Capt. Tim O’Neil was finishing up a stint at a Twin Cities Marine recruitment office when he saw an article about a new program at the University of Minnesota’s Carlson School of Management. The school was intensifying its recruiting of military veterans and had even hired a retired Navy commander to scout the country for prospects.
O’Neil, a Minneapolis native who had spent seven years in infantry deployments from Korea to the Horn of Africa, decided it was time to stop selling the military and start selling himself.
At school he was able to develop a business he had conceived while in the Marines. He would take his knowledge and passion for military gear and apply it to the civilian market in a premium line of rugged commuter and weekender bags with an urban aesthetic.
Now, like a growing number of veterans, O’Neil is doing battle in a different environment: the high risk/high reward world of entrepreneurship.
“Having your own team, a sense of effort and duty, being able to right your own ship, it all fit in to what I knew,” said O’Neil, who still sports a military bearing, despite having exchanged Marine battle dress fatigues for flannel shirts.
Infantry to enterprise
As the nation transitions from a country at war on two fronts, much of the focus has been on veteran unemployment, which, while falling, continues to remain higher than for civilians.
But there is a growing group of veterans who aren’t looking for jobs; they are looking to create them.
Veterans are 45 percent more likely to be self-employed than people with no military experience. Aging census data show that at least 2.4 million U.S. businesses are veteran-owned, but experts say the number could be twice that. In Minnesota, there are 43,484 veteran-owned businesses with annual receipts of $25.7 million, according to the U.S. Small Business Administration.
The sentiment may be particularly true among recent veterans. Exit surveys of new vets leaving the military found that nearly one quarter are interested in starting or buying their own small businesses. The percentage is even higher among women veterans.
“Being able to respond well to criticism, developing a thick skin, the ability to persevere: There’s a lot of things that happen in the military that these folks are going to be able to bring with them,” said Matthew Pavelek, communications director for the National Veteran-Owned Business Association.
Across the country, universities, the government and nonprofits are beginning to focus on assisting veterans who want to begin start-ups. There’s even a magazine called Vetrepreneur.
“Instead of being able to place you in a corporation, going to work for one of the top 10 corporations, we hope to inspire you to be a founder of one of the top 10 corporations and be able to go out and employ fellow veterans,” said Misty Stutsman, manager of programs and outreach for the Riata Center for Entrepreneurship at Oklahoma State University.
Oklahoma State and Syracuse University are among several universities that have no-cost entrepreneurship boot camp programs focusing on service-disabled veterans and their families.
Wisconsin’s Department of Veterans Affairs is a funder for Victory Spark, a Milwaukee-based intensive 12-week program that helps veteran entrepreneurs network and directly engage with their potential customers. The start-ups have included everything from handcrafted cremation urns to a company that produces specialized military rings that tell the story of each individual in every branch of service, down to the unit level.
The programs focus on innovative concepts rather than just the opportunity to open another franchise or traditional company seeking government contracts.
“We look for veterans who are driven to be entrepreneurial, not necessarily ones who are looking for another program to participate in,” said Nick Wichert, a co-founder of Victory Spark.
Like O’Neil, some participants have tapped their military experiences. One former Marine who is enrolled at Oklahoma State hires other Marines for security details on cargo ships to protect against pirates.
In November, a Twin Cities group called SCORE (Service Corps of Retired Executives) put on a workshop for veterans interested in starting their own businesses, with discussions on government contracting, marketing and social media basics. It hopes to do another workshop in the spring.
The 80 percent solution
Military routine might seem an odd background for the seat-of-your-pants world of the entrepreneur, and it still may be the exception rather than the rule.
At Carlson, for instance, veterans generally attend the MBA school to enter the corporate world. The school currently has 36 vets in the MBA program and only two are on the entrepreneur track.
But perseverance and the ability to adjust on the fly — traits required in the military — are valuable skill sets for the budding entrepreneur.
“The more independent-minded ones have this action orientation; kind of the 80 percent solution of not waiting for all of the analysis to be complete,” said John Stavig, director of the Gary S. Holmes Center for Entrepreneurship at the Carlson School.
‘Plan executed violently’
O’Neil, 32, and his partner, Brandon Jernigan, 35, who has a background in design and photography, operate out of a drafty design studio in northeast Minneapolis, where they continue to refine their line of bags.
They are working with a manufacturing company on Broadway Street a few blocks away and proudly display the “U.S. Made” stamp on their products. To get the operation started, they are using five-figure seed money that O’Neil and his wife saved while living in base housing.
The military influence is obvious but not overwhelming. The bags feature such things as ballistic nylon and quick-release clips that O’Neil had seen used to strap things down on the back of Humvees.
Their customer is an urban consumer interested in the back story of a product as much as its functionality. They want to make an investment, rather than a purchase, O’Neil said. The bags are named after commonly used military acronyms. Their ALCON backpack is $285. Their GTG duffel is $245. The NLT messenger is $225.
The company is called Fidelis, a Marine motto meaning faithful. The partners hope to push out their product more aggressively in the spring and fall of 2015.
“There is this force of will you learn in the military, that I will win. I think it applies to being an entrepreneur,” O’Neil said. “In the Marines we have a phrase that I like: ‘An imperfect plan executed violently is better than a perfect plan executed too late.’ ”