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Analyzing risks, managing pressure, crafting contingency plans–steady, anxious challenges for entrepreneurs.
For veterans of the U.S. Armed Forces? Not a big deal.
“These common war stories you hear from entrepreneurs are kind of in your DNA by the time you leave the military,” said John Panaccione, a former 82nd Airborne paratrooper who scaled up his software company, the Wilmington-based LogicBay, with Army-wired resourcefulness.
But that’s just his paying gig. The rest of Panaccione’s day is in helping fellow veterans likewise realize their ingrained business potential through a nonprofit he co-founded called VetToCEO. At no charge, it avails online programs to verified veterans and transitioning military members who want to grow their ideas into success.
VetToCEO offers two main courses. Its core program, “Entrepreneurship for Transitioning Warriors,” lasts eight weeks and virtually groups participants with military peers who either want to explore a business opportunity or are actively tightening a plan. They examine how to develop such a business plan and how to connect with potential investors.
The nonprofit also offers a work-at-your-own-pace introductory program with three learning modules and a self-assessment. It looks at essential skills needed for starting a business, and at the advantage veterans have.
“Nothing stands in your way,” Panaccione said of the military-to-business skill set. “You can get around any obstacle.”
Joel Damin, an ex-Army man who completed VetToCEO training—and as of two months ago became owner of a high-end restaurant and pub in the Sanford Township—agreed completely.
He said military service on its own taught him budgeting, stress management, team work and turn-on-a-dime creative thinking.
“You’re always reacting, you’re always adapting, and you can’t just throw your hands up and go, ‘I don’t know, this isn’t what I wanted to do,’ and just stomp your feet,” Damin said. “You can’t do that, because there are lives on the line and you have to complete the mission.”
It’s the same concept in business, he said.
“As a business owner, there’s never a same day twice. There’s always something different. And if I want to be successful, I have to react. I have to adapt.”
He said VetToCEO helped him channel those instincts into entrepreneurial acumen. It walked him through business concepts, challenges and financial doorways. He said it also gave him the confidence to know when his instincts were on the mark.
“It helped answer a lot of questions,” said Damin.
It isn’t the only program out there for “vetrepreneurs”; there are a number of brick-and-mortar or institutional settings with similar objectives. Vet-Tech, for instance, is a business accelerator connecting military startups and idea-people with resources (like mentorship and funding) they’ll need to build their companies. Its home is Sunnyvale, Calif., in the Silicon Valley, home of powerhouses like Yahoo!. Another, with a nearly identical name—VetTech—offers veterans entrepreneurship-sharpening in a walls-and-roof classroom in Lansing, Ill.
Panaccione said VetToCEO uses technology to reach veterans at their homes, or wherever they happen to be, via simple, online connections.
Damin, for instance, never met Panaccione face to face.
“Statistically, there are thousands of veterans all over that have an interest in entrepreneurship—and many of them are outside the U.S.,” Panaccione said, noting one VetToCEO classman is logging in from Kuwait.
The current program, which started Tuesday night, has nearly 60 registrants, and more were expected as of this story’s publication time. Prior, 138 participants ran through the seven programs delivered since Panaccione and his co-founder starting offering them in mid-2012.
“The main reason I think VetToCEO makes a difference is because it was created by veterans for veterans,” said Mike Horn, the other co-founder. He served in the U.S. Army 21 years and retired with the rank of major. Today he runs a company that manufactures specialty vehicles and equipment for government agencies among other clients.
“We really haven’t had any challenges in finding attendees,” Horn said when asked how the word is getting out about VetToCEO. He said military bases, like Ft. Bragg, have been helpful encouraging transitioning members to try it out, and usually for every attendee is a word-of-mouth referral.
Veterans who’ve completed the program represent a range of pursuits, from restaurants, to plumbing, to housewares, to antique sales, to cyber security. Horn added that franchising opportunities are popular.
“A lot of these are excellent opportunities for veterans to get into,” he said. “There are franchises for just about anything you can think of.”
A 2011 report from the U.S. Small Business Administration (SBA) to President Barack Obama asserted that a business track can be vital in helping servicemen and women readjust to civilian life. The agency even called it a “moral responsibility” to support that.
In 2013, the unemployment rate for veterans who served on active duty at any time since September 2001 was at 9 percent, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. That was an improvement, but it still hulked over the national unemployment rate, which over the same year improved from 7.9 percent in January to 6.7 percent by December.
SBA publications between 2012 and 2013 said veterans own about 2.5 million businesses, representing about 9 percent or more of all non-farm businesses in the U.S.
They generate $1.2 trillion in receipts, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
“I had no idea what I was going to do,” Panaccione said of the time he left the Army, in 1992. “I know what people go through when they leave the service. I used to jump out of planes, with tanks, and there’s not a lot of call for that in the civilian world.”
He recalled leaving the military on a Friday and enrolling in graduate school the following Monday. “It was a culture shock,” he said, but he linked up with a few yellow ribbon Gulf War veterans in his class who were in the same situation. His realization that they as veterans were similarly different helped him through, and to understand how his experience enabled him to handle just about anything in the business world, which is where he charged.
In 2003 he started up LogicBay, a software company whose services today help businesses improve their work with external partners, among other focuses. That company, whose sales office is currently based in the UNCW Center for Innovation and Entrepreneurship on College Road, has served companies as large as Hewlett-Packard and Caterpillar.
His career has also included time with MetLife and tech companies like Cognitive Arts, which produced simulation-based e-learning.
His impetus to start his own business, in part: “I don’t want to work for the man anymore.”
And he’s a CEO.
To view a video about VetToCEO’s opportunities, click here.
Its website is VetToCEO.org.