Editor's note: In honor of National Small Business Week, Inc. is exploring clusters of small companies around the country that share distinctive strengths, challenges, and characters.
In 2013, Micah Niebauer faced the depressing prospect of a life stripped of thrills. He and his friends Jason Ginos and John Brumer had returned from a counter-insurgency mission in Afghanistan, their last overseas detachment as Army Special Forces (colloquially known as Green Berets) deployed out of Fort Bragg, North Carolina. The military had promoted or moved them from their operational roles to instructor, staff, or command jobs. In the future, they would no longer lead people into combat.
"I was going to miss the autonomy of being on the ground and the thrill of going on patrol and not knowing what would happen that day," Niebauer says. "I thought, what could provide me a similar sense of fulfillment and excitement in my life?"
He didn't have to think long. The next year, Niebauer, Ginos, and Brumer left the military and launched Southern Pines Brewing, a craft beer maker and taproom in Southern Pines, North Carolina. Beer neophytes, they camped out in an RV in San Diego, studying at a brewing lab there and touring craft breweries to learn the trade. ("Reconnaissance," Niebauer calls it.) When they launched the business--after securing a bank loan in excess of $500,000 on their ninth try--Niebauer became CEO, Ginos CFO, and Brumer (who has since left the business) COO. Those were roughly the same roles they'd performed for their old Operational Detachment Alpha team, a 12-person unit trained to function with little or no support in hostile areas that is the foundation of Special Forces.
Starting a business, Niebauer says, is the closest civilian proxy he can imagine to a life in Special Forces. Serving in the Green Berets "was a very entrepreneurial experience from the standpoint of they give you some resources and general guidance, but it is really up to you to make what you want out of it," says Niebauer. "There is no one telling you what to do or setting up your missions for you. And I loved that."
Fort Bragg, the world's largest military base by population, covers more than 250 square miles in central North Carolina. It is home base for U.S. Army Special Forces, the elite troops that carry out the military's most challenging missions and apply the widest array of skills under the most difficult circumstances. The Sandhills Veteran-Owned Business Guild estimates that more than a dozen Special Forces retirees or their spouses have gone on to start companies in Fayetteville, Aberdeen, Southern Pines, and other towns surrounding Fort Bragg. Those entrepreneurs say the skill sets they developed working largely on their own, in unfamiliar terrain, and under fraught circumstances serve them well as small-business owners.
"There are so many people in the community who would excel as entrepreneurs," says Niebauer. "For me, the entrepreneurial path is almost an extension of wanting to be in Special Ops."
Cactus Creek Coffee: A win-win mentality
Mike Birky got the idea for his business while serving overseas. A member of the 1st Special Forces Group, he was deployed chiefly in Asia to train host nations' soldiers and help build clinics, among other projects. Understanding local cultures is critical for Special Forces, who must win hearts and minds of civil authorities and civilian populations. As part of that acculturation, Birky visited agricultural areas, including coffee farms, in places like East Timor and Sumatra. He observed workers handpicking, drying, and roasting the beans, and got to sample the fragrant product.
"The coffee you get in the military is ash and trash: mass-produced in tin cans with a lot of fillers," Birky says. "The quality of this was so superior. You wanted more of it."
In 2003, Birky retired from the military and, with two other former Special Forces members and their families, launched Cactus Creek Coffee, in Aberdeen, North Carolina. "Cactus" because the three founders grew up out west. "Creek" in honor of Drowning Creek, a notoriously difficult Fort Bragg navigation course that Special Forces soldiers often traverse in bad weather in the dark.
Drowning Creek exemplifies what distinguishes Special Forces, Birky says. Conventional troops will typically navigate the course in groups of five or 10. Special Forces troops, by contrast, are taught to do it on their own. "And by working alone you develop greater confidence in yourself as well as greater clarity as to your mission and your planning," Birky says. "You become more successful because you know where you need to go."
Birky himself now works alone: He soon bought out both partners. Over the years, he has expanded the business, increasing the yield from 20 or 30 pounds of coffee a day to as many as 1,300. (The company donates about 1,000 pounds a year to soldiers overseas.) Cactus Creek now employs 11 people and owns 12,000 square feet of manufacturing and storage space, a number it intends to double in the next few years.
Birky credits strategic planning skills he learned in Special Forces for much of that growth. Special Forces must have clear vision and be able to execute on a large scale, he says, because as trainers of foreign nationals, they are often responsible for as many as 1,000 people--compared with 30 to 100 for conventional officers.
