At 24, Todd Baldwin started a 16-month stint in Iraq as an Army artillery officer; he came home in 2008 to the Great Recession. He was relieved when he landed a corporate job at a staffing firm in Nashville. But it soon began to wear on him. "When you serve at a young age and you've experienced a lot, when you look at job opportunities, very few things offer fulfillment," Baldwin says.
It wasn't long before he lost his job--and realized that his home-brewing operation might be more than a hobby. In 2012, Baldwin and his wife moved to Colorado, where he launched Red Leg Brewing Company, a producer of a craft beer made by--and intended for--military veterans.
Colorado Springs, he knew, had five military bases, and it seemed like the perfect location. The city didn't agree: Around 30 banks refused him a loan. When he showed up at a local city agency to learn the first steps to starting a brewery, the only resource available was a one-pager on how to start a restaurant.
So he signed up for 18 credit cards in 2013, racked up $250,000 in credit card debt to buy the equipment and lease a building--and Red Leg launched. Red Leg now takes in around $1 million in annual revenue between its tasting room and the distribution of its canned beer to bases in Colorado, Oklahoma, and Texas, and it's on track to secure $8 million to expand its brewery capacity and to add a food truck park and music venue onsite.
If you ask Baldwin and many of the city's veterans-turned-entrepreneurs, Colorado Springs only recently figured out how to nurture its talent pool--nearly 17 percent of which is ex-military--to start the kinds of companies that define local culture and create jobs. "A lot of what the community was when I moved here was chain restaurants, churches, Department of Defense contracts," and big companies, Baldwin says. "The city has done a 180 in the past 48 months."
Colorado Springs' startup ecosystem is still a work in progress, but there are many encouraging signs: The one-pagers have been replaced with small-business liaisons who can help entrepreneurs fast-track things like building permits. Incubators including Peak Startup and Exponential Impact are mentoring and seed-funding early-stage ventures. Some fast-growing companies have landed significant funding rounds, too. Cherwell Software, an enterprise software firm, pulled in $172 million in 2018. This year, SaaS company Quantum Metric raised $25 million, while FoodMaven, an online marketplace for surplus food, raised $500,000 on top of an earlier $10 million round. There's even a co-working space called Catalyst Campus, where entrepreneurs and the Department of Defense convene to speed up the commercialization of new tech ideas.
"You can go down the hall and get real-time feedback" from government customers, says Seth Harvey, co-founder and CEO and of enterprise software firm Bluestaq, which got its start inside Catalyst in 2018. It's also where he met his eventual COO: Air Force veteran Rebecca Decker, who was previously Catalyst's director of marketing. "A lot of companies here are 'butts in seats' companies," Decker says, meaning contractors that mostly offer support services to the Air Force. Bluestaq, she says, is different, because it's developing new software systems.
Harvey's company landed a $37 million contract--its biggest to date--after conferring with a Catalyst officemate on a project. While Harvey is not a veteran, he had spent most of his professional career working in the Air Force's research lab in Albuquerque. But his trajectory as an entrepreneur is still more the exception than the rule. Despite a growing list of resources at the ready, a consistent challenge veterans face as they build a company is the solitude of entrepreneurship.
"I was depressed and lonely for several months," says Lawrence Wagner, founder of Spark Mindset, a Colorado Springs-based company that offers cybersecurity skills training to teens in low-income school districts. "Being an entrepreneur is already hard, but it's really hard when you're used to having the community," says Wagner, who used the Army to escape a difficult and impoverished childhood in Cleveland.
He wasn't the only one struggling with roadblocks. In lieu of more formal meeting spaces for startups in the Springs, aspiring founders would often come to Red Leg's tasting room for a beer and some startup advice, Baldwin says. So he started mentoring entrepreneurs--veterans who wanted to start restaurants, sunglasses companies, IT firms, even other breweries. For a while, he was also giving out loans. In 2014, he started informal networking events for transitioning veterans to meet other business owners.
The military, Baldwin says, is an invaluable source of entrepreneurial talent for the community, and the Springs can either try to retain those people or watch them move away. "Why waste this?" he asks. "We just need to get those veterans to say, 'I'm going to put it on the line again and commit.' "