Q & A with US Marine Corps Veteran-Entreprenuer, Zachary Green
Zachary served in the Marine Corps for eight years. He also is currently serving as a lieutenant volunteer firefighter for 15 years. He’s a true veteran entrepreneur who has owned his own company for the past six years. MN8 Foxfire/LumAware specializes in the development and implementation of safety products utilizing advanced photoluminescence technology.
Here’s Zachary’s story:
Q: Tell us the story of Zachary Green leading up to founding MN8 Foxfire.
A: Ever since I was a very, very young kid I wanted to be in the Marines. My friends were outside riding their bikes and playing soccer but I was running in the woods putting mud on my face pretending like I had machine guns. My parents kept thinking I would grow out of it but I kept getting more and more interested.
When I turned 18 years old, I signed up for the Marine Corps and went to Parris Island. I was in university at the same time. I served in a cold weather infantry unit in the reserves and some time on active duty during my time in college. I also went through the officer candidate program in Quantico, VA. So, I got to experience both the officer side leadership development and the enlisted side management/mission execution side of the house.
It was the hardest thing I’ve ever done to that point in my life. I can’t say that it was always enjoyable while I was serving, but when I got out and looked back it was the greatest thing I’ve ever done. It was quite difficult, but all great things in life that are worth having are worth fighting for and that’s essentially what my time in the Marine Corps was.
I got out of the Marine Corps, started my career in the software and pharmaceutical industry and I felt like there was something missing. I missed that brotherhood, I missed that camaraderie. In all honesty, I missed playing with dangerous toys and destroying things because you can’t really do that as a civilian. So I joined the next best thing, which was the volunteer fire department. I started volunteering right after September 11th. I felt guilty that my brothers were out there going to war and I was sitting at home on the couch. I wanted to do something to protect and serve.
Q: How did you see a need for and have the idea to use advanced photoluminescent technology for firefighter products?
A: I joined the fire department about 15 years ago as a volunteer. I like to say in the Marine Corps, we take stuff that’s really fun and we make it as miserable as possible. In the fire service, we take stuff that’s really miserable and make it as fun as possible.
I was on the back of my tailboard one day looking out at all of the helmets in the lockers and started thinking about when we enter fires. The smoke rises and it blocks out the light. Most of the time the electricity’s out and you’re in complete darkness. It’s very difficult because you get disoriented and you lose track of your tools and your crew. Firefighters are inside of small buildings and it could take 20–30 minutes to find your way out. You may only have 10 minutes of air left and that could be lethal.
I thought, how can I help my fellow firefighters find their way through the dark?
I remembered a TV special about Sept. 11th and how they used photoluminescent technology. This isn’t the glow-in-the-dark stickers you have on the ceilings. This is like glow-in-the-dark on steroids. It’s so bright it lights up the whole room. The World Trade Center was designed with this photoluminescent technology in the stairwells, which is what really helped 16,000+ survivors evacuate safely. What if I could take that same technology and apply it to accessories that firefighters could use to see each other and not have to worry about batteries, light bulbs, and electricity?
Anything with batteries and light bulbs is going to fail when you need it most.
I had a prototype made up of a photoluminescent band to put on my firefighter helmet. Then, came the time to test the product. I go into a fire, it’s totally dark. You can’t see anything, we’re crawling around in a hallway trying to find the source of the fire. I feel someone trying to take my helmet off. I turn around to do naturally what anyone would do — slug the guy that’s trying to take my helmet off. He looks at me, his eyes are huge and I could see the green glow off of his mask from my helmet. He’s pointing to my helmet and I’m pointing to the fire down the hallway and say, “Let’s put the wet stuff on the red stuff and put fire out!” He’s like, “Let me see your helmet.”
We put the fire out and go outside. I suddenly had a group of guys with $20 bills saying, “Hey, can you buy me one?” I said, “Well, I just had it made.” They said, “Well, can you get a couple more made?” I have a couple more made, sell it to those guys. Then, the fire chief from the neighboring community calls me up and says, “Hey, can we get 30 or 40 for our department.” I didn’t have 30, so I made more. Over the next six months, I sold these products straight from my car to local fire stations. I said, “Hey guys, this is something that could help save your life and reduce disorientation.”
Q:What made you take the leap and invest all of your time?
A: I had a great job at Eli Lilly at the time while I was still serving as a volunteer firefighter. I’d been there for about eight years doing everything from pharmaceutical sales to marketing to brand development and I learned a lot. It’s not about the product that you have, it’s how you brand it, market it and distribute it. You’ve got the greatest product in the world, but if nobody knows about it and there’s no way to grow it. You’re not going to be too successful.
When my fire chief sat me down and told me I owned it to both myself and my fellow firefighters to focus my full efforts on building this company. I remembered a quote from Teddy Roosevelt. He said,
“When you’re faced with a monumental decision, the best thing to do is the right thing, the next best thing to do is the wrong thing, but the worst thing to do is to do absolutely nothing.”
- Theodore Roosevelt
So, I refinanced my home, I maxed out my credit cards, took literally every penny that I own and I bought a bunch of this incredible pigment that glows and started to build up an inventory.
I decided to jump all in and went to the largest trade show in the world for firefighters. We wanted to let firefighters experience our product. So we created a tent, held together with duct tape and zip-ties. We took firefighters into the tent to show them how the products glowed. Before you know it, the crowd got larger and larger. By the middle of the show we had almost a hundred people waiting to get in line to experience our photoluminescent products.
The next month, we did almost $100,000 in sales, and it almost crushed me. I was selling product that I didn’t even have, I don’t even know how I’m going to make this stuff.
When you’re in the Marine Corps, as long as you’ve got a good plan, a good mission, you’ve got good people that are walking with you on that path, you can pretty much accomplish anything.
SS: How did the Marine Corps help you as an entrepreneur?
ZG: We tend to make things even more miserable than they need to be. It’s interesting because I was just at a Global Entrepreneur’s Summit. I was selected by the White House to represent the United States along with a couple of other U.S. entrepreneurs. There were entrepreneurs from 40 different countries at this event. We got to meet Mark Zuckerberg, the founder of LinkedIn, AirBNB, Uber and Docusign — all these incredible legends of Silicon Valley.
At one of the sessions someone asked, “Does entrepreneurship really need to be so difficult?” Many of these billionaire legendary entrepreneurs said, “Yes, it does need to be difficult. If you can’t suffer and learn from those mistakes early on, when things really start to get challenging, you’re not going to be ready for them.”
There’s an old parable that says, ‘a smooth sea doesn’t make a skilled sailor.’ You need to have those rough times.
The Marine Corps helped prepare me for some of the difficult things that I encounter now as an entrepreneur, one of which was making the transition from selling firefighter accessories out of the trunk of my car to marketing photoluminescent safety signage for Fortune 500 companies. As a result of these past experiences we were able to land a national project with Kroger to use the same technology that is in the firefighter equipment to replace their EXIT signs so that they never need lightbulbs, batteries or electricity.
One of the best thing I’ve learned in the Marine Corps was the value of training and being prepared. We’ve been trained to adapt, improvise, and execute our mission,with integrity, dedication and teamwork. It’s the ability to say, here’s the strategy, here’s the plan, but as soon as that shot is fired down range, you can take that plan and just throw it up in the air. You have to be flexible with change. As Mike Tyson once famously once said, “everybody has a plan till they get punched in the face.”
I’ve been crushed a lot harder as an entrepreneur than I ever had as a Marine or as a firefighter.
This is the hardest thing I’ve ever done, but it’s that training on those intangibles that really helped us get through rough times. The question is how you react to it and how you’re going to overcome them.