Transitioning out of the military can be one of the most daunting transitions in a servicemember's life, but it also holds the potential for the greatest success. We had a chance to speak with Samit Varma, a former Naval officer who served aboard a nuclear submarine. Upon leaving the military, he utilized his leadership skills to become a venture capitalist, and has recently launched his own business: The Pizza Studio.
What influenced you to join the Naval Academy?
I visited the Naval Academy when I was in high school. Originally I wanted to fly jets. I really enjoyed the camaraderie, the leadership, and the environment of the Naval Academy. I geared the rest of my high school career towards getting accepted, which was not easy. I eventually got in on early admission and started summer of '94.
While I was there, I took a tour on a submarine and I was really impressed with the technology and the environment. I thought it was super cool. I changed my mind about midway through and decided to go submarines instead of naval aviation.
What interested you specifically about engineering?
I liked engineering because I'm kind of a problem solver and a builder. Engineering, especially mechanical engineering, gave me the ability to invent stuff and be creative while at the same time be very technical and analytical about problem solving. Not a lot of people who go into engineering actually become engineers. It teaches you a very analytical and creative way to solve various, very difficult problems. I always enjoyed the challenge, and the math and everything that comes with it. It's a pretty significant challenge to solve these problems, and the problem-solving approach is what really attracted me.
What was your job on the submarine?
I was the assistant weapons officer. We were a ballistic missile submarine, and we carried around 24 nuclear missiles. There's a weapons officer, an assistant weapons officer, and the captain of the submarine, and you need those three people to launch a nuclear missile. It was quite a responsibility.
How did being responsible for that much firepower impact you?
I think it's one of those things that definitely requires a certain level of personality and a certain level of stability and intelligence, etc. In fact, everyone who handles nuclear missiles in the Navy goes through a program called the PRP. That stands for personnel reliability program, so there's a pretty significant screening process to get that level of access as well of course the top secret clearance and everything. It was very procedural. We have manuals and we create standards and procedures that, as long as they're followed, doesn't allow a lot of room for mistakes. In that environment, obviously, everything has to be done exactly by the book. That's what the mentality is and the discipline of the military.
What was it like to be on the submarine during the attacks on 9/11?
It's a rare occasion in someone's life that you can be such a significant part of such a significant event in history. Of all my 12 years in the Navy, there were relatively few times when I was on the pointy edge of the spear. Submarine officers, sometimes they're on port, sometimes they're on shore duty, sometimes they're overseas, and sometimes the boat is in drydock. 9/11 for me was unbelievably significant. We were actually at sea when the attacks happened. It was communicated to us through normal submarine communication channels and the response of the ship was first shock and disbelief, then it was like something switched in the boat. Everyone went to their battle stations, and acted in the most professional manner I have ever seen.
That was a source of great pride for me and the other officers because we were the ones creating that atmosphere. We were the leaders there; there are only about 15 officers on a ballistic missile submarine crew of about 160. We sprang into action. 9/11 happened to be at the end of a very long deployment for us, and the Navy was concerned that the submarine base itself was going to get attacked by planes, or bombs, or whatever, so they turned us around. We went back to sea at the end of our deployment when we were running extremely low on supplies: food, everything. It was extremely taxing. One of my sailors' fathers was actually killed – he was a firefighter in New York. We received that news while we were underway, so it was a very trying situation, but one that I take so much pride in because of the way that my crew responded.
What were some of your goals for your military service?
My number one goal was to serve my country. I'm first generation; my parents immigrated here in 1968 from India. My dad came here with eight dollars in his pocket, literally, and worked his way through college as a teacher's assistant. He's had a very successful career, and I credit that entire opportunity to the fact that he's in the United States and not in a small village in India. Number two, I wanted the experience of being in an environment where things that are important to me matter. The sense of urgency, attention to detail, pride of ownership, exceeding expectations – these are things that I wanted to learn. If you want to learn Spanish, you go to Spain for a year and come out having learned Spanish. I wanted these things to be ingrained in what I did, and that's another reason why the military was attractive for me. Frankly, there's no other place in the world where they're going to give a 22 year old the amount of responsibility and leadership that I had the opportunity to partake in.
How did you make the transition from the military to being an entrepreneur?
