Between 240,000 to 360,000 personnel leave the ranks of the U.S. military every year, many facing the question: what’s next? While some opt to continue working for the government, enter a career in a hands-on field, or earn a degree, many veterans choose to leverage the process-driven, leadership-heavy skillsets obtained during their service to pursue entrepreneurship. In fact, more than 2.5 million small businesses today are owned and operated by veterans.
I had the pleasure of speaking with several veteran entrepreneurs to learn more about the trials and tribulations associated with transitioning from the military to business ownership, and gleaned some insight for other veterans thinking about taking the same leap.
Focus on Teamwork
Kevin Stansick and Andrew Schneider have been stationed in places like the Persian Gulf to Naples, Afghanistan, and Italy. Supporting their units by providing logistics and intelligence, the two became key liaisons in the Navy after multiple tours and over 20 years of service. Coming back to the states after their active service, the two decided to carve out their own entrepreneurial path as owners of a Marco’s Pizza store in Virginia Beach.
So, what was the most important learning lesson the duo took from their experience? “The ultimate skill that made us transition so smoothly from active duty to entrepreneurship was the ability to communicate,” said Schneider. “In an organization where a chain of command is part of the environment, processing and passing along information from colleague to colleague is essential. I would also say that being a great leader involves learning your colleague’s strengths and weaknesses. Understanding how every member of your team operates will help you help them learn, enjoy their craft and be efficient.”
Rise to the Challenge
Ever since high school, Wisconsin-native Jody Nelson knew she was meant to serve in the U.S. Army. After almost three decades serving as a Combat Commander and Chemical Officer, boasting several overseas tours training soldiers and working to mitigate nuclear warfare in the Middle East, Nelson has moved on to her next mission: entrepreneurship as the owner of The Spice & Tea Exchange in the Florida Villages.
Having spent the majority of her working career in the military, I asked Jody what advice she would give others struggling to find their entrepreneurial groove post-service. Nelson said, “My biggest piece of advice to other ‘vetrepreneurs’ is to just take the leap. While we, as former members of the military, have faced countless challenges, know that this journey will be the most daunting. The business will consume you, but in an extremely positive, worthwhile and rewarding way! I would also advise other to invest in something you are interested in, but that is not necessarily your hobby — keep the two separate so that your hobby isn’t ruined by your day job.”
Success Takes Dedication
Tristan and Hannah had always been interested in becoming entrepreneurs. Once an opportunity at Anytime Fitness presented itself, they were able to sell their existing business (after increasing its profitability 10-fold and being sought after) which enabled them to pursue the prospect of opening the Anytime Fitness gym.
Succeeding and working hard had been engrained in them through the military. The couple has been able to apply these values to their Anytime Fitness franchise. “Everyone should understand that business is a 24/7 grind (pun intended with our 24/7 gym),” said Tristan. “If one wants to pursue a business, they need to know that. It isn’t a 9-to-5 job; it’s a 2 a.m. on a Sunday job or an 11 a.m. cleaning the toilets on Christmas day job. Most veterans have this mindset already. They wake up for staff duty, roll call or early PT. Keep this in mind when you start something for yourself — give it that same dedication.”
For more than 28 years, Hooper served as a commissioned officer in the United States Army, on active duty as well as in the United States Army National Guard. He served as a logistics and operations officer, retiring at the rank of Colonel. His focus during his military service was leading, training, and developing soldiers and units to provide combat service and support operations. While in the corporate world, Hooper felt a growing need to be part of his local community and knew it was time for a change. That’s when he discovered the Dogtopia franchise opportunity, a rapidly emerging leader in the pet services/dog daycare marketspace.
Hooper believes veterans bring the right skillsets and mindset necessary to achieve success in small business. “Veterans are well-experienced in having discipline and focus to accomplish a mission, and this focus is critical to avoiding obstacles and distractions in starting a business. Veterans are well-versed in building effective teams and working together towards a common objective. By the nature of military teams, veterans have exceptional small team leadership, as well as experience incorporating ongoing training to improve team effectiveness.”
Sanders served in the U.S. Navy from 1985–1989. After three deployments, he returned to the states to settle into civilian life. In search for a natural transition, Sanders began working at a shipping yard as a press break operator. He then pursued a career offshore in oil and gas. Ready for a career change, Sanders and his wife began to consider entrepreneurship and finding an opportunity that combined their passions with their skill sets.
As a big coffee lover, Sanders reflected on his high school job at PJ’s Coffee and how he always joked he would open his own shop one day. Just four months ago, Sanders acted on that dream and signed an agreement to open PJ’s Coffee in Hattiesburg, Miss. Eager to debut his business to the community, Sanders believes his military skill set will provide a natural transition to small business ownership. “Being in the Navy allowed me to experience different cultures and different coffees. It showed me proper methods of communication which directly translate to customer service. Knowing how to properly communicate with different audiences has truly been the secret to proper execution and long-term success.”
There are countless parallels between military life and small business ownership, with each veteran’s unique experiences providing a toolbox for success. While making the decision to pursue the dream is no easy feat, business ownership is a financially and personally rewarding way to continue making an impact once active military service has ended.