LSU’s fifth Entrepreneurship Bootcamp for Veterans with Disabilities squeezes participants through more than 80 hours of instruction covering everything from managing the books and human resources to strategy and operations.
But participants say the free mini-MBA program’s most valuable resource is people, the business connections that are surprisingly short in supply for the “vetrepreneurs,” who had hundreds of thousands of co-workers at their last job.
“Veterans are, in my experience, not necessarily the first people that look for help and advice and assistance because sometimes we think we can navigate these things on our own. We can do it on our own,” said Erick “Rick” Schwartz, director of business development at Trico/Tiger Development in Simpsonville, South Carolina. “At least that’s the way I felt. But coming here was a powerful expression of all the things I didn’t know and (learning) there’s a whole bunch of people out there willing to provide that assistance.”
LSU is one of 10 universities participating in the EBV program, said Robin Kistler, interim director for LSU’s Stephenson Entrepreneurship Institute. Other schools include Syracuse University, where the program began in 2007; Cornell University; and UCLA.
The program has three phases:
A 30-day online course that takes participants through the business road test, helping them find out if they have a sellable product or service, the size of the market for that service and whether they have a competitive advantage.
A nine-day residency program, which teaches the nuts and bolts of running a business.
12 months of support and mentorship through the EBV Technical Assistance Program.
The program also has three typical outcomes, Kistler said. “One, we just light a big fire under someone, like, ‘This is what I want to do. I’ve got a fire in my belly for this,’ ” Kistler said. “Two, someone may say, ‘I’m not willing to take the risk,’ or, ‘This is a lot harder than I anticipated it to be,’ and they may decide not to start a business. Three, they realize that they’ve sat through an online phase and a residency phase, and they feel more confident to go back to school.”
At LSU, 81 veterans have gone through the program. More than half have started their own companies. This year’s class has 11 members and is one of the school’s smallest, Kistler said.
According to EBV, more than 1,200 people completed the program in the past 10 years. Of those, 68 percent started their own business, and 92 percent of those companies are still operating.
The veterans at the LSU program come from all over the country and three branches of the military. All of the participants have service-related disabilities. Some of the veterans’ disabilities are visible. Some aren’t.
Kistler said this year’s class is different in that more than half already have started a business or are in an established firm.
Schwartz, an Army veteran, is one of them. Trico/Tiger developed the shale gas field at Fort Knox, making the installation energy independent. Schwartz’s job is to move the company from that single project into new markets, so he spends a lot of time at military and U.S. Bureau of Prisons facilities. He’s hoping EBV will help with that.
Kathleen Ford, chief executive officer of scDataCom, also wants to take her firm to the next level.
The Statesboro, Georgia, company was founded in 2013 and designs and installs electronic security systems. Ford, also an Army veteran, said she is trying to improve efficiency.
The connections she’s made through EBV have been invaluable, she said. Finding resources, particularly veteran resources, and connecting to a support network for ancillary services will help make the business more profitable.
“Another particular thing I’m interested in is the marketing aspect, finding the right answers to identifying my business’s differentiators and how to market those to set myself above the competition,” Ford said. “That’s something I feel we haven’t done yet. So I’m looking for some ideas about how to do that better.”
Nicholas Green, owner of Green’s Plumbing & Heating Inc. in Detroit Lakes, Minnesota, completed the EBV program in 2012.
The residency program gave him a ton of information and put him in touch with a network of veteran business owners and industry leaders, he said. Those people can provide “extremely good advice.”
That information helped him triple his business, buy a larger competitor and go from seven employees to 30, Green said.
For newcomers to business, like Robert Schaefer, the intensive training can be a little overwhelming.
Schaefer is a partner in American Freedom Distillery, a Tampa, Florida, whiskey startup, a distillery owned and operated by U.S. Army Special Operations veterans, or Green Berets and Rangers.
His goal at EBV is to learn and understand the numbers side of the business — from distribution and merchandising to running a tasting room/bar and making sales projections. By the third day of the residency program, Schaefer’s to-do list stretched into 2017.
Ashley Horton is a Marine veteran and the owner of Yellow Paw Prints, a concierge pet services and training firm in Charlotte, North Carolina.
She is hoping the program will help her transition her company’s focus to training service dogs for veterans. She is using the concierge services to establish her reputation and credentials.
Service dogs help people limited by disability, such as blindness or post-traumatic stress disorder. There are also emotional support dogs, who provide comfort and support for their owners, and therapy dogs, used to offer comfort and affection to people in hospitals, nursing homes and other facilities.
Horton didn’t follow a straight line to pet services. She had trouble adjusting to life after leaving the Marines. Eventually, Horton found the solution: a boxer puppy named Bailey. Both went through service training courses together.
“She’s literally the reason I exist. There were days I thought, ‘I can’t do this,’ ” Horton said.
Bailey gave Horton a purpose. Now, Horton wants to help disabled vets get their own service dogs, who provide something a pill can’t offer, she said.
Jason Wise, a former Green Beret, has a business as a military consultant, training Special Operations units in intelligence-gathering and analysis. But he wants to move away from subcontracting — chasing Department of Defense dollars and living out of a suitcase — into a more corporate setting as a private investigator.
To do that, he has to figure out how to manage a business, something he hasn’t had to worry about as a subcontractor, Wise said.
“I’ve got the skill sets to do the work of the job, but how do I manage the company aspect?” Wise said.
He’s hoping the EBV program equips him with those solutions.
Follow Ted Griggs on Twitter, @tedgriggsbr.