I am a woman-owned business and want to market that with a general stamp. I will be applying for specific certifications along the way, but for now can I produce an ink stamp with my logo, adding "woman-owned business" for general use? —D.F., Pittsburgh
Your plan is probably fine, as long as you are majority owner (51% or more) of your business and you're not purporting to have an official title for which you haven't yet qualified. "Saying you're a woman-owned business is nice as a marketing tactic, but you cannot say 'certified woman-owned business' without going through the application process to get awarded" that title, says Camille Jayne, founder of Matters at Hand, an Irvine (Calif.)-based financial planning firm and past president of the National Association of Women Business Owners' Orange County chapter.
You should also make sure that your stamp isn't easily confused with or doesn't infringe upon the marks used by the government and private agencies that award official certifications, says Kimberly Porrazzo, editor-in-chief at Wobwire.com, a newswire that distributes news releases from women-owned businesses.
While your stamp could engender good will from some local customers (others may not care), it won't be useful in securing work from major corporations or government agencies looking to add more woman-owned businesses as suppliers and contractors. Most of those companies have targets for what percent of their outsourced work goes to women- and minority-owned vendors, but they count only officially certified vendors toward meeting those goals, says Marti Barletta, CEO and founder of The TrendSight Group, a Winnetka (Ill.)-based firm that specializes in marketing to women.
Official certification allows government and corporate buyers to ensure that their suppliers are actually women-owned, not frauds. There are three types of certification available, according to Margot Dorfman, CEO of the U.S. Women's Chamber of Commerce.
Federal. Women-owned companies can self-certify at the federal contracting registry. "There is a place to check women-owned status, and there is currently no formal certification process," Dorfman says, though regulations may change soon. The exception is the U.S. Transportation Dept., which does offer woman-owned certifications.
State and Local. Formal certification processes are established in many states, counties, and cities, most of them free. "Typically there is an application process that includes providing financial statements and a site visit to verify that the business is truly women-owned and not a front," Dorfman says.
Private. Some corporations require national certification for women-owned companies and others accept state or local certifications. Private national certifications, done by groups such as Dorfman's and the Women's Business Enterprise National Council, often include processing fees, applications, and site visits. The USWCC also offers a validation service of state and local certifications at a reduced rate.
Before you consider the time and expense of private certification, identify potential clients and do some research to see whether that certification will provide a healthy return on your investment. There aren't many small firms for which private certification makes sense, Barletta says. Those tend to have substantial staffs and can dedicate at least a quarter of one employees' time to monitor the certification, keep it current, and market the company to large corporations who support woman-owned vendors. "My guess is the system works absolutely best for big firms in the fields of construction, construction equipment, office equipment, building materials and supplies who get multi-megamillion dollar contracts from federal, state, and local governments," Barletta says.