Advice to vets: ‘Dream big’

By the time you’re reading this, I’ll be embedded with a hand-picked squad of the toughest, bravest men and women on Earth – probably in a classroom studying accounting, pro-formas and cash flow.

I’ll be a fly on the wall at Based in Business, a boot camp for Canadian Forces veterans who want to become more formidable entrepreneurs. This camp, one of three being organized by the Prince’s Charities Canada and Futurpreneur (formerly Canadian Youth Business Foundation), is being held at the University of Regina, with classes taught by business professors and local entrepreneurs, and personal support for each attendee supplied by members of Enactus Regina, a student club for aspiring entrepreneurs. Two years ago, I reported how I had called the Department of Veterans Affairs to find out what programs it offers retiring military to start a business. It didn’t offer any such program, a spokesperson said.

Seven-year-old data, the most recent from Veterans Affairs Canada, indicate 7% of veterans are self-employed. However, a recent U.S. survey found that country’s veterans are 45% more likely than the civilian population to be self-employed, suggesting the percentage of self-employed veterans in Canada might now be about 15%.

Entrepreneurship isn’t just an option for many retiring personnel. For some, particularly those suffering physical or mental anguish from their time served, it’s the only option. (In a 2010 survey, 25% of recent veterans reported difficulty adapting to civilian life.)

Fortunately, Enactus Memorial in St. John’s developed Based in Business and it was taken national by the Prince’s Charities Canada, encouraged by Charles, Prince of Wales.

I’ll be reporting from Regina, and plan to produce an e-book – a business startup handbook geared to veterans. (Working title: Startups for Heroes.) With support from crowdfunding site Indiegogo, I hope to distribute the e-book free to veterans and serving military personnel.

Heading into boot camp, I’m pleased to see the attendees are a varied bunch. Some businesses being developed by Regina participants seem on-trend: a producer of gluten-free pastas and sauces; a sun-destination property consultancy; a fitness trainer for military and police personnel; a consulting firm specializing in energy efficiency; a producer of custom pet products; and a presser of vinyl records.

Based on the evidence so far, most of the “vetrepreneurs” in Regina are following the first rule of entrepreneurship: Do what you love. They seem to be developing personal-service or niche product firms based on what they know how to do. That’s good for several reasons: one-person firms require less capital and minimal operating costs; doing what you know shrinks the learning curve; and loving what you do makes things easier when times get tough.

But my wish is that we can get more veterans (and other entrepreneurs) to think bigger. Personal-service businesses are easy to start, but hard to grow. If you are selling your time or hand-crafted products, expanding will always be a challenge.

By comparison, young tech entrepreneurs aim to “scale” fast, to identify the business model that lets them produce the most product at the lowest price. “Scaling” is not for every business, but it’s a handy totem to focus on. Before assuming their business requires no staff, no equipment, no unique processes or intellectual property – in short, none of the assets that enable you to scale – new entrepreneurs should examine alternative models, such as taking on partners or targeting business markets rather than consumers, that might allow them to grow faster.

Growth and size bring headaches, such as the need for outside capital, but they also create advantages. Growing businesses can serve more customers, faster – providing more revenue for reinvestment, and diversifying your client base to provide longer-term security. And they can afford to innovate more often, serve more distant and foreign markets and are more likely to develop productive relationships with customers, distributors, suppliers and other allies, leading to new growth opportunities.

A few months ago, I talked to a veteran who started a courier company. Growth was essential to him. Not because it would generate more cash, but because it would help him do more. One of his goals is to hire as many veterans as possible, especially those who, like him, have suffered post-traumatic stress disorder.

I hope all startup instructors encourage their students to think creatively and dream big before they start small. Military personnel in particular are trained to take into account the overall strategy when planning missions; the same should be true of planning businesses. We’ll know we’re on the right track when Canada’s veterans are not only starting more small businesses, but launching big ones, too.

National Post | Toronto, Ontario