Nick Rant: Veterans Make Great Entrepreneurs
I just read Steve Tobak’s article entitled “Why Veterans Make Great Entrepreneurs”. Mr. Tobak is a consultant, advisor, former top executive, writer for CBS, and likely an expert on a great many things.
I am pissed off.
It isn’t that Mr. Tobak meant any harm. In fact, as the title suggests, Mr. Tobak claims that veterans are pretty good at this entrepreneurship thing, owning 3.6 million or 13% of all small businesses. He goes on to highlight how amazing that feat is while crediting us with leadership, decision-making, and organizational skills. So far so good, right? Then I got to this little backhanded, pat-on-the-head-for-you-simpleton-barbarians-who-try-hard ditty: But something else is highly counterintuitive about veterans being suited to entrepreneurial life. Discipline, duty, and strict regimen are major factors in military life. In the business world, and especially for entrepreneurs, focus is indeed important but so is flexibility and adaptability. And managers can’t successfully motivate employees the way officers “order” their troops. That’s a whole different ballgame.
Gosh, Mr. Tobak, that is how I remember military service – especially the infantry! Officers would give an order and they’d never be questioned! The guys would just execute, no matter how dumb it was or how perilous. Even the worst officers would never be undermined. After all – it was the RULE to obey them! And plans NEVER changed. We’d write an operations order and everything would happen exactly as we said it would. We’d always let the enemy, weather, and Murphy know the plan well in advance so there couldn’t possibly be an issue. Rigid discipline and the following of orders – that’s the secret to military success. Ideally, we’d just have robots, but we don’t quite have that technology yet.
If it was just this one ignorant writer, this article wouldn’t be worth responding to, but I have heard time and time again since leaving the military from multitudes of people who have never served and never tried to understand those that have that military people aren’t flexible or adaptable and that we rely on a strict hierarchy and providing orders. I’ve had this conversation in several interviews with well-meaning people all across corporate America. To be brutally honest, when I look at their life experiences and juxtapose them against mine and those of the people I have served with, I feel like what I imagine Peyton Manning would if a fifty-two year old ex-high school backup quarterback was giving him a critique of his passing motion or Michael Moore would feel if Mother Teresa was giving him tips on how to be a bigger douchenozzle.
I had just turned 23 when I took my first platoon into Kosovo. I had 39 guys under my command, four Bradley Fighting Vehicles, worth a kajillion dollars, and eight up-armored HMMWVs. We lived in an embalming station next to a Serb church that was a high value target for the Albanians. When it rained, rat and bird feces rained down on top of us. My Platoon Sergeant actually got tuberculosis from it. I saw my company commander no more than once a week and had complete autonomy over multiple towns in my sector. At the beginning of our time there, there was significant violence between the Albanians and Serbs, including a grenade attack on a kindergarten. There were riots, we were shot at, and generally had a terrible rapport with all parties involved. It was almost as challenging as having a really big PowerPoint presentation due for the VP of It-Doesn’t-Matter-I’m-Not-Going-to-Do-Anything-That-Will-Place-Any-Risk-On-My-Career-Even-If-It-is-a-Brilliant-Idea-So-I-Will-Sharpshoot-Anything-That-Comes-Before-Me and you just didn’t know how you could possible finish it in time. Well…maybe it wasn’t quite that serious, but close…
So given that we were inflexible military guys we simply stood around festering in our feces shower and awaited orders so we could follow them…or not. Our mission was to quell violence and restore peace to this province and the two ways to do that were: 1) Kill everyone here or 2) Start figuring out what the major problems were and work to find a solution.
We opted for column B. We determined getting to know people was critical, so we cut down on our mounted patrols and started doing a whole lot of walking. My guys figured out pretty quickly that the kids liked us the most, so we’d get a lot of information from them. We identified who the town leaders were, and more importantly, who was reasonable and who was respected. We immediately started building relationships with those people. When they asked for something on behalf of the town, we made it happen. When the radicals on either side asked…well…maybe we missed it. This gave the leaders that didn’t want everyone on the other side dead a whole lot of power. Hell, we even let these guys use our generators and provided security for their weddings. I made it a point to have coffee with each one of them a few times a week. They started solving many of our problems and helped us spot the troublemakers in the population, as well as become more vocal about their real concerns.
One of the big gripes that everyone had was the lack of jobs. You know what military-aged men do when they aren’t working? They drink. You know what drunk, angry, military-aged guys do? They get brave enough to act impulsively. Impulsive behavior often involved guns. We liked to be the only guys running around with guns, so we, along with our sister platoons in the area, requested the resources to fix up some of the old factories and businesses in the area so people could get back to work…and there was much rejoicing.
Even with the increase in jobs, there was still a lot of tension between some of the Serb leaders and my guys. I spoke to the new mayor (a moderate – go figure?) and asked for his recommendation. He thought a weekly soccer game between the soldiers and the locals would be a good idea. This was Kosovo, not Iraq or Afghanistan, so this was entirely reasonable. Another unit would come in and pull security and every week we’d play (and generally get our asses kicked) by the locals. Soccer, after all, is a silly game. Nevertheless, now we had something to talk about with all of them throughout the week, and we became more human to them. Again, things got better for all parties and violence in our area truly went to zero. In our spare time, we taught ourselves how to do roof work and refurbished and re-shingled our little embalming station.
None of these decisions or actions came from anyone’s orders. They came from my guys and me working together, bringing up ideas, and focusing on solving problems in order to successfully complete the challenging mission we had been assigned. Not bad for automaton droids. Perhaps, much like R2, we malfunctioned.