Another thing Birky took from his service is what he calls a win-win mentality. Most Special Forces soldiers are Type A personalities, he says. Their inclination is to go in with a hard-charging let's-get-this-done timeline. But local forces, operating under different cultures and expectations, might not appreciate that approach. "So in that case, what is the win-win situation?" Birky says. In his experience, Special Forces sometimes had to shift their schedules and train much longer into the day or night to accomplish their mission. "It was a sacrifice of time," says Birky. "But the local guys needed to win as much as we did."
Now working with vendors, "I sometimes may not get the best pricing. But if I know I can do better in other deals or negotiations, I will say OK," Birky says. "It is about both sides winning so business can continue."
Spartan Blades: Plan and plan again
Spartan Blades doesn't make Swiss Army knives. But co-founder Mark Carey's military career resembles one. Over close to 22 years--most of it in Special Forces--Carey was, among other things, a medic, a Thai linguist, a procurement adviser, and commandant of Fort Bragg's sniper school. A bad experience working for a defense contractor disposed him toward entrepreneurship. In 2008, he partnered with Curtis Iovito, a Special Forces friend he'd met in a counterterrorism unit in Japan, to start a business.
Carey and Iovito created three business plans--for a firearms company, a firearms accessory company, and a knife company--and multiple variations on each. They then spent about a year researching all their options. With the economy crashing, "even going to the SBA looking for a Patriot Loan seemed like a target too far," Carey says. They opted for knives as the least financially risky alternative; the industry, he says, is also unusually welcoming of newcomers.
After each partner put in $28,000 of savings, they launched Spartan Blades from a barn and workshop on Carey's property in Aberdeen, North Carolina. (The company moved to a larger facility, in Southern Pines, four years ago.) "People think our name comes from a movie," says Carey. "But we called it Spartan because that's how we started out."
Spartan Blades makes professional combat knives. Carey and Iovito sent out their first three prototypes with active-duty comrades headed for Iraq and Afghanistan. Since then the business, with 2018 revenue of $1.3 million, has taken multiple awards at the industry's major trade show.
The founders explicitly built their business on the five Special Operations Forces Truths, which guide those troops' day-to-day operations. For example, at Spartan "humans are more important than hardware" translates into a people-centric culture and products designed with an eye toward ergonomics and how they interact with users. "Quality is better than quantity" dictates the decision to do small-batch manufacturing with a lot of handwork.
Planning is huge in the Special Forces community, Carey says. Soldiers rely on a four-tier model called PACE, which lays out primary, alternate, contingency, and emergency options for each action. Carey and Iovito use PACE for major decisions. "We try to always have options ready if we have to change course to accomplish our goals and mission," Carey adds.
All but one of Spartan's six employees are veterans, and all are cross-trained on every job in the shop. That redundancy is also a lesson from the dangerous world of Special Forces, where the leader or another team member suddenly may be gone, requiring someone else to step up. "Just because you are the radio guy does not mean you can't start an IV," Carey says. "You should be able to do those things so you can take care of your partners and your buddies."
Like most people interviewed for this article, Carey says the most important skill he took from Special Forces was the ability to communicate with any and all people. Overseas, he worked with everyone from ambassadors to village elders in 26 countries, teaching him to put people at ease. Both founders speak multiple languages--Thai, Indonesian, and German between them--which sometimes aids interactions with retail partners on four continents.
"The interpersonal skills are very high in the Special Ops community," Carey says. "They give you a feel for people very quickly." That's been a big help when seeking new suppliers, he says: "Are they experts or playing a part? Are they being honest or giving you the party line?"
R.Riveter: Extreme ownership
The best-known business with a Fort Bragg connection is R.Riveter, which landed $100,000 from Mark Cuban on Shark Tank in 2016. The company enlists military spouses from across the country to make components that are assembled into handbags. Its flagship store and manufacturing facility are in Southern Pines, and co-founder Cameron Cruse's husband is a Senior NCO in Special Forces, based at Fort Bragg. Her partner, Lisa Bradley, was married to a Ranger instructor when the two met in 2011 in Dahlonega, Georgia. (Bradley's husband left the military and the couple now lives in Ohio, from which Bradley works remotely.)
