This post originally appeared on the Candl Blog on July 8, 2016
In June, I traveled to Austin, TX to attend an event called Patriot Boot Camp sponsored by TechStars. Patriot Boot Camp, or “PBC”, is a 3-day intensive program designed to give military veteran entrepreneurs access to some of the same mentors, classes, workshops, and resources that are afforded the top-tier startup companies around the country.
PBC is “designed to engage, inspire, and mentor Veterans and their spouses to start, innovate, and scale the next-generation of technology-focused businesses.” In other words, if you are a part of the military community and are interested in entrepreneurship – from just having an idea to having employees – this event is perfectly suited for you.
Honestly, I wasn’t really sure what to expect. I’m both a US Army veteran and a startup veteran, and in the past I’ve attended similar events that weren’t much beyond a bit of socializing and marketing-focused lectures.
The fact that it was an event put on by the TechStars community, and from what I saw from the agenda helped me convince myself the airfare and hotel costs were worth the price (the event is free if you are selected).
Right out of the gate I was beyond impressed. We held our first day of lectures and breakout sessions in the Texas State Capitol Building – one of the prettiest buildings in the United States.
And we were pushed hard from the gun. In the first session, all 50 students had to stand up and give a 30-second pitch of who we are, why we’re here, and our great big idea. We moved from lecture to lecture, listening to world-class speakers drop knowledge bombs about public speaking, market-based macroeconomics, and how to scale a business.
It was also during this event that I absolutely fell in love with USAA. They held a panel to discuss how startups could work with them, but my takeaway was more on how deeply rooted their mission is within their culture. USAA is a company to hold up as a model for holding their cultural values and mission higher than their quarterly statement (which also does exceedingly well mind you).
We then had 30 minutes with four mentors over a 2-hour period. It was a whole lot like how I would guess speed-dating would look like – spending a bit of time with people you chose through an online portal by looking at their profiles and choosing to spend time with mentors that could give you advice from various perspectives. The mentors I met over the next 2 days gave me invaluable insight and confidence to continue in my journey creating CANDL.
In the evenings we were able to socialize as a cohort at two separate events. Being prior military, all of us fell right into a comfortable and oddly familiar pattern. The thing about veterans and military spouses getting together at events like this is it seems like we’ve all known each other forever because we have such common formational experiences.
Basic Training, deployments, the entire military culture, cadence and language are native to all of us. In just 3 days, I made connections with people I would now consider to be life-long friends. That’s one of the things the military does well, and PBC pulls that out in us.
Just before the event, we were encouraged to submit a 1-minute pitch video explaining our business or idea. The top 5 would be selected to participate in a pitch competition. The top prize was a Yeti Cooler, so you bet I submitted a video. For posterity’s sake, here’s the first-ever pitch of CANDL.
Amazingly enough I was chosen as a finalist and given the opportunity to pitch CANDL – little more than just an idea at the time – against some well-established businesses who had a few years of revenue and other traction. I didn’t win the Yeti Cooler, but I did win the “audience favorite” award, which means I’m on the right track with CANDL.
The absolute highlight of the event, however was when General George W. Casey, Jr. (Ret.) spoke for 90 minutes on Sunday morning. As the former Army Chief of Staff, GEN Casey commanded the most powerful fighting force in the history of this planet. I’ve met only a handful of people in my life who carried the kind of presence GEN Casey has. Listening to him was, for me, exactly what I needed that moment in time. He’s deeply involved in Patriot Boot Camp and genuinely cares for his ‘troops’. And I felt like he was in MY corner, rooting for me to take CANDL as far as it could go.
So what did I learn from this weekend in Austin? Here were my top three lessons learned:
1. The military vetrepreneur community is vibrant, diverse, and as close-knit as any business community I’ve ever encountered. We ALL wanted to help each other be better, do better, and grow faster. I’m staring at a pile of business cards on my desk right now of people I know I could call and get immediate help/advice/introductions/encouragement.
2. Patriot Boot Camp, TechStars, and USAA are organizations that lead from the front and care deeply about what they do. I’m not trying to sound like a commercial here, but I’d evangelize for all of these organizations after what I saw in Austin. There wasn’t a person there who didn’t put the vetrepreneurs and their families first. They were doing everything they could for every entrepreneur. I’ve never seen anything like it.
3. You’re never too early or too late to attend Patriot Boot Camp. I met 22-year-old separating soldiers, 50+ year-olds who left the military in the 90s, and everything in between. Officers, enlisted, and all four branches were represented.
As someone who has worked with and for defense contractors for 17+ years, my view of the veteran community has been somewhat jaded by being around too many business development types (and being one myself). I was hesitant to even acknowledge the fact that CANDL is a veteran-owned company, but PBC helped me be proud of that fact.
One other thing. Because of my experience at Patriot Boot Camp, I applied to TechStars as well. I’m hopeful to be accepted to the TechStars Internet of Things cohort in New York City this fall. The exposure to so many mentors, and open brainstorming on how to improve the business model for CANDL at PBC left me wanting for more of that drug.
Bottom Line: If you’re a military veteran or a military spouse, and you have an idea that you’d like to get involved in entrepreneurship, the single-best thing you can do for yourself is to attend a Patriot Boot Camp. It may wind up being one of the most important events in the early history of my company.
Bio: Tom Cox is the CEO and co-founder of CANDL, which brings connectivity to people and things at the edge of infrastructure. CANDL manufactures ultra-rugged connectivity devices designed to work in extreme environments and during emergencies. Tom founded the company in March 2016 with the goal of bringing more than 1 million disconnected, displaced, and distressed people back online by 2020. Learn more about CANDL at www.getCANDL.com or about Tom on his LinkedIn profile. Or you can email Tom directly.