5 Veterans Share Their Tips for Successfully Transitioning From Service to Entrepreneurship
With Veterans Day upon us, there is no better time to laud the men and women who selflessly volunteer their time, energy and personal well-being to protect our country, allowing us the freedoms we enjoy. So, thank you to all who have, and continue to, volunteer and risk their lives in the service of our country.
Given today's observance, we should take the time to recognize and consider the other challenges veterans face as they return from active duty.
First, they've been secluded from the political and cultural events we stay-at-home Americans have known: from hurricanes to happenings in Washington to cultural oddities like the Fidget Spinner.
More seriously, returnees subjected to incredibly stressful and violent situations overseas may still suffer from debilitating injuries and emotional wounds, leaving deep scars that never heal.
In addition, when it comes to life after service, there is something more that is amiss -- entrepreneurship. After World War II, almost 50 percent of returning veterans started businesses. Since 9/11,that figure has dropped to less than 5 percent.
One organization, however,has set out to change this: Bunker Labs, a national not-for-profit organization helping veterans, their spouses and active duty service members start and grow businesses.
Recently, I moderated a panel discussion with talented veteran-entrepreneurs at an event Bunker Labs hosted in Wilmington, N.C. The event opened the floodgates to some amazing stories from these people, who, it turns out, wanted to share their stories with other veterans even more than they wanted to promote their businesses.
Here are the tips and lessons I gleaned from five of those conversations.
Ray Antonino/ PermitZone: Understand your career capital.
Upon returning to the United States, Ray Antonino transitioned from a 45-K (tank turret tech) and 95-B (military police) to a licensed contractor. His firsthand experience maneuvering contracting's complicated, cumbersome and archaic permitting process led him to start PermitZone, an online service aimed at making the building permit process easier.
"Don't listen to the people that tell you to 'follow your passion' or 'do something you love'," Antonimo started. "Doing so will set you up for failure and is a highly flawed way of thinking."
Instead, Antonino said he believed strongly in taking personal stock of your skills. "Read the book, So Good They Can't Ignore You [by Cal Newport]," he suggested, "and understand how the skills you have built can offer career capital."
He also emphasized that success is less about passion early on. "Once you understand what career capital is, and where you are in the process of obtaining it," he said, "then it will be time to leverage resources that help you convert your skills into the civilian work force."
Andrew Williams/ Elite Innovations: Have confidence and plan ahead.
While deployed in Afghanistan, in 2011, Andrew Williams and a fellow serviceman, Pete Foster, created a prototype of a product idea using parts of their gear and the assistance of a local Afghan sewing master. After nine iterations, they were able to get their product manufactured and distributed to every Marine Corps Exchange in the world.
Later, having left the military and learned the pain of development, sourcing and marketing a self-started product, Williams started Elite innovations, which focuses on engineering, prototyping and consulting, with a focus on assisting veteran-inventors.
Having confidence in your own ability and skills can serve you well if you're an entrepreneur transitioning into entrepreneurship. "You're a veteran, you've been getting it done your whole professional career," Williams said. "When you step into the entrepreneurship realm, it's just an extension of everything you've learned from a life at war."
As a serviceman, he said, he was trained to "control chaos," knowing when to pivot, and being able to handle the unknowns during the "fog of war." These situations mirror that of entrepreneurship, he said, acknowledging that much less is on the line, of course. Still, there is a commonality in terms of the unpredictable unknowns.
"The struggle isn't the hustle," he said. "It's correlating what you know with business and human capital goals, which requires creativity on your part."
Jessica Harris/ K9 Salute: Understand the costs associated with starting a business.
Jessica Harris is a retired combat medic who served with canine units. Upon retiring, she founded K9 Salute, a company that produces and provides healthy treats for all "four-legged heroes," as a way to honor and remember our nation's hero military dogs.
Harris said she enjoys helping ambitious veteran-entrepreneurs. "One of the most important things to consider when starting a new business is understanding how much it will cost," she said she tells them. "Most of us underestimate how much money it can take to get a business going. I would say 'Multiply your expected startup costs by two, maybe even three, depending on your business of course.'"
She admitted that she personally drastically underestimated the startup costs associated with her company while she was seeking funding: "Much [of my underestimations] was because my business plan evolved as the business started to grow, and I didn't anticipate that."
Financial planning is key, she added: "Give yourself the best possible start by either saving more money than you'll think you need or acquiring sufficient startup funds from the beginning. As veterans, we have some great resources for funding, so it definitely makes it much easier if you get it right from the beginning."
Phillip Freeman, Murphy's Naturals / Work with other companies that fit your vision.
Philip Freeman believes strongly in the importance of all-natural products and the benefits they provide, and he understands that health and wellness are closely connected to one's environment. For that reason, Freeman founded Murphy's Naturals, a line of earth-friendly products made from responsibly sourced, plant-based ingredients.
He said he finds it difficult to stand in the shoes of every veteran leaving service, and therefore tailors his advice to the personal experience of every veteran. Still, all entrepreneurs should start out with a couple of things, he noted: "First, establish a mission statement for yourself and your future endeavor based on your core values and passions.
"Sometimes," he added, "you solve a unique problem that needs a unique solution. Other times, you find a twist to how business traditionally addresses a problem, and you address it in a unique and fresh way that will evolve the marketplace. Regardless, understand the uniqueness of your purpose and avoid the traditional routes."
Veterans, Freeman said, should cooperate and collaborate with others who share a similar mission and passion. "Visit other entrepreneurial companies that fit your vision and values," he advised. "You will be surprised how willing they are to share."
Offer to work with them, Freeman continued. "Map out a bunch of companies on a map that fit your vision and go on a road trip to visit and interview their leadership. Remember that the companies you visit do not need to do what you want to do; they just need to share your values."
Ed Hall/ Petrics: Embrace and leverage your military training.
Ed Hall found the transition from service to civilian life unnerving. "For many, the military is a replacement for family and home while away," Hall explained. "Entering the civilian life after being in the military can definitely be a scary transition."
Deciding to pursue entrepreneurship is even worse. "I was absolutely excited and nervous," Hall admitted. "I was excited to go back to school, yet, I was nervous I was walking away from a stable, secure job."
Despite that nervousness, he fulfilled his entrepreneurial ambitions by founding Petric, which provides tailored health and nutrition information for pets (and their owners) via a mobile app and online platform. His military training helped, he said.
"I found that the military instilled phenomenal skills of adaptation, ability to continue under pressure, and even use that pressure to perform better and use it as a strength," Hall said. "This is why many veterans become good entrepreneurs, because those skills are everything that a business owner needs."
Today, as he tackles the immense and competitive pet industry, Hall said he enjoys advising other veteran-entrepreneurs to take heart about returning to the civilian world. "Just remember," he likes to tell them, "that you have had many worse things thrown at you and you were able to persevere."