He Decided to Join the Marines on 9/11 and Deployed 3 Times. Now, the Leadership Tactics He Learned Are Helping Him Grow a Spooky Business. Lance Zaal, veteran founder of U.S. Ghost Adventures, is determined to take his business to the next level — and give back to the world along the way.
- Lance Zaal learned a lot on his first deployment helping his platoon's leadership.
- A great leader is empathetic, a good listener, and firm but fair, Zaal says.
- Now, the entrepreneur is focused on growing his tour business and aiding the Ukraine resistance movement.
From a young age, veteran Marine Lance Zaal had an entrepreneurial spirit and strong work ethic. He grew up helping his father with his phone business, sometimes arriving at the job site at 4 a.m. and returning home at eight or nine o'clock at night. Zaal also set up a lemonade stand at the University of California, Irvine, to earn money for comic books and baseball cards; the venture was successful, pulling in $15 an hour after expenses.
But in those early years, Zaal never seriously considered entrepreneurship something he'd pursue or be good at — so he "shied away from anything business" in school. Neither of his parents had attended college, and without strong grades or encouraging teachers, Zaal began to consider joining the military. His uncle had served, and he'd always had a deep interest in history. The tragedy on 9/11 solidified Zaal's decision; he went to the recruiting station that day and was sworn into the Marines one week later.
"I just wanted to serve my country," Zaal tells Entrepreneur. "I wanted to do something different. I had other options, but I wanted to do something drastic to put my life on a different course, and the military was a great reset button to help with that."
Zaal went on to complete three deployments. He served in Baghdad, Iraq, in 2004; Cuba and Chile from 2004-2005; and Al-Anbar province and the city of Hit in Iraq from 2005-2006. His experience in the Marines helped open his eyes to new perspectives — an advantage when it comes to entrepreneurship, he notes.
After the military, Zaal graduated with a BA in international relations and economics from the College of William & Mary; he received his MBA there as well. Zaal launched a food tour during his time at the business school, and in 2013, he started ITourMobile (now called Junket), "an app that turns your phone into a tour guide." The app would expand into a business offering physical tours thanks to TripAdvisor's stipulation that its listings include an in-person component. Today, Zaal's U.S. Ghost Adventures provides tours and experiences in 60 cities across the country.
But Zaal acknowledges that the road to where he is now wasn't exactly linear or without its difficulties. He says he was "distracted" by other business ideas, including an incubator program and kombucha brewery, which pulled his attention away from the tour business at times. But Zaal embraces mistakes and failures as opportunities to learn and grow — and he also credits the Marines with imparting some critical lessons that have helped him navigate the ups and downs of entrepreneurship.
"I still had a lot to learn. But I did the best that I could. And I'm just grateful that I was around so many [great leaders]."
Zaal's first unit was a new anti-terrorism security team, and he was chosen to help the platoon's leadership because he was good with computers. But his time spent organizing logistics and training meant he missed a lot of training of his own. "I would also work a lot later when everybody else would leave," Zaal recalls. "I would still work, and I would work on weekends. I didn't like it. I still had to compete with everybody; I had to know everything that everybody else had to."
Despite the challenges, Zaal credits that position with helping him as an entrepreneur: It taught him how to manage multiple responsibilities and think things through from a business perspective. It also helped him get promoted, he says. Zaal went on to lead a squad of Marines in his last deployment in Iraq. In that role, he learned leadership and management skills that he continued to refine after the military.
"I wouldn't say I was a great leader at all in the military," Zaal admits. "I was still learning. I was young. I got out of the military when I was 21 years old. So I was extremely young, immature. I still had a lot to learn. But I did the best that I could. And I'm just grateful that I was around so many [great leaders]."
Being surrounded by effective leaders allowed Zaal to see what it takes to be one. He says empathy and the ability to listen are key — a great leader tries to understand your problems so they can help solve them.
"It doesn't mean that they're there to listen to every problem you have in the world," Zaal explains, "but they're there to support you. And I think it's important that they're there to support you and also see that you succeed. Because everybody in a military unit, platoon or squad, if you have one person that's not very good or proficient or having trouble, you want them to be better and stronger, because if they make a mistake, that could hurt you and everybody else."
Additionally, there's a human element in leadership that shouldn't be ignored either, Zaal notes. Still, that doesn't mean strong leaders won't be tough sometimes; rather, they should be firm but fair, he says.
"[My] military experience has given me a lot of competitive drive, and kind of [an] aggressive drive in building the business."
Zaal admits it was "hard to let go" of some endeavors to focus on U.S. Ghost Adventures and that part of the difficulty lay in caring too much about what other people might think. But then he realized that "it shouldn't be a factor." Prioritizing more "depth" and "stability" with the tour business mattered most — and it's what he's been doing since.
U.S. Ghost Adventures has seen a 2,600% increase in profit since 2019, Zaal says.
"[My] military experience has given me a lot of competitive drive," Zaal says, "and kind of [an] aggressive drive in building the business. I like looking at the strategic landscape of the business and making decisions. I do see a lot of parallels between the military and business. In some ways, it's like a strategy game in real life."
"And I like what I do," Zaal adds. "I wouldn't have to work very much if I didn't want to, but I still do because I enjoy it. It gives me purpose. It's not my only purpose, but it gives me a purpose, and with a lot of the money I've made, I've done other great things with it."
Zaal is actively involved in the Ukraine resistance movement. He founded an organization called Ghosts of Liberty, "a private group of U.S. combat veterans who believe in liberty and the freedom of people everywhere from tyranny." Since April of 2022, Zaal has made four trips to Ukraine, providing supplies, support and about $250,000 in aid, he says. He plans to make an additional trip later this year.
"There's got to be more to life than just business," Zaal says. "And it's important that any entrepreneur realizes that. I'm fortunate to have been given small success compared to the whole big world we live in, but I think when you do have that success, you have a responsibility to contribute to the greater good. I'm not just doing this to earn more cash to take a vacation or live this life of luxury. I don't. To me, it's important that you can give back to the world in a way that matters."