I’ll admit it: I’m intimidated by Marines. So when I got the chance to interview a Marine-turned-successful-businessman, I was a little starstruck.

Michael Penney joined the Marine Corps in August 2004. He was a member of the 7th Marines weapons company and served nearly eight years, including two tours in Afghanistan.

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Leaving the armed forces can be a shocking transition. As someone who had lost fellow service members, been mortared, and missed a sniper’s shot by mere inches, Penney had a lot of adjusting to do to civilian life.

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It was a big mental and social shift, and over everything loomed one big question: What does a Marine do for work now?

After a two-year stretch teaching combat marksmanship at Quantico, Penney moved to Massachusetts with his second wife and started attending UMass Boston. After switching majors from engineering to business to entrepreneurship, he dropped out in his junior year to start a business and move to North Carolina.

In Massachusetts, Penney had felt isolated. New England’s culture was difficult for him to adjust to. Looking for his next step, he started a business with a fellow ex-Marine. It failed, but Penney wasn't done with business just yet.

Finding the Right Place

Enter the Institute for Veterans and Military Families — or IVMF — at Syracuse University.

The Institute, as Penney describes it, is “an entrepreneur boot camp for veterans.”

“I loved what they offered me. I went there after my first company failed.”

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Penney speaks freely about how influential the time at the institute was for him. “At the time, it was 45 days of correspondence, then you did nine days in school. You show up in business attire. It’s not a school thing — it’s a business thing. There’s no test. You want a business, you build a business there.”

Throughout the nine days of in-person training and networking, Penney used his failed business idea as the base for a new plan. It even won him an award — “Most Outstanding Venture.” He realized that while that company didn’t work, “I had the best business plan and the best presentation.”

Penney’s time at the institute accomplished two things for him. First, it put him in the company of people that he wanted to work with and for — veterans. Second, it taught him the basics of structuring and selling a successful business.

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Penney also struck up a friendship with another veteran, Bennett Tanton — a former reconnaissance Marine and U.S. Army infantryman. They were talking and smoking cigars in Olympic Park one evening when an idea for a business was born. It was a podcast that would feature other veterans who are “adding value to the world.” They called it Cigars and Sea Stories.

“Start-up costs for the website itself were about $6,000,” Penney says. “I’d say about $10,000 total. We did some business development. Our monthly average overhead is about $1,250.”

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For Penney, it’s important that Marines think of his podcast as credible. As such, he doesn’t want to get lost in sponsored content or find himself constantly promoting something other than his message for veterans.

He's focusing on creating reliable, valuable content for the podcast, as well as for another section that they added called the “5-Paragraph Business Plan.” With these tools, he hopes to provide resources for veterans as they seek a life and jobs after the military.

Penney may not be an active member of the military anymore, but he’s a veteran for life. That’s his world, and the world he’s building for other veterans every day.