Veteran-owned businesses are an economic force in the United States. The U.S. Census Bureau’s 2019 Annual Business Survey shows that the nearly 340,000 veteran-owned businesses in this country employ 3.9 million people, about the equivalent of the population of Oklahoma. Their collective payroll is about $178 billion.
But there can be some unique bumps along the way for military veterans who start their own businesses. A 2020 survey of veterans by the Institute for Veterans and Military Families (IVMF) tells the story: In addition to the challenges they often face when transitioning to civilian life, military entrepreneurs often grapple with financing and learning how to get started in business.
A variety of organizations and government agencies offer resources to help military entrepreneurs overcome the obstacles to business success they too often face—whether they’re seeking funding, wondering what steps to take, or considering additional education.
Becoming an Entrepreneur After the Military
Military training sharpens skills that are perfect for those establishing their own businesses. It’s no surprise, then, that veterans are behind many corporate success stories, including companies that have grown to become household names.
Military Skills That Can Benefit Entrepreneurs
The IVMF’s 2020 report noted that military entrepreneurs cite military-honed traits such as discipline and perseverance as helpful as they establish their own businesses. Ninety-four percent of respondents to the IVMF survey said they do not give up in the face of difficulty and another 83% said they use creativity to solve problems when facing challenging situations. Seventy-nine percent of those surveyed said they are consistent in overcoming obstacles.
Whether they’re collaborating with employees and vendors, for example, or tackling the day-to-day stressors of business ownership, military skills that are helpful for entrepreneurs include:
- Ability to stay calm under pressure
- Strong work ethic
Successful Veteran-Launched Businesses
Military entrepreneurs have launched businesses that range from recent startups to global enterprises. A CNBC report lists the following industries as those in which veteran entrepreneurs most frequently launch their own businesses:
- Finance and insurance
- Home services
- Oil and gas
- Science and technology
- Travel and real estate
But military entrepreneurs’ interests don’t stop there. From coffee and hairstyling products to insurance and retail stores, the products and services veteran-owned businesses provide run the gamut.
Recent Military Entrepreneur Success Stories
- Anchors Aweigh—Created by Benjamin David Miller, a U.S. Army paratrooper veteran, the company sells men’s grooming products.
- Black Rifle Coffee Company—Launched by Evan Hafer, a veteran of the Army Special Forces, the company sells premium coffee.
- Bottle Breacher—Founded by Navy SEAL veteran Eli Crane and his wife, the company sells gifts and promotional items created from dummy ammunition.
- Combat Flip Flops—Developed by two veteran Army Rangers, Donald Lee and Matthew Griffin, the company makes flip-flops and accessories.
- Goodworld—Cofounded by U.S. Army veteran John Gossart, the firm sells fundraising software.
Large Companies Started by Veterans
Military entrepreneurs have created some of the world’s most successful companies. Among the well-known business enterprises with military veteran founders are:
- FedEx—Founded in 1971 by Marine veteran Fred Smith, the company today is a multinational delivery service.
- Nike—Created by Army veterans Phil Knight and Bill Bowerman, the company is now a global retailer of athletic shoes and apparel.
- RE/MAX—Established in 1973 by Air Force veteran Dave Liniger and his wife, the company is now a leading global real estate franchisor.
- USAA—Created by William Garrison and other Army officers in 1922, today the company provides insurance, banking, and investment services to military members and their families.
- Walmart—Opened 50 years ago by Sam Walton, a former Army intelligence officer, the company today is the largest retailer in the world.
How to Become a Veteran-Owned Business
Following certain steps can ease the process of starting a business for any entrepreneur. Additionally, veterans can turn to resources that cater specifically to those interested in pursuing an official designation as a veteran-owned business for their enterprise.
General Tips for Starting a Business
The U.S. Chamber of Commerce provides tips for how to start a business as well as how to become a veteran-owned business. Some of the general guidelines for anyone starting a business are as follows:
Planning the Business
Conduct market research—through interviews, focus groups, surveys, or questionnaires—to determine potential customers’ needs and how a business might address them. Write a business plan to help guide the way the business will operate. Research the name of the business, verifying it’s not already in use.
