Interested in attracting new clients to your small business? Government contracting can open up millions of dollars worth of new business, but securing a contract isn't at all easy. Thankfully, if you've served in the military, and especially if you've incurred a service-related disability, you are often eligible for a certification that will put you squarely in line to receive up to 3 percent of prime federal government contracts and subcontracts, according to The Veterans Entrepreneurship and Small Business Development Act of 1999.

However, registering as a veteran-owned or service-disabled veteran-owned business is not as cut and dry as, say, registering as a woman-owned business or a minority-owned business. Aside from the Veterans Affairs office, there's no single government body or third-party operation you can turn to to receive your certification.  

For that reason, many people forgo certification altogether unless their goal is to compete for government contracts. Even if you're not interested in working with the government, research by the National Veteran Owned Business Association (NaVOBA) shows that 70 percent of Americans would prefer to do business with a veteran-owned business than one that is not veteran-owned. Advertising your "veteran-owned business" status on your storefront, signage, website, letter head, and at the bottom of e-mails may be all you need to attract new business. In many cases, such as doing business with local contractors, suppliers, and even large corporation, a formal certification isn't necessary.

This guide will help you determine if you need to get certified, and if the answer is yes, where and how to register to become a veteran-owned or service-disabled veteran-owned business.

How to Get Certified as a Veteran-Owned Business: Do You Qualify?

The qualifications for becoming a veteran-owned or service-disabled veteran-owned business are very specific. You must own at least 51 percent of the company applying for certification. But it's not enough to be an owner just in name. You must also be in control of management and day-to-day operations within the business.

To prove that you are a veteran, you will need to have a Department of Defense Form 214 (DD 214), which is issued upon a military service member's retirement, separation or discharge from active-duty military. If you intend to apply for service-disabled status, you will also need a letter from the United States Department of Veteran Affairs stating that you are, indeed, service-disabled. Contact the VA's benefits office if you have lost or misplaced this disability status letter.

Of course, there's more to consider than whether or not you're actually an owner, and a veteran or service-disabled. Chris Hale, president of NaVOBA, says that not everyone is equipped to go after such large government contracts, because of size and operation restrictions.

"If you have something the government purchases, and if you're willing to invest heavily in a sales and marketing team to go after government business, by all means do so," he says, "but those two things are absolute necessities. Don't think, 'I'm just going to register on this site and all of a sudden stuff's just going to start pouring in.' The opposite of that is true."

On the other hand, if pursuing government contracts is not your goal, you may not need to get certified through the VA's office. "There are already three million veteran-owned businesses in the country," Hale says, pointing out that many of them are not certified through the VA. "The reality for the majority is just realizing that if I'm a veteran and a business owner those two things put together actually mean something."

Many large corporations include veteran-owned businesses in their supplier diversity programs and have their own certification process. The majority will accept your DD 214 as proof and not require any further registration through the VA's office.

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How to Get Certified as a Veteran-Owned Business: Registering with the VA

If you qualify and think that your company (and your pocketbook) will be able to sustain the expense of a marketing campaign targeting the government, you may want to consider registering with the VA. It is the only government agency with a formal verification process, adding an additional element of legitimacy to your registration.

The VA has a number of contracts set aside that fall first to service-disabled veterans and then to veterans. This program is especially appealing to veterans who have not achieved service-disabled status, because the federal government does not provide set asides to veteran-owned businesses, rather it sets goals that may or may not get met.

Service-disabled veteran Carol Craig, founder and CEO of engineering and technical services company Craig Technologies says, "If I weren't service-disabled, I'd definitely go through the VA, because you'll have a better chance of receiving a contract."

The first step of getting certified through the VA is registering with the VetBiz Registry, which is a veteran business database. The Center for Veterans Enterprise provides the registry as well as step-by-step guidelines on applying for certification with the VA. Mentioned earlier, you'll also be required to have the DD 214 form and possibly a letter from the United States Department of Veteran Affairs stating that you are service-disabled, if applicable.

Once the VA begins the verification process, Forman says they will evaluate partnership agreements, corporate charters, organizational charters, board of directors, mission statements, inventory, service providers, bank statements and tax information, so it's a good idea to have these records organized and prepared. A select few businesses will also be subject to on-site visits, both announced and unannounced, during the verification process.

