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Business War: Veteran Entrepreneurs Versus Civilian Entrepreneurs

army man on top of dollars
The central feature of all business is competition for profit. Aside from industries where there are monopolies or oligopolies, every industry is defined by various competing companies and corporations trying to make money.

In a similar point of view, nations also compete with one another and at times they engage in the most destructive of competitions: warfare.

Even though it is very debatable how similar or dissimilar warfare and capitalist business are, for one group of entrepreneurs, it is natural to draw connections between the two.

This group of entrepreneurs are veterans and former military who decide to try their hands at starting a business. Whether by borrowing business loans or bootstrapping, these veterans enter into the world of business and compete against not only other former military members but also civilians.

The divide between civilian and veteran entrepreneurs is so marked that the SBA even devotes resources specifically to veterans looking to start their own businesses.

(For more information on the SBA, click here)

It may be stating the obvious, but civilians and veterans are quite different and often start out quite differently when it comes to beginning the turbulent life of an entrepreneur.

Veterans Say They Win the Fight

Unsurprisingly, some veterans say that military experience gives them an advantage over their civilian counterparts.

The military attracts a wide variety of people, ranging from those looking to serve their country or continue a family legacy of enlistment, to those wanting to learn technical skills or who simply have no other employment options.

Within this group of servicemembers are those that recognize they will face the clear possibility of physical injury or death. That type of acceptance requires courage and bravery in the face of instinctual fear. This same type of courage and bravery no doubt translates well into the unsure and competitive world of business.

In contrast to this, many civilians most likely live their daily lives without any fear of harm or danger, especially any threat that comes close to physical combat.

The argument could be made that veterans thus have a higher tolerance for fear and an innate boldness that allows them to handle the challenges and risks of starting a business far better than typical civilians, who are likely to have far fewer harrowing life experiences.

Trained in the effectiveness of teamwork, one group of veterans pooled their brains to create a social network for other veterans looking to integrate into civilian careers.

Dan Brillman of the Air Force Reserves, Kareem Elsirafy of the Marine Corps, and Taylor Justice of the Army formed Unite Us, with the goal of helping returning veterans who often find themselves hopelessly directionless when looking for civilian jobs.

Using angel investors instead of business loans, the trio called upon their military discipline and resilience to develop their company.

“In the military, we all experience things that are out of the norm of standard business practices that are seen by peers that haven’t served,” said Brillman. “Therefore, it helps us have better awareness and understanding of how to solve problems.”

He believes that businesses tend to like employees with military backgrounds since military members know how to put plans together and execute them well. This gives them a clear advantage over civilian entrepreneurs. As verifiable evidence, Unite Us has obtained several million dollars worth of investments, all while being led by veterans.

Civilians Come Out on Top

The bulk of entrepreneurs, be they civilians or veterans, believe that civilians have an advantage over former members of the military and veterans. After all, members of the Armed Forces essentially sign over years of their lives and, depending on their specialization and area of deployment, could have little to no useful career skills developed come the time of their contract’s termination.

For example, members of the infantry are likely to face higher degrees of unemployment after their service is over since many employers, private military companies aside, don’t see how combat experience is very useful to their particular fields.

Contrarily, in the same number of years, civilians may have obtained degrees and workplace experience.

These benefits offer a clear argument for civilians being literally years ahead of veterans, at least on paper.

On a medical level, many returning veterans suffer from PTSD as a result of the trauma and stress that they experienced in combat in Iraq, Afghanistan, and other areas of the world. Even though only a fraction of the military actually goes into combat operations, PTSD remains a very difficult condition for military members to live with.

Even though civilians can be diagnosed with PTSD, members of the Armed Forces are naturally more prone to it simply by the nature of their work.

As one can imagine with any type of psychological condition, PTSD makes entrepreneurship, let alone daily life, all the more difficult.

One veteran didn’t let his years spent in the military hold him back though.

Sam Coyl is the CEO and President of Netrepid and considers himself a “vetrepreneur” in the field of cloud services and data backup. He also served as a Marine and after his service was completed he set out to create his company.