Registering the Name
Protect the business’s name through options such as registering it with the state and seeking a trademark. Establish an online domain for the business website. Choose a legal structure for the business, such as:
- Corporation—A corporate structure considered to be a separate entity from its owners
- S corporation—A business whose shareholders report its income and losses on their personal tax returns
- Limited liability corporation—A structure that protects a business owner’s personal assets from bankruptcy or lawsuits
- Partnership—A business relationship between multiple people, who contribute to the company and share its profits or losses
- Sole proprietorship—An unincorporated business owned by one person
Get the business on file with state and federal authorities and apply for any required licenses and permits.
Funding the Business
Seek financing through loans, venture capital, investors, or crowdfunding. Establish a business bank account and set up accounting software.
Establishing a Team
Hire professionals to provide legal and financial help, as well as any vendors needed to help the business run smoothly. Hire any employees the company will need.
Marketing and Starting the Business
Gain attention for the business through advertising and marketing as well as word of mouth. Set up a website and social media accounts. As the business progresses, adapt its plans as needed.
Information and Resources for Veterans Starting a Business
Qualifying as a Veteran-Owned Business
Earning a veteran-owned business certification can help increase a company’s business. Government agencies and many large companies target businesses with this designation when awarding contracts. The certification also can attract consumers who want to support veterans.
Resources are available for veterans to find specific information on how to become a veteran-owned business. To qualify for certification, business must be at least 51% veteran owned. The owners also must have received honorable discharges from the military and be involved in the day-to-day management of the business. Types of veteran-owned business certifications are:
- Vets First Verification Program—Qualifies a business for federal government contracts as a veteran-owned small business (VOSB) or service-disabled veteran-owned small business (SDVOSB)
- National Veteran Owned Business Association’s Certified Veteran’s Business Enterprise—Offers the opportunity to be on a national registry of veteran-owned businesses
Organizations and Services That Assist Military Entrepreneurs
A variety of organizations and services provide information to help veterans manage the process of starting a business. Those resources include the following:
- Boots to Business is an entrepreneurial education program that is part of the U.S. Department of Defense Transition Assistance Program.
- Bunker Labs supports military-connected entrepreneurs by facilitating networking opportunities, providing resources, and showcasing success stories.
- SCORE Business Help for Veteran Entrepreneurs connects budding entrepreneurs with business mentors, including those who served in the military.
- The Service-Disabled Veteran-Owned Small Business Program and VetBiz help entrepreneurs whose businesses are officially certified as veteran-owned businesses to earn government contracts.
- The S. Small Business Administration (SBA) Office of Veterans Business Development site offers a variety of resources—such as training, counseling, and mentorship—to assist entrepreneurs who are veterans.
- The S. Veterans Affairs (VA) Office of Small & Disadvantaged Business Utilization’s Veteran Entrepreneur Portal offers links to various resources to assist in starting a business, including the SBA’s Fund Your Business page.
- Veteran Women Igniting the Spirit of Entrepreneurship (V-WISE) helps women who are veterans or military spouses and partners develop businesses.
Getting Your Veteran Small Business Loan and Other Funding
Securing financing to start a business can be tricky—especially for veterans, who often don’t have the credit history they would have established as civilians. Military entrepreneurs can get assistance with accessing veteran small business loans and other funding. These are among the resources offering help:
- Hivers & Strivers provides investments in businesses created and operated by military veterans, particularly those who are graduates of U.S. military academies.
- The SBA’s Veteran-Owned Businesses page includes links to resources such as Lender Match and the Military Reservist Economic Injury Disaster Loan (MREIDL) program, which helps offset business losses that result when an essential employee who also is in the Reserves or National Guard is called to active duty.
- StreetShares provides financing to veteran-owned businesses, which can apply for loans, lines of credit, and other financing.
- The Veteran Entrepreneur Investment Program, from the PenFed Foundation, provides military startups with seed capital as well as access to other investments and funders.
Earning Your MBA After the Military
Choosing to earn a Master of Business Administration (MBA) degree can be an excellent decision for anyone interested in a business career—because higher-level degrees often provide greater salaries and job opportunities. Pursuing an MBA after the military can be especially valuable for veterans who want to prepare for entrepreneurship by strengthening the skills and knowledge they gained while serving.
But veterans often face challenges as they transition to an advanced business education following their military service. Taking some key actions can prepare them for difficulties they may face with new concepts, less structure, and financial concerns.
