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For many entrepreneurs Washington, D.C., is a tangle of departments, agencies and bureaus intricately tied together with regulations and red tape. And for small business owners who rely on federal contracts or the often obscure decisions of distant legislators, the time soon comes when you need a guide who understands how Washington works and how to make it work for you.
But when is the right time to seek professional help?
William Kirk, a partner and lobbyist at Washington-based Reid & Priest, says that time will vary for different companies. “There is usually some legislative proposal coming up that will have a material impact on your economic interests,” he says. And if, for example, your firm is competing for a specific contract, “A lobbyist can help you understand what’s going on in the procurement process and help organize support for your bid,” Kirk adds.
As Congress wrestles with issues and regulations that impact minority business development, retaining the services of lobbyists or consultants who monitor the various government agencies and branches ensures that you’re always informed. “The political process has its own set of protocols, and not everyone has the time or resources to understand them,” says Cheryl Alethia Phelps, president of Jericho Strategies, a Washington-based political image consulting firm. “That’s our job. Understanding and interpreting them [legislative issues] to the clients and adapting his or her message to fit specific parameters.” Phelps says a good lobbyist can articulate your issue, understand the other side and is prepared to respond to it.
Once you actually hire a lobbyist, you should expect to consult with him or her at least once a week, says Anita R. Estell, a partner and lobbyist at Washington-based Van Scoyoc Associates. “You should expect them to spend a significant amount of time explaining issues, helping you write letters, attending meetings and drafting testimony and legislative recommendations,” she adds. “We also help increase clients’ visibility by getting them to the people at the top and those who work with them.”
Estell, Kirk and Phelps have all worked and developed strong ties among decision makers on the Hill. “Relationships with members of Congress and key policy makers are important,” cautions Kirk, “but find someone who can really help articulate and be a counselor to you. You want someone who approaches lobbying as a substantive matter.”
Before hiring someone, you should get a clear understanding of what services you will receive and how much they will cost. Most lobbyists bill by the hour or negotiate a fixed fee depending on your needs. “You want to know what services you’re buying, who’s doing the work and that the fees and billing practices are up front,” warns Kirk. Rates may vary, but according to Kirk they average between $200-$400 per hour or as much as $4,000-$5,000 monthly. It’s common for entrepreneurs to form coalitions with common causes to share costs.
Finding someone to champion your cause is often done through word-of-mouth. Often someone in your industry or your own attorney can give you a referral. Look for