Bradley and Cruse bonded over a shared frustration. Military families relocate every two or three years, making it difficult for spouses to find jobs and build careers. So the pair decided to start a handbag business, spending $2,100 each on their credit cards to buy a commercial sewing machine and some canvas and leather. Eventually, they developed a network of "riveters"--military spouses who work remotely cutting and sewing parts of the bags, for final assembly in Southern Pines. Those riveters are named for Rosie, the World War II icon representing women's home-front contributions to the labor force. The company employs 42 people, not counting its network of riveters, which currently numbers 38.
Neither Cruse nor Bradley is in the military, let alone in Special Forces. But they have absorbed some of that ethos from their husbands and from the tightly knit communities in and around military bases where they've lived. "When we moved to Southern Pines, we found this incredible community of people who knew what it meant to be stronger together than you are apart," Cruse says.
One principle they've adopted--from the Navy SEALS, it turns out--is "extreme ownership," which requires leaders to take responsibility for all things related to their missions. "A lot of times you can't control what happens to you. But you can own it and make sure you are learning from it and move forward in the most positive way," Cruse says. If something goes wrong, employees don't need to worry that they'll be blamed. Instead, "We say to them, 'How can I make this situation better for you?'"
Another military principle--antithetical to the typical, improvisational nature of small companies--is documentation of processes from almost the very beginning. Special Forces has a manual for everything, including sleep. With their company so decentralized, Cruse and Bradley developed processes early on, particularly around communication. They also emphasize training on those processes so that "you can react to things without even thinking," says Bradley. "It's hard to take the time to write things when you are down in the weeds. But it's really important."
Above all, the founders say, being married to someone deployed in a combat zone has taught them what's important. "The perspective gained through hardship is a perspective that enables better decisions that are focused on bigger impact," Bradley says.
The quiet professionals
Not surprisingly, Fort Bragg has spawned at least a few defense contractors, who generally support the military overseas. Bruce Parkman hails from an earlier era than most of his entrepreneurial counterparts. He became a Green Beret in 1984 and for 16 years served in that era's hot spots, from El Salvador to Kosovo. He retired in 2001 into a jobless economy. "Nobody wanted a Green Beret," Parkman says. "I was getting ready to become Paul Blart."
Eventually, he landed work with a defense contractor assisting the invasion of Afghanistan, and a year later--responding to a request that he bid on a contract set aside for disabled veterans--started his own business, called NEK. Parkman and three other former Green Berets traveled to Baghdad to assist in still-classified technical search operations. With no business experience, Parkman says, "I hired my mom and put her in an office with my accountant and told them, 'You guys figure out how to bill the government.'"
Riding the wave of post-9/11 defense spending, NEK reached revenue of $140 million, segueing from overseas work to military training in the United States. In 2012, Parkman sold NEK and launched two new companies, both based in Fayetteville, that serve commercial customers. MainNerve, with six employees, specializes in cybersecurity. Blue Light, named for the precursor to Delta Force, employs 13 and does intelligence and data analytics.
Parkman developed his leadership style during the Green Beret years: particularly his willingness to let people run with things. He routinely gives employees responsibility in areas they're new to, assuming that, with a bit of mentorship, they'll learn. "Special Forces teaches you not to micromanage," he says. "They dropped me off on my own in a jungle for nine months. There's got to be trust."
Parkman's employees can also thank the boss's Special Forces experience for his willingness to invest heavily in certifications and training that benefit the business while making them more valuable on the market. Both companies hire largely from the veteran community and award equity--20 percent of MainNerve and 5 percent of Blue Light--to motivate and reward good people. Parkman says few people coming out of the military get to earn equity in a business, so the latter incentive is particularly meaningful to them.
"Early on I learned that everyone is focused on the Green Beret, and that's not right," he says. "There are a ton of support people who make us effective. In Special Forces and in my businesses, I always took care of my people."
The owners of Southern Pines Brewing also reject any suggestion that Special Forces troops should be treated as a breed apart. Adhering to the Green Berets' reputation as "quiet professionals," the founders include no indications of their military experience in the company's brand or in the taproom. (Unless you count the two American flags made from bourbon barrel staves.) And while Fort Bragg denizens crowd the business, so do equestrians drawn by the area's myriad horse parks and golfers wandering in from the 43 courses located in a 15-mile radius. The owners fit in with everyone, just as they grew their hair and beards and learned local customs to be accepted by villagers in Afghanistan.
"I remember how shy I was in the infantry just getting to be around a team of Green Berets," Niebauer says. "Special Forces is exclusive. Part of our mission statement is that beer is inclusive."