When most people think of fast-growing startups, they tend to think of the startups of Silicon Valley and the dynamic entrepreneurial hubs that have sprouted up in cities like Seattle, Austin and New York City. But the fact is that veteran-owned startups are becoming one of the fastest-growing segments of the entrepreneurial world, as veterans returning home from conflicts such as Iraq and Afghanistan decide to launch their own businesses. And that's happening in places that you wouldn't at first expect - in cities across the heartland and in small communities near military bases.
Brian Zimmerman, founder and CEO of Vet Hustle, has seen this first-hand as a former U.S. Marine Corps veteran. When he returned home from service nearly a decade ago, the veteran entrepreneurship scene wasn't nearly as developed as it is now. There were some U.S. government programs to help veterans make the transition back to civilian life, but there wasn't necessarily a path to entrepreneurship. The idea back then was that you'd use the traits you used in the military - like dedication, perseverance and discipline - and use them to become a useful, functioning part of Corporate America.
Traditional Models for Vets Are Flawed
But as many readers of Inc. Magazine already know, that "model" is seriously flawed. The goal today is to launch and manage your own start-up, not to work for someone else. And that's why Zimmerman eventually founded a business called Vet Hustle with one goal in mind: to help veterans like himself transition into entrepreneurship. It helps veterans find the resources they need to grow their business and to succeed as an entrepreneur.
As Zimmerman notes, these services are vitally needed for one simple reason: most veteran-owned businesses never are able to scale past a certain size. Yes, there are some phenomenally successful businesses founded by veterans that everyone knows about - like FedEx or GoDaddy - but, as a general rule, most vet-owned businesses are the equivalent of mom and pop stores. They sell things like T-shirts, and aren't necessarily designed to become national businesses.
So Zimmerman's big vision is to triple the sales of 10,000 veteran-owned businesses over the next 10 years. And the path to doing that is working with veterans just like himself to grow both their top-line revenues and bottom lines using a marketing system that he has developed.
The 5 Key Components For Fast Growth
This system is based around five key levers - the lead magnet, the entry point offer, the core offer, the profit maximizer and the return path. Zimmerman teaches veterans how to apply them to just about any business, no matter how small. And he does this by using examples from everyday life - like the local barbershop or the local dry cleaner.
Here's just one example, and it's something that he calls a "lead magnet." A lead magnet is just an incredibly attractive offer that can be used to bring in customer foot traffic to your retail store or web traffic to your e-commerce marketplace. A barber, for example, might advertise a $1 haircut as a special promotion. That offer is so incredibly effective because it helps to bring in future business at $20 a haircut. And, who knows? Maybe the customer stopping in for the haircut will also decide to pick up some hair care products on the way out the door, further boosting your bottom line. (That's actually the fourth lever of his system - the profit maximizer - at work!)
Too many business gurus these days just point to highly successful examples that everyone can recognize - like Starbucks, Google or Uber - and expect that any business can follow those examples. But is that realistic? Most U.S. military veterans have hard-won combat knowledge from Iraq or Afghanistan, but they have no formal business background.
But there's the thing - there's nothing stopping a veteran-owned business from becoming the next Starbucks if that's what they want to do. In fact, as Zimmerman points out, there are at least two prominent veteran-owned coffee businesses that have the potential to become the next Starbucks - one is Victory Coffees and the other is Black Rifle Coffee Company. Both started relatively small, built a core audience of loyal customers within the veterans community, and then scaled into becoming popular brands with a large online presence.
Thinking Different About Entrepreneurship for Vets
That's the same type of energy and passion that makes veteran entrepreneurship such a powerful force today within the U.S. economy. All it takes for many veterans to become successful is learning to recognize the factors that can drive future business growth and then using them as part of a business model that they can scale over time.
Based on Zimmerman's experience, veterans are very good at dealing with uncertainty, and they are very good at following mission plans. For that reason, Zimmerman tells veterans to think of his Customer Value Optimization System as a type of mission plan for the business world. It helps veterans make sense of all the variables in business and focus on just the 5 most essential factors that are going to help them triple the sales of their business.
If you think about it, the U.S. has been locked in conflicts around the world ever since 9/11. And so for more than 15 years, veterans have been returning home from these conflicts, looking to make their mark on the entrepreneurial world. The first veterans who returned home had to pave the way for the veterans who are now returning home.
Entrepreneurial Tipping Point for Vets
But Zimmerman thinks we've reached a tipping point of sorts, where the same kinds of entrepreneurial ecosystems that once only existed in places like Silicon Valley are now starting to exist for U.S. military veterans who have proudly served their country. There are now entrepreneurial boot camp programs for veterans, business plan competitions for veterans, and plenty of MBA-style educational programs for veterans. It's only natural to expect even more veteran-owned startups to appear, and some of these are going to become multi-million-dollar businesses.