Spotlight on Vetrepreneurship: How Warrior Rising gets results
Members of the military serve a vital function in keeping the country safe. They are highly trained professionals and learn many practical skills while serving. Most military personnel are eligible for a pension after 20 years of service, which means that full-time military personnel may be able to retire as young as 38 years old. Many decide to start another career, and entrepreneurship can be a rewarding option.
While many of the skills learned in the military translate nicely to business ownership – leadership, discipline, and organization, for example – there are some skills that will need to be learned after discharge.
Warrior Rising is a non-profit organization that works with veterans and their immediate family members to help them start and run sustainable businesses. We spoke to Ken Vennera, Chief of Staff at Warrior Rising, to learn more.
How it started
“Warrior Rising was founded in 2015 by Jason Van Camp, a retired U.S. Army Special Forces officer and former Army Ranger,” said Vennera. “Like many retired military, he still wanted to have a purpose and wanted to find a new way to execute on that purpose. At the time, there were a few organizations that helped veterans find jobs but none that focused on helping them start their own businesses. Being the leader that he is, he basically created a way to help veterans rediscover purpose through business ownership, by providing training, instruction, and mentorship.”
Warrior Rising began by providing in-person instruction for six to ten ‘vetrepreneurs’ at a time. It quickly became apparent that there was more demand than this model could satisfy, and the in-person model wasn’t scalable. So, Van Camp created an on-demand version of the in-person program and called it Warrior Academy.
Warrior Academy for veterans
Warrior Academy is an online training program designed to take veterans through the process of becoming a business owner, calling on the skills they have learned in the military and teaching those skills they may not yet have.
“There’s a five-paragraph operations order in the military that tells you, for any operation, the instructions that need to be carried out. The paragraphs are Situation, Mission, Execution, Administration and Logistics, and Command and Signal. These paragraphs, which veterans are already familiar with, are very much like a business plan. So, Warrior Academy is basically a side-by-side comparison of the military operations order and a prospective business plan.”
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“Jason created a 40-module Warrior Academy that was based on this military operations order, and it helps veterans develop their concept into a model, or to improve an existing model.”
In addition to Warrior Academy, Warrior Rising offers virtual live coaching and mentoring sessions that provide these entrepreneurs with the ability to ask questions that are specific to their businesses and the obstacles they may be facing.
Warrior Rising also offers its VETtoCEO program, which veterans can take after completing Warrior Academy. The veterans who enroll in this program also place themselves in a position to be chosen for a pitch competition and to receive additional resources.
VETtoCEO is an 8-week program that takes a deeper dive into the business topics, using the same military operations order template used in Warrior Academy.
During the weekly program, veterans get to hear servicemembers like themselves who have successfully started and grown a business tell their story and give their advice and can ask them questions about their own business. In addition, there is 90 minutes of instruction.
After completing VETtoCEO, the veterans are eligible to participate in a pitch competition where they present their business idea to a panel of experts, which may include venture capitalists, angel investors, and others looking for businesses to invest in. The pitch competition takes place as part of Warrior Rising’s Veteran Business Showers.
“We call it a ‘Veteran Business Shower,’ like a bridal shower or a baby shower,” said Vennera. “We give them all the tools they need to get the business off the ground and to put it on a path to success: laptop computers, a video ‘commercial’, professional headshots, website design and most importantly, a grant or other professional assistance. It’s basically everything they need to kickstart the business.”
The pitch competition gives the vetrepreneurs an opportunity to present their business idea to a panel of experts and get feedback.
Vennera explained, “We do an open invitation for any of the veterans, but what we’re really looking for is, is it novel? Some people think when they hear the word ‘invention,’ that it has to be something that has never existed before. But that’s not necessarily true. It just has to be something that someone looks at and says, ‘Oh, that’s interesting. That makes things so much better. Why didn’t I think of that?’
“A lot of military veteran entrepreneurs create solutions for problems based on their experience,” said Vennera. “Here's an example. There was an Army helicopter crew chief who knew how important it is to get the crew off the helicopter quickly in combat situations. When you’re landing a helicopter, it can be seen and heard from a considerable distance. So enemy troops will see or hear it and try to attack. If the troops can get off the helicopter and establish their defensive perimeter quickly, that’s pretty important. “In addition, military helicopters aren’t built for comfort. There’s a lot of jostling around, and gear has to be secured while the aircraft is in flight. There’s a pole on either side and various hooks on the sides of the helicopter to attach gear to. But there was no good way to attach gear to the poles. People would secure their gear with 550 cord which is a type of parachute cord that holds up to 550 pounds per square inch. That’s a strong cord that’s difficult to cut.
“So, you’re on the helicopter, it lands, and you’re trying to get off as quickly as possible, but your gear is attached to the pole with this super strong cord. This crew chief created a detachable clamp that would connect to these poles.”
While this entrepreneur had a great idea, he still needed help with the execution.
“We try to tell all the entrepreneurs and the veterans who want to start businesses that their first idea is probably not where you’re going to end up. In this case, the idea itself wasn’t wrong – he got a patent. But the need didn’t match. He couldn’t get military units to adapt quickly enough to latch on to this type of product. But what he did find was that there is other equipment and weapons systems for the military that need to be attached to different types of vehicles. He also found that there was the potential for commercial use, for a cheaper version people could use in their garages, for example. So, a novel approach to an existing problem.”
For the pitch competition, the veteran creates a pitch deck and a short video to demonstrate how they would do giving a pitch. There may be an interview, where they are some deeper dive questions about their business and where they’re at, and so on.
