After years of operating within a regimented chain of command, many veterans are ready to become their own bosses. Many would-be business owners are finding that the skills and experiences honed in the military are directly translating into startup ideas.
“Veterans are comfortable operating in high-pressure environments that are changing rapidly, where they’re constantly forced to make decisions with incomplete information,” said Zachary Scheel, a former civil engineer for the U.S. Navy and a co-founder of a construction technology startup, Rhumbix.
These veterans are adapting tools and strategies they learned during their service for civilian applications, and some have been inspired to start companies to address problems they witnessed on the battlefield.
Veterans have a long tradition of starting businesses. Nearly 50 percent of World War II veterans owned and operated businesses after leaving military service, according to research from the Institute for Veterans and Military Families at Syracuse University.
In the decades since then, however, that number has dropped sharply. In 2014, veterans represented only 5.6 percent of the new entrepreneurs in the United States, according to a report from the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation.
Some of that could be a result of the emphasis that transition programs have made. In Scheel’s experience, headhunters tried to place junior officers like himself in finance, consulting or manufacturing jobs, even though he had no interest in these sectors.
In 2011, during the Arab Spring, Scheel was stationed in Djibouti, where he used a military tool called Blue Force Tracking. The system uses GPS to track soldiers’ locations in real time.
Two years later, Scheel had finished his service and was working for a large construction company in a copper mine in northern Chile when he realized he could adapt the concept behind Blue Force Tracking to improve efficiency on construction sites.
Construction had fascinated Scheel since his boyhood days in Cincinnati, when his father sold construction equipment in four states. Traditionally, foremen log hours in notebooks that are then transcribed to timecards, which are entered manually into a computer and finally audited at a later stage.
The mobile application developed by Rhumbix allows workers to submit time sheets through their smartphones, and foremen can approve them instantly. This information, often combined with workers’ phone GPS data, helps foremen analyze how much work was done where. They can also pinpoint the locations of delays, allowing them to improve efficiency.
Other veterans have developed business ideas to help the military directly. For Doug Moorehead, a former Navy SEAL from Cambridge, Ohio, the number of soldiers killed while escorting fuel convoys in Iraq motivated him to start a business.
Fuel was a precious resource, which also made those transporting it prime targets for insurgents. In Iraq, one soldier was injured or killed for every 39 fuel convoys, according to the Army Environmental Policy Institute, which is part of the military.
“I needed to find a way to reduce the number of soldiers, sailors and Marines in harm’s way on the battlefield,” Moorehead said.
His experiences led him to develop a hybrid generator that runs more efficiently. His new generators use 50 to 70 percent less fuel than previous models.
Now, various military divisions use the hybrid generators made by his company, Earl Energy. In 2013, Moorehead created a sister brand, FlexGen, now a separate company, to sell his hybrid generators to commercial clients. He now has 32 employees and has raised nearly $40 million in financing.
While he and others have started growing businesses, many veterans have found few contacts and role models to help them get started.
In the last two years, however, many more resources have become available to aspiring veteran entrepreneurs. In 2013, the federal Small Business Administration introduced a national program called “Boots to Business,” a two-day introduction to entrepreneurship followed by an eight-week online course.
About 42,000 people have taken the two-day introductory class, which is offered on 200 military installations around the world, and 3,300 have taken the longer course.
The top-down nature of the military has helped some veterans develop businesses that require creating order from chaos.
During 13 years in the Air Force, two of those as a major, Angela Cody-Rouget developed a special interest in how the military organizes people and objects.
“In foreign operating bases, there is always a central command post where all data and papers are processed and handled,” said Cody-Rouget.
In 2006, Cody-Rouget started a business called Major Mom, where she helps busy parents organize their homes.
Major Mom now has a team of 23 organizers called “liberators.” Their most frequent task: helping busy parents create a “central command post,” whether an office or guest bedroom or simply a desk where all the household’s mail and paperwork is sorted and stored rather than having documents scattered throughout the house.
Like many who start businesses, Cody-Rouget said that branching out on her own could have been smoother if she had used role models.
“My biggest mistake was not plugging into other veteran resources,” Cody-Rouget said. “It would have saved me so much time.”