Last year, I discovered it was easier to launch a business in one of the most expensive and competitive cities in the world than it was to find a job.
My story is not unique. The ranks of veteran entrepreneurs, or vetrepreneurs, have grown to 2.4 million. Each year, we generate $1.22 trillion in sales receipts. Veterans are nearly twice as likely as civilians to start our own companies. We’re also twice as likely to succeed.
What makes us so damn good? Certainly, our ability to strategize, adapt, and execute a plan sets us up for success - as does our capacity to innovate under tremendous pressure. Ours is a story driven as much by our determination to enjoy life as by our inherent taste for survival.
Building for freedom
After returning from an Afghanistan deployment in 2008, U.S. Marine Corps veteran Matthew Havniear worked for his city’s Public Works Department. The former infantry assaultman chafed at the monotony, and longed to find a way to put his range of experiences to the test. In early 2013, he founded HandymanSolutions, LLC., and discovered the unique freedom that comes with vetrepreneurship.
“I needed to do something I enjoyed,” he said. “I love bringing an artistic element to construction, and I get to create things that people really find valuable. There’s validation in that.”
U.S. Air Force veteran Angela Cody-Rouget is the founder of MajorMom.biz. Her mission? Liberate busy moms and their families from the burdens of too much stuff. She and her employees accomplish this mission by de-cluttering and organizing clients’ homes, basements, and garages.
She’s been at it since 2006, and in the black since year one. This year, the company is on track to hit $500,000 in revenue, and plans to expand their operations by adding more than 100 new jobs.
“Even though I’m accountable to my clients, employees, vendors, and advisors, I have so much freedom,” says the former Air Force missileer. “Being the mom of my dreams is my entire reason for being a business owner. I am thrilled I get to take my kids to school and pick them up each day.”
Building a business is not without its challenges, as both Cody-Rouget and Havniear can attest.
“I hate the financial roller coaster ride,” said Cody-Rouget. “You can have eleven awesome months, and one bad one still hurts – especially when your salary is tied to performance.”
The MajorMom.biz CEO emphasizes the importance of a steady marketing and selling cycle. “I think I believed I wouldn’t always have to do it, but I find that when I slow marketing efforts, our sales suffer. Still, I chose this roller coaster ride because I do have control over results if I make a plan and work the plan.”
Havniear stepped into business equipped only with a healthy dose of confidence.
“When I first started, I was completely unknown. I lacked capital, and I didn’t have much equipment,” he said. “So I took my tax return and bought an enclosed trailer and a few tools. I got my business license and put an ad on craigslist. Each time I completed a job and got paid, I made sure to buy a new tool. Word got around, and I’ve stayed busy.”
Last fall, Havniear enrolled in small business development courses at Southern Oregon University. He credits the courses with providing a framework that has been invaluable to his continued success.
“I was nervous going to my first class because I felt I wouldn’t know as much as everyone else in the class,” he said. “It only took one class to prove that no one knew what they were doing. We were just doing our best and making it work.”
At the end of the day, and despite the challenges, Havniear says business ownership is worth it.
“The biggest surprise of business ownership is that it has actually worked,” he said. “If you stay honest and work hard, you’ll stay busy, but you can never stop networking, developing, and learning.”
Words of wisdom from successful vetrepreneurs
From Havniear: “Keep it simple stupid” was a piece of advice given to me early on by another business owner. Don’t be in a big hurry to try and do everything at once. It takes time to develop. I am still “starting” my business a year later, and that never really ends.”
From Cody-Rouget: “It is critical to have a CPA, bookkeeper, lawyer, and business coach at all times. Being a DIY in the areas you’re not knowledgeable in or good at will waste time and money, but most importantly it will zap your energy and joy. Do what you know, and let others do the rest.”
It’s tough for veterans to ask for help. We’re used to presenting solutions and working independently. I worked for nearly a decade in journalism and communications before deciding to launch my PR firm. In the beginning, it was really tough to admit when I didn’t know something. However, each time I’ve risked looking foolish, I’ve learned something. My ego has taken a bruising, but I’m a better student and a better business owner for it. Work and ask questions outside your comfort zone as often as possible.
At the end of the day, veterans are built for success. We’re capable of amazing feats, and we’re even stronger when we work together.
Considering vetrepreneurship? Check out these resources:
Udacity “How to Build a Startup” – One of the major barriers to entrance into the entrepreneurial world is language - how do you speak the language of business? Don’t let it intimidate you! Learn! Stanford Professor and Silicon Valley legend Steve Blank teaches “How to Build a Startup”; it’s a free online crash course on business basics, and should be required work for aspiring entrepreneurs everywhere.
U.S. Small Business Administration – The SBA is a solid resource if you’ve decided to launch a business. They provide easy-to-navigate steps to starting and managing your business, as well as information about loans, grants, and local learning resources.
Syracuse University’s Institute for Veterans and Military Families (IVMF) – The IVMF is a juggernaut in the veteran education world. They’ve joined forces with organizations like HireHeroes USA and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce to create VetNet. VetNet is a career service resource geared toward helping vets along both traditional and entrepreneurial career paths. Check out VetNet’s Entrepreneur Track to access a steady stream of live webinars and upcoming training events. I used this resource regularly to hone my understanding of legal, marketing, and accounting basics during my first critical months as a business owner, and I couldn’t recommend it more highly.
Service Corps of Retired Executives (SCORE) – SCORE provides a passionate nationwide network of mentors across all industries, and free classes packed with tons of resources for entrepreneurs. Definitely worth checking out.
VetBiz.gov/ – This site helps you get certified as a veteran-owned or service-disabled-veteran-owned business. Once listed, your business may be found by contracting officers for the VA. This is a big deal, because it means you’re eligible for enormous government contracts that can take your business from small fries to big time.
Are you a veteran entrepreneur? I’d love to hear your story! What resources have you found helpful? What’s your best piece of advice? What do you wish someone had told you before you started?