What Today's Veterans Should Know About Entrepreneurship

Then-Tech. Sgt. Tom Burden shows off his invention, the Grypmat.
Then-Tech. Sgt. Tom Burden shows off his invention, the Grypmat. Grypmat was featured on the TV show 'Shark Tank' and now has revenues of more than $4 million. Burden developed the mat as an F-16 mechanic to keep tools from slipping off the fuselage. (Staff Sgt. Shane Hughes/U.S. Air Force photo)

Military service and small-business ownership share a distinctive relationship, dating back more than a half century. Veterans remain more likely to own a business than non-veterans and often tend to outearn non-veteran entrepreneurs.

High-performing entrepreneurs tend to demonstrate good decision-making in chaotic environments, along with confidence, independence and high self-efficacy and achievement -- all traits commonly found in service members and veterans.

Veteran entrepreneurs derive from a diverse population with unique experiences, but they also encounter challenges at all stages of their business ownership journey. As such, here are a few highlights from a recent survey by Syracuse University's Institute for Veterans and Military Families, or IVMF, about veteran entrepreneurs, the reasons they pursue entrepreneurship, and the resources and ecosystems that have helped veteran entrepreneurs with their businesses.

Veteran entrepreneurs possess characteristics that are critical to success. Based on results from IVMF's 2020 National Survey of Military-Affiliated Entrepreneurs, nearly 61% of men and women who join the military have ambitions to start their own businesses. The military training they receive reinforces and propels them into career choices amplified by their experiences.

So here is what the survey found to be the primary motivations for pursuing entrepreneurship after service:

  • Veterans want to make their own decisions at work (44%).
  • They enjoy the chance to chase their own ideas and create something new (43%).
  • Vets pursue financial dependence and success (43%).
  • Veterans seek to maintain their personal freedom (39%).

Most of these are true of veteran and non-veteran entrepreneurs alike. However, veteran entrepreneurs are unique, in that 34% surveyed say they became entrepreneurs out of a desire to support their communities. This data point demonstrates, yet again, veterans' proclivity for service to their communities.

Conversely, according to the research, the three central barriers/challenges facing veteran entrepreneurs remain:

  • Lack of initial capital (42%)
  • People and social capital (29%)
  • Irregular income (24%)

But for those with interest, I am here to tell you that these obstacles can be overcome. The new survey suggests that 94% of military-connected entrepreneurs do not give up in the face of difficulties. By identifying the resources readily available to the veteran community, any willing party can find success.

  • 70% of veteran entrepreneurs find support from their friends and family to start their business.
  • 58% of veteran entrepreneurs found community financial development institutions (CDFIs) to be a sufficient or outstanding resource.
  • 63% of veteran entrepreneurs found networking resources specifically for veterans to be sufficient or outstanding.

Veterans must identify an "entrepreneur ecosystem," to help them overcome obstacles. At IVMF, we categorize the success of an ecosystem among lines of growth, including developing and utilizing social capital; growing, managing and sustaining business; identifying and developing successful mentorships; accessing appropriate capital; and growing one's business and management skills.

How ecosystems can help veteran entrepreneurs:

  • Community-based learning and support. This can help veterans grow their informal and formal networks by connecting them with others.
  • Collaboration between veteran and entrepreneurship service organizations. Increased collaboration and coordination across and between services can help veterans identify appropriate support and resources for their business.
  • Entrepreneur-friendly policies. Policies that encourage entrepreneurial endeavors have been shown to impact entrepreneurial ecosystems positively.
  • Information on educational resources and programs. Information will help veterans better understand which programs and services are best for them, considering the current state of their business (i.e., ideation, startup and growth).

The data also shows the resources veteran entrepreneurs needed during COVID-19:

  • 53% of veteran entrepreneurs took advantage of the Payroll Protection Program (PPP).
  • 28% needed government contracting assistance.
  • 20% needed emergency funding.
  • 56% believe their businesses have been supported by the federal government during the pandemic.
  • 60% believe their business has not been supported by local governments.

Veterans can find pathways to this education in order to maximize their chances for success. For example, you can learn here about the opportunities for education and free training provided by the Institute for Veterans and Military Families at Syracuse University. Courses are offered in person across the country, as well as online.

Ultimately, it's important to remember you are equipped for this. Even in light of the COVID-19 pandemic, veteran entrepreneurs continue to show the resilience that makes veteran entrepreneurs so successful. Sixty-five percent of veteran entrepreneurs indicate that their military experience has moderately or extremely prepared them for their business challenges associated with COVID-19 pandemic.

You are prepared for this.

Rosy Maury is director of applied research and analytics at the Institute for Veterans and Military Families at Syracuse University.

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