For military spouse and veteran entrepreneurs, finding a place in society can be as hard as finding startup training and resources. Patriot Boot Camp aims to provide both.
When Jen Pilcher first launched MilitaryOneClick — an online information source for members of the military community — in 2012, she struggled to bring readers to her site and make it profitable.
Looking to turn things around, she enrolled in 2013 in Patriot Boot Camp (PBC), a nonprofit training program for veterans and military spouses who want to become more successful entrepreneurs. There, Pilcher, whose husband has been a Navy pilot for nearly 2 decades, connected with mentors who taught her new ways to increase site traffic and monetize her content.
Call it a mission accomplished. In April 2015, her business was acquired by The Secor Group, a Washington, D.C., moving-and-storage provider for whom veterans and military families are a key market, for an undisclosed sum. When she signed the paperwork in an opulent office in New York City overlooking her home state of New Jersey, “it was kind of one of those fairy tale moments,” she says.
Pilcher can still hear the applause and cheers when she shared the news at a PBC event the next day. “At Patriot Boot Camp, you’re surrounded by people who totally get” how difficult it is for a member of the military community to navigate the challenges that come with growing a business, she says, especially finding mentors and investors.
“Patriot Boot Camp’s value is being a connector,” says PBC Chief Executive Josh Carter, “so that veterans and spouses have even more of a chance to win.”
Creating a Support Team
Since PBC launched in 2012 as a volunteer effort hosted in collaboration with Techstars accelerator, it has helped more than 750 entrepreneurs start and scale up businesses. Its mentorship-based programs involve eight meetings over the course of one intense weekend. Subsidized by corporate sponsors, foundations and other individual donors, the boot camps are free for founders who take part. Participants have gone on to raise over $80 million in capital and to create more than 1,300 jobs, it says.
While a number of other accelerators exist for veterans who are business owners — for example, Bunker Labs and Vet-Tech — few also include their 600,000 spouses. “One of the things I, as well as my fellow military spouses, struggled with was access to” information and interaction, says Pilcher. That fact motivated her to create MilitaryOneClick — and drove her participation in PBC.
Before signing on, though, she felt the need to reach out to make sure military spouses could really take part. “At that time, nothing existed for military spouse entrepreneurs.” But PBC readily welcomed her, and encouraged her to let other military spouses know they could apply as well. “Right off the bat, that was a huge difference for me.”
PBC’s programs continue to grow and evolve. Last year, a record 52 women took part, or about a quarter of attendees. But Carter wants to enlist more women. “We try to be as diverse as we possibly can. It’s great to have [women] involved in the discussion,” offering their perspectives on common startup woes.
One of those 52 is Marine Corps veteran Chloe Kettell. She is preparing to launch her venture, PolyPort, to sell enterprise software that protects creative digital projects from intellectual-property theft. She is fundraising aggressively ahead of a planned private beta period starting this August.
Kettell learned about PBC at South by Southwest 2017 and attended a 3-day boot camp in September of that year. “It was one of the most amazing experiences I’d ever had at a conference,” she says. “It felt like sitting around as family members, openly talking about what we’re trying to accomplish.”
Since then, she has had an easier time connecting with investors, she says, “and Patriot Boot Camp is one reason why.” The mentors she met helped her forge relationships that made the startup process significantly easier to navigate.
Relationships are key to business owners’ successes, Carter says, and PBC “provides a program that widens their network from Day One.” This is accomplished through the weekends with successful businessmen and women, many of whom are former military and understand personally what participants are going through.
Business connections are often difficult for servicemen and women and their families to make, Carter adds. “Spouses and veterans, during their time in the military, are not cultivating a robust professional network. You’re moving from station to station.” Though technology has helped close the distance, the problem persists, he says.
Connecting Veteran Entrepreneurs
As one of 21.8 million veterans of the U.S. armed forces living in America, PolyPort’s Kettell is part of a small — but important — slice of the American populace, and not just for its service to the country.
Veterans are two times more likely to start businesses than any other demographic group. And as majority owners of 2.52 million businesses with 2012 receipts totaling $1.14 trillion, they contribute greatly to the economy.
[Related: Listen to our podcast on a former military officer whose startup teaches confidence to girls in the 4th and 5th grades.]
Yet the motivations and challenges faced by veteran entrepreneurs are poorly understood, a report from Syracuse University’s Institute for Veterans and Military Families says.
To better know this community, researchers there polled 85 aspiring and current veteran business owners, and quickly spotlighted the disconnect that many felt inside civilian workplaces — one participant complained that their colleagues “lacked discipline or organizational skills.” It’s well documented that isolation and separation from the rest of society is a common problem for veterans and spouses.
Yet the Syracuse University researchers also observed that mentors can play a critical role in helping veterans find success in life after the military. Over 40 percent of participants said mentors, both with and without military experience, were the most helpful resource available when it came to launching and growing ventures.
Carter believes it’s crucial that Patriot Boot Camp bring community members together. In the company of someone else with military experience, “the walls immediately come down,” he says. “You know this person you’re meeting is going through something bigger than themselves. And we can relate.”
Creating Hopeful Tomorrows
Kettell values this community too. Despite how busy she is, she maintains her relationships with PBC participants and organizers, including Carter.
When she’s not chatting with PBC alumni on their private group chat, she is developing financial models for each stage of her pre-launch venture. She has outreach and development goals mapped out for the next 18 months, and envisions PolyPort becoming “an amazing company that forges a new path for the creators of tomorrow.”
[Related: The Story Exchange on a military veteran and Pa. Congressional candidate]
As for Pilcher, she left MilitaryOneClick in January 2017, 21 months after its acquisition. Now, she has what she calls her “dream role” as a senior strategist for veteran programs at Crosby Marketing in Annapolis, Md.
She also became involved in PBC as a mentor and speaker in 2017. During an event in Denver last year, she was thrilled to find that half of the attendees were military spouses — three of whom took home top prizes in the weekend’s pitch competition.
Carter says PBC wants to ensure more happy endings and bright futures for its participants. It has 3-day boot camps planned in Atlanta, Seattle, and San Antonio in 2019. And new programs — including a 48-hour VetHacks program in collaboration with Bunker Labs and Operation Code, and a new 3-month accelerator — are also in the works.
But the bigger goal, he says, is to ensure that every veteran and military spouse PBC touches gets “a new network they didn’t have before” — one that can help them start up, grow and thrive.
Posted: July 5, 2018