Leaving the military and starting your own business is a double leap of faith. The first jump, deciding to leave active duty, requires you to envision a plan for your life outside of the day-to-day structure you have spent years adjusting to. The second jump, starting your own business, adds the additional challenge of putting your success or failure completely on your own shoulders.
The good news is that countless veterans like us have taken these same jumps and have been astonishingly successful. Military experience gives us the ability to adapt and overcome, and that tenacity is a major contributor to business success. The bad news is that many of us left the military expecting a certain experience, and quickly found ourselves facing obstacles we did not anticipate.
In my best effort to make you successful and orient you to these obstacles, here are five things to keep in mind as you make the leap:
- Welcome to your new country – try to learn the language. When I left the Army, I spoke a certain language (pop smoke, 50-meter target, high speed, etc.). The language I didn’t speak was business . . . or civilian. For many of us, certain behaviors found in the civilian workplace are completely unexpected, and we may find ourselves resisting them or even feeling smug at our superiority. You are now in a foreign land, and it is your job to learn the culture and the words to use.Even though you are starting your own business, try this exercise: ask a non-veteran you respect to do a mock job interview with you, in which they ask you to describe your background, experience, and plans for the future. The catch? Have them take notes of all the things that didn’t make sense to them. Do you say “brief” for presentation? Are you using job titles that have no civilian equivalent? Perhaps your mannerisms or slang don’t translate well? (I could have sworn that “squared-away” was a normal English phrase until someone asked me what it meant.)
You have every reason to be proud of your military experience, and every opportunity to hang out with other veterans, but remember that we are a select few. Welcome to your new country.
- No one cares that you are a veteran . . . Surprised? Don’t be – the language of “thank you for your service” is a common nicety, and one I always appreciate, but that and a few bucks get you a cup of coffee. A common mistake is to believe that our military service will jump us to the head of the line when it comes to building our own businesses, and it is a hard lesson to learn that this just isn’t true. All businesses, every business, competes on quality and service to the customer, and no military record will make up for lack of business skills or poor planning. Will it help occasionally? Of course – but a poor plan is a poor plan, and a bad business is exactly that and nothing more.The takeaway? Assume you will get absolutely zero benefit from having served in the military and plan accordingly. Anything additional that comes to you will be a much-appreciated boost.
- . . . except for other veterans. Surprised? Don’t be. Veterans love to help veterans. Sometimes it is because we miss the camaraderie of active duty. Sometimes it is because we actually believe that military service is a higher calling which makes you a more honorable person than those who never chose to serve. And sometimes we simply want to build our own businesses and realize that veterans helping veterans is a good way to earn some income. No matter the reason, remember this: when another veteran offers help, take it. It isn’t a handout or a sign of weakness – it is a continued mark of our bond with each other.A good way to help yourself and other veterans at the same time is to use veteran-owned businesses as your vendors. There are countless veteran web designers, accountants, attorneys, business plan counselors, graphic designers, and more. Using these vendors will support their businesses and will build your connections in a loyal community.
That said, see number 2 above. Sometimes a bad business is a bad business, so don’t be afraid to say “thanks but no thanks” when another veteran offers to help you. We all know the guy/gal in the military who meant well but just didn’t quite get it – they’re still around.
- Use the tools you have. There are so many free and low-cost opportunities available to assist veteran businesses that I could list them forever. Vet-to-CEO, The Jonas Project, My Ranger Biz – take the time to look into projects run by veterans to help veterans, and see if their services will benefit you. Sometimes the best thing they can do is let you know which resources are a great fit for your business model.Business counseling isn’t the only tool – you also have a host of government programs. Are you using the G.I. Bill to get further business training? Have you figured out that your veteran status could help you get government contracts? Are you aware of business loans geared towards veterans that have more favorable terms and lower interest rates? These programs exist for a reason – use them.
- Don’t spend until you have to. As veterans, many of us like to have all the gear we think we need for a mission. I’m reminded of the guys who showed up to Ranger School with me and had three watches, four knives, and about fifty items they “heard” would help them.The same thing sometimes happens with veterans starting businesses. One day we have an idea, the next day we’ve spent thousands of dollars on courses, search engine optimization schemes, big office or retail spaces, long-term contracts with vendors, and more. Don’t do it.
At the beginning, keep it lean and pack light. Every single dollar you spend needs to bring you value. For any vendor you talk to, try to get a free introductory rate or even a free trial. For professional services such as attorneys or accountants, ask for a very clear explanation of fees and seek a flat rate whenever possible. For bigger expenses such as equipment, inventory, or commercial leases, be exceedingly cautious with every dollar and remember that it is usually much easier to scale-up than scale-back.
You are making a big leap, but you aren’t doing it alone. Talk to others for advice, think carefully about each step, and remember: once you get up the wall, reach back and help the next veteran over the obstacle. Rangers Lead the Way!