Veterans have not only honorably served our country, but many also serve a valuable role in our economy. There is approximately one veteran-owned firm for every 10 veterans, and veteran-owned companies employ approximately 5.8 million Americans, according to the U.S. Small Business Administration (SBA).
"The military excels at teaching transferable 'soft' skills of critical thinking and multitasking, teamwork and leadership, integrity and motivation, among others," said Edward Slavis, a former U.S. Marine infantry officer who served in Iraq. "I apply these skills to my real estate business, but they could be employed in any field."
For vets who are transitioning from military service to the world of entrepreneurship, there is a plethora of resources, including free training, education, funding and networking events, to help ensure their new venture is successful.
Here is a list of the basic steps for starting your business, along with links to resources that will help veteran entrepreneurs every step of the way.
Generating business ideas
What do RE/MAX, FedEx, Walmart and GoDaddy have in common? They're all businesses founded by military veterans. Many successful veteran entrepreneurs attribute their business success to their military experience, and part of that success involves teasing out a viable business idea.
For Dave Liniger, founder of RE/MAX, the military gave him the maturity and confidence to meet the realities of starting a company.
"The military really gave me the chance to grow up," he said. "It also taught me self-discipline and a sense of responsibility."
Sometimes military experience translates directly into the business world. Marc Alacqua, Steve Davis, and Altaf Bahora took the same type of technology that they used in intelligence for special operations forces in Afghanistan to build a data fusion and content analytics tool. The company they founded, Signafire, counts JP Morgan, Chase, Major League Soccer and Blackberry among its clients.
Impact of Covid-19 on veteran businesses
Small business owners across the country have borne the brunt of the COVID-19 pandemic, and veteran-owned businesses haven't been immune. When the virus hit the U.S. in large numbers in March 2020, cities across the country went into lockdown, forcing millions of businesses to temporarily close. Many never reopened. Businesses that did had to adhere to new social distancing rules, which added to their operational costs, and they had to contend with less traffic. The pain has been particularly pronounced for restaurants, bars, gyms and other consumer-facing enterprises.
The federal government has taken steps to help struggling small business owners, signing the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act into law in March 2020. Through that multitrillion-dollar aid package, small business owners, including veterans, got access to forgivable and low-interest rate loans. The Paycheck Protection Program, which is now in round two, has proven to be a lifeline for small business owners. Business owners have been offered forgivable loans if the proceeds go to keep staff on the payroll. The SBA's Economic Injury Disaster Loans have provided business owners with low interest rate loans they have 30 years to pay back.
With the vaccine starting to roll out and expectations that the virus will be more contained by the spring or summer of 2021, the government, under President Joe Biden, is working on another aid package that includes more help to small business owners, including veteran-owned ones. (At the time this article was published, the U.S. House had passed the stimulus bill, and the bill was on its way to the Senate.)
Writing a business plan
After you feel you've got a feasible idea for a business, it's time to start creating your road map to success.
Business plans outline your business goals and how you plan to achieve them. You'll need a business plan if you want to get a loan or attract investors. Private banks, venture capitalists and other lenders will want to know you've thought through every aspect of your future business growth.
Whether you're bootstrapping or seeking funding sources, writing a business plan is the best way to get your thoughts and plan of attack into a clear and concise document that can evolve over time. Here are some resources to help:
- How to Write a Business Plan: This is a free course available from the SBA's Learning Center.
- Introduction and Overview of Business Plans: This is a link to an hour-long video lecture by Joe Hadzima for Massachusetts Institute of Technology's OpenCourseWare.
Veterans have more incentives and funding options available to them than civilian entrepreneurs. Below are some different types of funding sources. Some, though not all, are specifically for veterans.
With crowdfunding, you're receiving investments from individuals who are donating to your business - you are not securing debt in the form of a loan - so, you're not usually required to pay the money back.
Mike Kim, a U.S. Army veteran, used Kickstarter to launch KPOP Foods. He and his co-founder set a $10,000 investment goal for their flagship product KPOP Korean Chili Sauce. They blew past it, reaching $10,000 in eight hours. In total, they received $37,627 in pledges from 1,219 backers.
Kim says his experience as an Army project manager in Southern Afghanistan taught him resourcefulness and a can-do attitude.
"Launching my own business, I never tell myself I can't accomplish a task," he said. "I ask myself instead how I'm going to accomplish a task. Doing this over and over again, you'll be surprised at your own resourcefulness and creativity."
Here are some resources for making crowdfunding work for your small business startup:
- Small Business Advisory: Crowdfunding: The North American Securities Administrators Association provides helpful tips on federal regulations for equity-based crowdfunding.
