While the Small Business Administration (SBA) offers a variety of government-backed business loans, the 8(a) program is different.

Primarily, the 8(a) program is not a loan. It is a service that helps small businesses access government contracts. And it is specifically designed for those who belong to historically disadvantaged groups. It may have similar requirements to business loans, but your business won’t receive any money or need to pay anything to participate.

The application process is lengthy, but qualifying for the 8(a) program will give your business the opportunity to compete for government contracts and unique mentorship opportunities.

What is the SBA 8(a) program?

At least 5 percent of all federal contracts go toward small disadvantaged businesses each year. The 8(a) Business Development program is designed by the SBA to help businesses secure these government contracts, giving your business an edge when competing for contracts under any U.S. agency or department.

To qualify, a business must be at least 51 percent owned and operated by socially and economically disadvantaged people. These are defined by the Code of Federal Regulations (CFR).

  • Socially disadvantaged individuals “have been subjected to racial or ethnic prejudice or cultural bias within American society because of their identities as members of groups and without regard to their individual qualities. The social disadvantage must stem from circumstances beyond their control.”
  • Economically disadvantaged individuals are “socially disadvantaged individuals whose ability to compete in the free enterprise system has been impaired due to diminished capital and credit opportunities as compared to others in the same or similar line of business who are not socially disadvantaged.”

Your business must be certified by the SBA before you can participate. If each owner qualifies and the business meets other requirements, it will give your business preference for government contracts.

The 8(a) program lasts nine years. The first four years are a developmental stage to build your business and train owners, and the last five years are a transitional stage to help you maintain momentum once the program ends.

Your business will have access to training and technical assistance during the 8(a) program, including assistance for management, technical, financial and procurement issues. There is also one-on-one development assistance from the federal government and mentorship from established firms through the SBA Mentor-Protégé program.

Pros and cons of the SBA 8(a) certification

Although the 8(a) program does have a lengthy application process and limits what businesses qualify, the benefits of joining will likely outweigh the time it takes to apply.

Pros

  • Exclusive federal contracts. Participating in the 8(a) program will make your business eligible for sole source and set-aside contracts with the government.
  • One-on-one development assistance. The 8(a) program gives your business access to experts in compliance and regulations and one-on-one assistance.
  • Management and technical assistance training. Businesses in the 8(a) program can access the Management and Technical Assistance program, which provides training to make your business more competitive when applying for government contracts.
  • Mentorship with established businesses. Through the SBA Mentor-Protégé program, your business can access advice from experienced government contractors.
  • Continual development assistance. Although the SBA considers only the first four years a development stage, you will have access to development and transition help over the entire nine-year program.

Cons

  • Lengthy application process. You must submit the usual business documents, register with the federal government and provide a variety of forms and information to confirm your eligibility.
  • Limited eligibility. Your small business must meet SBA size standards in addition to meeting other certification requirements to qualify for the 8(a) program.
  • One-time eligibility. The SBA only allows businesses to certify and participate in the program once. After your business has completed the nine-year development term, it will need to pursue other options.
  • Annual review required. Your business — and its owners — must continue to meet the eligibility criteria every year. This is done by re-certifying, which will require time and paperwork.

SBA 8(a) certification requirements

To qualify, your business must meet time in business and size standards in addition to being majority owned by someone in a socially and economically disadvantaged group.

  • Size: Your business must meet SBA size standards for its NAICS classification.
  • Ownership: At least 51 percent of your business must be owned and controlled by socially and economically disadvantaged U.S. citizens.
  • Time in business: The SBA requires at least two years in business.
  • Personal finances: Owners must have a personal net worth of $850,000 or less, an adjusted gross income of $400,000 or less and assets totaling less than $6.5 million.
  • Good character: Business owners must “demonstrate good character” to qualify. But the SBA does not provide details on what this involves.
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Bankrate insight

If you don’t qualify for the SBA 8(a) program, here are a few alternative options worth considering if you are a business owner in socially or economically disadvantaged areas:

 

How to apply for the SBA 8(a) program

The application process for the 8(a) program is lengthy and requires a significant amount of paperwork. But once submitted, you should receive a decision within 90 days.

  1. Determine if your business is eligible for the 8(a) program.
  2. Look up your NAICS code(s).
  3. Register for the System for Award Management (SAM).
  4. Gather supporting documentation.
  5. Prepare a narrative, similar to a business plan, describing your business and its structure.
  6. Review the 8(a) application checklist for required documents and information.
  7. Complete the 8(a) application and submit supporting documentation.

The SBA will then review and process your application. Your decision result will be available through SAM.

The bottom line

The 8(a) program does require a significant amount of time and resources to apply for. But the benefit of qualifying for government contracts — and accessing other resources — can help your business grow over the nine years you are involved with the SBA.

Frequently asked questions

  • Yes. Your business must meet the 8(a) program eligibility criteria to continue participation. You will undergo an annual review with your SBA District Office.
  • The SBA states that business owners must have
    • A personal net worth of $850,000 or less
    • An adjusted gross income of $400,000 or less
    • Assets totaling $6.5 million or less
    In addition, your business must continue to meet the criteria to be considered a small business, as determined by the SBA.
  • To get 8(a) certification, your business will need to be considered a small business based on SBA criteria, including its NAICS code and annual revenue. But because the 8(a) program is intended for economically and socially disadvantaged groups, not all businesses can be certified.