A Veteran’s guide to starting a small business
July 20, 2020
The Census Bureau estimates 6.1% of all businesses in the U.S. are veteran-owned. Here’s how YOU can join their ranks
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 it’s not an easy journey. This guide is here to help if you’re a veteran looking to start a business.
Veterans don’t just help protect our country; they build it up, too.
According to the most recent Census Bureau data released in May 2020, an estimated 6.1% of all businesses in the U.S. are veteran-owned, with 351,000 of those veteran-owned companies employing American workers.
Veterans are also significantly more likely than non-veterans to be self-employed. According to new data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), for example, veterans make up more than twice the number of sole proprietors (self-employed individuals who have not formally incorporated their businesses) than non-veterans.
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.
Based on previous surveys of veteran business-owners, the Small Business Administration (SBA) estimates that at least 85.3% of veteran business owners founded their businesses themselves. As with self-employment, veterans are also significantly more likely to independently start job-creating businesses than non-veterans, according to SBA data.
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. Veterans have their hand in virtually every sector of the economy, from finance and insurance to transportation, real estate, construction and even health care.
Women veterans, in particular, have come to represent an increasingly large share of the entrepreneurial workforce. According to the National Women’s Business Council, for example, the percentage of veteran-owned businesses run by women has grown dramatically in recent years, outpacing the growth of other veteran-owned businesses.
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 home in on the absolute best business ideas.
Once you’ve created a shortlist 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 road map 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” (DBA), 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.
Insuring your business
You’ll also want to look into business insurance options, such as professional liability insurance or product liability insurance. Proper insurance is important for any business. However, it’s especially critical if you choose to remain a sole proprietor, since your personal assets won’t be protected from liability claims related to your business.
The Small Business Administration offers a good overview of the types of business insurance you might need and how to get them.
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.
See related: Credit guide for military members and their families
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 use 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 veteran-run StreetShares Foundation, for example, offers veteran-friendly business loans you may want to consider.
So do federally-funded Community Development Financial Institutions (CDFI), such as the multistate coalition of CDFIs working with Veteran LLC (which is part of J.P. Morgan Chase’s Small Business Forward Program). According to the New York Federal Reserve, a number of large lenders, such as Chase, have committed to funding veteran entrepreneurs through CDFIs.
CDFIs participating in the Veteran LLC coalition include:
- Carolina Small Business Development Fund
- Main Street Launch
- People Fund
- Access to Capital for Entrepreneurs (ACE)
To find other CDFIs in your area, the Department of Treasury offers a special search tool.
You can also get loans designed specifically for small businesses through business lenders, such as Lendio, Kabbage and FundingCircle.
As with other small businesses, veteran-owned businesses tend to be more successful securing business financing from online lenders and small banks than larger banks (which often have stricter approval standards).
According to the New York Federal Reserve, for example:
- 70% of veteran-owned businesses that applied for an online business loan in 2017 were approved.
- 60% of veteran-owned businesses that applied for a business loan from a small bank received at least some funding.
- Just 53% of veteran-owned businesses were approved for a business loan from a larger bank.
If you’re unsure where to start, check out the SBA’s lender match tool to get connected with other lenders that might be willing to help fund your business. Be aware, though, that many lenders have temporarily paused business lending during the COVID-19 crisis.
The Small Business Administration no longer offers loans for veteran entrepreneurs either. However, it does offer loans of up to $2 million to veteran small business owners who have been called to active duty service for the National Guard or Reserves.
The SBA also offers a limited number of other small business assistance programs, such as the SBA 7(a) loan program, which federally guarantees loans made to qualifying small business owners.
If you were disabled in the service, you may also qualify for certain business contracts (and thereby funds) from the Veteran Administration’s Service-Disabled Veteran-Owned Small Business program. The government has committed to a goal of awarding at least 3% of all federal contracts to small businesses owned by service-disabled veterans.
Personal loans give you the freedom to use your borrowed funds as you wish. They are also more widely available during the COVID-19 crisis.
Use a personal loan to finance your business goals or put it 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.
As a member of the military, you’re in an even better position to find an unusually good deal on credit cards. Many credit card issuers, for example, offer special perks to veterans and active duty servicemembers, such as dramatically reduced interest rates and annual fee waivers.
Many of today’s cards also 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 22 of these centers across the nation, each with its own training and financing programs. Many offer management, entrepreneurship and small business training courses (both in-person and online), online webinars you can attend from anywhere, free market research and location-specific grants to help veterans jump-start their careers. Reach out to a center near you to see what programs and events it offers and what grants you may be eligible for.
- Grantwatch: Grantwatch is a directory-service listing grants from all over the country and across a wide variety of industries. You can use the directory’s search tool to look for grants that are specifically for veterans.
- Grants.gov: Grants.gov is another online database of available grants. As with Grantwatch, not all of them are designated for veterans. However, you can 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 also 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.
You can also use grants to hire other veterans. For example, the Department of Labor offers Jobs for Veterans State Grants.
Also keep an eye out for other special grants for veteran entrepreneurs that may pop up throughout the year.
Additional financing options
Some entrepreneurs opt for crowdfunding to meet their financing goals. For example, you can find investors using platforms such as Kickstarter, Indiegogo, SeedInvest, Crowdfunder, CrowdSupply, Fundable, WeFunder and Fundly. For service-based businesses and creatives, you can also set up ongoing subscription services through Patreon.
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.
See related: How should I fund my side business?
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 toward women and service-disabled veterans.
The Office of Veterans Business Development also lists an extensive collection of resources for veterans and veteran small businesses, including:
- The Veterans’ Business Outreach Center
- The SBA’s Boots to Business Entrepreneurial Training Program
- Boots to Business Reboot classes
- The SBA’s Veteran-Owned Small Business Growth Training Program
- The National Veteran Small Business Coalition
- The Veteran Institute for Procurement
- The U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation’s Hiring Our Heroes Initiative
- Veteran’s Guide to Starting a Business in 2021
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 Veterans Affairs’ Veteran Entrepreneur Portal and Training and Employment hub
- The Small Business Administration’s Mentor & Counseling Program
- Your local Veteran’s Business Outreach Center
Programs for women veterans
The number of women veterans is also rapidly increasing. According to the Department of Labor, 10% of veterans are women. 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, health care 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
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.