As military engagements start to wind down after more than a decade of active combat, and as improved technology and weapons systems decrease our need for "boots on the ground," the composition and size of the U.S. military is quickly changing. With these changes, more of our military veterans are leaving the service and entering the civilian workforce.
While many veterans will seek and find traditional jobs at existing companies, some are breaking out on their own and starting new enterprises.
Historically, entrepreneurial veterans start brick-and-mortar businesses, such as restaurants, construction contractors and other service-related companies. Increasingly, however, some are looking to the technology industry to launch an idea.
One such veteran is Sean Maday, who after serving four years as an Air Force intelligence officer moved to Silicon Valley in 2009 to work for a variety of tech companies, including Google, Gnip and Mapbox, and to pursue his entrepreneurial aspirations.
Maday’s journey was not easy, and even as an experienced entrepreneur and technologist, he saw firsthand the challenges many veterans face while trying to break into the technology industry.
As Maday puts it, “The military and the technology industries are two very different communities with unique languages, cultures and stakeholders.”
Maday’s experience and strong relationship with other returning veterans who share his entrepreneurial aspirations is what prompted him to join Patriot Boot Camp (PBC), a nonprofit entrepreneurship program whose mission is to equip military veterans and their spouses with the education, resources and community needed to be successful technology entrepreneurs.
“My goal and the goal of the Patriot Boot Camp is to bridge that divide between military and technology experience and assist those veterans who wish to pursue their entrepreneurial dream,” he says.
As mentor for PBC, Maday says that veterans, through their training, have a natural ability to be entrepreneurs. Often, however, many know little about where or how to start. For this reason, Maday gives each of the veterans he councils this advice:
1. Focus on execution
All too often, inexperienced entrepreneurs are afraid that someone will steal their ideas. This fear causes them to feverishly guard their thoughts and consequently insulates their planning from outside influences.
Whether you have an idea for an app, a new device or a new service, you should take advantage of every opportunity to speak about your concept with others, especially those who can add value and assist in putting your idea in motion. In general, people will be supportive and look for ways to help.
Maybe more important, sharing your idea with others invites criticism. Honest feedback about your idea helps you avoid idea lock. In the end, your critics will force you to refine the idea and hone your pitch.
Military veterans know the power of execution and what it takes to get a job done. Someone may eventually steal your idea, but they can’t steal your resolve and resourcefulness. You will beat your competition based on your ability to execute.
2. Find a mentor
Mentorship is a critical component of technology entrepreneurship. Seek out mentors who have diverse business and technology expertise in areas such as engineering, product management, marketing and finance. These mentors will help you refine your idea, determine next steps and qualify new opportunities.
Also consider technology and entrepreneurship programs focused on serving veterans, such as the Patriot Boot Camp or the Bunker Incubator, which have made mentorship central to their curriculum. Get involved with these types of organizations to tap into their teams of mentors.
Also, keep in mind that there is no need for mentorship monogamy, and good mentors understand the need (and most likely have) many mentors. Seek out many different professionals with experience in many different areas.
3. Grow your network
Step outside your comfort zone, meet new people and get active in the technology and entrepreneurship communities. Local meetup groups, hackathons, startup weekends, technology incubators and boot camps are a great way to get involved and grow your network.
Don’t be intimidated by the learning curve inherent with approaching new software and hardware technologies. These communities are made up of passionate people who will respect you for taking an interest and will help you along the way.
4. Surround yourself with experts
As you get involved in the technology and entrepreneurship communities and meet new people, you should build a small cadre of trusted acquaintances. Nurture these relationships, communicate with these individuals regularly and collaborate with them wherever possible. From this group you can carefully select co-founders and advisors to complement your skills and gaps in expertise.
Veterans are adept at forming cohesive teams. Leverage this experience to build a team that can help grow your idea into a company.
5. Start now
Focus on the steps needed to get started today. There is a wealth of information about technology entrepreneurship online. Watch videos, read articles and listen to podcasts. Incorporating this material into your everyday routine will help you learn the jargon and understand the culture.
Also, do not delay or hesitate in attending events because you feel inexperienced or unprepared to do so. Many people who attend these events are in the same situation as you. If you are intimidated, consider joining or creating a group of people who share your passion and aspirations and use online blogs and Facebook groups as a way to connect, monitor discussions and educate yourself leading up to each event.
It is all together likely that a veteran entrepreneur will build the next Uber, Apple or Facebook -- especially if they take advantage of the resources and tips available to them.
Patriot Boot Camp is launching its next boot camp in April. For more information, check out its application process online.