I learned a little bit about engineering in school and submarine training. The other skills that I learned were more about management, leadership, building morale in an organization, those kinds of things. The transition was from being an officer to being an entrepreneur. That was difficult because I've always wanted to be a creator, inventor, and problem solver, so that part happened naturally. The thing that was most difficult for me was that in the business world the focus of management is to maximize shareholders. That's not something that we took too much of a care of at my level in the military. We were operators, we were war fighters, unrestricted line officers. I never had to worry about a bottom line. All of what I was doing wasn't for a financial gain. That has never left me. Although I am a businessman and I did invest in a bunch of companies as a venture capitalist, and now I'm running a pizza restaurant, I still have these other values that are important to me. I think if you do it the right way, it can also lead to profits, but the values can't be forgotten.
It sounds like your military experience helped you get to where you are right now.
It did. I credit the military with a huge amount of my success so far. I look for ways to try to give back. We have as many veterans as we can in our stores, we want to sign up veterans as franchisees, and I have several former Marines that work for me now. They fit very well into our system because it's built around the same core values that the military is. They understand it, they understand the operation, they learn quickly, and they're motivated. I would love to hire as many veterans as we can.
What was the process of moving from the military to your current position?
I first went and got a Masters of Business Administration from USC. I got my MBA right when I got out of the military, and through the MBA I networked with individuals that were in the business community and I decided to join a software start-up that was a brand new early-stage company called Audyssey Labs. I did that for three years and that was really my first job out of the military. Again, I brought the same values instilled in me in the military to a different field, in this case software. I helped build that company from three employees to 60.
Along the way, after about three years, one of the investors in the company approached me to join the partnership of a venture capital firm. Me and two other partners, three of us total, ran about a $300 million early-stage venture capital fund. Through that I got to see a whole slew of new businesses, new business plans, sat on a bunch of boards, and really saw what it takes to grow a company from two to three people to several-hundred million in value. It's a very rewarding experience to do that. Our fund was very successful; we sold three companies to Google. I did that for about eight years until I got the entrepreneurial itch, which happens because as a venture capitalist you're in the boards and on the sidelines. I wanted to roll my sleeves up and get into the mix again. I decided to take the plunge and open The Pizza Studio.
It sounds like networking was a key factor to your success.
Yeah, networking, reaching out to former military, reaching out to any alumni programs at schools that you may have gone to, and really just putting yourself out there is important. Just being a hard working successful guy can get you a lot. You just have to get yourself out there. I think a lot of the military personality is a little bit more reserved and introverted, which is fine, I am to a degree, but it's important to get out there and talk to people and really do something that you like to do and work really hard at it and follow the path.
How did The Pizza Studio get started, and what are your goals with the company?
The Pizza Studio started as an idea that I put together. I said, "hey, I've done this before at home. We've built pizzas there and we have a good experience with it. Why can't I get this at the store? Why isn't there a business that does this?" I put together the business plan and partnered up with Ron Biskin who has 25 years of restaurant experience, the one thing I was missing. We put together a business plan, worked on it for several years, and took an engineering approach to solving some of the problems. We got the product to where we wanted it and we launched about eight months ago to the public. It's been a huge hit.
My goal with The Pizza Studio is to make it a national and global brand. I think that this is the way that people will eat pizza in the future; I think it's very disruptive in that the customer demands a high-quality, made to order pizza at a valuable price point. You don't want to go to a pizza joint and get a slice that's been sitting under a heat lamp with whatever toppings they thought you'd want. At our store, you come in and get what you want. It's ready in three minutes, and it's truly an experience to eat at The Pizza Studio. It's been so popular that we've been trying to bring it out to as many people as we can.
It sounds like The Pizza Studio is a runaway hit.
It's been amazing. I put aside a pretty significant marketing budget when we first opened; I wanted to make sure that we got this right. My partner said our product would do the marketing for us, and we have yet to spend a dollar on marketing. We don't advertise on Yelp, we don't put fliers out, we don't make TV commercials, we do nothing. It's all organic, it's all natural, and our pizza speaks for itself.
If you had one piece of advice to give to transitioning servicemembers, what would it be?
Pursue the things that bring you happiness and don't leave behind the work ethic and values that you learned in the military. If you're doing something that you're happy doing, you're going to spend more time on it and be more energetic about it, and that is the path I think people should take.
Check out The Pizza Studio for job openings and franchisee opportunities. Anyone who puts "military applicant" in the subject line will automatically go to the top of the application queue. If you're not in the LA area, don't worry: The Pizza Studio is expanding to 75 new locations within the next few years making them one of the fastest growing restaurant franchises around.