An Officer And An Entrepreneur
With more than 240,000 residents who’ve served in the military, San Diego County is thought to have the third-largest veteran population in the country. A significant number of them are entrepreneurs; we wondered if veterans make better entrepreneurs.
A 2011 study from the Small Business Administration found that veterans are at least 45 percent more likely to be self-employed than civilians who have never served in the military. Officers are more likely than enlisted personnel to be self-employed, a finding the study attributed to officers’ higher education levels and greater financial flexibility due to larger military pensions.
The study found that recent veterans have lower rates of self-employment (3.6 percent) than those who served in World War Two, the Korean War or the Vietnam War (10.6 percent). It concluded that the higher level of entrepreneurship is more likely due to “individual characteristics, rather than training, education or other qualities imparted by military service.”
But according to three veterans that spoke with ID8 Nation, maybe they did learn a thing or two while serving their country. The vets -- two Navy, one Army -- credited their service with helping them as entrepreneurs, but have learned that not all military practices transfer well to the business world.
A healthy tenacity
Steven Sullivan spent more than 13 years in the Navy before retiring as a supply and logistics chief in 1998. He is now chairman and CEO of Sullivan International Group, an environmental engineering firm with more than 200 employees. The company is expected to do $65 million in revenue this year, he said.
He acquired his interest in environmental engineering when the Navy charged him with helping it comply with new regulations. He spent part of his service on submarines where he learned to be flexible.
“On a sub you really were innovative. Often at sea, you were without a resource and you had to come up with plans B, C, and D,” he said.
The Navy instilled in him a “healthy tenacity,” he said, adding, “On a submarine, if you quit that can mean death to all aboard.”
The work he did in the Navy also taught him not to be intimidated by red tape and later helped him negotiate contracts with the military, said Sullivan, 49.
“The military really pushes you on your ability and believes you can do things well beyond your capability,” he said. “(Without that) I don’t think I ever would have had the determination to push the envelope.”
Selling balloons on strings
After 14 years as a Navy SEAL, John Surmont thought entrepreneurship would be easy by comparison.
“I kind of had a naivete. Hey, I came out of the military and I was good at that. I won’t have any problem. It can’t be harder than that,” he recalled thinking.
It’s been a bumpy five years in the business world for Surmont, who started Sofcoast, which designs and manufactures the MAKO, a small, tethered aerostat, or, as he calls it, “a balloon on a string.” The MAKO can hoist surveillance and communications equipment hundreds of feet into the air and is marketed for a variety of military and civilian purposes. The firm has a contract with Lockheed Martin and Surmont is hopeful he will see his first profit this year.
Surmont, 41, says it took him a while to realize that the trust and brotherhood he relied upon as a SEAL were harder to find in business.
“When I got into the civilian world and someone said they were an expert on something, I tended to believe them,” he said. “Because in the military if someone says they’re an expert, they are.”
Figuring out who to trust was not easy at first, he said.
“It took me years to develop a hard nose in business. The learning curve was humongous,” he said.
If his service left him too trusting, it also gave him the perseverance and determination to overcome obstacles. “Without that, I don’t know where I would be,” he said. That, and the obligation he feels toward family and friends who invested in the startup, keeps him going.
“In my mind I’m fighting for people who believed in me and I’m not going to give up,” he said.
Fire Team Leadership
Andrew Couch brought the same gung ho leadership to entrepreneurship that he did to heading a five-man fire team in Afghanistan and Kosovo. The hard part was learning to dial it back.
Couch, 32, spent six years in the infantry and as an MP. When he left the Army in 2004, he already knew what he wanted to do. As a Radio Transmission Officer, he was exposed to early Augmented Reality (AR) technology on screens in military vehicles. “I thought, why wouldn’t civilians be drawn to this,” he remembers.
After selling one startup, he launched Candy Lab, a software company whose premiere app, Cachetown, combines AR with gaming and retail rewards and discounts. The Army taught him the importance of mission, focus and determination, he said.
“You’re expected to overcome; not just overcome, but really overcome,” he said.
However, the stress of launching a startup brought out the fire team leader in him – and not always in a good way. He said he felt enormous responsibility for his small team of employees and the stress sometimes caused him to “flip out” over small things, such as how silverware was loaded into the office dishwasher.
Eventually, an employee told him to get help and he turned to a Veterans Administration clinic where behavioral health specialists taught him how to better cope with stress. Those lessons and training for triathlons have helped him keep his balance, he said.
“Turns out, I should have gone to talk with someone about how to deal with ever-growing stress a lot sooner,” he said. “Just realizing what cortisol will do to you should be enough to not let anything get you down.”
He said he is doing a better job of managing the stress, but has not lost his determination to succeed: “Everyone knows it’s going to happen. We don’t know how it’s going to happen, but we know it’s going to happen and we’re going to figure it out.”
Entrepreneurship rates are declining among veterans, according to a study released last fall by the Kauffman Foundation. In 1996, veterans represented 12.3 percent of all new entrepreneurs; by 2011, that had declined to 6 percent.
The decline is primarily due to the declining share of veterans in the workforce.
"Because falling veteran entrepreneurship rates are due primarily to the aging vet population, the downward trend does not mean this important demographic group does not have an interest in starting companies and working to see those companies perform well," said Dane Stangler, director of research and policy at the Kauffman Foundation.
"However, what’s troubling about the waning numbers of veteran-owned startups is that younger veterans now have less support from within their own community of veterans as they consider their own entrepreneurial ventures: fewer networking opportunities, mentors and funders among the older generations of vets. What we don’t yet know is how this may affect younger veterans’ pursuit of entrepreneurship."