Where Have All the Military Veteran Entrepreneurs Gone?

There's been much ado about data suggesting there are fewer post-9/11 veterans starting their own businesses than in generations past. But those statistics may be misleading.
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Matthew Demaio

By the time veteran Matt Demaio finished his business degree at Bergen Community College in 2012, what began as a side hobby had started to grow into something more.

In 2010, Marine Corps Sergeant Matt Demaio was deployed to Mozambique. Like most infantrymen, he made sure to bring more than bulky MREs (Meals Ready to Eat, the United States military's field ration) on operations. He also brought commercially available protein and nutrition bars for those moments when he needed nutrition on the go, but he was frustrated by the fact that he needed different bars for different nutritional value; one bar was packed with protein but low in carbohydrates, another the opposite. For the rest of the deployment he toyed with the idea of making a new kind of nutrition bar, one that provided protein, carbs, and flavor.

After Demaio's deployment ended, he left the military and, by the end of 2010, had moved back to Long Island, New York. As he juggled college, work, and adjusting back to civilian life, Demaio couldn't shake the idea he'd had in Africa. In 2011, he started making his own nutrition bars in the kitchen of his apartment, at first for friends still deployed in Afghanistan. By the time Demaio finished his business degree at Bergen Community College in 2012, what began as a side hobby had started to grow into something more. "The feedback I got from my buddies who were using the bars downrange was, 'This is great, it keeps me full and it keeps me going.'" Demaio says. "That's when it clicked."

Around the same time that Demaio was considering taking his pet project to the next level, articles began popping up online declaring the end of the era of veteran-owned businesses. "Fewer Veterans Starting Businesses," declared CNN in 2012. "Where Are All the Missing Veteran-Owned Businesses?" Inc.com was still asking years later.

Researchers from Syracuse University suggest that, while it's true there are fewer total businesses started by post-9/11 veterans than there are started by World War II veterans, the discrepancy may simply be a function of the fact recent veterans have not been discharged long enough to become entrepreneurs.

Indeed, fewer post-9/11 veterans have started their own businesses than veterans of WWII, Korea, and Vietnam: Whereas nearly 50 percent of WWII veterans started their own business—most famous among them Jack Taylor, who in 1957 created Enterprise Rental Company, named after the aircraft carrier he was stationed on as a fighter pilot; and Sam Walton, the WWII vet who, in 1962, opened the first Walmart—only 4.9 percent of veterans who've served since 2001 have done so, according to a 2017 Census Bureau Survey of Business Owners report.

But, says Misty Stutsman, the director of entrepreneurship and small business at Syracuse University's Institute for Veterans and Military Families, "Generally, people that start their own business tend to be a little older. When you're looking at a post-9/11 veteran, they're actually very similar to previous generation of veterans."

Those intragenerational similarities exist, prominently, in the classroom. Like their WWII predecessors, many Iraq and Afghanistan veterans are taking advantage of educational benefits (for example, the post-9/11 G.I. Bill introduced in 2009). According to Census data, almost 50 percent of all veteran business owners report having a bachelor's degree or higher, which typically adds at least four years between separating from the military to starting a business. Like previous generations of war veterans, Misty says that post-9/11 veterans, "separate out, they go work for a company, they may go back to school. Then they say, 'Well, I don't like this,' and decide later to pursue entrepreneurship."

After 9/11, America's relationship with its military veterans changed dramatically. There's been increasing awareness in recent years of the problems facing veterans, and along with that a desire to address those issues. There are now a bevy of programs that exist solely to offer job placement opportunities for veterans. In part because of these external forces, the unemployment rate for post-9/11 veterans is at a record low of 3 percent today. With more veterans hired into positions that fit their skills and ambitions, there's simply fewer veterans looking to start their own businesses.

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It took Demaio almost a decade to go from Marine to full-time business owner. By early 2014, Demaio had decided to turn his desire to create a better nutrition bar into a company, and incorporated Condition One Nutrition. Demaio maintained full-time employment elsewhere and worked on his company on his down time. Even though it was a part-time job, he says, he was putting in 30 to 40 hours a week, filling orders and networking.

For those post-9/11 veterans who've already started or attempted to start their own business, research from Syracuse University's Institute for Veterans and Military Families suggests that access to capital funding is the biggest obstacle for post-9/11 veteran entrepreneurs, and that veterans are denied capital more so than non-veterans.

Like Demaio—who relied on his income from other employment, credit cards, and his cashed out 401k account to fund Condition One—a majority of veterans report using personal savings and credit cards to fund their businesses. Demaio says he never applied for capital from financial institutions, nor was he approached at any point. Instead, he found help from a business owner who became a mentor and, in 2018, chose to join Condition One as an investor and partner in the company. According to another Syracuse University Institute for Veterans and Military Families report, mentors are extremely important for veteran entrepreneurs as they help the veteran develop their social capital and network beyond the military and veteran community.

Ryan Williams, a former SEAL and veteran entrepreneur, described his transition from service to entrepreneurship without a mentor as "incredibly humbling." When he left the military in 2008, he and a fellow SEAL wanted to start an apparel company. "We thought we were so cool, that we had it all figured out," Williams says, "and our egos got smashed very quickly once we started talking to bigger business people who actually owned significant companies."

The two men tried to find a print shop that would work with them, but quickly ran into issues. "A lot of the problems came from us being completely unprepared." The men lacked a business plan and decided who would be chief executive officer by flipping a coin while signing incorporation documents. Williams laughs now when he recalls the early days of the company, when he did not know how to export his T-shirt designs to image files: "We would drag out a laptop and show it to them."

Their initial experience was a wake-up call, and the SEALs momentarily retreated back to the drawing board. After months of trial and error, they were able to launch Forged Clothing, a California-based apparel brand. Williams left Forged to pursue other ventures, and today is the owner and operator of Industry Threadworks, which provides production and product fulfillment for a variety of clothing and lifestyle brands.

Williams and Demaio are part of the still small but growing number of post-9/11 veteran entrepreneurs combining savvy marketing, a robust veteran network, and quality products to turn their military service into more than just personal experience, but part of the core brand of their business.

Companies like Black Rifle Coffee, Grunt Style, and Article 15 have emerged as leaders of a younger veteran-owned business community. Many began as apparel or lifestyle brands within the military and veteran community, but soon after civilians began to participate. Williams witnessed this firsthand at Forged; originally, most of their customers were other Navy SEALs. "Suddenly we'd have a batch of orders coming in from Oklahoma and Washington, and we thought, 'What is going on with this?' As it turns out, SEALs were going home and people were seeing our shirts at the bar."

Lydia Davey, a Marine Corps veteran-turned-entrepreneur now working as the global content marketing manager for Apple Inc., notes that, while marketability of veterans and the military was greatly diminished after the Vietnam War, that imaging problem has mostly gone away post-9/11.

"There's been this moment in time where we've looked to the U.S. military as a steady source of heroes," she says. The leaders of the veteran business world who use their affiliation with the veteran community as a part of their identity have turned the heroic Special Forces soldier into an accessible lifestyle brand, one which veterans and civilians alike want to be a part of.

That interest has gone beyond just apparel, coffee, and military equipment—there are now coffee mugs outfitted with a rail for mounting rifle scopes, and baby carriers designed to look like body armor.

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