- Simple Steps to Choosing the Right Financing: SCORE, a partner of the SBA, provides a small business guide that includes section on crowdfunding options.
Veteran specific investments
Venture capital firms provide investment dollars for your startup business in exchange for partial control, equity and/or a seat on the board of your company. Some of these firms work exclusively with veteran entrepreneurs. Here are some investment options for veteran entrepreneurs:
- Hivers and Strivers: This angel investment group is focused on early-stage investments to support startup companies founded and run by graduates of the U.S. military academies.
- Veteran Ventures Capital: Veteran Ventures provides investment opportunities to businesses with veterans in leadership positions.
- Task Force X Capital: TFX is a venture capital firm with veteran-led advisory, focused on early stage veteran startups.
- 1836: This nonprofit makes direct investments in veteran-owned businesses.
Private loans for veterans are also a good option for veteran entrepreneurs. Here are two resources to look into:
- Veterans Business Fund: This nonprofit offers non-interest-bearing loans to veteran small business owners.
- Veteran Business Outreach Centers: VBOC centers offer referrals to independent grants for prospective veteran entrepreneurs, as well as training and counseling.
Unlike funding from a private bank, grants aren't loans, and you're not required to pay them back. Here are some veteran-specific resources for both private loans and federal grant funding:
- The Veteran Entrepreneur Portal (VEP): Provided by the U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs, it's a searchable website where veteran business owners can find grants.
- Warrior Rising Veteran Grants: This nonprofit supports veteran entrepreneurs, offering grants, financing, mentoring and business support.
- Idea Cafe Grants: Veteran entrepreneurs and existing small business owners can apply for $1,000 small business grants.
If starting a business from scratch seems overwhelming, consider buying a franchise. When you buy into a franchise, you get upfront guidance from the franchisor and begin your career owning a business with an already well-established brand.
Jeff Allen, an Army helicopter pilot and current franchise owner, had just transitioned to a public affairs job at the Pentagon when a life-changing event altered his perspective.
"On September 11, 2001, I was sitting at my desk when the Pentagon was attacked," Allen remembers. "My team survived, and while I did take a brief hiatus, I ended up returning to active duty for another 10 years once the war started."
When he finally did retire, Allen looked for a franchising opportunity that matched the mission he'd chosen for his life.
"Protecting people is in my DNA, and I took that with me when it came time to start my own business," he said. "I chose to open Dryer Vent Wizard of Middle Tennessee, a business that helps prevent dryer fires through regular maintenance and inspections."
Allen saved money during his time in the military so that he could be an entrepreneur after retiring from active duty. When it comes to choosing a franchise, here's his advice: "You have to find the business that fits you and your lifestyle best."
The International Franchise Association Foundation's VetFran program helps veterans find training and partnership opportunities with franchise companies.
Here are some other resources for starting a franchise:
- : Learn about 150 vet-friendly franchise opportunities that are available and what the upfront investment costs are.
- Tips for Veterans Who Want to be Franchise Owners: In this article, U.S. Veterans Magazine reviews what you need to consider to decide if opening a franchise is a good move for you and your family.
- 7-Eleven Veterans Franchising: 7-Eleven offers special financing for qualified veterans of up to 20% off the initial franchise fee and 65% financing through 7-Eleven.
As a veteran, you're already familiar with the federal government. You can continue this relationship as a veteran business owner by becoming a registered government contractor.
The General Services Administration oversees contracts for the federal government and considers veteran-owned business for contracts before other civilian contractors.
The veterans-first policy levels the playing field for veteran-owned small businesses that are bidding against larger firms. Securing a government contract means steady work. Here are some resources to help you do business with the government.
- Veteran Entrepreneur Portal (VEP): VEP provides resources for training, financing, networking, VA procurement and more.
- Veteran Institute for Procurement: This three-day, 27-hour certification program is for veteran-owned businesses that want to enter into the federal marketplace.
- System for Award Management (SAM): SAM is an account portal for federal government contractors. It's free to register your business.
- National Veteran Small Business Coalition: This organization is dedicated to helping veteran-owned businesses get first consideration for federal prime and subcontract procurement.
- Service-Disabled Veteran-Owned Small Business Program: Joining the program gives your small business an edge when competing for federal "set-aside" contracts.
- Vets First Verification Program: Register your business for special opportunities to do business with the federal government.
- National Veteran-Owned Business Association (NaVOBA): NaVOBA is a nonprofit that certifies businesses as Veteran Business Enterprises for American corporations looking to partner with veteran-owned and operated businesses.
