After WWII, 49% of military veterans came home to own or operate a business. Today, military veterans make up less than 6% of new entrepreneurs. The reasons for this are multifold, but lack of desire is not one. The Small Business Administration reports that nearly 25% of active duty servicemembers would like to start a business. It is also not for lack of resources – the federal government is pouring money into entrepreneurship initiatives, tuition reimbursement, and employment. It’s safe to say something isn’t working, and as a veteran, entrepreneur, and leader of Bunker Labs, a national network of veteran business incubators, I have some thoughts as to why.
Policy makers and grant makers take note—in the shared spirit of working to get this right here are 5 actions that can yield significant results.
Stop delivering veteran-specific programming
As a veteran, this is often missed by companies, individuals, and the government wanting to help. If you pull veterans into a room where it is just veterans, you have done nothing to help them get connected with the people who can help them be successful (namely non-veterans). Veterans should access a community, yes, but when it comes to entrepreneurship we should not treat this as a special craft for veterans. The sooner we can throw them in the deep end, the better. As obvious as this sounds, if the challenge is to “reintegrate” veterans, why would we offer all of these veteran only initiatives, job fairs, programs, and services. Most veterans I know will run the other way. Veterans are trying to reintegrate and offering programs that continue to speak to them as veterans, in a room full of veterans, does not further that goal. Simply invite them to the next non-veteran focused event you are having and I promise you they will all show up for a change.
Give veterans more flexibility with their GI Bill
By limiting the GI Bill to university education based programs we make three assumptions:
- University degrees lead to entrepreneurial success (not true)
- The federal government knows better than the veteran what they need for their future employment (not true, for my money)
- The GI Bill has not been looked at in the context of entrepreneurship (probably true).
If you want to be successful in starting a business, you need:
- Access to other entrepreneurs and networked community, perhaps through a local incubator, co-working space, member association, etc.
- The run-way to receive some money to get moving so you are not forced to make false choices between starting a business or paying for diapers
- Capital to build your early version of your business.
Why not allow the veteran to trigger their Housing Allowance and instead of spending up to $20,235 per year to a for-profit university – allow them to invest it in themselves. $20K goes a long way in the start-up world. There are phenomenal new 4-12 weeks programs that are bridging people into entrepreneurship at a fraction of the cost of traditional degrees (and eating Higher Ed’s proverbial lunch). The GI Bill needs to catch up and open up if it wants to help veterans.
Invest in communities, not programs
The Kauffman Foundation, the leading foundation focusing on entrepreneurship, has concluded the key ingredient for helping start-ups is to create strong communities of supportive and networked groups of entrepreneurs. Yet, we keep chasing curriculum and programs. The research is clear – it’s about communities. So let’s start putting money into communities. At Bunker Labs we work with entrepreneurs in Chicago, Kansas City, Austin, and other cities who have completed training programs and obtained advanced degrees, but what they really need is to get connected with their customer base, mentors working in their industry, and fellow entrepreneurs in their local market who can provide referral sources for the resources they need (angel investors, talent, new platforms). There is no substitute for somebody (in our case the Bunker) picking up the phone and directly calling the right contact who can help and not in some theoretical way, but actually no-kidding what-do-you-need-today kind of way.
Whatever is working for all entrepreneurs will work for veterans
When it comes to entrepreneurship, what is good for the goose (entrepreneurs) is good for the gander (veterans wanting to be entrepreneurs). Take the kid gloves off. We do that day-1 in Bunker Labs. As veterans, we don’t see the need to coddle entrepreneurs, or fixate on ‘skills translation’. We fixate on the speed with which they can start talking to customers, building a revenue model, creating their minimum viable product, testing, pivoting, building, testing, and scaling. The real irony (to outside observers) is that there is zero conversation, literally, about being a veteran inside of the Bunker. It’s an understanding but not the driver. We talk markets, angel investors, introductions to key people, which freelance developers are good and which ones over promise, and everything else in between. If you want to support veteran entrepreneurship, make sure the entrepreneurship experts (not the veteran experts) are leading the charge.
Never have people that have not started businesses teach entrepreneurship
While I honor the goodwill desire of people to help veterans start businesses, any entrepreneur’s time is precious, and how they spend their time is critical. Traditionalists balk at some of our advice, but I balk back. The non-academic work actually building a business involves imperfect trade offs like choosing to push off the business plan because you just landed a customer. Or how to creatively get people to collaborate with you for free. Or how to throw together your minimum viable product, and making inevitable trade-offs between good-enough, speed, cost, and time. I appreciate my MBA from the University of Chicago, but there is no substitute for learning from those that have done. Any government subsidized ‘instructor’ is going to get it wrong – by definition – they have chosen a career path converse to that of an entrepreneur. So look to invest in non-government created entrepreneurship support programs and communities where entrepreneurs are thriving. The key for a veteran is not a sequenced curriculum – it’s actually exposing them to divergent points of view and letting them be smart enough to distill what makes sense. I see no discord in us bringing into the Bunker a speaker one week who advocates bootstrapping as long as possible and the next week a speaker who says you’re a fool if you don’t raise money as fast as possible. “Certifications” in entrepreneurship create the false (and dangerous) comfort that you are making progress towards running a business. You are not. The only arbiter of truth in entrepreneurship is the market. Reporting certificates granted might make for a tidy metric for government spending, but it’s a false one. The other reality is that the ground game is changing so fast – most curriculums will be antiquated by the time the ink is dry.
Building a business is incredibly difficult work. It requires tenacity, a clear focus, an ability to maintain your personal integrity amid imperfect choices, and it presents the opportunity to bring something of significance into the world. It strikes me as just the sort of challenge that would entice the same kind of person who would join the military. Let’s get more veterans into entrepreneurship, not because they “deserve” our help or “need” our help, but because we are missing the potential to create the next greatest generation if we don’t. Remember, it was not just what GIs did during WWII that earned them acclaim, it was also what they did when they came home.