From boots to business: Veterans give tips to fellow entrepreneurs


(BPT) - If you’re a veteran interested in opening your own small business, you’re far from alone.

In fact, entrepreneurs often find that the same characteristics reinforced in the Armed Services — traits like decisiveness, courage, logistical acumen and the ability to stay calm under pressure — serve them well in founding and sustaining small businesses.

Research backs that up; a recent report by the Small Business Administration indicates some 2.52 million businesses in the U.S. — a full 9.1 percent of all American businesses — are majority-owned by vets.

“Starting your own business is very difficult, but I would accentuate the advantages the veteran has,” advises Jim Haslam, a Korean War vet and founder of Pilot Flying J, the largest travel center network in North America. “Two things you really understand are discipline and hard work. Take advantage of your service experience in the selection of what you’re going to do, who you’re going to hire and the course your business will take.”

If you’re a veteran exploring the possibility of entrepreneurship, consider these further tips from successful vets.

Learn from others' experience.

Blake Hogan, executive director of Bunker Labs in Nashville, recalls how vital that was when he was laying the groundwork for his new company BreakAway Safety Solutions. “We set out asking industry leaders what they needed, where there were gaps and how we could help. We threw our egos out the window, listened to their suggestions, built small prototypes and iterated on their feedback."

Enlist support from those you know.

Tell everyone you know about your goals in case they can help you, or introduce you to someone who can. “Activate your network of fellow veterans, family, friends and former colleagues to notify the referral-based ‘hidden job market’ you’re looking to make a career move," advises Nate Smith, CFO of the organization Hire Heroes USA that provides free career services to vets.

Get to know your local entrepreneur community and build your professional network.

Research shows 25 percent of transitioning veterans want to start a business, but less than 10 do so, largely because they lack the right professional networks. Hogan says Bunker Labs can help. The national nonprofit has 26 local chapters that help new veteran entrepreneurs start businesses. He recommends the group's Launch Lab Online for testing ideas and its WeWork Veterans in Residence Program for learning to grow a business. He also encourages vet entrepreneurs to check out the podcasts "How I Built It" by Guy Raz and "StoryBrand" by Donald Miller, as well as the books "Traction" by Gino Wickman and "The Startup Owner's Manual" by Steve Blank. 

It’s all about the capital — both kinds. 

“We made the mistake of putting too much emphasis on getting access to capital to build gas stations and not enough to finding superior people,” remembers Haslam. “Once we figured this out and got the very best people possible, it was easy to get the financing.”

Stay positive. 

“Oftentimes, closed doors prevent us from taking a job that ultimately would not have been the best fit for us,” Smith notes. “If you experience serial rejection, odds are it’s not you, but the tools or techniques you’re using that need improvement.”

As part of its 60th anniversary celebration, Pilot Flying J has announced the donation of $2 million to more than 20 different nonprofits. In light of Haslam’s military service, the company is especially honored to partner with veteran-focused groups like Hire Heroes USA, Bunker Labs, Folds of Honor and Fisher House. Those organizations support vets through scholarships, jobs or free housing for those caring for injured loved ones.

Veterans wishing to start their own businesses don't have to go it alone — there are many resources and fellow vets at your disposal to ensure you’re set up for success.