By Michael StrasserMarch 2, 2018
FORT DRUM, N.Y. (March 2, 2018) -- They are gym and winery owners, franchisees, farmers and ranchers. Their talents are diverse, but one thing they have in common is that they served in the military and, upon transitioning out, they decided to go into business for themselves.
At Fort Drum, Soldiers and Family Members have opportunities to learn how to start their own businesses at Army Community Service and the Soldier for Life - Transition Assistance Program.
During a recent ACS class, one Army spouse wanted to start a family bee-keeping business and possibly expand it into a hobby farm. Seated next to her was an officer who will start a new career as a cattle farmer after retiring.
The free two-hour Build Your Own Business class informs attendees on what goes into a business plan, to include cash flow analysis and profit and loss statement. Participants also learn about market research, funding opportunities and licensing.
These topics are covered more thoroughly over two days in the Boots to Business (B2B) course at Clark Hall. The free B2B class is part of the Department of Defense's Soldier for Life - Transition Assistance Program, offered through the U.S. Small Business Administration.
"Boots to Business is the first step in the entrepreneurship process," said Lorrie Guler, Fort Drum SFL-TAP manager. "For the most part, before taking the B2B workshop, all Soldiers attend the three-day Department of Labor Employment Workshop."
Robin Stephenson, an advanced certified business adviser with the New York State Small Business Development Center (SBDC) in Watertown, instructs both the B2B and Build Your Own Business classes at Fort Drum.
She said that attendees learn what needs to be included in business plans and are provided the resources to complete one. After completing the course, attendees have access to a six-week online class hosted by Mississippi State and a SBDC web-based program to build a business plan.
Stephenson starts the class by asking each attendee the business they want to start, and then she offers individuals some initial advice or something they should consider while planning on that venture. Even though entrepreneurs are risk-takers, she said the successful ones have done their research to mitigate as many risks as they can.
"Doing your research is key to becoming successful," she said. "But you also have to have passion. You have to love what you're doing or that business won't be sustainable."
According to the U.S. Small Business Administration, nearly one in 10 small businesses in America are veteran-owned, which is approximately 2.4 million. Veterans are 45 percent more likely to be self-employed than non-veterans.
Stephenson said that successful business owners have some of the same characteristics as service members.
"All my veteran-clients love challenges and they don't like somebody telling them no," she said. "Veterans are adaptable and they are resilient, and that's what makes them successful."
Local veteran-business owners are invited as guest speakers to share their personal experiences about their transition from Soldier to business owner. Damon Draught spoke to the class on Feb. 28 about what he learned about owning a successful franchise.
"It's not easy," he said. "You could lose a lot of sleep owning your own business. But I love it."
Many franchises offer significant incentives for military veterans, and Draught advised attendees to seek the support available to veterans for financing their businesses.
"There are a lot of programs available out there for veterans, but the sad part is that veterans are not taking advantage of them," he said.
Draught said that he still refers to the original spreadsheets and material he received from the SBDC as he expanded his business venture to three locations. He joked that sometimes he would overhear other potential entrepreneurs talk about their ideas that Draught thought were bad.
"Whatever your idea may be, if the spreadsheet adds up properly you can say it might work after all, and if you're realistic in your projections," he said. "That's how I opened up my first store."
Draught retired in 2012 as a master sergeant with 3rd Brigade Combat Team at Fort Drum, prior to its reactivation at Fort Polk, La. He considered himself "a real in-your-face NCO" and that was something he had to deal with when communicating with his civilian work staff.
"The hardest part for me starting out was that I wish I knew how to deal with people better," he said. "One thing that I learned was that people don't really care until they are properly trained. I focused a lot more on training. When a person's job is to make burgers, and once they master that skill, they will move people out their way who don't know what they're doing because that person cares about the job."
Stephenson said that many Soldiers and Family Members who attend her class will make appointments to visit her or any of the other advisers at the SBDC office at Jefferson Community College.
"Because we're a government entity, our services are free of charge to sit down one-on-one with an adviser," she said. "It costs you nothing; that's your tax dollars at work."
The Watertown SBDC has a total of 1,098 veteran-clients, to include 444 from Fort Drum. According to the SBDC, veteran-clients who chose to stay local and opened businesses in the Jefferson, Lewis, St. Lawrence and Oswego counties, have generated nearly $8.1 million in impact revenue and created 265 jobs since 2013.
Daniel Pina completed the B2B course in 2016 and worked with an adviser at the SBDC before opening a paddleboard shop in Sackets Harbor. He served as an infantryman and sniper for nearly 14 years and was assigned to 2nd Battalion, 87th Infantry Regiment, 2nd Brigade Combat Team.
"I had an idea of owning my own business when I got out of the service," he said. "I wanted to take everything great I learned there, and apply it with practicality and organization."
At first, Pina considered opening a coffee shop, but he ultimately went with his passion. He recalled a conversation he had with a sergeant major during a deployment in 2007, when Pina told him his dream job of owning a kayak shop in Costa Rica. He came close to realizing that dream.
"Well, it's not a kayak shop, although we do have a lot of kayaks, and Sackets Harbor is good enough for me now," he said. "We instruct, compete and sell boards."
Pina said that the biggest entrepreneurial challenge he faced was the financial risks.
"I am all about calculated risk," he said. "It has to be worth it. So, I made a plan, kept the five-year vision of where I want to take it - always with my heart - and I am chugging along. I may have left the service, but I did not leave the rush and adventure for life."
Pina said that he would advise anyone planning to start their own business to measure risk versus reward and keep good records.
"Do the work," he said. "Study the trends. It's not about what you like, it's what the consumer will enjoy. Do customer service with excellence."
Pina said that he meets a lot of people from Fort Drum at his shop, and he hosted a veteran's wellness day at his business as a way of giving back to the military community. He also provides regular military discounts.
"Since Sackets Harbor is filled with a lot of military members, it has helped that I know the culture and speak the language," Pina said. "I have had a lot of Soldiers say it was good to see a veteran own a great business. That compliment is worth it all."
Pina said that his father-in-law is one of his business mentors and he subscribes to Veterati, which is a free mentorship group for veterans. He and his wife both serve as pastors, and Pina said it was important for them to remain in the area.
"I love this place," he said. "The winters don't bother me. When you have relationships that are healthy, seasons are just a great addition to your life. I am from Los Angeles, so I know what it's like to grow up in a large city. This place has a small-town feel, and there are quality people in Watertown."
Stephenson assured the class that if they choose to move out of state, veterans still have access to support.
"I'd love if everyone who starts their own business stays in the North Country, but that doesn't always happen," she said. "Fortunately, you're going to find a resource partner all across this nation. There are more than 600 SBDCs, so we're in your backyard."
Soldiers and spouses can also register with the SBDC for a free seven-week entrepreneurship training course at Jefferson Community College that meets from 6-9 p.m. Thursdays. The next class starts April 12. To register, call (315) 782-9262.
To learn more about the Build Your Own Business class at ACS, visit www.facebook.com/fortdrumemployment/ or call (315) 772-9611. The next class is 9:30-11:30 a.m. April 12.
To register for the next Boots to Business course, call SFL-TAP at (315) 772-3434 or visit https://www.facebook.com/DrumSFLTAP/.
"When Soldiers initiate services with SFL-TAP, we talk about career options, and we want to provide education about those options," Guler said. "Boots to Business addresses one of many options our service members and Family Members have. Robin does a great job of connecting the knowledge Soldiers gain from the DOL workshop to how they will use it as small business owners."