A veteran's guide to starting a small business
Building a business as a veteran entrepreneur is possible - take advantage of available resources and funding options to help your business flourish
Veterans don’t just help protect our country; they build it up, too.
According to the most recent Census Bureau data, over nine percent of all small businesses are veteran-owned in our country, equating to more than 2.4 million companies across the nation. In total, veterans employ nearly 6 million American workers.
With their well-honed skill sets, tireless work ethic and dedication to the betterment of our country, veterans are uniquely poised for entrepreneurial success -- but that doesn’t mean it’s an easy journey.
As with any business venture, starting out as a veteran entrepreneur has its ups and downs. From coming up with a killer business idea to finding the financing to make it happen, there are a lot of steps along the way.
The Small Business Administration estimates that 85.3% of veteran business owners founded their businesses themselves. Are you thinking of joining the ranks of veteran entrepreneurs and small business owners? This guide is here to help.
Building a business from the ground up
No matter what you specialized in during your years of service, there’s room for you in the business world. Just look at the current breakdown of veteran-owned businesses for proof. Veterans have their hand in virtually every sector of the economy, from finance and insurance to transportation, real estate, construction and even healthcare.
Generating your business idea
The key is to recognize your unique skill sets and knowledge base and turn those specialties into a profitable, successful business idea. Just think:
- What were your duties in service? What industries and sectors do those translate to in the civilian world?
- What unique skills and expertise do you have that others don’t? (These don’t have to be service-related)
- What advice or guidance can you provide that there is demand for?
- What are you interested in or passionate about?
You will also want to consider your goals as a veteran entrepreneur. Do you want to employ other veterans? Donate funds to veteran assistance programs? Simply reach as many customers and make as many sales as possible? Knowing your goals as an entrepreneur can help you hone in on the absolute best businesses ideas.
Once you’ve created a short list of potential business options, do some market research to see what demand is out there. You should also look at competitors in the space to determine how you can differentiate your business and your services.
Putting the business plan on paper
Once you’ve decided on an appropriate business idea, it’s time to plan it out. You’ll want to break down your company’s purpose and mission, your market and potential audience, the resources and team members you’ll need, as well as what products and services you will offer. You’ll also want a plan for marketing and sales efforts.
Business plans are designed to give you a general roadmap to work from, as well as inform potential investors and lenders about your company. Keep in mind that every business is different, so if you’re using a template to create your business plan, make sure you customize it to your unique needs and goals.
Registering your business
It’s important to start your business off on the right legal foot -- and that means registering your business with the government. This might include filing a “Doing Business As,” registering as an LLC, partnership or corporation and obtaining an Employer Identification Number.
Here’s what the business registration process generally looks like:
If you’re unsure about any step in the business registration process, consider enlisting an attorney to help. They can guide you through the proper processes to ensure your business is legal and ready for operation.
Establishing & building business credit
Your credit score and history will play a big role in what types of financing you can secure (and at what rate) for your business goals. To ensure you have the best access to affordable funds, consider boosting your credit before applying for any personal or business loans.
Here’s how you can do that:
- Settle any accounts that are in collections.
- Pay your bills on time, every time.
- Start paying down your debts, focusing on high-interest ones first.
- Pull your credit report and notify the credit agency if you find any errors.
- Avoid making big purchases or racking up credit card debt.
If you have no credit whatsoever, meaning you’ve never had a credit card or loan to your name, then consider opening up a credit card. Use it for utility bills or other small charges each month and commit to paying it off in full before the due date every time. This will give lenders a good credit score and at least some credit history to base your financing options on.
Financing your new business
You have several options when choosing how to finance your business venture. You can use credit cards, take out a loan, apply for a grant or utilize a combination of all of these, depending on your financial needs and goals.
A business loan can give you access to large amounts of money to get your business off the ground. These loans are often used for hiring employees, purchasing real estate or equipment, creating inventory and more. They can also be used to keep your company afloat while you kick off sales and revenues.
The Small Business Administration, StreetShares Foundation and LendingClub all offer veteran-friendly business loans you may want to consider. If you were disabled in the service, you may qualify for certain business contracts (and thereby funds) from the Veteran Administration’s Service-Disabled Veteran-Owned Small Business program.
