Tim Smith is an Army veteran who served in Iraq. He saw combat there, lost eight friends in a horrific truck bombing, and returned home with posttraumatic stress disorder. His PTSD gave him night terrors and impeded his ability to reconnect with his wife and their two young sons. He was also unemployed for six months, which made it even more difficult for him to put the war behind him.
But he fought back. He did it by refocusing on service to others. After earning his master's degree in social work, he began working with veterans facing challenges like his. His desire to help them led him to start a business, Patriot Commercial Cleaning. Its mission: to provide jobs for returning service members and their family members, while delivering superior service to the company's commercial customers. By the time I met Tim, the business was established and growing. The most pressing question he posed was whether to accept an offer from a holding company to purchase 49 percent of his business.
Nothing I've worked on recently has been more rewarding than the opportunities to mentor military entrepreneurs like Tim. Veterans, reservists, and spouses of active-duty service members have been starting businesses like crazy over the past five years. In 2011, Inc. launched a program to support them, including mentoring by Inc. 5000 entrepreneurs. I was fortunate to be involved.
These are not your typical entrepreneurs. What you notice first are their impeccable manners. It's all "yes, sir" and "thank you, sir" and "here's what I'd appreciate your advice on, sir." You know immediately that you're dealing with people who are deeply grateful for your help, which naturally makes you want to help them even more.
They face unique challenges. Imagine starting a business and factoring in not only all the usual considerations but also the possibility that you might have to pick up and move far away on a moment's notice. Yet they are undaunted--because they have a higher calling. Like Tim, most of them are in business to help other military people and their families. Sure, they want to make money, but mainly they want to support their peers.
That said, Tim couldn't help being tempted by the offer from the holding company. I suggested that, before deciding whether to accept it, he and his wife, Terri, should talk about what was most important to them and where they wanted to be--in life and in business--10 years from now. When they did, they realized that their highest priority was to continue providing jobs for returning veterans and their spouses. "When I was out of work, my PTSD was worse because I had too much time to think about the past," Tim said. "Our mission is to help veterans out, be a part of a team again. If I'm independent, I can make sure we stay focused on that." He turned the offer down.
At my suggestion, Tim and Terri also put together a seven-year life plan, including a list of goals detailing what they want out of their lives, right down to the number of vacation days they want to take as a family. That was a life-changing experience, Tim said. I guess that makes us even. Working with Tim and the other military entrepreneurs has been a life-changing experience for me.
Street Smarts: The Advantages of Military Entrepreneurs
Norm Brodsky outlines the special strengths military entrepreneurs need to take advantage of to succeed in their businesses.