For many Americans, the idea of starting your own business is more than a route to financial security; it represents a form of freedom that feels intrinsically tied to the American dream. Forging your own way in the world, earning a living through your passions, and finding success on your own terms are elements of the American ideal that date back to the very founding of the nation. Much like owning land was once seen as the path to true American freedom, owning a business, in the minds of many, serves as the modern equivalent: ensuring your permanent liberation from the tyranny of cubicle farms, patronizing supervisors, and a life spent toiling to build value in someone else’s coffers.
Most veterans have at least one story about a brilliant business idea developed over fourteen hours of a twenty-four hour post — a seemingly impossible dream to pursue someday, when your clothes are clean, sleep comes regularly, and you can finally devote your energy to your own success, rather than to that of the unit, the branch, or the nation. Then, when the day finally comes to hang up the uniform and enter into the private sector, that confidence begins to wane in some. Brilliant ideas often prove difficult to manifest, and success can begin to feel elusive. For others, however, success seems assured from the start, and until recently, little thought had been put to what differentiates the two.
For Christopher Ford, CEO of the National Association of Veteran-Serving Organizations (NAVSO), that question has been the basis for much of his work. A twenty-year veteran of the U.S. Air Force with three combat tours under his belt, Ford left the service certain that he wanted to continue the work he’d done under the Joint Chiefs of Staff to help veterans succeed in the business realm. His organization’s latest effort may offer the key to identifying what variables from the veteran experience lead to success in veteran-run businesses.
While driven by a positive outlook on veteran contributions in the private sector, Ford doesn’t pull any punches when it comes to the challenges faced by those looking to start a new business. He explained,
If there’s one thing I want entrepreneurs to know, it’s to make sure to do a lot of research and develop an understanding of the burden that is starting your own company. There is a lot of work and personal risk involved but there’s also good news: there are a number of quality, data-driven programs that can help teach you what you need to succeed. You don’t have to figure it out as you go or do it alone.”
Ford and the team at NAVSO recognized that some veterans have been highly successful in their transition into business owners after leaving the service, prompting them to begin to wonder what variables were separating them from the endeavors that didn’t quite make it.
We really wanted to figure out what the support mechanisms were that drove some veteran’s success,” he went on. “Our overall goal is to inform the ecosystem with data, so that we can ultimately improve service delivery and resource allocation by providing evidence of what is driving the most success based off the veteran experience.”
With that goal in mind, the team at NAVSO set out to find what elements of one’s service helped to make veteran entrepreneurs successful, and what support elements along the way became differentiated the winners from the losers. That’s where one of the Steering Committee members, Brandon Shelton, comes in. Shelton, who is a managing partner at TFX Capital Management, along with other leaders in the private, non-profit, and government spaces, banded together to figure out how to get real-time, actionable data beyond simply looking at macro-level census data. TFX is a venture capital firm that deals specifically with investing in veteran founded businesses, something of particular importance to Shelton — a U.S. Army veteran turned investor by way of Wall Street. His company actually started as a result of his efforts to help veteran founded companies succeed in his spare time, but eventually, he came to understand that veterans are an underutilized and underappreciated demographic in the small business battlefields of America. Shelton explained,
Veterans are trained with unbelievable decision making abilities from the age of 18 to 25, and that training is followed up with real world practicum.
When a company we’ve invested in is going through really difficult times, I’ll ask the veteran founders, ‘is this the worst day of your life?’ and they won’t even blink because they know it isn’t even close to their days serving in the military. They don’t flinch. You can’t find that as readily in the civilian sector.”
The problem, however, is that despite there being a huge number of veteran-owned businesses in the country, there isn’t a lot of data available regarding what elements of the veteran experience led to their success. With that in mind, thanks to the studies sponsor the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation; the Steering Committee enlisted the help of Purdue University to conduct the research and analysis through a survey that gathers important data points pertaining to entrepreneurial success. They hope to leverage the data against existing studies to develop a better, more robust idea of what makes the difference.
When you help veterans achieve a level of commercial success, it benefits the entire veteran community. First, veterans tend to hire other veterans, and second, successful veterans often return to civil service, running for office in local, state and national level government. In that way, enabling commercial success also leads more veterans to becoming what I call greater civic assets.”
In order to be successful, however, what the research needs is participation from veteran business owners and entrepreneurs. Their study, which can be completed in just about 20 minutes online, will be compiled and analyzed by Purdue University alongside other previously published resources from organizations like the Institute for Veterans and Military Families and the U.S. government’s Small Business Administration as background to produce a fully realized roadmap to success.
Ford and Shelton aren’t just looking to help better inform veterans, however. NAVSO is a membership organization, but they have no plans to keep the secrets to success secured behind a login screen. Once the results of the study have been compiled, Ford intends to release them publicly in hopes of not just helping vets directly, but helping organizations that assist veterans to be more effective in their own efforts. In Ford’s mind, it’s not just about informing the veterans with ties to NAVSO; it’s about giving the veteran training and education community the tools it needs to develop stronger curricula, maximizing the number of veterans that can benefit from their efforts. Shelton said,
People want the outcomes; we just need them to participate. The survey only takes twenty or thirty minutes. Just do it.”
While Ford is the first to acknowledge the difficulty of starting a new business, he believes that shouldn’t be seen as a reason not to pursue your dreams. His goal is to encourage veterans to start businesses but armed with better tools and a more realized appreciation for what the endeavor will entail. Ford said that mindset could be summed up rather concisely in a single sentence:
Go after your passion, but do it smartly.”
You can complete the veteran entrepreneur study here. Of course, being a study about entrepreneurship, the team knows business owners want to see a return on investment — and as such, gift cards ranging in value from $20 to $500 will be given away via random lottery upon completion of the study.
Image courtesy of Purdue University