Why Veterans Are Well-Suited to Become Business Owners—And the Lessons You Can Learn from Them
By Robert Irvine
Entrepreneurship isn’t for everyone. The average worker bee might complain about their lousy boss or the inefficiency of their company and muse on how much better things would be if they were in charge, but the fact is few people have the rare combination of energy, guts, and determination to actually go out and create a business of their own. In short: most people would rather deal with a situation they hate than do what’s necessary to become their own boss.
I understand why.
I’ve been my own boss for many years now, but the path to get here wasn’t easy. For one thing, when I was starting out, I didn’t know how to write a business plan. For another, managing a civilian staff is a far cry from managing other servicemen and women who must explicitly follow orders. And of course, when you’re cooking on a military base or on a Navy warship, you’re the only game in town. In the civilian world, folks who don’t like your restaurant are welcome to eat elsewhere.
Nevertheless, my time in the British Royal Navy taught me plenty of valuable lessons that I was able to take with me into the civilian world and spin into a tale of success so broad that, quite honestly, I didn’t see it coming all those years ago. In addition to the three restaurants that bear my name—including one at the Tropicana in Las Vegas and one within the walls of the Pentagon—I have a protein bar and snack company (FitCrunch), a prepared food line (Robert Irvine Foods), a live stage show (Robert Irvine Live), a digital magazine, four published books, plus partnerships in dozens of other exciting projects.
None of this would have been possible without three foundational lessons I learned in the military. Anyone who served in any branch of the armed forces is already in possession of these lessons, but the good news for those who didn’t serve is they’re readily available to learn right now.
Work backward from the goal
Every soldier, sailor, and Marine approaches each mission with the same question, “What’s the objective?” Once they have the answer to that, they can work backward on how to get there, create a mission plan, and follow it. But all of it starts with using the power of imagination to see a future success that is not yet real. You can do this, too. Begin by visualizing every aspect of what success looks like for you. If you’re creating a brick-and-mortar space, imagine exactly what that looks like. Draw pictures or collect images from magazines or the Internet, and cut them out to make a little vision board for yourself. If it’s an online business, picture your ideal website and how easy it would be to use. Write all this information down and every single morning, look at it. Constant reminders will guide your decision-making toward the desired outcome. And once you have that clear vision in your head, then creating the plans you need to get there become that much easier to do. Today’s self-help experts typically refer to this as manifestation; in the military, it’s simply how you set goals and execute them as a unit.
Control “mission creep”
This is military term used to describe a gradual broadening of the initial objective. For example, a brief security deployment that turns into a long-term commitment and requires more than double the manpower and resources originally thought. In the restaurant world, this can take the form of a brunch café suddenly offering dinner or otherwise bloating its menu and costs, and exponentially increasing the amount of inventory it’s required to keep. Outside of the restaurant world, no business is immune to the pressures of increasing product offerings that fall outside the scope of their expertise. Have the discipline not to impulsively react to this pressure, and only expand the original mission if you have the requisite data—R&D, customer feedback, market studies, and so forth—to back up the decision. When in doubt, remember that businesses that can do one thing exceptionally well often find a permanent place in the hearts of their customers.
Expect the unexpected
Adversity awaits every entrepreneur, but it comes in so many varieties that it’s impossible to know exactly what form it will take. Unfortunately, the specific kind you’ll face likely won’t reveal itself until you’re knee-deep in the launch process with tens of thousands of dollars already committed to R&D, breaking ground, or marketing. You may find out that you need to spend a lot more than anticipated to bring your building up to code, change a product’s ingredients or manufacturing process in order to be accepted into a particular retail chain, or lose critical funding at the last minute. As I said, you can’t prepare for the specifics. But maintaining the mindset that something is bound to go sideways allows you to avoid despair and instead greet setbacks with a smile and say, “Ah! There you are. I’ve been expecting you.” Then you can roll up your sleeves and get to work on solving the problem. So much of success comes back to belief. If you have a great idea, are willing to work at it, and believe you’re destined to make it no matter what you encounter, then there’s nothing the world can throw at you to hold you back.
In parting, I would wish you good luck, but instead I’ll just remind you that you make your own. And always remember the motto I live by: Nothing is impossible.
For information about SBA’s resources for veterans, visit www.sba.gov/veterans.
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