Why wouldn’t you hire a veteran in a startup? When I first left the military I interviewed with Andersen Consulting (later to become Accenture) and was asked the question, “We are a very entrepreneurial company. What makes you think your background in the military would prepare you to fit into our culture?” It’s as valid a question as any other, I suppose, if somewhat patronizing. Since that interview, I have started three companies, with various degrees of success, and had ample opportunity to wonder what skills the military provided me that helped me in my successes. I have had people say that I must have been successful because of my success as a Navy SEAL. While there are a number of former SEALS who have successfully started businesses, there are more SEALS that have not been entrepreneurs than those that have, just as in the normal population.
So does a military background limit your ability to be successful as an entrepreneur?
From my experience, this is as incorrect an assumption as is the assumption that every college drop-out can become a billionaire by founding their own company. Just because someone can thrive in a structured environment such as the military does not mean that they do not have the capability to innovate and be creative. In addition, there are equally important personality traits to success as an entrepreneur that one can develop and hone in the military, including self-motivation, discipline, ability to work hard for weeks on end, ability to tolerate privation and perseverance in the face of repeated failure. Not all military personnel embody or excel at all of these skills, but for those that do, and who also have the desire and ability to strike out on their own, these skills can help the veteran entrepreneur be far more successful than someone without those skills, more easily.
Although most of my entrepreneurial experience is from the founder perspective, I have worked in others’ startups as well. Veterans can be a valuable addition to a start up team, particularly if their skills complement an existing management skill set that excels at on-the-fly, creative thinking but lacks the ability to create processes and structures to take the business to the next level. Some of the things that I look for include:
- Leadership by Example. Veterans pride themselves on “walking the walk.” They will never ask team members to do anything that they wouldn’t be willing to do themselves. That attitude breeds an “esprit de corps” that will see a company through rough patches and take advantage of opportunities to their full potential.
- Commitment to the Mission. There will be no going at something half way for former military service members. If they’ve signed on for the job, they will see the process to fruition.
- “Company First” Attitude. By their nature, veterans have a perspective that the organization is larger than the individual. So long as they feel the rest of the management team believes the same way, they will always put the company ahead of their own agenda.
I do have some great examples of former military entrepreneurs who have been successful, to a greater or lesser degree. These would include the former SEAL who founded Blackwater (regardless of your thoughts on the company, as a business it has been very successful), a former SEAL friend who founded a restaurant, fitness gym, and other businesses, a former Marine who has a successful local company, the former SEAL who founded the company that makes the “Perfect Pushup” device, and many, many others.
I’d like to get feedback from others on their success stories and failures with respect to hiring veterans in startups (no names please, just stories). Do you feel that veterans have any differentiators in what they can bring to a startup vs. a non-veteran, either good or bad? Alternatively, do you think that one’s military experience is simply far less important than individual personality traits in determining ability to succeed in a startup?