Following your orders... and your dreams - What it means to be your own boss
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Benjamin Houston had a choice. Well, actually, he had a couple. After being laid off from his job at a digital mapping firm, he could do one of two things: polish his resume and pound the pavement for a new gig, or he could start his own business. He chose the latter. It was a brave decision. The year was 2009, the economy had crashed, small business loans were next to impossible to come by, and no one knew when things would start looking up.
But for Houston - and his business partner, Karen Kwasnowski - these challenges only strengthened their determination. “We decided that if we can make it in a bad economy, then we should be fine once the economy turns around,” he explained.
In the U.S. military, Houston served as a combat engineer, a topographic engineer, and then as a public health engineer in Special Operations. Today he is co-founder and CEO of the Woodstock, New York-based GroundPoint Technologies, LLC, a two-person consulting firm focused on geospatial technologies, such as high-resolution digital terrain mapping and analysis. As his own boss, he sets his own schedule and makes his own decisions, a challenge for a former officer that was accustomed to taking orders.
“When you’re running your own business, there is nobody giving you orders,” he said. “In the military, everything always begins with your last standing order. When you have your own business, there is no last standing order, and if you don’t do anything, the phone is not going to ring, the checks aren’t going to come in, and nothing is going to happen.” He admits that this aspect of entrepreneurship has been one of the most difficult to overcome.
Risk - and the willingness to accept it - is also an issue for Houston. “It’s easy to say that big rewards come with big risk, but it’s a lot harder to do,” he said, especially when that risk is shared by two people. “If you have a bigger team, the confidence in being able to overcome risk just increases. You know you have more people to help carry the weight.”
At the same time, Houston believes that veterans are well-positioned to apply the skills that they acquired in the military to being veteran entrepreneurs, especially in the area of work ethic.
“One of the skills that comes from the military is the ability to look at your time and be disciplined about hard work,” he said.
While military jobs are thought of in 24-hour cycles, the civilian world works from 9-to-5 - a scheduling model that definitely does not apply to running one’s own business, especially in the beginning phases.
“One of the things that veteran entrepreneurs bring to the table is that unwavering commitment to hard work. It’s not something you question; it’s not something you think about as being optional. You just do it,” adds Houston.
For Amy Sufak, a former public affairs and protocol officer with the U.S. Air Force, structure is a crucial component that veteran entrepreneurs can bring to their own businesses.
“In a military organization, you have to have people who are in charge, and you have to have hierarchy,” she said. “I think a lot of civilian organizations that I’m compared to have a team of people and everybody tries to pitch in, but I think there does need to be some structure.”
While a loose environment may promote exercises such as brainstorming, the time eventually comes to deliver the project and get the job done. “When something needs to be done cost effectively and efficiently, I think it’s good to have structure.” Based on her experience in the U.S. Air Force, Sufak launched Red Energy Public Relations in Colorado Springs, Colo., in September 2008. Focused on PR, branding, marketing, advertising and special events, the firm boasts six employees and a stable of independent contractors. Like Houston, Sufak did not transition from the military into entrepreneurship, having held a position as public relations director for a hospital system for three years after she was discharged.
“I always knew that I wanted my own business - I think many entrepreneurs do - but I knew I needed to go corporate for a couple of years,” she explained. “I would highly recommend that others do something similar as well, because otherwise you feel like a fish out of water.”
Navigating the Business World
Learning the language of the civilian business world becomes extremely important when running one’s own business; because the hierarchies are different, it’s not always clear who has the authority to do what.
“There are a lot of likenesses and a lot of comparisons that you can make, but it’s important to understand who is paying you, and who the decision-makers are in an organization,” Sufak explained. “Sometimes it’s not the head person, but rather someone who is managing the purse strings.” For any business to be sustainable, she counsels, you have to be able to identify those people and the nuances in the business world versus the military.
