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The World Needs More Veteran Entrepreneurs
A Manifesto for Veterans Pursuing Entrepreneurship
The most talked about topic when it comes to vets post service is the idea of the transition - the move from active duty back to civilian life. Some enter the civilian workforce for the first time after 4 years while others after 30. The range of possible backgrounds and future goals post service make this period everything but formulaic. There is however one question every individual must consider.
How do I want to spend the rest of my life?
This question is typically addressed by consideration of what job or school the member plans to immediately pursue with DD214 in hand. The famous words “What’s your plan?” uttered from my senior NCOs and officers ring in my ears louder than tinnitus. These words are well intentioned, but miss the mark in addressing the larger, existential shift taking place in veteran’s life.
Not only does leaving the military afford those exiting the opportunity to completely reinvent themselves, it reveals to you the things that matter most through the rationale for exit.
Why We Exit Service
There are two drivers that lead service members to exit service; the desire for time agency and the pursuit of activities of higher meaning. Let me explain each of these in the context of what I hear as the most popular reasons to exit service.
Lifestyle was too difficult to maintain a family
A military career demands a blank check on your time for the duration of your service. Long hours, weekend duty, and deployments interrupt the ability to allocate time in a way that best supports the family unit leading to a myriad of negative consequences.
It wasn’t what I wanted to do for the rest of my life
This touches on both time and purpose. As referenced in #1, the military as a job is a massive tax on your time which makes the pursuit of hobbies and side jobs difficult. This depresses career exploration and personal development which leads to thoughts like “I don’t know what I want to do, but I know it isn’t this”. Statements like that come from state of needing time to explore and find purpose in other things.
Reached 20 years or retirement
Reaching retirement eligibility is a purpose driven decision, not a financial reason to exit (if you think its financial, do the math on the added pension increase every year after 20). By the time service members hit this point, they’re holding on for the retirement pay check in order to go pursue other things. In other words, continuing to serve is not their purpose; it’s hypothetical means to hypothetical ends. If finances are tied to your objectives in the military, you should seek to exit as fast as possible to get a higher paying job, or seek to stay in as long as humanely possible.
Desire for time agency and pursuit of purpose (what I call doing the work we find meaningful), are behind most exit decisions. Loss of these two critical components puts considerable stress on the family unit, loots the opportunity for hobbies and extracurriculars, and otherwise warps what was once a noble purpose of service into resentment. Without consideration, veterans are sure to find themselves seeking these in future jobs.
Designing The Perfect Job
Time agency and working on something meaningful can sound like wishful thinking, so lets dial in what that actually looks like. Since my exit from the Navy, I’ve spoken with over 100 vets specifically about their transition and many of their conversations begin the same way. I’m after this specific job. To pulI the curtain back on their true aims, I take each through the same exercise of designing the perfect job.
This exercise begins not with the desired job title, but determining the conditions of the desired end state. If you got to choose, how would you answer the following:
Where would you like to work? Home, office, outside, onboard a ship, in a plane?
How would you like to work? On paper, computer, strictly speaking, writing?
How often would you like to travel? Sometimes, all the time, never?
Who would you like to work with and how? Completely solo, teamwork occasionally, one other person, big groups all the time?
Answering these four questions allows you to eliminate 75% of the possible paths you could take and we haven’t even considered what you’ll be doing yet. These questions seem simple, but I am continually surprised by how many vets tell me they want to be a data analyst, but don’t want to be on a computer all day.
My theory on why vets don’t consider these basic questions is that an obsessive focus on our ability to do anything. We all entered bootcamp with no military knowledge and were taught to steer ships, fire weapons, repair equipment, and sleep anywhere. That translates into a lowering of standards when it comes to employment - getting A job, not finding THE job.
Every Saturday, get one actionable tip to use your military experience to launch, grow, and scale your business.
Veterans believe that our ability to be taught anything is what is valuable to an employer and its actually what harms us. A jack of all trades is not what employers are looking for. Just because you can do anything doesn’t mean that you WANT to do anything. That skill is very helpful in entrepreneurship, but I’ll get to that.
The misalignment of goals from veterans reentering the workforce is seen plainly in employment numbers. 50% of veterans leave their first job after service within a year and 65% leave within two years. That turnover rate isn’t driven by the job not being advertised correctly - its because veterans don’t understand what they want.
