I drove out the gate of Camp Pendleton, CA on August 15, 2012 as a Marine Captain transitioning into the civilian world. I had only returned from my deployment to Afghanistan three months earlier and was still getting adjusted to indoor plumbing, greasy food and a bed to sleep in. Obviously, there are a few more adjustments necessary to thrive outside of the military.
I wasn’t the stereotypical, recently separated veteran that you see on the news. I actually joined the Marine Corps at the age of 28 after a fairly successful early career in public accounting and management consulting. So, I had a plan when I left the Marine Corps but it wasn’t to go back to work at a “Big Four” firm. I wanted to utilize the leadership skills that I developed as a military officer to create a successful startup of mine own.
Most people probably read that and think it makes a ton of sense but I think anyone in the startup community knows better. They probably read that and think “this guy is out of his mind”. For the most part, the community is right. The challenges and obstacles that face a normal entrepreneur are daunting. The issues that face a recently separated veteran entrepreneur may seem insurmountable. I have outlined a few of the “unique” challenges that I faced and the strategies I took to overcome them.
I knew absolutely no one in the startup/business community. I believe this is the biggest obstacle for veteran entrepreneurs in comparison to most other founders. I had just spent almost five years training and deploying with the Marines. I barely knew my family anymore let alone innovators, entrepreneurs and potential partners that could assist me in getting started. So, I got my story together and some simple concept materials and I reached out all day every day for the first four months. I started with other military veteran business owners and they introduced me to other entrepreneurs and support including a tremendous organization called The Jonas Project (www.thejonasproject.org). After four months, I had a much more flushed out concept and also a great network to lean on.
I wanted to stay mission driven with my life and company. Let’s be honest. Projections, ROI and valuations dominate the landscape of the startup community. I have struggled with this emphasis since day 1 of PatriotMove. And it’s not because I don’t understand financial models (I am a CPA) or I didn’t have a revenue model. It was because the Marine Corps impacted my life permanently in several different ways. Foremost, it allowed me to live a mission-driven life on a daily basis. I could always answer the question “why?” during my five years as a Marine Officer. I definitely was not able to do that prior to my service. I wanted to maintain that mentality as a founder. However, I struggled with the initial pressure to build my startup around the company’s revenue streams. I chased the money and got meetings with billion dollar companies. I was starting to create a company that had a distinct why…and it was all about money. And I hated it. My founder’s moment came when I decided that PatriotMove exists to improve the lives of military service members (past and present) and their families. That is our mission. I begin every pitch with that statement and it is the foundation for everything my team and I do. We are starting a social movement not a company.
I was a proud veteran looking for an opportunity, not compassion. “We need to do more for vets like you.” I remember the first time I heard that after pitching my idea at an angel meet-up. This comment caught me extremely off guard. I am a proud Marine Corps veteran NOT a victim. I believed my service and the leadership skills that I developed in the Marine Corps would be the positive differentiator not a detriment in the eyes of potential investors, partners or sponsors. However, I transitioned out of the Marine Corps during a point in time when there was an intense media focus on PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder). I have seen firsthand the effects of PTSD with my fellow Marines and peers. It is very real and very destructive. But, the intense media focus on this condition had a strange side effect for many recently separated veterans like me. Being a veteran had somehow become synonymous with PTSD. We all know that pitching a startup is very stressful and difficult. Imagine trying to pitch when your audience thinks you might have a serious mental condition! Eventually, I adjusted to the mindset and learned how to pitch around this topic or shift the discussion when it came up. But, it was a confusing and very serious obstacle to my company early on.
The great news is that the veteran community is trained and ready to handle these unique challenges. The key is adapting to the situation and overcoming it which is the basis for almost everything we do in the military.
In the Marines we considered ourselves “the few and the proud”. Well, I think that applies well to the founder community too. Keep fighting out there.