November 11, 2015
In honor of Veterans Day, I spoke with veterans who have used their skills and experiences from the military and turned them into successful entrepreneurial endeavors. For Sworkit’s COO Greg Coleman, there is a clear correlation between his training in the US Air Force as a pilot and how he now prioritizes projects and leads teams.
Sworkit is a Washington, D.C.-based startup whose fitness app enables you to exercise anywhere, without any equipment, in the free time you have available. The free version of the app is also considered to be the only free fitness app to pass the American College of Sports Medicine’s exercise guidelines, which likely has something to with why they have millions of active users.
When asked to sum up how his experiences in the Air Force prepared him for the startup world, Coleman compared them to field and staff roles in the military:
“Bring your focus on mission execution and leave behind the bureaucracy,” said Coleman. “Being in a startup is more like being in the field than being on the staff. Men and women in the field.. bureaucrats get in the way.”
For Coleman, he feels there are three primary areas that really help veterans excel as entrepreneurs: grit and resilience, perspective, and the ability to think systematically.
“We are used to, some literally being punched in the face and knocked down, getting up over and over again. Being able to perform on little to no sleep. Pushing through despite discomfort,” said Coleman.
For veterans, it’s their grit that allows them to get overcome obstacles. Building on their resilience, having a clear and laser-focused perspective is important. During a past demo day through Techstars Veteran Bootcamp demo days a reporter asked Coleman what it means to him if nothing resulted from their pitch. “I go to bed, wake up, the sun still comes up, and I just go back into the grind. As a veteran we have the perspective of ‘Hey, this is just business.’ We can always fight another day,” said Coleman.
Finally, being able to prioritize tasks and think systematically is a necessity. In the past as a pilot, it was necessary to have all systems interrelated. Just like a weapons system, it is not useful on its own. According to Coleman, “as a business you have to have it all working in unison. I was a pilot. My fuel, my system all has to work properly in unison. I have to focus on all these things.”
Military leadership skills also directly correlate to the skills required as an entrepreneur; however, as a commander you often are unable to select your teams. According to Coleman, his time as a commander taught him how to get along with diverse groups of people, to cross different boundaries. His team consisted of various cultures, genders, educational backgrounds, and socioeconomic situations.
“One of my biggest takeaways from the military is that I can sit, and have a conversation [over] a beer with anyone from small towns to wine with someone from Manhattan. I feel like I can relate to them: I leave my preconceived notions at the door,” said Coleman.
Further, in the military you often inherit teams. When that occurs, there may not be people performing as well as they should. Everyone needs to operate well, and that requires the team and leader to get them up to speed. However, Coleman notes that in a startup environment that may not always convert. “In a startup you may just need to swap out the piece; have to fire quickly. In the military it has to be quote unquote ‘really bad to fire them.’”
As for veterans interested in entrepreneurial efforts but don’t have a business idea to pursue, Coleman suggests joining a startup as an early stage employee:
“Be employee number three, four, or five and figure out how to tackle it. For entrepreneurs looking to grow a team and find someone that can hit the ground running, their (veterans) ability to keep their eye on the prize, and drive ahead to the end game is unparalleled,” said Coleman.
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