There are countless business startup programs, incubators and training seminars for veterans starting a business for the first time. Conversely, a veteran entrepreneur who sees great success gets attention from investors and other sources of capital to continue their hard-earned growth.
Somewhere in between are untold numbers of mid-sized businesses, or businesses passing their five-year anniversary. Those veteran business owners, some of whom could still need a little help and direction, might feel more than a little ignored.
"The challenges faced by folks who've taken that first step, but are now managing growing and evolving businesses, are very, very different," Mike Haynie, founder and director of the D'Aniello Institute for Veterans and Military Families (IVMF), tells Military.com. "There's not a lot of focus on those midlevel businesses and providing support resources to not just to survive, but accelerate their potential."
Haynie and the IVMF founded the Veteran EDGE Conference in 2018 to address that gap for midsized veteran businesses. The institute already had a number of startup programs, but nothing that could help an experienced entrepreneur reach the next level through growing and evolving what they've built.
Collected statistics on the success and failure rates of veteran-owned businesses often follow those of the general population in the United States, according to Haynie and the IVMF's own data. After a business has been in operation for five years, it is considered viable and that's when many businesses consider scaling up and growing. Some first-time entrepreneurs need help in that department, and that's who Veteran EDGE is for.
"It's about how we help a $500,000-a-year business turn into a $5 million-a-year business," Haynie says. "There's an assumption in business ownership that if it survives to the five-year mark, it can last 20 years. We look to accelerate their growth to the extent that instead of taking six to eight years to make that revenue, it only takes two years."
Veteran EDGE brings around 250 veteran entrepreneurs looking to make this kind of expansion together for networking, training seminars and to hear from entrepreneurial keynote speakers who have made this kind of jump in their own businesses. The programming for the conference comes from the idea of past attendees.
"Part of it is based on our own expertise at IVMF, we have a lot of people who study entrepreneurship, myself included," says Haynie. "But we're also informed by the outreach we do to participants. We ask what challenges they're facing, what's working and what's not working and the challenges they face on the ground. We build the curriculum around the responses they give."
Some of the topics given at the 2023 conference included digital and social media marketing, creating a company culture, artificial intelligence, how private equity transforms companies and the psychology of failure. If that doesn't sound like a standard business and networking event, that's because Veteran EDGE is not trying to be.
"It would be disingenuous for us to host an 'everyone's gonna win' kind of conference, because that's not the reality of this world," Haynie says. "The consequences of not getting this right in business could be catastrophic for the individual, their families and employees. We need to have authentic conversations, and we'd be doing a disservice if we weren't honest about that."
There is, however, a lot to be optimistic about for starting and scaling businesses, even in uncertain economic times. To some of his startup classes, Haynie asks his soon-to-be entrepreneurs when the best times to start a business are. The answer seems counterintuitive.
"If you look through history, all the way back to World War II, where entrepreneurial activity has been its highest, it's when times are tough, because people turn to entrepreneurship as an alternative to a traditional job," he says. "Because, at its core, entrepreneurship is about solving problems for people. Those problems become most apparent when times are tough."
On top of seminars, networking and keynote speakers, Veteran EDGE hosts an event honoring those on Inc. Magazine's Vet 100 List of the 100 fastest-growing, veteran-owned businesses in America. The conference hosts an acceleration challenge that rewards a number of veteran entrepreneurs with capital grants to help speed their growth.
The average Veteran EDGE attendee may not be in the Vet 100 or get to compete in the acceleration challenge, but for the vast majority, the trip is worth making.
"The first night we were here, I ran into a young man who was Army infantry but went through our EVB program [Entrepreneurship Bootcamp for Veterans], who was not in a good place the first time I met him," Haynie recalls. "He told me he sold the business he built for EBV for an amount of money I will never see in my professional life, and now he's on to businesses No. 2 and 3. That's remarkable to me, and I think it demonstrates the power of entrepreneurship."
The Veteran EDGE Conference is an annual event hosted by the D'Aniello Institute for Veterans and Military Families. Those interested in attending must be a veteran, active-duty service member, National Guard, Reserve or military spouse business owner who has been operating their business for at least one year. Entry is through application only, but all costs are covered by the IVMF. Watch the Veteran Edge website for information on when applications are being accepted.
-- Blake Stilwell can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. He can also be found on Twitter @blakestilwell or on LinkedIn.
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