Leaping into darkness at 30,000 feet used to be part of Dr. Tommy Sowers' daily life--and in a way, it still is. After leading an Army Special Forces HALO team, teaching at West Point, and serving as Assistant Secretary of Veterans Affairs, he sought a new challenge: launching a business to address a nationwide consumer pain point.

Following his experience dealing with the bureaucracy and expense of buying a home, Sowers founded SoloPro, a tech startup based in Durham, N.C., that allows buyers to select real estate services a la carte and receive a 3 percent rebate on the purchase price. It also empowers real estate agents to set their schedules and services freely. 

As he launched SoloPro, Sowers encountered a problem familiar to many tech entrepreneurs. His company needed to be first to market in order to reach critical mass and establish network effects, but how could it grow rapidly and also stay lean?

Sowers' answer was what he called the Horde--and it was free.

The Horde was a team of active duty Army officers who contributed work to SoloPro on an unpaid basis at night and on weekends. Many of them were West Point graduates (including some of Sowers's former students) and veterans of elite units that had deployed to Afghanistan. The Horde gave SoloPro several unique advantages:

  • Communications The comms team filled Sowers's calendar with targeted speaking engagements and generated positive coverage in tech media outlets such as TechCrunch and  Inman News.
  • Social media The Horde's marketing campaign included frequent, helpful Facebook posts, blog posts, and tweets that raised awareness and social proof.
  • Web analytics The analytics team established a robust Google Analytics account that provided Sowers with actionable insights about his customers, prospects, and operations.
  • Administration and operations An Oxford-educated Army Ranger captain managed company operations as chief of staff, letting Sowers focus his time on CEO-level tasks.
  • Intelligence Custom dossiers on each of his contacts informed the founders' strategies during investor pitches and other phone calls and meetings--which often numbered more than a dozen a day. The dossiers often included notes such as "Investor X will likely want to know everything about our IT infrastructure," or "CEO Y has a lot of experience working with real estate lobbies--pick his brain." Immediately following engagements, Sowers dictated takeaways into Evernote, which the Horde could immediately access and roll into future operations--often on the same day.                                                                                                                            

For its members, the Horde provided a valuable internship in conjunction with active duty service. But unlike most interns, Horde members were empowered to make decisions in the absence of specific guidance. Benefits to Horde members included:

  • A crash course in entrepreneurship and an "on-ramp" business education curriculum
  • Access to Sowers's extensive, high-level business and government contacts
  • Opportunities to develop experience across multiple business domains and apply military leadership and organizational skills in a business context
  • Business wisdom with none of the associated risk--for example, by witnessing investor pitches firsthand

The Horde model also helped its members break through the "relevant job experience" dilemma that many veterans face as they leave service and look for work. Hiring managers want applicants to have experience that is directly related to the positions they're seeking; "Pilot-in-Command" and "Ground Force Commander" don't always translate. Experience fighting in the trenches of a startup does.

The Horde model benefits entrepreneurs, who can leverage the creative persistence, competence, humility, and energetic problem-solving ability that many military officers have hard-wired into them through years of trial-by-fire leadership experience. As 23-year-olds, Horde members had led 50-soldier patrols through thigh-deep snow over three days without sleep. They had coordinated fixed-wing air support with helicopter surveillance, armed drones, and artillery rounds. They had spent months convincing villagers in tribal areas who had never been 30 miles from their birthplaces to embrace a national identity as Afghans.

These officers were experts at scaling new learning curves in ambiguous settings--which is exactly what entrepreneurs often need most. Rapidly growing businesses often need resourceful employees more than they need domain specialists, so scrappy military interns are probably best suited working with companies that have yet to institute strictly defined roles.

Sowers wagered that veterans with the right blend of experience, education, and attitude could transfer their skills directly into business. The wager paid off; SoloPro has secured a $1.1 million round of seed funding, and is now on a promising trajectory. Meanwhile, more than a dozen Army officers  have gotten the entrepreneurial bug.

Between 240,000 and 360,000 veterans leave the military annually, according to the White House. Several organizations are working to connect this stream of talent with entrepreneurial companies that need gritty, resourceful employees:

  • VetTechTrek is a pipeline between veterans and technology; it immerses veterans into the tech world via trips and events, such as an upcoming summit event with YCombinator.
  • Bunker Labs is an accelerator in the Washington, D.C. area for veteran-owned businesses; it aims to leverage government resources for those businesses and channel veterans' energy and potential into entrepreneurship.
  • Veterati is a for-profit digital platform that helps transitioning veterans find mentors among successful professionals.

Immersing transitioning veterans in tech startups is a win for the companies they help to scale, and the experience helps veterans translate their skills into business environments with virtually no risk or cost to anyone. If internships with innovative companies put them in positions to build things, create jobs, and contribute to the future of the U.S. service economy, it's a win for the country.

Disclaimer: the views expressed in this article do not necessarily represent the views of the Department of Defense or any of its components.

Published on: Feb 2, 2016