous. I can easily see someone getting sloppy or getting defensive when told you need letters explaining your leasing situation, or whatever. The upside to all this is that I actually feel  lot more confident about the contracting process now. When it comes to the VA, anyway, they don’t just let anybody do it. You have to be legitimate, and you have to be serious about your work.

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David Brown is a regular contributor to ClearanceJobs. He is currently at work on his next book, One Inch From Earth, which tells the story of scientists who study the outer planets of the solar system. He can be found online at https://www.dwb.io.