I’m very proud of what we did on that deployment, but my challenges and the challenges of my platoon then pale in comparison to what a 23 year old has to accomplish in Iraq or Afghanistan now. Imagine yourself assaulting through Baghdad, “winning the war”, and then realizing you had to completely change tactics from an army-on-army desert mounted war to a door-to-door fight against a local insurgency, then a few years later, completely change tactics again and move out further from the FOBs and get to know the people even more and start to work with the locals, and then change tactics again and have to rely increasingly on the locals for a great measure of your own security. Not only that, but you have to learn the culture and customs for as many as four vastly different groups, act as warriors, police, diplomats, builders, all while trying to balance a constantly changing set of directives from higher up and increasingly restrictive rules of engagement. Sound fun? I have friends with over ten deployments, and they’ll tell you each one was markedly different with even more diverse challenges.
So yeah, while I fully admit that one has to be a regular Reed Richards to maintain the flexibility necessary to graduate college, get an entry level job in a large corporation, and move up the ladder at a virtually predetermined rate in jobs that are often pretty-much spoon fed to you, I still kinda think that those of us who spent a day or two in the military may know a smidgeon about adaptability, but hey I don’t write for CBS, so I may be wrong. As for the giving orders bit, I guess I have no real response to that one. After all, as I recall that in my military days most of my leaders spent every day giving orders and micro-managing, as opposed to providing a mission and a loose commander’s intent and then allowing their subordinates to devise their own plan and execute it. Conversely, if my time working in corporate America taught me anything, it’s that every single manager that I encountered was a great leader who always presented good reasons for his or her orders…errr…I mean requests…yeah, orders sound friendlier when they’re called requests, right? Each one of them really cared about their people and always tried to see our perspective and help us succeed and would selflessly take one on the chin to protect us. They were never small-minded people who clung to the tiny bit of pathetic power they had and used it to belittle their employees to make themselves feel superior. Honestly, I wish more military leaders modeled themselves after corporate managers. I think we’d really get somewhere. Well played, Tobak. You’ve cut to the core of me. I can see why CBS has you on the payroll.*
*The only sarcasm in that paragraph was between the words “So yeah” and “payroll”.
Let’s really look at the numbers: The Kauffman Foundation, as well as many other well-respected firms and President Obama’s own staff, have recently concluded that job growth comes entirely from startups and small business. Companies in the first year of business add three million jobs to the U.S. economy. In their second year, they add one million. Compare that to large industry, with a well established bureaucracy and a focus on cost cutting and outsourcing, and you’ll find that since 1965, America has lost one million jobs a year from big business. So yes, the growth of our tax base comes entirely from entrepreneurs.
Hmmm…but how much business can small business really produce? Well, in 2009, entrepreneurs accounted for a paltry $22 TRILLION in revenue, with veteran-owned businesses producing $2.85 trillion of that. According to the census, there are 154 million working Americans. There are 9.8 million working age veterans, but 1.5 million are still in uniform. That means we have 8.3 million / 154 million or 5.38% of the working population, but yet deliver 13% of the growth. In point of fact, a veteran is 2.5 times more likely to start a small business than a non-veteran. We start more businesses (and succeed in them I might add) than any other population.
So while I agree with Mr. Tobak that Vets are the Beatles of entrepreneurship, I disagree starkly on the why and certainly don’t see our success as counter-intuitive. In my anything-but-humble opinion, I believe vets succeed for the following steely-eyed, freedom-loving reasons:
1) Nothing I will ever do in my life, unless I am elected President, will ever be as important or have as much of an impact as my time in the military. Every decision matters. You learn to operate at a very high level.
2) We don’t quit…ever…even when reason tells us we should.
3) If we’re not getting shot at, get to eat every day, and sleep every night, we’re generally pretty happy. This perspective helps a ton in the stressful world of entrepreneurship.
4) We’re the most flexible, creative, and adaptable people on the planet…except for maybe those guys at Apple – those bastards could create an iPooFlingingMonkey and we’d all buy it and brag about it.
5) We have been forced to operate in demanding, high-stress, non-artificial environments and succeed. In the military, things are often crystal clear – we know whether we won or lost – whether we did well or failed instantly. We don’t have a boss arbitrarily deciding if the mission was completed. This makes us our own harshest critic, which is essential as an entrepreneur, where blaming others (including luck) is a quick path to failure.
6) We’re team players. We like to succeed together. It actually makes life more rewarding and fun.
7) We care about our people. They aren’t just cogs in the big machine. We spend tons of time making sure we know them and are meeting their needs and not just rating them on how they perform for us.
8 ) And all that other nice stuff Mr. Tobak said about us.
So in short, after we serve our country as warriors in the most extraordinary situations imaginable while often getting criticized by academia, social elites, and others of their ilk, we shed the uniform, enter business, and kick their cowardly asses by producing more economic growth and national wealth per capita than any other population.
This article is not meant to bash those that haven’t served. Far from it. I owe a lot to entrepreneurs who have reached out to help me learn, to many of the brilliant civilians who serve on the boards of the military charities that Ranger Up works with, and to a lot of great friends. I’m just tired of having the majority of the population treat us like we’re automaton droids who do a job “anyone can do”. My point is simple: Vets kick ass, and while I will never criticize anyone’s decision not to serve (I love that we all have a choice here), I will not let anyone believe for an instant that their lack of service makes them superior in the business world. It’s condescending, academic, elitist drivel and the facts simply don’t support that contention.