The Next Mission: Autonomy

Some veterans are discovering that the rigid life of the military can be the ideal preparation for the freedom of entrepreneurship.
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This story appears in the July 2010 issue of Entrepreneur. Subscribe »

The close connection between military service and entrepreneurship became clear to Mike Haynie shortly after he began teaching at Syracuse University in 2006, after serving 14 years in the U.S. Air Force.

"Entrepreneurship confers a sense of autonomy and control that many veterans find exceedingly attractive after an extended period of military service, where individual autonomy and control is 'given up' for the greater good of the organization," says Haynie, assistant professor of entrepreneurship at the Whitman School of Management at Syracuse.

He also notes that veterans often find it difficult to apply the knowledge and skills they learned in the military to civilian employment.

"Entrepreneurship becomes a mechanism through which they can leverage that prior knowledge toward a vocational path," he says. "I thought, 'Why don't we take something we do well and develop a venture to leverage the skills of our veterans?'"

That venture is the Entrepreneurship Bootcamp for Veterans With Disabilities . The program, which Haynie founded in 2007 and has expanded to six universities around the country, is offered at no cost to veterans with disabilities. The goal is to teach them how to become entrepreneurs and to help them develop strategies to overcome their specific challenges. More than 200 veterans--including the two profiled here--have completed the program, and 150 more will have completed it within the next few months.

"At its core, entrepreneurship is about the ability to create and grow a sustainable venture in a resource-constrained environment," Haynie says. "This is a skill learned well by all military folks, and they recognize that skill as a competitive advantage in a startup environment."

The Commercial Builder
John Raftery's descriptions of what it was like in the military are pretty much interchangeable with those of what it was like to start his own business.

"If something needed to be done, you figured it out," he says, "If you didn't originally have what you needed, you had to find your own resources."

Raftery entered the U.S. Marine Corps in 1999, serving in the infantry and then in a reconnaissance battalion. He went through several deployments, including Operation Iraqi Freedom in 2003. After being discharged in August 2003, Raftery tried to give his career some direction.

"I held about six jobs afterwards, trying to figure out where I fit once I left the military," he says. He went to school and studied to become an accountant then started working at a healthcare company in 2005--which didn't exactly allow him to experiment with new ideas and take risks.

So Raftery applied to the Entrepreneurship Bootcamp for Veterans With Disabilities, becoming one of the first veterans accepted into the program. The outcome of his boot camp tour was Patriot Contractors , which he launched in 2007. The Red Oak, Texas, company provides commercial and government clients with building and architectural specialties, including wall protection, countertops, vanities, fire protection, signage and other items.

"We accessorize buildings," Raftery says. "We work with general contractors. We'll propose a package to come in at the end. We're the last contractor in there, finishing everything out."

His working in smaller groups as part of a military recon team helped Raftery understand how to get the best out of a staff and figure out how to apply the capabilities--and deal with the limitations--of others. "It was really hands-on," he says. "When we went out on an op, we knew we had to depend on one another."

Patriot earned about $750,000 in revenues in 2009 and is on track to earn three times that much this year, Raftery says. But the first year of figuring out the right direction was difficult and uncertain--more situations normal for a veteran of combat. "It gave me not only the confidence to lead, but also the willingness to go after new things," he says. "It eliminated that fear of going into uncertain situations."

For Raftery, military service and the experience of starting and running a business can be summed up the same way: "It's not just an ordinary job."

The Filmmaker
Brian Iglesias didn't come out of the military wanting to be a filmmaker--he knew he wanted to be one when he went in. But his experience as a combat-decorated U.S. Marine gave him one skill in particular that helped him achieve his goal.

"We have the ability to thrive in chaos," Iglesias says of military personnel--Marines in particular. "My peers don't come out of college or business school with the same skills. You need to have experience and time on the ground doing it."

Iglesias enlisted in the Marines in 1995, worked his way through the ranks to captain and graduated from Temple University with a film degree in 2002. He was deployed to Iraq in 2003 and again in 2004, then he set out to pursue a film career.

"I tried to do it on my own, to build the experience and connections, but it just wasn't happening," Iglesias says. Military training, though, had prepared him to deal with the adversity of trying to launch.

"Plans don't survive the first contact," Iglesias says. "Once people start shooting, the plans go out the window. Things go wrong, things break, the mission changes. You're literally planning and executing at the same time."

Iglesias enrolled in the Entrepreneurship Bootcamp for Veterans With Disabilities in 2008 and by 2009 had launched a small independent film company called Veterans Inc.

His first movie, Chosin, a documentary on the Korean War, was completed this year. It attracted the attention of Mad-Media production company, which is making a $100 million 3-D war movie based on it, with Iglesias as an executive producer: 17 Days of Winter will dramatize a little-known battle during which 15,000 U.S. troops escaped from an overwhelming force of Chinese soldiers--all while liberating nearly 100,000 Korean refugees.

Iglesias, who forecasts more than $200,000 in Veterans revenues this year, and his filmmakers interviewed 185 Korean War veterans in 27 cities and finished the documentary in a year, doing what needed to be done to make it happen and applying a main tenet of the Marine Corps.

"Living out of a van, filming it ourselves and editing it in the spare bedroom--you have to be able to suffer for the dream," he says. "We are trained to put the mission ahead of personal comfort. You have to be able to gut it out."

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