Although this article addresses military members transitioning to civilian careers, it is applicable to anyone aspiring to be an entrepreneur.
When you’ve decided to hang up the uniform once and for all, your world becomes a bit cluttered with a myriad of lifestyle decisions. The task checklist, itself, associated with separating or retiring from the military is the easy part. It’s more like a mechanical “do” list that sequences your departure into civilian life: Orders (check); Exit Physical (check); Household Goods (check); etc. The hard part is deciding what’s next in your “new life” after the service. There’s a lot to consider: Kids and schools; spouse’s career; if (or where) to move; and so on. If you accept a job offer, the decision to move (or not) might be decided for you as a condition of employment. But you’ll have plenty of other decisions to make… One of the biggest decisions may be whether to forego a job and, instead, start a business as an entrepreneur.
Granted, most military veterans opt to find employment in the workforce after leaving the service. At face value it seems the least risky, most assured way of earning a living after the military. Employers tend to favor military veterans, and for good reasons: work ethic, demonstrated leadership, management skills, technical abilities. The list goes on. For some, shifting colors from cammies to cardigans means taking a job with a government contractor and simply picking up where they left off (just using the title of Mr./Ms. versus their former rank). For others, a clean break from government service altogether may be the preferred choice, working for a retail chain, a bank, an airline, etc. And then there’s the small contingent of veterans who opt to take the road less traveled: become an entrepreneur and start a business.
The Entrepreneur: A Different Mindset
It’s a personal choice, entirely. Starting a business isn’t for everyone. On one hand, you might argue that there’s “job security” and a “steady paycheck” as an employee. The counter argument is that there’s no better job security than being your own boss, and as a business owner there’s no cap to the amount of income you can earn. It’s not a “wrong” or “right” thing. There are, however, some definite do’s and don’ts that go hand in hand with entrepreneurship (to be successful). Before you take the leap of faith in yourself and start a business, take heed of these very basic but essential points to avoid falling on your own sword:
Ownership, Responsibility, and Accountability
As an entrepreneur, you’re the commanding officer of your business. If you’re successful, that success is yours to enjoy. Likewise, if there’s a problem, you own it! When you start a business, you are the sole job security you have. Employees often expect job-related problems to be fixed by their employer. As an entrepreneur, you won’t have that luxury. YOU are the employer. Accordingly, you must sometimes be willing to “suffer” a bit in order to build a successful venture. Your mistakes will shape you. How you handle them will define you. Learn from them and keep growing. You’ll need to have the self-discipline and confidence to pioneer your business.
When you’re the boss, you have the privilege of giving yourself time off. But beware if you do… because your personal involvement in your company’s day-to-day operations is a self-policing balance to your success. As an entrepreneur, if you don’t show up to work, you’ll end up “firing yourself” as your business fails. There’s no safety net, and often no second chances.
Leadership and Compassion
If you have employees, take care of them and recognize them (both in praise and financially) for their contributions to the success of your company. Build trust and be worth working for. Yes, as the business owner you own all the risk. But your people should not fear for their job if they make honest mistakes. Good leadership on your part to turn their mistakes into learning experiences on their part goes a very long way in building trust and loyalty. When they learn from their mistakes, they become a bigger asset to your business, rather than going through the learning curve over and over again with a revolving door of employees. Of course, you do have to protect your company as well. Find the balance. An old adage goes as follows: “The first time it’s a mistake. The second time (repeated) is incompetence. If it happens again, it’s sabotage.”
It’s Lonely at the Top (but not always)
As an entrepreneur, you have to do what others won’t, so that later in life you can live like others can’t. Expect to spend many-a-night working late while your friends and family are sleeping, especially when you first get started. Yes, you’ll need a work-life balance. But your friends will have more time for sleep and television than you do, for sure. If you’re starting a small business, you’re both the CEO and the janitor… and every position in between. Multi-tasking becomes an instant way of life until you’re in a position to hire some help.