“But Brock, I thought this was about entrepreneurship!” Entrepreneurship is a job. Entrepreneurship is a chance to design the perfect job for yourself. The difference is that creating your own job means you are ultimately responsible for the outcome. Not only does this provide time agency, but it inherently gives you purpose.
A quote I can’t seem to attribute to any one person other than Chris Williamson is one I think about often: "If you're good at your job, think about how good you would be at something you actually care about.”
What Does Entrepreneurship Look Like?
Entrepreneurship takes many forms. Many think entrepreneurship begins with a big idea that could change the world - a new social network, an advancement in nuclear energy, or launching to space. It’s so much more than that. Entrepreneurship is about solving a problem for someone else, being responsible for the outcome, and having the chance to build equity (financial benefit) where you are the sole recipient. It’s okay if you have the next big idea, but its okay if you don’t!
Problems that need solving are all around us. Maybe it looks like mowing lawns in your neighborhood on the weekend. Perhaps its writing one page per day for a book to teach a subject to someone. One guy on Twitter I’ve been impressed watching is Kusal build a pressure washing business while in the national guard and going to college. He started out small, doing a few jobs, grew, advertised, hired someone, and ended up selling the business to accommodate for his guard activity.
Each of these examples starts with something on the side. Its unlikely you can drop your day job on a whim, but you don’t have to. Starting a weekend side hustle to bring in extra cash can quickly become the main hustle with consistent effort. Even some of the biggest companies ever started by veterans (Sam Walton - Walmart, Fred Smith - Fedex, Phil Knight - Nike) all started small.
The most important part of understanding what entrepreneurship looks like is recognizing you don’t need to be a Sam Walton to have an outsized impact on your life. If you’re aggressive in a professional career, you might make $200 to $300,000 a year. The path to starting a small business and achieving that kind of outcome is much shorter with the added benefit of time and purpose control.
Why You’re Qualified
What are the attributes of most veterans if you were asked to describe them? Some that come to mind I would choose are resilient, versatile, and assiduous. Through high optempo activity, family strain, and often extremely adverse work environments, the military either instills these traits into you or you’re required to adapt to them just to keep your head above water.
The overlap in between these traits and the traits I see in successful entrepreneurs and small business owners is massive. Being able to bounce back after big defeats, willingness to try and wear multiple hats in a business, and desire to never are must have’s especially in the early days.
Do these traits guarantee success as an entrepreneur? Absolutely not. In fact there are some traits working against us. I tweeted about writing this article and famous auto industry entrepreneur and guest of the Scuttlebutt Podcast, Scott Painter, commented:
Entrepreneurs are far more willing to be outspoken and challenge conventional wisdom. Risk taking is not trait inherent in veterans.
This is most certainly true. Speaking for much of the Navy, the jobs are extremely systematic with rules and structure that govern how each is conducted. The role of the entrepreneur largely lives in the gray, working to change how those rules are written. I’m reminded of another comment made by a past guest of the show, Chris Rawley:
The military teaches you how to execute, but now to think freely.
Those headed down this path already know it’s a difficult one. While the publications, rules, and regulations have been drilled into our brains as operating procedure, I believe the ability to think differently is easier learned when the incentives are recognized. Harnessing that can do anything mentality to build something for yourself is the path to freedom - freedom of time and freedom to do the work you find meaningful.
Put the right problem before me and nothing still stand in my way.
Exiting the military is the time to reinvent yourself, but not with a new job. Consider how you want to spend the rest of your life.
The primary drivers to leave the military hinge on time and purpose. Your career choices should focus on optimizing for these.
Design yourself the perfect job. If you find a traditional job that meets those requirements, great. If not, create one.
Entrepreneurship doesn’t require massive innovation or quitting your job. Start projects on nights and weekends and solve problems for people who live on your street.
The military instilled traits in you that all entrepreneurs require. Challenge your current beliefs whenever possible and lean into your strengths.
Entrepreneurship offers a lonely, difficult path, but the reward is great. Veterans as a population seek control of their time and purpose in their lives. Starting a business or side hustle offers both.
The adaptive mindset we carry from service forces us to change to the environment that you’re placed in. Exiting the military is often looked to for reprieve - don’t let it be. The work has only just begun.
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