Most lenders reacted positively to his military experience with gratefulness, but it still didn’t help him in terms of collateral. Lenders still required assets, such as buildings. Intangible and abstract concepts, such as character, passion, and service to country, carry no value as far as underwriting is concerned. He even found the SBA’s veteran business loan services to be difficult to obtain. 

But Coyl’s time in the Marines led him to develop a determined attitude that rejects failure as an option.

He formed his company without financing and just recently led his company through corporate restructuring using business loans and a round of investing.

While he believes that Marines push harder than most other people, namely civilians, Coyl does concede that civilians have one leg-up on servicemembers: education.

Education, a vital necessity in the modern workforce, is no doubt one of the reasons that veterans face such dramatically high unemployment rates when compared to civilians. This is a fact that Coyl finds completely inexcusable.

“Too many employers dismiss the validity of military experience,” he said. “While veterans may not have the same job titles, there are many roles that every veteran develops that are useful in civilian jobs, such as project management, team management, and laborer.”

As an added benefit, Coyl thinks that veterans learn new skills faster than typical civilians. Those who are unable to get jobs though, are often forced to start a company just to survive and support themselves and their families.

Another veteran has a similar view about how civilians have an advantage over former military members. However, he’s from another branch: the Navy.

If Naval officers think about starting a business, an outdoor adventure gear company would probably be the last thing they think of. After all, it’s a land-based business.

Kevin Rosenberg, CEO of Gear to Go Outfitters, started the company after being a Naval officer for nine years.

He entered law school and when not focusing on his studies, he led an outdoor adventure club which took people hiking, backpacking, sailing, climbing, and kayaking.

“I really enjoyed leading trips, giving lectures, and talking about the latest gear and when planning a backpacking trip, I realized how hard it was to get quality rental gear in NYC,” he said. “I thought, wouldn’t it be great if there was one place where you could get everything you need!”

Like the other veterans who already spoke to loans.org, Rosenberg failed to get financing even with the help of the SBA’s Patriot Express Loan, which is supposedly tailor-made for veterans looking to become entrepreneurs.

“The banks often refused to acknowledge the program existed or they refused to even submit the paperwork,” he said. “Fortunately I was able to borrow a small amount from a Navy buddy of mine.”

With that personal loan in hand, Rosenberg set out to build up his business. His outdoor training came in use since he became a street vendor on the cold sidewalks of Brooklyn. After weathering cold winters and long days, he finally built up a customer base. In time, he was able to open a brick and mortar location. 

Even though Rosenberg credits his experience as an officer as being invaluable for managing employees, he believes that veterans are at a disadvantage compared to civilians because they have missed out on years of building connections in the business community. These very same connections often lead to investors and financing, which are vital to success.

One successful civilian entrepreneur works with both civilian and veterans.

Griffin Dalrymple, Wealth Manager and Founder of Opinicus, runs an investment and financial advisory firm. Working near MacDill Air Force Base brings him into contact with many veterans and civilians who also run their own businesses.

Unfortunately, he’s noticed that veteran entrepreneurs tend to use military acronyms in slang and casual conversation. This distances them from civilian customers and colleagues who tend to respond with blank states at the mention of phrases such as “FUBAR.”

That’s not the only problem he sees facing veteran entrepreneurs though.

“Many young veteran entrepreneurs didn’t attend college due to their military services,” he said. “There are numerous benefits for veterans desiring the pursuit of higher education.”

Those weaknesses aside, Dalrymple recognizes that veterans generally maintain a no-nonsense work ethic.

However that still doesn’t overcome the inherent advantages being a civilian has.

“Initially, for the young entrepreneur, I believe civilians have an advantage over veterans due to the experience of working in their fields or building their enterprise,” he said.

Dalrymple recalled one pair of clients, two brothers, who had taken separate courses in life. One had become a captain in the Army while the other had gone off to college. The two went into business together and had markedly different styles of a management. The college graduate operates as the company’s mastermind, developing sales strategies. The former captain handles the accounting team with military precision.

Perhaps this level of cooperation and cohesion sheds light on a possible future for employers seeking to add veterans into their ranks. By channeling veterans into positions of structured performance, both the employer and veteran can gain from each other.

Interestingly, Dalrymple said that if he were a business loan lender, he would rather lend to a veteran than a civilian.

“Simply put, assuming they are both qualitatively and quantitatively equal, I would select the veteran because I have the utmost respect and gratitude for their service and sacrifice,” he said.

One veteran who served for two decades is now a female entrepreneur.

Nicole Grenon is a former Air Force technician who formed her business, 50 Sips Wine, after spending 20 years in the service.

“I think the biggest part of my military experience that helped me in starting my business was the hard work and determination that I was taught from the beginning of my career,” she said. “Food and wine were just a passion for me, and I have gotten to taste some amazing food and wines from around the world; my experiences made my dream come true.”

Even though she wisely drew on her globetrotting experience in the military to start her business, she believes it is more difficult for veterans to start a business than it is for civilians.

She even describes her personal experience going from the Air Force into entrepreneurship as akin to doing a 180 degree turn. Adding to her difficulty was the fact that many naysayers told her how difficult it would be to run a business with no real world experience in retail wine and food sales.

Things quickly went from bad to worse as she faced the rigorous process of getting a liquor license in her state as well as complying with city rules. Since her business is entirely self-funded she couldn’t spare the money to hire a lawyer to handle all of the proper paperwork for opening an alcohol retail business.

Fortunately, sales have been increasing for the past two months even though Grenon hasn’t been able to court investors.

In her opinion, veterans have several obstacles in their path compared to civilians but the most damaging obstacle is deployment. As a veteran of Desert Storm, she recognizes how much of a toll deployments can take on families, not just at the emotional level but at the financial level leading to damaged credit. As all borrowers know, a damaged credit score usually means business loan denials.

“Civilians don’t usually experience long absences from home and tend not to get moved around like the military does,” she said.

The “Everyone is Equal” Crowd

Depending on one’s worldview, very little about life is black and white. In the same vein of thinking, veterans and entrepreneurs can seen as being on equal footing.

The veteran-turned-entrepreneur is not necessarily braver than say the fireman-turned-entrepreneur. Similarly, the educated-civilian-entrepreneur is not necessarily better than the veteran entrepreneur who barely received his or her high school diploma.

Given how diverse the broad spectrum of civilian lives already are, and how diverse veterans are, both civilians and members of the Armed Forces may be just too different within their groups to be seen as anything but equal.

One veteran entrepreneur is Diego Echeverri, a 32-year-old Army veteran who fought in Afghanistan as a legal specialist.

He used the GI Bill to obtain an MBA before beginning Bull+Moose, a luxury neckwear line, and attributes his success to his time in the military. 

“Uniform and appearance are very important to the military, and having taken such pride in my uniform for so long, including pressing my shirts, shining my boots and maintaining a sharp look has translated very well to starting a dapper menswear brand,” he said.

Echeverri takes a historical view of the military’s changing fashion standards and believes that it has had a positive influence on menswear in general. After all, boots, epaulets, and trench coats do trace their origin to militaries.

His military experience and business success has not made him come to the conclusion that veterans are somehow inherently superior to civilian entrepreneurs.

“I do not think that civilians are at a disadvantage compared to veterans when it comes to being entrepreneurs,” he said. “However I believe that the military prepared me personally to be a successful entrepreneur and business leader. I suppose it boils down more to the personality of the individual.”

Looking back on his time in the Army, Echeverri recalls how marching 12 miles while carrying 75 pounds helped prepare him to run his company in equal measure to the business school studies he took.

While Echeverri is a patriot who fought for his country, he considers any lender who denies a business loan to a veteran out of fear of PTSD to be un-American.

“Furthermore, lenders denying service members with good credit, who otherwise would get a loan, should be held to account for discrimination against people with service related disabilities,” he said. “The moral test of a society is in how they treat their wounded and disabled.”

Even though Bull+Moose didn’t borrow a business loan to begin operations, they did obtain the aid of an angel investor, a benefit equally available to civilian entrepreneurs.

“We wanted to avoid the loan route to mitigate risk to ourselves while bringing someone on board that could help with relationships and intros,” he said. “We obviously had to give up equity but for us that was worth it.”

Some veterans seem like ideal candidates for entrepreneurship. It is easy to see how, say an electronics technician in the Air Force or a logistics specialist in the Navy, can transfer into a business based in technology or shipping.

However, for the fraction of veterans whose only experience has been combat or in the field, it seems difficult to comprehend how they can possibly become entrepreneurs.

Ryan Crichett, the CEO of iMobile Rescue, smashes that notion.

He was an active duty combat arms soldier who conducted riot control for 30 days in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.

Later, he conducted raids, patrols, and sniper operations for 15 months in Iraq.

While these diverse combat operations draw upon a number of skills, on the surface they have little to do with entrepreneurship. Regardless, Crichett turned his experience into vital business assets.

“For me, the primary facilitator of a better capacity to run a business via military experience comes from being inoculated to fear,” he said. “Once you get used to being attacked frequently with everything from small arms, to sniper fire, to RPGs and roadside bombs, there’s not much about being stateside, in business, that scares you.”

Like other veterans, Crichett found the SBA to be less than helpful. Despite serving his country, he couldn’t get a business loan since lenders required he have two years already in business, business funds already available, and multiple hoops to jump through in the application process. Even his “veteran friendly” personal bank failed to help him. Left with no alternative, he bootstrapped his business with the aid of his friends and family.

Despite his difficulty getting financing, Crichett thinks that veterans and civilians are on a relatively even playing field. It is money that plays the vital role. For example, he managed to save $25,000 before leaving the military. While he ended up losing that money trying to make two businesses successful, the lessons he learned from those endeavors helped him succeed with his new business repairing iPads.

Even some civilian entrepreneurs concur that they are on equal footing with veterans, as one former high school teacher revealed.

Aside from Breaking Bad viewers, most people don’t expect high school teachers to become entrepreneurs. Mark B. Pentecost just wanted an extra $500 a month for some extra grocery money and to save up for a family vacation.

He started a company called It Works! Global which launched in 2001. The company offers body contouring products and is on track to make half of a billion dollars this year. Hardly a small success for a teacher-turned-entrepreneur.

To get his company off the ground, Pentecost and his team would flip houses to get extra funds. The company actually pledged itself to be debt free and has been since 2008.

Pentecost views civilians and veterans as being on equal footing when it comes to entrepreneurship, but doesn’t fault veterans for having access to a number of exclusive business loan programs.

As for his own success, Pentecost attributes everything to his team and ingenuity.

“Be an innovator, keep it simple, and build a good team,” he said.

Drawing on his success as a teacher and coach, Pentecost was able to lead his team to the height of business success, the same type of leadership that is present in the military.

Another civilian believes that entrepreneurs, be they veterans or civilians, are on equal footing due to the common challenges they face in business.

John J. Murphy, Founder of Venture Management Consultants, is a civilian but believes that the greatest problem facing both types of entrepreneurs is fear and ignorance. He credits this innate weakness as what holds people back from pursuing a business idea or business venture.

“This is like going through life with the brakes on,” he said. “We resist exploration and growth and often don’t know it.”

Murphy holds veterans and civilians to be equal but experience is whatever people make of it. 

In a world where everyone’s life experiences are too different to make them similar, everyone becomes equal by default. No one job or field has people cut from the same cloth. Humans are just too unique for that to be the case. After all, every profession has people that got there by different means and each professional has a different background to a greater or lesser degree.

Be they civilians or veterans, entrepreneurs will always end up being defined by their success and not who they used to be and what they used to do. In an America that is obsessed with placing people in categories based on their skin color, last name, religion, party affiliation, and even what clothes they wear or music they listen to, it is due time to start looking at individuals and not broad generalizations.