“We usually get 25 to 40 applicants per cohort,” Vennera said. “From there we narrow it down to about five to seven, just because of time constraints. They pitch live in front of a panel of judges whom we invite. These are people in business or sponsors of the organization. Some are entrepreneurs and some work for larger companies. The panel might be 10 to 15 judges and they offer feedback to the veterans because it’s always about the learning experience. We’re trying to help them learn.
“They get 15 minutes to pitch and answer questions, so they can choose how to allocate that time. We emphasize to them that they have to be selling their business all the time.
“Although it can vary, the winner usually gets a $20,000 cash grant, but everybody who participates usually gets at least $2,000. We also look at what they need to get to that next step. It could be marketing support, professional headshots or videography. It could be an introduction to an investor or a month of working directly with a mentor who can help them in a particular area. The judges are really looking to see what they would need to get over that next hump.”
Veteran instruction and mentorship
“The main thrust of the organization is instruction and mentorship,” Vennera explained. “It’s the ‘teach a man to fish’ concept – making sure they’re doing the work and we’re not just giving them the answers so they can be self-sufficient. That’s one of the things the military teaches – to rely on yourself. Figure out the answers to the problems yourself. We try to encourage those things so they can be successful and weather the storms that come with owning a business.”
Who are the vetrepreneurs?
“We’ve helped over 18,000 veterans and military spouses in one way or another over the last eight years,” said Vennera. “A good portion of them call directly on their military experience to start their business, but that’s not always the case. Some veterans are just innovative by nature, and they rely on that characteristic that they’ve always had. And they’re taught to be innovative in the military, to be able to figure out problems. You have to rely on whatever resources you have. That’s why we find a lot of success with former military people in that entrepreneurial space, because it’s bred into them to problem solve and think outside the box. And they don’t give up easily.”
Warrior Rising also works with veterans who want to get involved with a franchise or who want to acquire a business that’s already up and running. “Franchising can be a very good opportunity,” explained Vennera. “It fits in well with the mindset of following directions and executing well on those directions.
“We’ll also help those veterans who are looking to acquire an existing business. Those are a good option because they’re bankable. You don’t have to go cultivate the market and you don’t have to spend a lot of time and money to build up brand goodwill. And we help those veterans who are looking to overcome an obstacle or scale from where they are. We help from the startup point through, say, a Series A investment.
Small business funding for veterans
Veterans are no different than those without military experience when it comes to the challenges of funding a new business. Warrior Rising addresses these issues specifically.
“In our coaching and mentoring, we give the veterans the opportunity to ask questions that are specific to their business, and we also give specific counseling in certain areas,” said Vennera. “We have special topic webinars on things like how to prepare for a bank loan application, how to prepare to talk to investors, how to make a pitch, and things like that.
“Many of the people who we work with may think, if I just show financial data that shows this growth rate, that investor will want to invest,” said Vennera. “That’s seldom the case. Investors are human beings so there are always individual experiences and interests that come into it. Asking questions of them to understand those things and be able to direct your pitch is what’s really key.”
Setting expectations around funding is critical.
“Often, they go through all these steps, and they figure out they need, for example, $100,000 to get through 12 months of operations. Then they expect that they’ll go to a bank and get a loan instantly or apply for a grant and that will solve their capital needs without much effort. Or they believe they will talk to a couple of investors who will love their idea so much, they’ll write a check for $100,000. We need to emphasize that financing, including the timing and stages of funding, needs to be part of their planning too. Generally, they need two years of history to even apply for a bank loan. And bank loans don’t happen in 48 hours – they might take four to six weeks, by the time the paperwork is filled out, the supplemental questions get answered and the underwriters look at it and approve or deny,” said Vennera.
“The important thing is to understand who you’re dealing with. Know what is important to them. If someone is interested and you create trust in someone and fill in the blanks for them – solve a problem that they have – they will give you their money. It’s true for investors and for customers. Building trust takes time, however.”
Challenges veterans face
While the military prepares people for many aspects of entrepreneurship, there are some that may take veterans by surprise.
“A lot of military veterans are used to being self-sufficient, to solving problems on their own, and getting things done,” Vennera said. “They’re given an order, and they get it done right. There’s a lot of ambition that can lead to impatience. Doing adequate planning in all aspects is necessary to be able to efficiently run a business and this can be difficult to get people to understand.
“We’ll often come across a situation where somebody starts out with a brilliant idea. They know how to execute on it, and they know they need to research who their customers are. But then they stop there. They’ll look at the research and talk to one or two people they think are smart about these things, but they never really talk to the intended customers. They don’t ask, ‘How badly do you need this service? Would you pay this much for it?’ Things like that. “I guess you could put all this under the umbrella of ‘planning,’ but it’s not that they’re not good at planning, it’s just that they haven’t had this experience before, so they don’t know what to expect. In the military, when you need something, you have a team to help you do it or you requisition it, and you usually get it. That doesn’t happen when starting out in business.
“At Warrior Rising, we do this side-by-side comparison of how things are done in the military vs. in business. It’s important to be able to translate things across that spectrum. I think that I something that we’re really good at.”
According to Vennera, the bottom line is that Warrior Rising supports vetrepreneurs by giving them the tools they need to be successful in business.
“You’ve got to be self-reliant, you’ve got to be doing the work--the research, the trial and error, because, you’ve got to be able to handle things when problems hit and no one else is able to be available. So, we want to give you the right tools to do it yourself. The main objective, at the end of the day, is empowering, not to give them a handout, it’s to give them a hand up.”