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Failure often gets a bad rap, but is it really all that bad? While success is the goal and failure is frequently heartbreaking and difficult to swallow, it is also inevitable. You won’t get every job, you won’t close every deal, and you won’t win every contest. No matter how smart, talented, and successful you may be, you are going to face obstacles at some point.
But according to these veteran small business owners, the only way you eventually find success is to fail … a lot. These four vet-turned-entrepreneurs all faced challenges when they were getting their businesses off the ground, but with lots of grit and determination — and with help from StreetShares and their many military and veteran investors who are passionate about supporting veteran-owned businesses — they were able to achieve success.
Task & Purpose asked these four veteran entrepreneurs to share what they’ve learned on their journeys to success so that future business owners are better prepared the next time they’re looking adversity in the face.
First, accept that you can’t prevent failure.
Army veteran Brian Slaughter, 42, had an MBA, a background as a military officer, and a previous small business under his belt when he opened The Smokey Cigar in 2009. But even with such a packed resume, he, like most other entrepreneurs, faced daily failure.
“You fail every day,” he says. “In the beginning, it was a struggle to learn that.”
But, he says, the opposite — too much success too fast — is just as hard to deal with. For Slaughter, the challenge he knew he could learn to tackle was managing his cash flow. After his first year in business, though he was turning a profit, he was hit by unexpected taxes and expenses. “You think you’re successful and then April rolls around and you’re overwhelmed,” he says.
So Slaughter learned to better project his expenses and income. And a few years later, when his business had grown and he was ready to open his third location, he turned to StreetShares to help him find the capital he needed to expand without landing him in a financial hole.
“Find the failures you can effect change on, identify the root cause of that failure, and go after it,” Slaughter explains.
Next, embrace the suck, at least in the beginning. It will be worth it down the road.
“During your first year, you suck,” Nick Koumalatsos says. “Your ideas suck. So you have to adapt and be flexible and evolve.”
A Marine Corps veteran, Koumalatsos, 34, went into business for himself because he wanted a challenge and wanted to provide civilians with the great lessons he’d learned for himself in the military. Now, Koumalatsos stars on the Discovery Channel’s Trailblazers series, and he’s trusted by military units, police forces, and militias for his leadership and tactical training. But while his company, Survival Tactical Systems, is now a successful business, it didn’t start out that way. He, like many small business owners, had to be willing to reimagine his business before eventually hitting on the right iteration of his original idea.
“I feel like I succeed and fail every day,” Koumalatsos says. “You have to own up to the decisions you make. There are things I’ve done better today than yesterday. You just need to focus on putting one foot in front of the other.”
Once he figured out what it was he should be doing — teaching civilian clients leadership, teamwork, and survival skills using military-style training — Koumalatsos got a loan from StreetShares so that his business could grow without having to cut back on the services he was providing clients. And it’s easy to see why Survival Tactical Systems received funding: It’s the kind of business that veterans can easily understand and support, as the company is founded on the kinds of training and camaraderie that all service members experience in the military.
“When you have time to think about it and work through it, you’ll always come back stronger,” Koumalatsos says.
Make sure when you do fail, it’s early enough to learn from your mistakes.
While Combat Flip Flops may be a familiar name to those in the veteran community, the company very nearly failed before it ever started. Army vet Matthew “Griff” Griffin, 37, always knew he wanted to have his own business, and while in the military, he frequently bounced ideas off his friends and future business partners. Eventually, he landed on Combat Flip Flops, but Murphy’s Law reared its ugly head and everything that could feasibly go wrong did.
“We failed so many times,” Griffin says.
The first time he failed was when the company launched. “We pre-sold 4,000 flip flops based on demo models without ever having made a single piece of footwear,” he says. “It seemed too good to be true.” And it was. “When we went to place the material orders,” he says, “the factory could only do one run — they were being shut down.”
And it didn’t stop there. The first run of flip flops was, well, a flop, and they ended up giving them away for free to locals in Afghanistan before starting a new run in a second factory. But the second factory closed before the replacement order could be made, leaving Griffin and his partners in the lurch. But he didn’t give up.
“We made 4,000 pairs of flip flops in my garage to get the company going,” he explains. “It was lots of hard work, but ‘surrender’ is not a Ranger word.”
Griffin credits the Army with his ability to accept — and even appreciate — failure. “The military purposely puts you in complex situations to make you fail, and then they give you the skills you need to help make sure you don’t fail in the same way again,” he says.
Now, Griffin knows to expect the unexpected. Instead, thanks to help from StreetShares investors, Combat Flip Flops was able to increase production. Griffin expects this year’s sales to triple their 2015 numbers. Because they donate up to 20% of their profits to charity, in 2015, they provided Aid Afghanistan for Education enough funding for 21 years’ worth of schooling for Afghan girls.
Finally, enjoy the process regardless of your success.
When Zachary Green, 42, started MN8 Foxfire, the Marine Corps veteran and local firefighter didn’t have boatloads of money or investors. What he did have, however, was passion for his product.
Green first came up with the idea for MN8 Foxfire after learning that New York City had passed a law requiring all buildings over three stories to have photoluminescent guidance in hallways and stairwells. He wondered why the fire department didn’t have similar gear to help his men see in the dark, smoky environs in which they worked. He tested his first product — photoluminescent bands to wrap around firefighters’ helmets — on himself, wearing his into a fire and startling his colleagues with the visibility the band provided. Green was immediately bombarded with requests for his product from firefighters he knew, and he made $5,000 in sales in his first six months of business, selling his product out of the trunk of his car.
But that sort of growth isn’t sustainable without some serious cash flow, and Green ended up refinancing his home and maxing out his credit cards in order to keep his business going.
“I never got scared in the Marines or the fire department,” Green says, “but entrepreneurship is the scariest thing ever.”
To get through the worst of it, Green had to “embrace the suck.” As a small business owner, he didn’t have the same advantages that Fortune 500 companies enjoy. He couldn’t compete on money and resources, so he had to be able to do the job faster, be more flexible, and be willing to dedicate himself to the job in ways that CEOs of bigger companies might not.
For a business like Green’s, success is not just about the money he makes, but about the people he helps. So when money was tight, he turned to StreetShares. Thanks to a StreetShares loan, he was able to keep the doors open, ensuring that the people who counted on his product for safety had what they needed — and arming more than 60,000 firefighters worldwide with life-saving photoluminescent gear.
“The only way an entrepreneur can fail is to quit,” Green says.
While all these entrepreneurs admit that achieving success as a small business owner isn’t easy, they all agree that it’s worth it — and that the community surrounding veteran-owned businesses is one of the best resources and biggest perks.
“Entrepreneurs are local leaders,” Griffin says. “They’re the ones having the biggest impact on their communities.”
By investing in small businesses, you’re investing in that community. And now, thanks to StreetShares, individuals have the opportunity to invest in veteran-owned businesses, which ensures that the community will continue to grow and flourish, and produce many more success stories.