If you’re a woman veteran thinking about starting a business, you’re not alone.
Federal statistics show the number of women veterans who own businesses has grown by 300 percent in the last decade, making this one of the fastest-growing demographic groups in the entrepreneurship space.
But in business, as in the military, women can face unique challenges – a fact not lost on the attendees of a recent gathering of women entrepreneurs in Washington, D.C. At the event, an initiative of the Institute for Veterans and Military Families at Syracuse University and Veteran Women Igniting the Spirit of Entrepreneurship, expert entrepreneurs and business leaders offered their tips for breaking into the business world and sustaining a successful venture.
1. Have a plan.
Before you set up shop, it’s important to have a plan. And not just a plan that passes the test with your family and friends.
“Do your market research,” said Allie Coetzee Leslie, a Navy veteran who recently became the deputy administrator of the Small Business Administration. “Find out if what you want to sell is something that the public wants to buy.”
You can do this by testing the product on a small scale first, advised Jamila Payne, founder and CEO of Daily Success Routine.
To pick a name, gather a focus group of your ideal audience, she said. If you’re worried about money for a brick-and-mortar location, try selling through an online shop first. If it’s a food business you’re after, try out your recipes through a local restaurant or catering gig.
“You have to just try things — even when you’re afraid,” Payne said. “You have to be willing to push ahead and have that tenacity.”
2. Know why you’re doing it.
If business ownership becomes more like a job instead of a passion, then you’re doing something wrong, said Mike Haynie, IVMF executive director and founder.
“Take a little time and think about why you’re doing this,” he said. “You are more likely to be successful if you build a business that is created around something that’s meaningful to you.”
He told a tale of two local businesses with what he described as hippie-like cultures, where, in at least one case, employees practiced yoga together and conducted business meetings in a circle on the floor. Both were offered buyouts by much larger national companies. One decided not to sell and remained successful; the other accepted the offer and went bankrupt in six months.
The lesson wasn’t that you shouldn’t consider such an offer, but that you should let change happen in a way that’s consistent with your values, Haynie said.
“You are more likely to be successful if you build a business that is created around something that’s meaningful to you,” he said. “You are more likely to not find success if you allow folks to seduce you away from that meaning and erode it away.”
Megan Ogilvie, CEO of Dog Tag Inc., which runs the Dog Tag Bakery in D.C., said people often ask her why she doesn’t try to grow the business by adding more locations or selling their products in name brand grocery stores.
When questions like this and opportunities arise, go back to your mission, she said.
“Does this serve your mission, and does this serve the population that you want to support?” she told entrepreneurs to ask themselves. “If at the end of the day, you’re making it work, realize you’re making it work.”
3. Find a balance that’s right for you.
Erica McMannes, co-founder and CEO of the virtual staffing company HireMadSkills Inc., calls herself a “recovering perfectionist.”
With her husband on active duty, McMannes knew that starting a business would change the family dynamic and her roles as a wife and mother. But she realized she could be successful in all three areas as long as she stayed focus on the task in front of her.
The key components to her success have been constant communication with her spouse and learning to say “no,” she said.
But what works for McMannes might not work for someone else. IVMF Chief Operating Officer Maureen Casey said in an interview that she’s seen people put too much pressure on themselves trying to find a magic recipe for work-life balance that doesn’t exist.
“Whether you’re a transitioning service member (or) a spouse – and you have a family and other obligations – there is no right or wrong answer to what is the right balance,” she said. “You shouldn’t let yourself be judged by others. You should just do what’s right for you and those that are in your immediate network.”
Besides, what works now may not in the future.
“It is so individual for each family,” McManness said. “And guess what? As a (military) spouse, what’s normal for two years or six months is going to change in another six months or two years.”
4. Practice confidence.
“Women are judged faster by their handshake than men are,” said Dianna Flett, a retired Army lieutenant colonel and founder of Girl Smarts, which facilitates workshops in confidence building for young girls. “It makes that first impression which only takes three seconds when you’re introducing yourself.”
To boost your confidence, Flett recommends taking public speaking classes and practicing eye contact. If you’re naturally an introvert, you will have to adopt some extroverted traits, she said.
There’s also something to the old adage, “Fake it ‘til you make it,” she reminded the group.
Building confidence starts with keeping commitments to yourself, said Payne — even simple ones like getting up when your alarm goes off or going to the gym.
She has surveyed more than 1,000 women entrepreneurs, and more than 98 percent agree that they’re good at keeping commitments with others, but not with themselves, she said, which affects personal confidence and time spent developing the business.
5. In business, as in life, choose your partner wisely.
“Cofounders are definitely like a marriage,” said McMannes, who co-founded HireMadSkills with a fellow military spouse and former neighbor.
McMannes said it’s important to find a person who complements your strengths and weaknesses and is someone with whom you can be completely comfortable and honest — just like in marriage.
But the decision isn’t just an emotional one, Flett reminded the group. You need to have a contingency plan for everything for both the business’ success and potential failure in a legally binding partnership agreement.
As you might do with a prenup, put everything on paper and get a lawyer involved.
6. Have multiple mentors.
Beverly Grandison, a retired Army captain and founder and CEO of Premier Health and Wellness Consulting, has a mentor for her finances, another for business development and another for her personal character.
“Don’t think that you have to commit to one mentor that’s going to find all of the solutions for all the problems you’ve been having,” she said.
It’s even OK to outgrow them, or for them to outgrow you. You’re not married to them for life, she said.
7. Take advantage of available resources.
“If you have a goal, go for it and do it smart,” Leslie, of SBA, said. “Take advantage of the resources around you.”
Many women don’t know there are resources out there specific to women entrepreneurs — everything from events to small business loans through SBA, Leslie said in an interview.
SBA also operates a network of Women’s Business Centers, which offer training, counseling and other resources for women entrepreneurs. Of the more than 100 centers around the country, 20 specifically target women veterans, according to SBA’s website.
Misty Stutsman, director of the Center of Excellence for Veteran Entrepreneurship at IVMF, said as the number of women in business grows, so does the number of resources to help them. But taking advantage of what’s out there can sometimes get lost in the balancing act between running a business and taking care of a family, as McManness discussed.
“We talk about all these resources, but if you don’t put time away for yourself to make use of these resources, then they’re not there, really,” Stutsman said. “Entrepreneurship is not selfish; it’s a way forward.”
8. Just go for it.
Women especially feel like they have to learn more or be better, Payne said. But if you have a good plan, it’s time to get out of your head and go for it.
“You are enough as you are right now. You have to trust yourself,” she said.
Leslie echoed the sentiment.
“If you have a goal, go for it, and do it smart. Take advantage of the resources around you,” she said. “I think it’s a great time to be a woman in business.”
Natalie Gross has been reporting for Military Times since 2017. She grew up in a military family and has a master's degree in journalism from Georgetown University.