WASHINGTON -- A lot of service members and veterans are budding entrepreneurs, but not everybody has the confidence or know-how to make their business idea happen.
Emily Nunez Cavness is one of the exceptions. The former Army officer started her own business right as her military career began, and the company took off.
So how'd she do it? Here's her story and a few tips she passed along.
MIXING MILITARY, COLLEGE, AND BUSINESS
Cavness had always been familiar with the military. Her dad was an Army quartermaster for 30 years and then taught political science at the U.S. Military Academy. That desire to serve transferred to her, but she also wanted to study foreign languages. So, after high school, she went to Middlebury College in Vermont. The small school didn't offer ROTC, though, so she joined the program at the University of Vermont instead, driving an hour between the two for her classes and duties.
When she wasn't doing that, she worked on a side business that eventually became her career.
"I thought of an idea with my sister to repurpose military surplus material into fashionable bags and accessories that would be made by veteran-owned American manufacturers … to bridge the civilian-military divide and empower veteran employment," she said.
THE BEGINNINGS OF AN IDEA
Incredibly, Cavness was the only ROTC cadet at Middlebury's campus. She'd been around military folks all her life, yet suddenly, no one knew anything about it. Many students asked her why she chose to serve when she had other options.
"That was shocking to me because the decision to serve in the military was just so clear to me -- to be part of something much bigger than myself and serve alongside inspiring leaders who really care about giving back," she said.
That made her to want to strengthen the understanding between civilian and military communities, so after attending a social entrepreneurship symposium in college, she came up with the idea for Sword & Plough. A few weeks later, she won a business plan competition. That win led to mentorship and a grant to get the company started.
Money is crucial to getting any business off the ground, but it's not the easiest to come by. Cavness and her team planned to crowdsource, but her deployment threw off their launch date. Her team quickly decided to launch their Kickstarter campaign early, before she left.
"Everyone had been working so hard that we knew the best time was now," Cavness said.
Their goal was to raise $20,000 in a month to fund their first production order. They got that within two hours.
"When the first preorder came in, it was such a celebratory moment, and then they just kept coming," Cavness said. "We never thought it would be as successful as it was."
By the end of the campaign, they'd raised more than $310,000 from supporters around the world.
MILITARY SKILLS LED TO BUSINESS INSIGHT
Cavness said there are actually a lot of similarities between the military and the business world.
"The leadership experiences I gained in the military have helped me so much, especially in leading a team and in building a business -- from the leadership and management skills to logistics, inventory and operations. Those are some of the more technical skills that I learned in the military," she said.
She knew how to keep a level head and lead appropriately, and those skills paid off. The company has grown by leaps and bounds -- while it first started with just three products, the company now offer 65.
WORDS OF WISDOM
Cavness mentors Soldiers and veterans who have great ideas, but she said many of them don't know how to get started. Her advice? Know you have nothing to lose.
"As long as you're really determined and passionate about the idea, it will succeed," she said.
Secondly, she advises others to share their idea with someone who can help get it off the ground. She encourages entrepreneurs to check out grant competitions, crowdsourcing and other funding options, such as American Corporate Partners, which pairs military entrepreneurs with business professionals.
And finally, she tells others to be confident in their military experience.
"The leadership experience they had in the military transfers 100 percent to business," she said. "Leadership within the military is all about leading people, and businesses are the same way."
Lastly, building the right team is crucial. Cavness had to leave for Afghanistan just as her company was getting started, but she had a team she trusted to move the business forward, and they did.
HOW A CIVILIAN COMPANY GETS SURPLUS MILITARY MATERIAL
Cavness said the company works with five veteran-owned or -operated American manufacturers and a veteran-owned fulfillment center to make and ship the products. They also get material from a nationwide uniform donation program.
"When I got out of the military, I realized I had a basement full of uniforms, and I wanted to do something with that," Cavness said. She knew a lot of other vets had a surplus, too. "We thought, 'How amazing would it be if we made a nationwide donation program where veterans can send in uniforms they no longer need, and we can re-purpose that and incorporate that material into our product line?'"
The company has received items from flight suits to World War II uniforms, Cavness said. The program has become so popular that there's actually a waiting list to donate.
Aside from that, the company donates 10 percent of its profits to veteran nonprofit organizations that have similar missions to its own.