Participants at Bunker Labs’ Muster Raleigh-Durham event.
After World War II, veterans were more likely to start their own businesses than their non-military counterparts. Today, those numbers have flipped. Veterans now have a lower rate of self-employment than non-veterans do, according to a report by the Federal Reserve Bank of New York. Not the best trend line, right?
What if I told you that in 10 years, the path to successful entrepreneurship will lead through the military? You’d probably think I'm crazy.
Don’t get me wrong — there are some real issues out there that need to be (and are being) addressed. But let’s look at the other side of that coin. Let’s flip the script for a moment and look at some traits that veterans have:
- Leadership: At young ages, military service members learn to put others before themselves.
- Teamwork: This is something taught on Day 1 in boot camp in every branch of service. A lot more can be accomplished by working together. Veterans, in general, are collaborative.
- Perseverance: What group of people comes to mind when you think about perseverance? Veterans.
- Ability to perform under pressure: Yep. It’s sort of important in the military.
- Adaptability: There is a bias toward action, knowing you have an 80 percent solution and are confident you’ll be able to adapt and overcome as needed.
I’m not the smartest guy in the room, but a person with those traits sounds like someone who might make a good entrepreneur!
The Statistics on Veteran-Owned Businesses
Veterans make up roughly 7 percent of the population and veteran-owned businesses account for 6.1 percent of all firms in the United States, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. That’s fairly good math, so it all at least seems to translate to an equal share of success with the general population.
The problem is that the vast majority (about 74 percent) of these veteran-owned businesses are owned by people over the age of 55, according to the Small Business Administration.
As those veterans-turned-entrepreneurs retire, we need to fill that gap. And, as I mentioned earlier, there’s a steep decline in veterans’ starting businesses. That’s bad math.
But there is hope. Each year, around 200,000 service members transition to civilian life; 25 percent of them say they want to start businesses. This is where Bunker Labs comes into the scene.
What Is Bunker Labs?
Bunker Labs is a nationwide 501(c)(3) nonprofit that focuses on helping veterans (and military spouses) start and grow businesses. It was started and is run largely by veterans who are also entrepreneurs. Its goal is to create an ecosystem for veterans to plug into.
Bunker Labs is a tribe of sorts with 40-plus chapters across the country and virtual events happening regularly. It focuses on inspiring veterans to start businesses, equipping them with the resources to do it, and connecting them with people who can help.
The success of Bunker Labs is largely driven by that tribe mentality of wanting to see (and help) others succeed.
The vast majority of people involved in this movement (it really is more of a movement now) want to pay it forward. They want to continue to serve the country. They choose to do so by helping others grow their businesses.
You can learn more about impact and ecosystem stats by visiting the Bunker Labs website. Mic drop–worthy, but it’s only the beginning.
My Experience as a Veteran Entrepreneur
I know all this because I have been fortunate enough to witness it from a couple of angles. I’m a Marine veteran and recovering fintech entrepreneur.
When I was running my company, I was constantly searching for a place where I fit.
As a then-solopreneur, I constantly attended networking events. I figured I’d offer to help others first before bombarding them with questions I had about my business (and there were a lot of them). Unfortunately, as I started asking questions about others’ businesses, I often received a couple of different responses.
One response was cautious, as if I was trying to steal the company’s idea. (Sign an NDA and let’s meet for coffee, then I’ll tell you how you can help me.) Hard pass.
Others immediately went into their canned sales pitches as if I were going to buy something on the spot. Ugh. My judgment was suspect at best when it came to deciding which networking events to attend.
Then I attended a Bunker Brews (part networking, part some sort of speaker for value — shaken not stirred) and things changed a bit. There was an inherent level of trust and honesty in the room.
People asked me questions and offered to help. They candidly told me about their businesses, and they were real about their challenges and successes. They wanted to explore ways to work together and they connected me to mentors.
I felt like I belonged. I found my tribe.
