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4 Ways Military Service Prepares You for Entrepreneurship

Stephen Bollinger
Stephen Bollinger

Learn how the habits and practices of the U.S. military hold lessons for every business owner.

Military veterans are almost twice as likely to become entrepreneurs as non-veterans are. As one of top organizations in the U.S. for producing business owners, the military has a strong track record of teaching valuable lessons that are crucial to owning and operating a successful business and helping veterans succeed after service.

In fact, there are many programs and financial resources specifically for veterans looking to start a business. Some quick online research will turn up a handful of small business loans and grants, as well as excellent entrepreneurship programs and experiential training opportunities for veterans to explore. In addition to these resources, I believe veterans should learn from each other's firsthand experience in business. Sharing experiences and lessons learned is a great way to help a fellow veteran start their own business journey.

As a veteran myself, I can attest that many of us apply lessons from our military service to business. Vetrepreneurs, as veteran entrepreneurs are often called, do things a little bit differently. Veterans have an inherent entrepreneurial spirit. They're generally quick learners – and hungry to continue learning, which is increasingly important as the shelf life of a skill dips below five years. Perhaps more obviously, veterans tend to be fundamentally loyal, honest and accountable. These characteristics are also the qualities necessary to become a great entrepreneur.

Based on my experience, I believe you learn four key lessons during military service that can help mold an entrepreneurial spirit, and I hope to help veterans start their own business ventures by sharing these insights.

1. Lead from the front.

"Lead from the front" is a military mantra that is easily misapplied throughout business. Leading from the front in business requires many of the same strategies as in the military, such as target acquisition (goal setting), innovation and advancement. But as a leader, you can't be at the front of all processes and maintain the proper perspective – that's one of the key differences of managers vs. leaders.

Managers who misrepresent a "lead from the front" ideology may find themselves micromanaging and focusing more on process management than on inspiring their people. While these types of managers try to oversee and control every detail of a process, leaders trust their people to handle these finer details by using a shared vision as a roadmap. Good leaders build what the military calls esprit de corps – a feeling of pride, fellowship and loyalty. Leaders recruit talented people who will buy into the broader strategic vision and understand how each process aligns with that mission to execute tasks appropriately. They lead by example and create a clear sense of direction for their people.

Leadership is a must because, while we encourage innovation, it's important to innovate within the parameters of the primary mission. If you don't properly synchronize all facets of your business, the glue becomes weak and things can fall apart. This should not be misinterpreted as micromanagement; it's steering the business and maintaining mission focus.

Whether you are entering a new space or instituting a new approach, your team needs inspiration and encouragement, but they also need the freedom to fail. There will be failures – and good leaders prepare for them – but it's the job of a leader to pick up the pieces and understand what worked, what didn't work, and where to go next. It's our job to allow our teams to fail and provide the resources and guidance to get them back on course with more energy and focus than before.

Every successful company or idea I have worked on experienced early failures. I recall a situation not long ago when a clinical device was not performing well in an X-US study. The travel and schedules were intense, and we had less than 30 days to make a modification, go back into manufacturing, and return with new sterile devices. It was pure chaos, but we kept encouraging the team to dig deep and let them know we were behind them.

2. Set a clear strategic mission.

The centering point of the military world is a clear strategic mission. Building a small business is no different in this. It requires you to set the broader strategic objective and break it down into small, achievable tactical goals.

For veteran entrepreneurs and small business owners, every little detail counts, just as it does in the military. Setting realistic goals and actionable tactics – and executing on them – is the most important step you will take as an entrepreneur. These smaller touchpoints mitigate colossal failures by encouraging you to monitor the overall health of your business frequently and measurably.

It starts with a clear vision and open dialogue that challenges your team members to discuss potential obstacles and identify opportunities. People support what they help create, so this strategy encourages our team members to take an active and invested role in the company's success. Teams that work closely together, even when they are completely different philosophically or technically, optimizes the deliverable or result. 

3. Encourage innovation while staying mission-focused.

A good idea is a good idea, whether it comes from the CEO or an intern. While you should recognize that many innovative ideas, by their nature, are likely to fail, it's also your role as a leader to commend the effort and encourage your employees to keep coming back until they get a hit.

There's a catch, though. Innovation should never come at the expense of the overall mission. This doesn't just apply to business – it applies to life.

After serving in war, I made it my new life's mission to make a difference by helping people in the world of health. I have succeeded and I have failed, but everything I have done since I left the Army in 1991 has been in support of my core mission. Over the last 20 years, everything in my professional life has been focused on helping people in healthcare. That being said, everyone would like to shoot for the stars and innovate ways to eradicate the most challenging diseases, but we have to understand our limitations and what is feasible.

Around 2009, I began identifying problem spots in women's healthcare and thinking about new ways to bring medically proven technologies directly to the end user. The goal was to be at the forefront of this new movement, providing patients with solutions to bridge a growing gap in healthcare. We started with The Stork Products, an at-home conception device, and, more recently, developed Revive, a reusable bladder support that could change the game for more than 15 million women in the U.S. who experience light bladder leaks. This solution not only helps the everyday women struggling to maintain an active lifestyle with bladder leaks – it also helps military women and veterans both on and off duty. This is one way that I believe I can personally give back to the military – by helping veterans and active personnel with some of their most intimate health concerns.

These products, in a lot of ways, have created an entirely new category of products for women's health. There were other ideas and innovations we considered along the way. As a leader, though, you have to choose the right ideas to build your business.

4. Evaluate and assess risks.

Only when you can effectively see all the moving parts in a business can you identify trouble before it becomes a crisis, deploying resources as needed and engaging your team in honest conversations. Despite the negative connotation, risk is not a bad thing – there's inherent risk in everything we do.  

One thing that makes the U.S. military the premier force in the world is its ability to normalize discomfort, challenging its troops to train their minds and bodies to think about how they will react to a situation before it happens. Service men and women practice the chaos of war in their everyday lives, so they are aptly prepared to assume the risks of entrepreneurship. I am personally grateful for having adopted this quality in the military to eventually transition into the business world.

It's not an easy life, leading companies in new spaces of innovation. Entrepreneurship is filled with failures, disappointments and stress. When you do experience success, though, that feeling is irreplaceable. For me, making a difference in women's lives today – through innovation and teamwork – is truly a miracle and blessing.

While many programs, financial tools and training options are available to veteran entrepreneurs, I believe that life lessons, like the four I shared above, are critical. I hope that these four principles can help other veterans begin their own entrepreneurial journeys and start on the path to success.

Image Credit: LightFieldStudios / Getty Images
Stephen Bollinger
Stephen Bollinger Member
Stephen Bollinger, a successful long-time entrepreneur, has built (and sold) four successful businesses over the last 20 years. Currently, he is President & CEO of Rinovum Women’s Health LLC, where he has helped innovate and launch new women’s healthcare products directly available to the end user. By forging strategic partnerships with leading national retailers, Mr. Bollinger has made these products affordable and easily accessible to those in need. Previously, he has held multiple leadership positions from Founder, President, and Chief Operations Officer of early stage companies, to an even broader spectrum of roles across global operations, marketing, product management and sales. He also is an Adjunct Professor at Carnegie Mellon University’s School of Business. He studied his M.B.A. from Oklahoma City University and is a graduate of the United States Military Academy West Point with a B.S. in mechanical engineering.