Military veteran Chuck Wallace began his career as a U.S. Air Force pilot, teaching undergraduates to fly planes in Texas. In 1999, after 12 years in the Air Force, he defied the odds, co-founding online insurance service Esurance on the brink of the dot com bust. The business not only survived, it thrived, going on to make more than $1 billion in revenue.
Wallace’s achievements show just how successful veterans can be in the startup space. According to the SBA, veterans are 45 percent more likely to start their own business than non-vets. Yet they still face considerable challenges. With over 200,000 veterans transitioning from military service each year, the entrepreneurial minded will be looking to start businesses in the booming tech industry.
Veterans have access to a great number of resources – vocational training, networks and even grants – but these resources are fragmented. Here’s how nascent veteran entrepreneurs can take the skills they already have and leverage them to successfully launch new enterprises in tech.
1. Identify Your Mission.
The soldier’s creed teaches us “mission first.” As an entrepreneur, how are you going to impact the world and continue your service out of the military? What problem have you discovered that you are deeply passionate about solving? More importantly, why are you uniquely qualified to solve this problem? This is what I call “Founder-Startup Fit,” which is arguably the most important foundational component of being an entrepreneur. You will be working on this business for 20+ years, so it’s important to find something you are passionate about.
Inspiration might come from your pre-service years, like Yale graduate Fred Smith. After two tours of duty in the Marine Corps in Vietnam, Smith went back to his economic roots. He picked up an old idea from an undergraduate term paper outlining the need for a tech-driven delivery service, and within two years he had founded FedEx. Smith acknowledges his time in service gave him a greater strength to pursue and achieve his dreams, claiming, “A great deal of what FedEx has been able to accomplish was built on those lessons I learned in the Marine Corps.”
Alternatively, your motivation could stem from the skills or experiences from your time in the military. Live broadcasting service Ustream was founded by former Army Captains John Ham and Brad Hunstable, who wanted to help deployed soldiers in war zones communicate via live video with their families.
Vocational Rehabilitation and Employment (VRE) Services are available to veterans, providing access to interest and aptitude assessments, vocational exploration and goal development. Setting clear “tasks and purposes” behind your startup will give you a clear mission to execute.
2. Get Trained.
Once you identify your mission, you must determine the skills you need to accomplish it. Veterans receive some of the best leadership and technical training in the world. While many core skills and attributes learned in the military are transferable to entrepreneurship, veterans must adapt to startup culture and develop the right skills in order to achieve success.
In Silicon Valley, we categorize entrepreneurs as being “hackers” or “hustlers.” Do you prefer to get your hands dirty coding product, or are you more interested in the business side of startups? Every great co-founding team will have a mixture of visionary leadership and a strong technical prowess. Unfortunately, software engineering is not taught in boot camp. However, there are a ton of great resources to get you started.
Greg Call, Marine Corps veteran and head of the Veteran’s Program at LinkedIn, is leading the charge to provide online training for military veterans, ranging from business to technical skills.
“LinkedIn is providing veterans with one year free of charge, of both Lynda.com and a LinkedIn Premium Job Seeker membership,” Call says. “Lynda.com is the gold standard for on-demand learning with more than 6,000 expert-led courses teaching business, creative and technical skills. This tool will empower veterans to connect with new opportunities and build their future.”
Organizations like veteran-founded Operation Code teach coding and programming to veterans while providing a channel to access potential scholarships to aid further study. Most investors want to see a strong technical co-founder on your team before investing.
3. Build Your Squad and Your Network.
After becoming “trained and proficient” in your new skill set, you will need to find people with the complementary talents to build out your squad and accomplish your mission. They will push you to succeed, be there to heighten the “ups” and soften the “downs,” and most importantly, they will help you achieve your goals faster.
Sites such as CoFoundersLab help founders to find specialists – designers, engineers, marketers and more – who are looking for a startup opportunity. Additionally, sites like FounderDating offer free and paid subscriptions, bringing together entrepreneurs, co-founders and even advisers with specific expertise in selected regions.
Your squad will not only include your early co-founders, but also mentors, advisers, investors, and even your early customers. Techcrunch analysis of successful NYC tech firms found 33 percent of founders mentored by successful entrepreneurs went on to become “top performers,” compared to just 10 percent of startups without mentorship.
For veterans entering a new industry, this is all the more valuable. Look for organizations, networking events and people in the same industry as you, or who have a network of resources you would like to access. Chris Gosselin, U.S. Air Force veteran and strategist for the Hyperloop, tells veterans that “Your network is your net worth.” By attending networking events and local meetups, you may find a few good men and women who can help you accomplish your mission.
4. Align Your Resources.
Entrepreneurial success is achieved through a sequence of milestones, including building an MVP, raising investment capital, and obtaining customers who are avid promoters of your businesses. You must figure out what resources you will need to get from point A to point B.
Veterans are in a unique position. Not only are there a plethora of available resources, training opportunities and networking groups, there are also funding opportunities to help get your business off the ground.
Investment groups and funds such as Task Force X Capital, Scout Ventures and Moonshots Capital provide funding for early stage vet-led businesses. What’s more, peer-to-peer lending is taking off, with companies like Streetshares offering veterans the opportunity to raise debt funding through its crowdfunding platform. CEO Mark L. Rockefeller, a former U.S. Air Force officer, claims that default rates drop by 50 percent when a veteran loan is backed by a veteran funder. “When they’re in the trenches, these guys and gals would do anything for each other. It’s the same with lending,” he told Locavesting.com.
There are other lending programs such as Patriot Express Veterans Small Business Loans from the Small Business Administration (SBA) that provide low-interest loans of up to $500,000 for veterans with a solid business plan for a new venture. For loans up to $350,000, vets do not need to provide collateral, and the U.S. government guarantees a large portion of the loan in the event veterans default on payments.
5. Execute the Mission
Mission execution is highly ingrained in those who have served in the military. The military empowers leadership from an early stage. Eighteen-year-old service members are responsible for the lives of their fellow soldiers and Marines in their squad or platoon. This team culture is essential for any startup.
“Bring your focus on mission execution and leave behind the bureaucracy,” Greg Coleman, former U.S. Air Force pilot and founder of fitness app Sworkit told Tech.co. “Being in a startup is more like being in the field than being on the staff.”
Effective mission execution is the hallmark of a veteran entrepreneur and is what sets them apart from their civilian counterparts. Legendary entrepreneur and investor Marc Andreesen says, “You look at a startup and ask, ‘Will this team be able to optimally execute against their opportunity?’ I focus on effectiveness as opposed to experience, since the history of the tech industry is full of highly successful startups that were staffed primarily by people who had never ‘done it before’.” In the military, we were groomed to increase our capacity for stress, learned how to become resourceful so we could accomplish a lot with very little and expanded our abilities to adapt to rapidly changing situations. This experience makes entrepreneurship a natural path for many veterans who want to make an extraordinary impact and continue serving when they leave the military.
About the Author
Ryan Micheletti is the co-founder of military veteran accelerator Vet-Tech and head of global operations of the Founder Institute, the world’s premier idea-stage accelerator and startup launch program.