"To get the seal, you need to go through the verification process and meet all the tests," Forman says.

James Mingey, president and CEO of the Veterans Corporation, recommends registering with the VA even if you're not doing business with the federal government. "If you go through the VA it can help you marketing-wise. A lot of regional governments and corporations will do business with you based on that certification."

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How to Get Certified as a Veteran-Owned Business: Registering with the Central Contractor Registration

Even if you've registered with the VA, you must also register with the Central Contractor Registration (CCR) to be eligible for any government contracts. The CCR's site has a complete list of guidelines explaining what you'll need to register. The links below will direct you to all the information you'll need to apply:

•    A Tax Identification Number (TIN) is either an Employer Identification Number or a Social Security Number. If you receive a new EIN number, it may take two to five weeks to become active, meaning you will have to wait to register with the CCR. To obtain an EIN, click here.

•    The North American Industry Classification System (NAICS) is the standard by which the government classifies businesses. To figure out what NAICS code your business operates under, click  here.

•    A DUNS number is a nine-digit identification number for your business. To get one, click here.

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How to Get Certified as a Veteran-Owned Business: Registering as a Service-disabled Veteran

All federal agencies have set aside contracts for service-disabled veterans, meaning that if you do plan on doing business with the government, it would be smart to seek out a service-disability rating from the VA. There is no minimum disability rating required to register as a service-disabled veteran. You are eligible for the same benefits, regardless of whether you have a zero percent rating or a 100 percent rating.

"It can be anything from hearing loss to diabetes to gunshot wounds," Forman says.

According to Forman, however, if you do have a 100 percent rating, most agencies allow a husband, wife or caregiver to run the business. "If someone who's 100 percent dies of the injury sustained, the spouse can also continue to run the business for up to 10 years as a veteran and accrue all the benefits of a veteran," he says.

Craig, who completed the process of becoming a service-disabled veteran through the CCR's self-certifying program, says the process of registering was simple. She registered with the CCR using a DD 214 and proof of disability from the VA. Again, you will need to follow the CCR's guidelines for additional required information.

"The easy part is registering," Craig says. "The hard part is actually learning the government contracting world."

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How to Get Certified as a Veteran-Owned Business: Registering with the GSA

To land those big contracts, Hale says it is vital to register with the General Services Administration.
"Think of the GSA as an auditing body that determines if your product or service is one that is high enough quality for the government to purchase," Hale explains. "It's a big catalog of stuff that the government buys. If you're one of the vendors that's included in there, then that definitely helps you in getting government business."

That being said, getting on the GSA schedule is no easy task. First, you'll have to review the list of GSA schedules to determine which category your products and services fall under. Again you will need to register with the CCR, complete the Online Representations and Certifications Application, and obtain an Open Ratings Past Performance Evaluation.

Complete application information is available on the GSA's website and training sessions are also offered throughout the year. The training will teach you not only how to successfully apply, but also how to understand government agency procurement programs.

Though Craig says she did hire an independent consultant to help her through the process, Mingey says, "For my money, as a veteran, I'd go for the free training with the GSA."

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How to Get Certified as a Veteran-Owned Business: Other Options

The federal government isn't the only place you can go to get preferential treatment. NaVOBA has released a StateTracker that not only indicates which state governments have legislation relating to veteran-owned businesses, but also provides links as to how you can register or self-certify with those state governments.

"California is the only state that has specific set asides for veteran contracts, but if you're not certified, you can't get them," Mingey says. "There are a number of states that are considering legislation to do similar things."

Hale says NaVOBA will also begin registering veterans for its Buy Veteran program by the end of the year, which will enable you to self-certify on their site, and allow people who are interested in working with veterans to find you.

"That's a third-party entity vouching that you're a veteran-owned business," Hale says.

Dig Deeper: California Legislation on Veteran-owned Businesses

How to Get Certified as a Veteran-Owned Business: Resources

SCORE offers counseling to small business owners around the country and can set you up with specialists in veteran-owned businesses.

The Center for Veteran Enterprise has tons of information on starting a business, financing and searching for business opportunities.

NaVOBA can help you network with other business owners and give you answers to frequently asked questions.

Veterans Corporation links you with training opportunities around the country.