Benefits of an MBA
Higher-level degrees typically bring more earnings and less unemployment. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), for example, notes that in 2020 median master’s degree salaries were nearly $250 greater each week than bachelor’s degree salaries. The unemployment rate for professionals who had master’s degrees was 3.1%, compared with 5.5% for those with bachelor’s degrees.
Reasons for Military Entrepreneurs to Earn an MBA
An MBA can be a valuable advanced degree for those who plan to start a business. The degree focuses on skills and knowledge that are helpful for entrepreneurs, such as:
- Understanding business concepts
- Developing business plans
- Navigating corporate finances
- Attracting funding for a business
- Networking to advance opportunities
For people who have been in the military, MBA programming can help them build on skills they often already have—like leadership and teamwork. Those military-developed skills often make veterans attractive to MBA programs.
An MBA also can give aspiring military entrepreneurs greater business credibility. And financial assistance for education, earned through military service, also can be a factor in veterans’ choosing to pursue graduate studies.
Assistance for Military Entrepreneurs Pursuing an MBA
Military.com, a website that provides information for military members and their families, notes that veterans who choose to pursue an MBA may encounter challenges. MBA work often requires those pursuing an MBA after the military to adapt to a new focus that calls for a deep dive into key business concepts and an emphasis on social and networking activities. And for those who served in the military, MBA programs frequently offer a less structured environment than the one they’ve left behind, making time-management skills critical.
MBA and Entrepreneurship Training Financial Aid for Veterans
Veterans can get financial assistance for graduate school, including MBA programs, through the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA). The Post-9/11 GI Bill offers help with costs for tuition and fees, books, and housing for those who served in active duty for at least 90 days since September 10, 2001. The VA bases funding levels on the number of classes attended and the hours spent in those classes, with full-time status determined by the school. The department provides financial assistance as follows:
- Tuition and fees, paid directly to the school
- Books, paid to the student at the beginning of the term
- Housing allowance, paid to the student at the end of each month
The VA also offers other programs to assist veterans in paying for higher education. Among the options are:
- Montgomery GI Bill Active Duty (MGIB-AD)—For veterans who served in active duty for at least two years starting in 1985 or later or 1990 or later, depending on the branch of the military
- Montgomery GI Bill Selected Reserve (MGIB-SR)—For veterans who served in reserve duty for at least six years starting in 1985 or later or 1990 or later, depending on the type of service
- Veterans’ Educational Assistance Program (VEAP)—For veterans who first enlisted between 1977 and 1985, depending on the branch of the military
- Yellow Ribbon Program—For veterans at participating schools who also are eligible for Post-9/11 GI Bill benefits
- Tuition Assistance Top-Up—For eligible veterans whose education costs exceed GI Bill benefits
- Montgomery GI Bill $600 Buy-Up Program—For veterans who have contributed toward additional payout through the Montgomery GI Bill
GI Bill and VEAP funding also may cover entrepreneurship training through the SBA.
Making the Military-to-Business Transition
Entrepreneurship can be a great path for veterans, who often crave a work environment that allows them more freedom and the opportunity to be in control. Pursuing success as a business owner also provides the sense of purpose that military personnel become accustomed to when defending their country.
In addition to their questions about how to start and finance a business, however, veterans may face other obstacles when considering whether to pursue entrepreneurship. Making the military-to-business transition can leave veterans feeling unsure about how to structure their more-flexible schedule and where to turn for help. Additionally, they may feel uneasy about pursuing a venture for which they haven’t received training on how to handle all the possible scenarios they may encounter.
Two military entrepreneurs shared their tips for succeeding in business ownership with Forbes magazine. They suggest the following steps:
- Focus on relentlessly pursuing business goals as though they were military training.
- Get a mentor to provide support in a particular field of work or in military-to-business transition issues.
- Be open to considering if the less-structured environment of entrepreneurship might be a good fit.
- Refer to reports from past military service that outline specific areas of personal strength to determine which types of business might highlight those strengths.
Explore the Keys to Successful Military Entrepreneurship
Veterans who are business owners are an important driver of the U.S.—and global—economy, leading hundreds of thousands of businesses and employing millions of people. But too often, military entrepreneurs face difficulty knowing how to begin pursuing and funding their business dreams.
By relying on skills they honed in the military, accessing organizations and services that provide assistance, and pursuing education and training that can give them an advantage, veterans can smooth the transition to business ownership—and succeed in their professional lives.