Whoever made the grave mistake of correlating the “American Dream” to owning your own home was sadly mistaken in my opinion.
I want to be clear by insisting up front that what you will read here is nothing more than my opinion and experiences. I’m not here to debate any of the points or perspectives, for they are all mine and derived from real world experience. You see, I don’t think it is my place to tell anyone what to do or how to do it. My hope in writing this article is that by sharing my experience as a business owner and veteran, others may freely benefit from the knowledge paid for by me.
I started off by telling you that I vehemently disagree with some misinformed individual’s opinion of what it means to live free here in America, so it is only fair that I share my opinion. The American Dream is to be free to do anything you want within the confines of the laws. And in doing so, achieve whatever level of success you aspire to achieve, in accordance with what you personally describe as successful, which is an individual and personal definition. This has nothing to do with owning anything, and everything to do with freedom. Societies found in nations without freedom across the globe are truly victims. I choose to believe that in America there are no victims – only free people that make choices that lead to circumstances that they have created. This is the standard I hold for myself.
I spent most of my career in Special Operations Forces and was often reminded that I was free to leave at anytime as “There are no victims in a volunteer organization”. I keep that quote in mind at all times as I sometimes struggle as a business owner and entrepreneur. I remind myself that I am free to go find a secure job with benefits and a safety net, and that it is my choice to walk a tight rope with no net in a very tough world of competition and low probability of success. I believe that if you define success as a secure job with benefits and retirement plans then that is what you should do to maintain your happiness. The choice is yours, just as I have made mine. The one thing that we all share is free will, and because we live in America we also share something else – freedom of choice. For these two facts, I am truly grateful.
So why do I think I have something to share on this topic and why should you even continue to read the words of a man you know nothing about? Good question, and one that deserves an answer for I believe that quantifying one’s relevance in any topic of discussion is of paramount importance.
The most important relevant fact is that I have successfully transitioned from the military into the private sector as a small business owner, and for the last 42 months have continuously convinced customers in the private sector to willingly give me or our team members money in exchange for services. I have done all of this without the security of anyone bailing me out if things failed. I am currently on the path to grow our business into even greater success at a break-neck speed. I have done all of this without the aid of a college diploma or investors. I have read books on every topic of importance to our business, and I have surrounded myself with talented people in areas that I have no business dabbling in, and so far, I have beaten the odds.
On the surface these facts may seem small, but to anyone who has stepped into the ring all-alone in the business world, these facts are a big deal. Before I go any further, please allow me to clarify the term “all-alone”. This means from the perspective of financial aid or a security net. I have been far from all alone in many other areas. I have been surrounded by amazing teammates and mentors that have made the success of our companies possible. In my opinion no one gets anywhere all alone in business, and it is important for me to make that clear. So that is the bottom line up front. Now for the rest of the story from my perspective and in my experienced-based opinion.
Please take note of the title of the article and you will see that I am still a Green Beret in all that I do. I don’t intend this to be boastful, but only to make the case that my military experience, leadership time, and training is relevant in a purely civilian enterprise. There is always a point of correlation between the two worlds, and it is my job to find it, exploit it and never attach it directly to anything from my past life. This in itself is an art form that requires thought, practice and failure to master.
I want to address what I believe was my “transition” out of the military. I will keep this in the confines of my experience, which is leaving the military after a long career in the SOF community. It’s what I know so it is what I am qualified to talk about. The most important factor in my transition was my mindset. My mindset was simple: There is no option of failure or a lesser plan than the one I had. I am proud of who I was in uniform and what I did in uniform, but when I took it off I had to do my best to think differently and also to never be defined by my past. Aside from worthless cool guy points, no one would care what I did yesterday.
I had to get in the mindset of not depending on the government or any other large entity being responsible for my well being. I had to realize that the men I served with would always respect me for what I did as their leader or teammate, but that I was no longer a priority in their lives. I had chosen to enter a new and different world – a world they knew nothing about and in many cases, a world that scared them more than a gun fight. My mindset could be one that placed me as a victim of the screwed up processes of the VA disability system and spend every waking hour trying to get what was rightfully mine from them, and in turn be limited in my time spent being productive. Or, I could take control of what I could control. I had to take my health and well being into my own hands and let the system do whatever the hell it wanted to do. Now I am not saying that I didn’t file my claims or do my best to hold those responsible accountable, but what I am saying is that it was a choice NOT to focus on what “they” were not doing for me, and to stay focused on what I now had to do for myself. I mentally welcomed the “hardships” of being a civilian in America, for these hardships were and are a joke to the harsh realities of life I had experienced up until that point. My mindset was everything, and it still is. I never got off of the C-17 in Iraq thinking I was going to die or that we were going to lose, so why the hell would I think I was going to lose in a game with stakes so much lower? I didn’t and I never will.
Types Of Folks Transitioning
There are three types of people that leave the military:
- Those that have come to truly depend on the security and warmth of a stable career and predictable known outcomes, and desire the exact same lifestyle as a civilian (minus war);
- Those who “think” they want to blaze a trail full of risk and unlimited reward potential, but are not truly willing to risk it all to win;
- And finally, those that want to blaze a trail full of risk and unlimited reward potential and are willing to lose it all in order to win.
I believe that it is critical that you honestly place yourself into one of these three categories. If you find yourself in category two, quickly move to category one! There could be an entire article written on each category, but in keeping with the theme of writing about my own experience, I will stay in the vein of group three.
