After serving in the military, knowing what to do with your civilian life can be a challenge. For a lot of veterans, there’s an obvious answer: start a small business.
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“I learned leadership skills in the military, and that has only made me and my business stronger,” says Nneka M. Brown-Massey, the founder of e-commerce website Innovative Supplies Worldwide.
More than 18.2 million military veterans live in the United States, and 2.52 million businesses are owned by veterans (that’s 9.1% of all US businesses!). Those businesses employ 5.03 million people and have annual payrolls of $195 billion.
That’s great for the economy—and veteran business owners. But starting a business isn’t always easy for veterans and their family members. Luckily, there are valuable veteran business resources that can give you a leg up.
Why starting a business as a veteran comes with unique challenges
It can be hard to find financing
Veterans looking to open a business may struggle to find financing. Often, they submit more loan applications before getting approved—and when they are approved, it’s for less money than expected.
According to the Federal Reserve’s Small Business Credit Survey, about 60% of veteran-owned businesses receive less financing than they hoped, while that was true for only 52% of nonveteran-owned businesses.
There are a couple of reasons for this: First, veterans often apply for less than $100,000 in loans, and big banks are hesitant to loan smaller sums.
It can be hard to build your credit score
Secondly, there’s that pesky credit score. Life in the military doesn’t afford many opportunities to build up your business credit. But banks don’t always understand why—they simply see a low or nonexistent credit score and make lending decisions based on that factor.
It can be hard to transition back to non-military life
In addition to financing difficulties, veterans also have to adjust to life as a civilian and a business owner.
“The Army is a world of its own,” says Barbara Kent, who co-owns Birdy Boutique and had to make the shift herself.
So which veteran business resources should you use?
The military lifestyle may foster valuable skills, but transitioning from veteran to veteran business owner is still tricky. That’s why it’s important to take advantage of resources designed to help veteran entrepreneurs succeed.
1. National veteran organizations
The first step for any veteran-owned business? Registering with the Vets First Verification Program, run by the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA). Click on the “Start Verification” link right below the fourth paragraph.
Once you’ve registered, you’ll be able to compete for VA “set-aside” contracts. This is when a small business performs work for the government, often doing research or manufacturing of a specific product.
This process can be a little tricky, but the VA has a blog post that can help you get started.
Consider also registering with the National Veteran-Owned Business Association and the National Veteran Business Development Council. Both of these organizations host events, classes and conferences—like the Business Beyond the Battlefield conference—specifically designed to support and encourage veteran entrepreneurs.
2. Educational resources
“I would not have my employees do anything I would not do,” says Brown-Massey. I learned this in the military: You get more respect if you are in the trenches, getting your elbows dirty like everyone else.”
To learn all of those aspects of running a business, you need training. Many organizations focus on supporting veteran business owners through educational programs. Here’s where you can find these types of programs:
- Veterans Business Outreach Centers: There are 22 Veterans Business Outreach Centers (VBOCs) located across the country. (You can find the closest center to you.) The US Small Business Administration (SBA) runs these centers, which offer training, guidance, and business referrals for veteran-owned businesses. Here, you can find help developing a business plan, workshops on internet marketing, and advice on your business’s unique strengths and weaknesses.
- Boots to Business: The SBA also runs this training program, which teaches basic entrepreneurship and the fundamentals of business ownership. Brown-Massey enrolled in the program before leaving the military, and says Boots to Business was “the most helpful veteran-specific resource” because it taught marketing, understanding the competitive space, and even how to pick the correct legal entity for your business.
- Institute for Veterans and Military Families: Located at Syracuse University, this one-of-a-kind institute offers a wide variety of programs for veterans and their families, including EBV Accelerate, an entrepreneurship boot camp, and the Center of Excellence for Veteran Entrepreneurship, where veterans looking to start businesses can learn about what it takes through educational programs and events.
- Patriot Boot Camp: This three-day boot camp happens twice per year and functions much like a tech accelerator. Expect one-on-one mentoring and intensive training. But make sure to apply early: Only 50 entrepreneurs are accepted in each round.
- Warrior Rising: This nonprofit helps “vetrepreneurs” succeed by connecting mentors and mentees, awarding grants, hosting trainings, and introducing business-owning veterans to investors.
3. Small business grants for veterans
Loans aren’t the only option for funding your veteran-owned business. These grants also provide money that can help your new business succeed.
While some government-funded grant programs aren’t veteran-specific, they’re valuable resources for any veteran-owned business, because they’re the largest source of government contracts. You may also find small business grants for veterans by looking for organizations connected to military affairs.
- Grants.gov: This government-run website compiles every federal grant currently accepting applicants. Whether you’re opening a Head Start academy or a restaurant, you can find grants tailored to your industry. Consider searching for “veterans” to find grants targeting vets or tailored to veteran business owners. New grants are posted regularly, so check back often.
- Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) program: While this program isn’t specifically designed for veterans, research-minded businesses can fund (and potentially commercialize) their innovations through this government-run program.
- Small Business Technology Transfer (STTR) program: This works much like the SBIR program, except small businesses will team up with research agencies to work cooperatively on innovative research and development projects.
- Service-Disabled Veteran-Owned Small Businesses program: The US government aims to give service-disabled veterans 3% of all small-business federal contracting dollars every year. By joining this program, you will be eligible for small-business grants for disabled veterans in the form of government contracts.
- StreetShares Foundation grants: Win a small-business grant for veterans of up to $15,000 for your veteran-owned business by competing in this crowd-chosen competition. The public will vote for their favorite winner based on your impact on the veterans community—which you can explain in a two-minute video.
4. Small business loans and funding for veterans
Traditional banks aren’t the only place to look for loans. A number of lenders and nonprofits specifically target veterans. Here’s where you should consider applying.
- SBA Veterans Advantage: The SBA offers fee-reduced loans of $350,000 or less to veteran-owned businesses (or businesses owned by spouses or widows). The agency’s Lender Match program can help you find a nearby lender to kick-start the loan process. You might hear these referred to as “VA loans” or “VA business loans,” but funding actually comes from the SBA, not the VA.
- StreetShares loans: In addition to its grant program, StreetShares also offers a loan program. You can borrow up to $250,000—while knowing your investment comes from a good place. This crowdfunded lending company encourages veterans and military supporters to invest in other veterans.
- Hivers & Strivers: This angel investment firm brings Silicon Valley to the veteran community. If you’re a military academy graduate, you may be eligible for up to $1 million of investment funding.
Opening a new business will always come with challenges. But your military experience can give you the determination and resilience needed to overcome any hurdle.