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"Will and Skill": A Veteran's Sun Care Business

John O'Malley

Part 1 of 2: Former Army officer John O'Malley is living the dream of running his own business -- he is the President of Planet Sun, a Hawaii-based company that provides sun protection products for athletes. We caught up with John to get his take on the challenges and rewards of starting his own business.

Tell us about your military background.

I was a 1987 Army ROTC grad from the University of Scranton, and commissioned a second lieutenant in the Army Signal Corps. I started in communications and served in various types of units in the US and Europe. In the latter part of my career I worked in the area of knowledge management, and was assigned as Knowledge Manager for U.S. Pacific Command in Hawaii before I retired. At that point in time, knowledge management was a fairly new concept to the military, so my mission was to figure out what knowledge management was [laughs], then figure out how to apply it to military operations.

I tell people that one major takeaway I had from the military is that it taught me to be extremely adaptable and flexible. Everything that I learned in the military gave me what I would call “the will and the skill” to be successful in business. Having a background in strategic military planning is certainly an factor that helps me in what I am doing now. Developing a business plan is much like developing a military campaign plan, and when you begin forming your business, you will see many parallels between campaign planning and a business plan. 

What led you to starting your own business?

I knew before I retired in 2007 that I wanted to work in the outdoor sporting industry. I was a very active triathlete and adventure racer while I was in the military, and had actually started a business with my wife before I retired. We were sales reps for high-end sporting products like apparel, and hydration systems and outdoor gear. So I had a pretty good understanding of the industry and that put me on a path that led to me making the decision to follow my passions.

One of the co-founders of our company is a melanoma survivor and an Ultra- distance runner. We had a discussion in 2006 at the XTERRA World Championships that really was a spark for creating Planet Sun. We live in a place on Earth that is a mecca for adventure and sports, but also has some of the highest on the UV index levels on earth, so that’s where the whole idea for performance sun care came about. I'd also done a lot of work with R&D [research and development]. We all do in the military -- during the span of a 20 year career, you’ve likely tested something at some point.

We refer to ourselves as a company of "doc-jocks." We have two doctors in the company, we’re all athletes, and we sponsor 17 athletes, 3 of them are world champions and are the test bed for our company’s products.I started the company about six months before the recession hit, and while other people were dropping out of the race we put our heads down and pushed through. That’s where the perseverance you develop in the military comes in -- being able to stick with it and become successful. That’s why we’re still here.

You mentioned some of the military skills that helped you in business. What are some of the skills you needed to learn?

A great challenge is defining who you are and your niche, because you can get lost. You need to learn how to identify your company, your products, your mantra, and where you fit in the marketplace. Having a good product and working hard are minimal standards, and will only get you to first base. Creative marketing and advertising is absolutely critical -- and can set you apart from the completion. There can be many setbacks while going into business, but the will to keep at it that we learn in the military is essential to success. Being to adapt, improvise and overcome is incredibly important and will help keep you relevant in the marketplace.

Did you have some trials and tribulations in growing your business?

We wanted the company to be owned exclusively by family and close friends, so we started the company up on private funding, and since we’re a product-based company we went through the initial investments quickly. We underestimated the costs of starting up and maintaining the company for an extended period of time. We went to the bank about two weeks before the recession really hit, to get our first loan. We were very confident because we had a really good business plan, and the credibility of the doctors and athletes, but the loan was rejected. We took it really hard, and had to go back to family and friends for more short-term loans, so the company has been privately funded through friends and family through necessity. Fortunately we learned how to do this effectively enough to not have to rely on the banks up to this point -- it shows you that something good can come out of anything.

[Read part 2 of this interview]

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