Pushing “All In”
The level of commitment that I had to become an entrepreneur was very different from anything required of me when I was in the military. For my entire adult life the stakes were life and death. Be it in combat, on a high risk training mission, or staring out of the back of a C130 at 25,000’ at 3AM with a tandem passenger and combat equipment strapped to me. These high risk, life and death decisions were all backed by world class training, a huge budget, unlimited medical support and a guaranteed paycheck of some kind. I pushed all in with a huge security blanket known as the US Government. Although this service and high risk bet was indeed admirable, it was always made with a net. Pushing “all in” as a new/rookie business owner without benefits or financial backing is a whole new reality for a guy like me. When I made this decision, I had to do it with no back-up plan and total commitment to success. For me this was the ultimate high stakes bet, and one that I welcomed, fully understanding the consequences of failure. I cannot make this point strongly enough – without this level of commitment, I would surely have failed quickly, or at least gone to a back-up plan that was far from the dream that “I Said” I wanted to achieve.
Learning The Cost Of The Good Idea Fairy In The Business World
I believe I was a smart successful soldier. I had many great ideas that came from the “good idea fairy”. These ideas were always worth a shot, for proof of concept. If they worked, huge gains were made. If the big idea failed, it didn’t cost me anything other than some time and perhaps a bruised ego. This line of thinking was very costly for me out here in the business world because when you are playing with your own money, one good idea can sink the ship and put you out of business. Good ideas are a dime a dozen out here. In fact great ideas are readily available, but these are not the ideas I needed. I needed clearly differentiated, profitable ideas with a good profit margin and short sales cycle. These ideas are hard to come by. Our team was in a constant state of thrashing ideas to find the ones in this category, and it took time and more lost money than I care to recall. We had to differentiate and find ways to stand out from the crowd in business sectors where competitors had similar resumes. We also had to come up with unique niche areas of expertise that did not obviously parley into outlier areas and capitalize on being the ones that connected some dots that others were not thinking about. In both cases, the initial game plan was the same: “What direction is the herd going?” and once we answered that, we turned 90 degrees out and made a new way into uncharted territories. These are the ideas and concepts that have kept us alive thus far, and what will keep us moving in the right direction.
A couple of years ago, I wrote and published a motivational book titled “Your Life”. There is a chapter in that book titled “A Degree From Barnes and Noble”. This was the truth as I have no formal college degree. Everything I have learned about running a business, the difference between a “S” corp, a “C” corp, conducting long term sales cycles, how to negotiate, the psychology of deal making, etc. has come from a book that can be found at Barnes and Noble. Many times a good dose of life experience, backed with pointed reading of the topic at hand, will trump a simple business degree more often than not. I also learned that the successful business people that I associate with are all avid readers, and that it might behoove me to pay attention to this common theme, so I did. I am not down playing the value of a “proper” business degree as I am certain I would benefit from such an education. My point is that I did not have the time nor the resources to get said “proper” education, so I had to do the next best thing which was to cram as much knowledge as I could into my head in the least amount of time possible and as often as possible. I mean, think about it: the greatest, most successful minds in the world have achieved whatever it is you aspire to achieve, and have written a book about how they did it. This book can generally be read in a few hours over a couple of days. I am in a constant state of learning in one way or another, and books are to date the best resource I have.
“Huge Opportunities With Quick Big Gains”or Stay The Course
If I had a nickel for every person that said, “I know a guy that has a huge opportunity and we can make a ton of money if we jump on it now”, I could sink a ship. I am not saying that there aren’t huge opportunities with quick big gains, but I am saying that in my experience, these opportunities are for businessmen that have been in the game a long time with cash flow capability, extreme business savvy and an insanely huge and connected network. I am not there yet and I damn sure wasn’t “there” at the beginning. This is a marathon to say the least. We made the mistake of falling in love with these big ideas and it cost us dearly. Chasing shiny objects versus staying the course are choices that I have to make on a daily basis. This takes extreme discipline and run room from a financial perspective. Broke people are desperate people in most cases. I have had to learn to be a broke person at times, yet not be desperate in the decision-making process. I’ll take this opportunity to recall a concept I learned from one of the first business books I read. Jim Collins wrote a book titled “Good To Great”. Jim talks about what he refers to as the Hedge Hog Theory. Simply stated, this theory is a series of questions that is used to quantify an opportunity as being Good or Great.
The questions are these:
- Can we be the best or at least compete with the best in this business?
- Are the profit margins where we need them?
- Do we have true passion for it?
If the answer to each question is yes, then it is a Great opportunity and one we should go after. If there is a single no, then we walk away. Now I would like to tell you that I have got this one right with every opportunity, but that would be a lie. I just share it with you as a great rule for assessing an opportunity as it is definitely my go-to rule when I need a reality check. In closing on this subject, once we made a solid plan and stayed the course, we got results. Not near term big win results, but results that lead to big wins in the long term, if we have the discipline to stay the course and fight the good idea fairy and shiny object troll on a daily basis!
I am by nature a talker and over-communicator, so I am going to shut this article down before I over write! I do hope that there will be more to come so the opportunity to expound on certain areas can be talked about in future articles. In closing I will say that working for myself and having the ability to call all the shots is not what I thought it would be. It is better. It is truly the definition of freedom. It is perfect cause and effect played out one decision at a time. A world where effort and reward are proper correlated. A world where consequences and personal accountability and responsibility are immediate. This world I speak of only exists here in America. A nation that I am proud to have served for 17 years, and I am now able to reap the benefits of what it means to truly live the American Dream. I am forever grateful for the active duty service men and women that continue to serve our great nation, for I am on the other side now and only able to be here because they are so willing to sacrifice for me.