Personal loans give you the freedom to use your borrowed funds as you wish. Use them to finance your business goals or put them toward a home or other expenses as you transition from military to civilian life.
Some of the top choices for veteran-friendly personal loans include Navy Federal Credit Union, USAA, PenFed Credit Union and SoFi. You can also go to any credit union or bank for your personal loan, as long as you have decent credit. In most cases, your average lender won’t take into account veteran status on personal loans, so good credit helps ensure favorable terms and interest rates.
Business credit cards
Business credit cards are a common way new entrepreneurs pay for smaller-cost items, like office supplies, utility bills and business trips.
There are even business cards designated specifically for veterans, and many of today’s cards offer some form of cash back, travel rewards, welcome bonuses or other perks that can help your bottom line. Make sure to compare offers, rates and rewards before choosing which card to go with.
Grants offer veteran entrepreneurs free funding to help launch and operate their businesses. There are dozens of options available, but some of the most common sources of veteran-based grant programs include:
- Veteran Business Outreach Centers: There are 15 of these centers across the nation, each with its own training and financing programs. Many offer management courses, free market research and location-specific grants to help veterans jump-start their careers. Reach out to a center near you to see what grants you may be eligible for.
- HCC Veteran Entrepreneurship Training VET Program: The VET program connects veteran business owners with angel investors and experienced financial partners in their industry. The program also offers training in entrepreneurship.
- Grantwatch: Grantwatch is a hub of veteran-friendly grants from all over the country and across every industry. There are even grants for entrepreneurs who aren’t veterans -- as long as their work is supporting veterans and their families in some way.
- Grants.gov: Grants.gov is another online database of available grants -- though not all of them are designated for veterans. Use the site’s search to look through small business grants with the keyword “veteran,” and dozens of options appear.
- SBIR and STTR grants: The Small Business Innovation Research Program and the Small Business Technology Transfer Program both offer grants to small businesses -- both veteran-owned and civilian-owned. The catch is they must be interested in federal research and development.
States also offer their own unique grant programs, and these often have a smaller pool of competitors. Make sure to check the office of economic development in your state (and city) to see if any grants are available to you.
Additional financing options
Some entrepreneurs opt for crowdfunding to meet their financing goals. Platforms like Kickstarter, Indiegogo, SeedInvest and more.
You can also look to investors and angel funds. Hivers and Strivers Angel Fund is one good option if you graduated from a military academy. Funds range anywhere from $250,000 to $1 million per investment.
Other helpful resources
There are many resources and programs available to veteran entrepreneurs. Do your research to find programs that fit your needs, there are even programs specifically geared towards women and service-disabled veterans.
Networking & training
Starting a business can be difficult, and getting guidance from those who have been there can help immensely.
Fortunately, there are loads of resources veterans can pull from for this sort of advice, including:
- The Department of Veteran Affairs’ Veteran Entrepreneur Portal
- The Small Business Administration’s Mentor & Counseling Program
- Your local Veteran’s Business Outreach Center
- The SBA’s Training and Employment hub
Programs for women veterans
The number of women veterans is expected to increase by seven percent or more annually over the next few years. As a result of this growing cohort, more and more resources for these entrepreneurial-minded veterans have become available.
Some of these include:
- Accion, for business loans and general support.
- The Center for Women Veterans, for tools and other resources.
- StreetShares, for grants, loans and lines of credit.
- V-Wise, for entrepreneurship training.
- YWCA Military Veterans programs, for housing, healthcare and career training.
Veterans who have been disabled in service have unique struggles in reaching their entrepreneurial goals.
If you fall into this category and were seriously injured during service, there are several resources available to help, including:
- The Service-Disabled Veteran-Owned Small Business Program.
- VetBiz, Veteran-Owned Small Business Registration.
- Veterans Business Services.
As you can see, there are many sources of support for veterans looking to start their own businesses. From grants and financing to hands-on support and guidance, there are endless resources to help you develop your idea, launch your company and achieve your long-term professional goals.
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