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,