Business Innovation Group (BIG)
College of Business Administration

Veterans and Entrepreneurship

At first consideration the contrast between the structured life of the military and the freewheeling life of the entrepreneur do not seem to have much in common.  When looking back in history though, you can find successful entrepreneurs who had military backgrounds.  The late George Steinbrenner (1930-2010), for example, was a second lieutenant in the US Air Force before leading American Ship Building and then owning the New York Yankees[i].  According to the Brookings Institute[ii] service in the military and the pursuit of economic profit have not always been separate.  In the 1600s, in a corporate sense, war was the biggest industry in Europe.  Prominent entrepreneurs like Louis de Greer, an Amsterdam capitalist, and Count Ernst von Mansfeld raised entire armies and navies that they leased out.  Even today the industrial military complex is a major undertaking accounting for over $500 billion a year in spending and, in a way, we still have private armies for hire (e.g. Xe Services LLC aka Blackwater) or in modern language ‘security contractors’.

The connection between the military and entrepreneurship has been noticed by those trying to promote entrepreneurial activity. Veteran owned businesses account for around 14.8% of US small businesses, 22% of veterans purchase or start businesses and there are many programs to support their efforts.   As one example the Entrepreneur magazine recently profiled the Entrepreneurship Bootcamp for Veterans with Disabilities[iii], which is designed to teach veterans how to become entrepreneurs and to help them overcome particular challenges.  Other sources of help include: the Veterans Entrepreneurship Task Force and the Small Business Administration (SBA), which has fast track loans and specific support[iv].  But this leads to an obvious question which is: why do veterans make good entrepreneurs?

It seems there may be some behavioral links between military life and entrepreneurship.  Although the military provides much structure many veterans, particularly combat veterans, make decisions in the face of significant ambiguity and uncertainty.  Dealing with a chaotic situation, knowing that the first plan might not work and being willing to adapt are essential characteristics.  Entrepreneurship is very similar.  You must make the right judgment, at the right time, quickly, with inadequate information and adapt if things are not working.  Likewise military personnel face significant risks and must have some tolerance for risk.  If you are faced with decisions that may lead to yours or somebody else’s death or injury then placing your entire livelihood on the line in a venture may not seem that risky.  Even the military tempo of long periods of boredom followed by sudden periods of frantic effort mimic the tempo of entrepreneurial life, where the next business crisis is just around the corner.  Being in a crisis drives adrenaline and can be exciting.  Following this type of experience with a mundane job may simply lack the adrenaline rush someone is used to.  Military personnel must also make do with the resources available while getting the job done.  Again entrepreneurship is similar.  The entrepreneur must bootstrap; barter, beg and borrow whatever resources she or he can in order to fulfill new orders.  In the military it is not unusual to work and lead small teams; a very similar challenge to leading and managing the typical small business.  So it seems that veterans may be well placed to make good entrepreneurs but before you embark on this road make sure entrepreneurship is right for you because there are also plenty of unsuccessful veteran entrepreneurs.  Being a veteran will not ensure success but it will help you deal or even love the entrepreneurial life.


[i] http://www.biography.com/articles/George-Steinbrenner-583100

[ii] http://www.brookings.edu/articles/2003/spring_defense_singer.aspx

[iii] http://whitman.syr.edu/ebv/

[iv] http://www.sba.gov/VETS/help.html

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