Running a successful business is hard no matter who you are. The good news is that, thanks to training received in the military, veterans have skills that lend themselves particularly well to entrepreneurial environments. That may be why 30% of all small businesses are owned by veterans, although they only make up 8% of the population. Veterans are twice as likely to own their own business as other adults.
While veterans have the mindset and entrepreneurial skillset to succeed as business owners, nobody knows everything. Here are some tips and resources available to veterans that can help boost your odds of business success:
- Business plans are worth the effort. Companies based on well-developed business plans have better odds of success long-term. That doesn’t mean you need to prepare a 300-page document, but even a two-page plan to guide your business’ growth will be worth the effort. Want help putting one together? Your local Veterans Business Outreach Center (VBOC) has business plan prep training.
- Get verified as a veteran-owned business. If you offer a product or service to other businesses, becoming verified as a veteran-owned business can open doors for you. Government agencies and many corporations are required to buy a certain percentage of their goods and services from veteran-owned ventures, so put yourself in contention. The Center for Verification and Evaluation (CVE) can help.
- Pick a niche and stick with it. Many solid businesses get into trouble when they broaden their offerings or their target market, becoming generalists. A better strategy is to be clear about what you’re best at and who your most profitable customer is – it’s not “everyone.” Establishing yourself as the go-to firm for your market – a specialist – will increase your profitability and reduce your marketing expenses.
- Rely on low-cost marketing tactics as long as possible. Being fiscally responsible will give your company much higher odds of success. That means finding ways to make every dollar stretch, including your marketing budget. So make the most of free social media platforms first, like Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and Pinterest before spending money on expensive advertising.
- Don’t rush to hire. Adding more employees is a big commitment for your business. Not only do you need to be able to generate enough revenue to pay their salaries, but investing in their training and development is costly both in money and time. So be sure that you really have no capacity left within your current workforce before adding a new worker. And keep your options open, if you can, by hiring on a temporary, contract, or part-time basis until you’re convinced you need full-time manpower for growth.
- Look for in-person networking opportunities. There’s nothing like face-to-face meetings when you’re trying to build new business relationships. Sure, you can do a lot by phone and email, but in-person conferences, meetings, workshops, and presentations can push your business to grow. One good annual conference for veteran-owned businesses interested in procurement, for example, is the National Veterans Small Business Engagement.
- Apply for a loan before you need it. If your business is growing and you can foresee a time when you’ll need a cash infusion to be able to buy more inventory, buy a building, or purchase new equipment, start working on your loan application now. There are a number of loan and grant programs specifically for veterans. You can learn more at the Small Business Administration’s website, which has a loan and grant search tool. You might also want to see what kind of small business loan is available at OnDeck.
- Get noticed as an industry leader. Positioning yourself as an industry leader will help attract new opportunities to your business. To be seen as a leader, become visible. Submit bylined articles to your industry’s magazines, offer to give speeches on trendy topics to your industry’s major conferences, write a book, add resource materials and videos to your company website, or partner with larger industry players on deals.
- Set up online groups. Bring together colleagues, fellow business owners, and potential clients by creating an online group on LinkedIn or Facebook. There, encourage discussion and networking. As the owner of the group, you are the de facto leader. That’s exactly where you want to be.
- Keep an eye out for acquisition targets. There are two ways your company can grow: organically, on its own, or by acquiring competing or complementary businesses. Make a list of the characteristics the perfect acquisition target would have, and then pay attention to who might fit the bill. Buying a competitor can help increase production capacity, reduce pressure on pricing, and catapult you forward in terms of prestige and financial strength.
- Ask for help when you need it. Sometimes you’ll encounter situations you don’t know how to deal with. That’s the perfect opportunity to hire a consultant or to find a mentor. The Service Corps of Retired Executives (SCORE) provides such mentoring help at no charge.
- Invest in training. As your business grows, so, too, will your own skills and capabilities need to grow and expand. Running a growing enterprise requires different knowledge than a startup did. The Department of Veterans Affairs has online courses on starting and growing a business that is a good place to start.
- