7 Tips for Veterans Who Want to Start Their Own Business

7 Tips for Veterans Who Want to Start Their Own Business
Photo: Courtesy Ed Vargas

By Heidi Lynn Russell

Veterans are 45 percent more likely to be self-employed than nonveterans, according to the Small Business Administration - and they have an immense impact on the U.S. economy. The most recent data reveal there is one veteran-owned firm for every 10 veterans. Veteran-owned businesses employ 5.8 million individuals.

But getting started after a successful military career might present challenges many veterans are not anticipating, says Emily McMahan, executive director of Capitol Post, a nonprofit in the Washington, D.C., area that helps veterans with entrepreneurship.

“In the military, you're not really taught to fail. Failure is not necessarily applauded or encouraged,” McMahan says. “When you get into a startup and realize that you very likely are not going to succeed immediately, that's the learning point. How quickly do you turn the feedback? It's a process that is important. ... Ultimately, what counts is: How fast can you turn the process of failure into what drives people to succeed?”

Success is within reach, though. Here are seven tips for starting your own business from officers who've done it.

Plan ahead

“I used the military's transition program and took all the courses they had, but I kept coming back to their Boots to Business Course. … I started taking the courses one year out. I had a separate planner for my transition,” says Lt. Col. Jenifer Breaux, USA (Ret), who owns a Dream Vacations franchise in Lithia, Fla. “When I decided that I wanted to own my own franchise, I took Boots to Business a second time and picked up additional tips. I was more focused because I made my decision.”

She made a checklist and a plan.

“We plan everything in the military - why not with your business? Make a transition plan and include in it how and when your business will launch. Include details of where and how.”

Keep learning

McMahan cut her teeth at defense contractor Halfaker & Associates from 2008 to 2013 before becoming the executive director of Capitol Post.

A former Army captain and veteran of Iraq and Afghanistan, McMahan advised about 90 companies in 2017, plus dozens of other veterans who have sought guidance. Many lack focus, even if they think they have a great business idea. She suggests they get some experience in a real business first - just as she did.

“I think having worked for Dawn [Halfaker], that's the reason why I'm in this role,” she says. “I've seen someone who started a company and have seen her experience and my own.”

Find a mentor

You've taken orders from military leadership your entire career. Even though you're going into business for yourself, Breaux recommends relying on the expertise and knowledge of civilian business experts.

“You can find them at the Small Business Association, your local chamber [of commerce], etcetera. Look for them and use them. While [military officers] are used to public speaking and making slides, I did not know about a 30-second commercial, how to dress for my specific business, one-on-ones, and more. If they are good, they are willing to pay it forward,” says Breaux.

Assemble a stellar team

When you hire competent people, you overcome problems such as poor customer service, poor marketing, and poor products or services, says former Army 2nd Lt. Derrick Weaver, owner of “Mr. Transmission” in Lilburn, Ga. Weaver has been running his company on the outskirts of Atlanta since 2003.

“When I first started, I had a couple of guys who weren't good at what they did. That's not good for your reputation. Once you get over that hurdle, and customers are getting good results, they will tell other people,” Weaver says.

A business specialty such as transmission repair requires a specific skill set and high-caliber performance. If you've set yourself apart as an expert in your field who does quality work, people will want to work for you, Weaver says.

“And it isn't just the technical aspect of it,” Weaver continues. “You have to have people without personal problems interfering with their work - good people. My guys show up to work on time, come early, and leave late. They're honest, technical, and good at what they do.”

Network in the community

Former Navy Lt. Cmdr. Ed Vargas joined his local chamber of commerce to make connections. As a result, his “Mr. Appliance” franchise took off in Loudoun County, Va., and Martinsburg, W. Va. In November, he and his wife, Amy, were awarded the “People's Choice Award for Loudoun County” as the “Best Small Business.” They have been running Mr. Appliance since 2015.

“We did a lot of networking within the chamber. There were a lot of realtors and other professionals that needed appliance repair and didn't know who to go to, and here I am,” Vargas says. “A chamber of commerce gives you credibility and accountability. You also should join a 'lead share group' at your chamber. Basically, you're sharing leads among each other. That has helped us immensely. We've spent less in marketing than we have on networking. It adds to the bottom line.”

Partner up

When Breaux, the mother of two special needs boys, retired after 29 years in October 2015, she wanted to start a business in which her family “could share in the adventure.” Breaux wanted a work schedule that would give her parenting flexibility and time to volunteer in her children's activities.

“One of the biggest challenges I faced was that I did not have a business background,” Breaux says. But her husband, also a retired Army officer, has degrees in accounting and finance. He handles those areas of the business while she concentrates on running it - and being with their children, too.

Establish yourself

Both Weaver and Vargas have found that people seek them out - and refer friends and family to them - because of their reputation for quality services.

When Weaver first launched Mr. Transmission, he also was selling cars full-time for six to eight months.

He left that job to concentrate on the franchise, and he started seeing higher profits. Quality work was ensured when he was onsite, working alongside his employees.

“It took eight months to a year to turn a profit. It became a difference between paying bills and making money. I put myself into the shop full-time, and it changed,” Weaver says.

And Vargas' reputation for quality work has spread because he has been willing to help people with questions for free if they can solve a problem with an appliance themselves.

“We're proud that we get reviews from people, and we don't even go to their house. We help them out, and they write a good review for us online. We've seen things like, 'They care and listened to me.' Little things like that - it warms your heart,” Vargas says.

Heidi Lynn Russell is a freelance writer from Kentucky.