Both Houston and Sufak are graduates of the Entrepreneurship Bootcamp for Veterans with Disabilities (EBV), run by the Whitman School of Management at Syracuse University in Syracuse, N.Y., as well as seven other universities across the country. The program consists of a preliminary four-week online component, followed up by an 8-to 9 day “immersion experience” (hence the term “bootcamp”) that covers all of the aspects of what it means to run one’s own company, as well as the specific challenges that veterans face in the business world.
“Because the EBV was designed for veterans with service-connected disabilities, we also dig into a lot of the issues related to being a person with disabilities and a business owner, as well as the opportunities to being a person with disabilities and a business owner,” explained Mike Haynie, Barnes Professor of Entrepreneurship at the Whitman School of Management.
Entrepreneurs of any shape or form require a strong support system in order to succeed, and those who are thinking about being their own boss should start establishing one as soon as possible. As part of the third phase of the program, the EBV provides its graduates with access to a number of services, including logo and website design, pro bono legal services, as well as resources within participating universities.
For Sufak, this support system also includes hired experts. After her first six months in business, she enlisted the services of an accountant and a bookkeeper after discovering that it was unrealistic for her to fill these roles on her own. “When I got into the civilian world, I found that there is government oversight, but it’s really up to you in terms of how you want to do things,” she said. “It was better for me to call in an expert because I wanted to remain compliant, and I wanted to remain a good, sustainable company with a good foundation.”
Aside from paid experts, she also advises veteran entrepreneurs to develop mentors that have been in the business world and, possibly, in the military as well. “Maybe they were in the military and now they are in the business world, and they can help you to identify some of the things that were challenges to them, and some of the ways that they got through it.”
An obvious starting point is the U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs and the Small Business Administration. But while he concedes that they serve a purpose, Houston encourages transitioning veterans to quickly move away from government-sponsored agencies and into the private sector for support.
“[These organizations] are very limited in terms of scope. Don’t plan on relying on them to help you grow your business,” he advised. “It might help you to get some good ideas initially, but then you need to be talking to, and working with, other business owners.” He notes that many times, your competition can be a source of support as well. “You don’t want to treat your competition as the enemy, really. In fact, they can be some of your greatest allies in terms of giving you advice, or helping improve your products or services.”
While other professionals, entrepreneurs and mentors are invaluable in providing support, it’s also important to seek support from your loved ones.
“Everybody is different, but it certainly helps if you have your family supporting that you are going to be taking risks to be starting your own business,” Houston said. “If your parents believe that in order for you to be successful, you need to find a good job and save your money, they may not be as supportive of your starting your own business as you might have thought.” He adds that it’s important to be able to own the idea that there are many paths to success.
Both Houston and Sufak financed their businesses on their own, eliminating the need to chase after those hard-to-get loans. Regardless of how you choose to fund your start-up, Sufak offers this advice: “Entrepreneurialism is a full-time job in itself, but the trick is that you need to have another full-time job at the same time,” she said. “You need money to do this, and a lot of people go broke before they bring their idea to fruition.”
These financial challenges, and the sheer time it takes to get a business off the ground (most entrepreneurs work 60- to 80-hour weeks) requires sacrifice, which drives Haynie to urge would-be business owners to pursue something for which they truly have a passion.
“For someone leaving military service, part of the attraction to entrepreneurship is that business ownership represents an opportunity for them to craft a vocation out of a passion,” he said. “When we see veterans pursuing business ownership based on that idea of pursuing something that they have a true passion for, rather than something that they think they can make a little money off of by selling a product or service, that’s typically where we see success.”
And “success,” when it comes to being your own boss, comes in many shapes and sizes. “Forget what anybody tells you is the definition of being an entrepreneur,” Haynie challenged. “This is the empowering and democratic thing about business ownership: it can be whatever you want it to be. If you are somebody who is pursuing business ownership because you are looking to establish a lifestyle business that will afford yourself and your family to have some economic freedom, but at the same time you don’t have great aspirations to become the next Google, that’s fine. The other side of that coin is fine, too. At the end of the day, it can be whatever you want it to be.”
Carolyn Heinze is a freelance writer/editor.
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