Business education and training
Aside from financing your business, the biggest investment you'll make as an entrepreneur will be in your knowledge and skills. Entrepreneurship requires a broad skill set, such as accounting basics and interviewing skills.
The GI Bill has helped cover all or some of the costs of higher education for millions of vets, which is good because education isn't cheap.
Chris Rawlings is a former Marine who did two tours of duty in Iraq. He's now the owner of Veteran LED, a lighting and energy design company. Rawlings invested in his education after leaving the military, attending the Entrepreneur Bootcamp for Veterans at Florida State University.
"In addition to the education it provided, I tapped into such specialty providers as legal services, marketing and website design," said Rawlings. "Those resources helped keep me from feeling overwhelmed about parts of my business that required specialized training."
Here's information about that program and others where veterans can learn important business skills:
- Veterans Business Resource Center: Veterans and their families can get free business training and counseling.
- Boots to Business Reboot: The SBA offers a two-day course teaching business fundamentals and techniques for evaluating the feasibility of your business.
- Entrepreneurship Bootcamp for Veterans (EBV): EBV provides small business training to post-9/11 veterans and military family members who serve in a caregiver role to a veteran with a service-connected disability.
- Vet to CEO: This is a free online program designed and facilitated by veteran entrepreneurs.
- Hiring Our Heroes Corporate Fellowship Program and the S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation provide training programs to help transition service members into the civilian workforce with management training and hands-on experience.
- Veteran Women Igniting the Spirit of Entrepreneurship (V-WISE): V-WISE provides an extensive training program in entrepreneurship and small business management for female vets.
Networking and mentorships
Veterans are a tight-knit group, and professional connections in the business world are just as important as they are in the military. There are plenty of organizations, both nonprofit and paid, that work with veterans to connect them with business professionals and mentors.
Paul Dillon, a U.S. Army Reserve first lieutenant and service-disabled veteran of the Vietnam War, helped pioneer one of them. Dillon, who retired from consulting in 2006, started a second career helping veterans start their own business.
"My business didn't start out with the idea of helping veterans," said Dillon. "I started out thinking that I was going to provide project management and business development services, but that didn't work out. I had to pivot several times before I found a niche that worked."
He was the creator of the concept for a business incubator in Chicago, which eventually became Bunker Labs, a national nonprofit that assists veteran entrepreneurs.
Here are some other resources to connect veterans with partners in the business world:
- American Corporate Partners (ACP): Connect with mentors in the business community to help grow your business. Membership in ACP is free for 12 months.
- Patriot Boot Camp: This free three-day event provides educational training and one-on-one mentoring to inspire and advance entrepreneurs in technology-related businesses.
- SCORE: Find mentors, workshops and other resources for veteran entrepreneurs in your area.
- VetsinTech: This organization equips veteran entrepreneurs and their spouses with mentorship, educational programs, and workshops for tech startups.
- Hire Heroes USA: This veteran nonprofit matches service members with successful professionals for one-hour phone call sessions.
Disabled veterans resources
There are educational and financial resources specific to service-disabled veteran business owners, including Veterans Affairs (VA) grants and free comprehensive business programs at major universities. Here are a few resources to help service-disabled veterans get their business going:
- Self-employment grants: The VA offers a self-employment program for service-disabled vets. Those interested can contact their local VA office.
- Veteran Readiness and Employment: The VA offers grant funding to purchase licenses and bonds, inventory, and specialized equipment for eligible veterans.
- Dog Tag Bakery: This five-month fellowship for service-disabled veterans, military spouses, and caregivers offers Georgetown University classes and real-life work experience at a small bakery.
- National Veterans Entrepreneurship Program: This program offers free training for disabled veterans modeled on comprehensive entrepreneurship curriculum. Programs currently exists for Oklahoma State University, the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga and the University of Florida.
- Veteran Business Services (VBS): VBS partners with businesses and universities that offer veteran-focused programs for training and funding.
- The Office of Veterans Business Development: Veterans, their dependents, and survivors can find small business training, resources, and opportunities at a nearby district office.
- Small Business Keyword Search: Search dozens of government websites by keywords (i.e., "construction business") to find free resources and helpful tips.
- The Rosie Network: This nonprofit offers help with training, financing and networking resources for veteran small business ownership.
- Military-transition.org: This website provides a wealth of data and resources to help with the transition from military to civilian life.
Starting a business is a challenge, but just like in the military, you can rely on the advice and support of other service members. Contact the organizations listed in this guide, and you'll see the passion and expertise of people devoting their lives to helping veteran entrepreneurs. You'll know that you aren't fighting this mission alone.
Donna Fuscaldo contributed to the reporting and writing in this article. Some source interviews were conducted for a previous version of this article.