Veterans: Tired of Taking Orders? Start a Business

veteransBusiness attorney and Navy veteran Jim Wilson knows just how hard it can be trying to find a job after completing military service. In fact, it can be so grueling that he came up with another solution: Rather than going to work for someone else, he suggests veterans start their own businesses.

"Veterans generally have some great characteristics that will help them be successful as business owners," Wilson says. "I think there are quite a few veterans who should consider being business owners and carrying on the success they realized in uniform to the business world."

Wilson writes and speaks about the unique opportunities and assets veterans have in starting their own businesses, and he has a lot of personal experience with the subject. He graduated from the Naval Academy in 1980, served on active duty through 1989 flying EA-6Bs and doing a tour with Naval Intelligence, then went to law school and graduated in 1992, while remaining active and starting his own law firm. He says that this is actually the perfect time for veterans to go into business for themselves; but they need to be cautious of their unique challenges. [See Should You Strike Out on Your Own? Or Will You Strike Out?.]

Here he discusses the pros and cons of veterans becoming their own bosses:

Is this really a good economic time for veterans to start their own businesses?

Yes. There are a couple of good reasons for that but probably the biggest is the Patriot Express SBA loan, a program started last year for veterans and veteran family members starting businesses or who are already in business. While most banks are not funding commercial loans like they have in the past, a Patriot Express loan is easier to qualify for, and the SBA moves it through faster.

Another reason that this is a great time to start a business is that in a depressed economy, everyone wants to deal. Landlords are giving generous build-out allowances and periods of no rent to attract tenants; used equipment and furniture from failed businesses are readily available; and, frankly, service providers like bookkeepers, marketers and IT people need clients and might take reduced or extended payments or even barter for their services.

Also, without going overboard, a veteran can endear himself or herself to the public for having served -- customers and clients appreciate knowing what was done on active duty.

What are those great characteristics you mention that will help veterans be successful business owners?

militaryMilitary people have dealt with setting goals and achieving them on a more critical and personal level than business people ever will. They understand the value of taking a disciplined approach to accomplishing things, and they know that a distraction could get them killed. They are not likely to take their eye off the ball.

They also understand motivation and personal achievement on a fundamental level much more than civilians do. They have had to convince people to complete some very dangerous tasks. It is not always the "I am senior to you and you will do as I say" approach that gets things done in the military. It often takes serious motivation and encouragement to get the best out of people in difficult times.

What are some of the basic business skills that veterans may lack?

Veterans have generally never dealt with pure financial management, marketing and sales. In the military, our budgets refilled each year whether our "sales" were up or down. Veterans have never had to directly sell their services.

How can veterans compensate for these deficiencies?

I think that hiring people is the quickest way to compensate for these things; but as I advise clients all the time, just because you hire someone to do your books does not mean you don't need to know how books are kept. Similar to the military, a commanding officer is not going to fix the airplane or the tank, but needs to know enough about maintenance to direct, and be knowledgeable about whether equipment will be available. As a business owner, the veteran does not necessarily need to get an MBA, but taking an adult education class in business financial management or human resources could be very helpful.

What are some common misunderstandings veterans have about business?

Veterans come from a world where everyone is on the same team. They need to realize that civilians are motivated by what they will get as an individual. The other thing that veterans are not as comfortable with is money being the over-riding value on the outside. Certainly there are companies that stand for things beyond just making a buck, but the fundamental measure of success and failure is money in the civilian world -- and in the military it is not much of a factor at all. I think this creates a kind of psychological gap that a veteran needs to acknowledge before he or she can be successful in business. I always encourage veterans and anyone who seems unsure of principles of business to contact resources like the Small Business Development Center (SBDC) and SCORE, which provides counselors to America's small businesses.

Applying this information to his own business, Wilson took on a civilian partner who was both a lawyer and an accountant when he started the Wilson Stoyanoff law firm. "We recently had a meeting where we were discussing ultimate goals of our firm. My partner's first response was making money and mine was establishing a firm that stood out for its practice of working with business people and helping them accomplish their goals. I just assume the money will come; he wants to set financial goals and launch plans for accomplishing them." Together they're the perfect team.

Starting a business or franchise may sound daunting to veterans, but they're no strangers to challenges. Using Wilson's advice, perhaps they'll be able to create more veteran-friendly businesses.

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