Once you are successful, do not be surprised (or offended) when others in your social circle mention how “lucky” you are. It will likely strike you the wrong way, almost as a backhanded compliment. To yourself, you’ll be thinking that “luck” sure feels like a heck of a lot of “work”. Forgive them. They never walked a mile in your shoes. You’ll likely find that your current friends will always be your friends but as you become more successful in business, you’ll find yourself surrounded by new friends whose interests align with yours as you grow personally. Entrepreneurship attracts like-minded, success-driven people.
Create a Niche and Excel
As a business owner, you’re a perpetual problem solver. Your role is to solve your customers’ problems. Businesses survive on sales– no exceptions. You’ll either be selling a product, a service, or information. So, whether you open an online or brick & mortar store; provide website hosting and marketing services; provide consulting services; or anything in between, your business will be working in at least one of those arenas: selling products, services, and/or information.
You can’t be a thriving success if you’re a latecomer in a saturated market with nothing new to bring to the table. Don’t be a “me too” company. You have to offer better quality, better efficiency, and better support than others competing in your market. Always remember, your company’s value isn’t what your customers put in your pocket. Your company’s value is how you can meet your customers’ needs and provide a solution they can’t get somewhere else. You have to provide something they need, something they don’t want to do, and/or something they don’t know how to do. If you start a business “just to make money”, you’re likely to fail. Find your passion and fulfill it. Happy customers are the key to long-term success in business.
Intention vs. Commitment
Of all the pointers, this is the the most important universal truth and keystone to success. Know the difference between “intention” and “commitment”. Everyone intends to succeed at whatever they undertake. No one sets out as an entrepreneur with the goal to “fail in business”. The difference when you’re committed is that “failure is not an option”. Period.
As an entrepreneur, working on any other premise is fooling yourself. Choose your words (and your motivations) carefully when you have a mental dialogue with yourself. Don’t set yourself up to fail. If you find yourself saying, “I’ll give it a try” or “I’ll try it for ‘x’ months/years until/unless…”, etc. you’re already giving yourself excuses. Either do it or don’t, but there’s no “try” in committing to success. There’s just “do it”. Be prepared. You’ll face negativity along the way. A lot of it. Everything works great… until it doesn’t. Those are the moments that will define your success. Startups are exciting, but not always fun. You’ll have to take the ups with the downs, and stick with it. There’s a big difference between being a committed entrepreneur versus a fledgling wantrepreneur.
Go Into It with Your Eyes Open
If you find the prospect of being an entrepreneur a bit daunting after reading the pointers above, you’re not alone. But as with most “lessons learned”, the takeaways are usually expressed as negatives. That’s not the point, here… to be negative. There are most certainly many upsides to starting your own business.
Starting, building and owning your own business can truly be a powerful vehicle for financial freedom, time freedom and independence in the long run. Just be realistic about the magnitude of the work involved from the get-go. If you’re goal-driven and focused on starting a venture, nothing herein will be a deterrent. In fact, it likely serves as a reminder for what you already know.
When the time comes to get started, one of the best things you can do is work with a qualified business coach. Business coaches are trained in navigating the ins and outs of successfully starting ventures. They focus on strategies and behaviors, attitude and knowledge, goals, tools and resources. They’re also successful in business building, themselves. They consult and mentor from experience, and they can help you avoid many of the pitfalls typical to entrepreneurial startups.
If, however, you now find “cause to pause”, perhaps it’s time to do your due diligence. If, after digging into the details, you conclude, “Cool idea, but I’m not ready for that”, then you may have saved yourself some grief and expense. Again, explore your options and find your own “right answer”. Everyone charts a different course for themselves based on their priorities, motivations, inclinations, interests, and values.
A Word of Encouragement
Even if you decide that life as an entrepreneur isn’t for you, that’s not necessarily the end of the story. There’s always tomorrow! You might give some consideration to taking a job directly as you leave the military, then groom yourself for business ownership down the road. With the lifestyle changes you’ll experience “on the outside”, it can take months or years to adjust to your “new normal”, both culturally and financially. Embrace the changes and realize that acclimating to civilian life will open additional doors to explore. One of those doors, someday, may be to start a business. You might be perfectly happy working for someone else at a large or small company initially. But if you later rethink your decision, you can shift your mentality to entrepreneurship at any point in time. The world remains your oyster!