- ZeroEyes: Based in Philadelphia and founded by Navy Seals. ZeroEyes is an intelligent video analytics company that helps prevent school shootings.
- The Frontline Generation — Marjorie K. Eastman: Based in Raleigh, NC, and founded by an Army veteran. A spin on the “Most Wanted” deck of bad guys in Iraq, the post-9/11 Deck of 52 highlights businesses and charities launched by the military community and is focused on the good guys/gals.
- LendIt: Based in San Diego and founded by Marine veteran. LendIt Rentals is a rental software (CRM + POS), SaaS, and eCommerce platform for the item rental industry.
- Busy Baby Mat: Based in Oronoco, MN, and founded by an Army veteran. The Busy Baby Mat is a placemat that helps prevent toddlers from tossing toys on the ground. And (more importantly) it helps prevent parents from getting tricked into playing the “toddler toss” game.
- Military Influencer Conference: Based in San Antonio (though events rotate around the country) and founded by an Army veteran. This is an annual conference designed to build a community of influencers (and those who seek to be influencers) who are connected to the military community.
- Frag Out Clothing Company: Founded in Philadelphia by an Air Force veteran. Frag Out Clothing Company makes custom apparel, while doing its best to give back to the military community.
- Milk Money Kitchens: Based in New York City and founded by an Army veteran. This organization helps prospective restaurant owners rent kitchens, so that they can get their business started. It even offers entrepreneurs temporary staff members, while they work to grow their brand.
- Bronze Star Homes: Based in Statesville, NC, and founded by two Army veterans. Bronze Star Homes helps provide housing for veterans and the general public. These homes are designed to be accessible for disabled veterans.
- The Chicago Dental Studio: Based in Chicago and founded by a military spouse. This organization is dedicated to providing dental services to the people of Chicago, including oral surgery, Invisalign treatments, and cosmetic dentistry.
- IronBound Boxing: Based in Newark, NJ, and founded by a Marine veteran. IronBound Boxing helps encourage personal development, better well-being, and increased job performance by introducing people to discipline through boxing.
How I Joined Bunker Labs
As I was stepping away from my company, Bunker Labs needed someone to join the team, and I was selected a couple of years later.
Now I get to travel around the Southeast, meeting veteran entrepreneurs and trying to help.
I have a leadership title, but I very much view the role as one of supporting our chapter leaders.
Each Bunker Labs chapter is run by three volunteer city and chapter leaders. Why do they do it? They found their tribe and want to give back to help the rest of the tribe succeed.
Most are veterans and/or military spouses who are also entrepreneurs. And they’re some of the most amazing people on the planet.
At our Leadership Summit a few years ago in Atlanta, I sat in the back of the room looking around in awe.
Based on the collective experiences of the 100 people in the room, you would have thought this was a retreat for one of the top consulting firms in the country.
The speakers’ stories about how they’ve persevered could leave you in tears one moment and the next moment ROTFL. (Is ROTFL still a thing? Trying to keep up with the cool kids.)
The Future of Bunker Labs and Veteran-Owned Businesses
Bunker Labs currently has chapters in 41 different cities all over the country, but the organization plans to be in all 50 states within the next few years.
Just a handful of nonprofits already have a presence in all 50 states, and most of them are household names.
Meanwhile, Bunker Labs isn’t even 10 years old. I run into people daily who have never heard of it, yet those involved are riding a rocket ship.
We could flip a switch and be in every state tomorrow if we wanted, but we choose to be deliberate about our actions. Hmm … imagine that! A bunch of veterans putting SOPs (standard operating procedures) in place and focusing on getting the right people to execute on them.
Bunker Labs is an ecosystem builder. Each chapter creates a node in the ecosystem filled with people starting, growing, and mentoring veteran-owned businesses. Each node has really big companies and really small companies (and really in-between companies) involved.
In turn, each node that gets added to the ecosystem fuels the rocket. Or maybe it should be an F-18 or a drone or something. Do drones run on fuel? Never mind. You get the point.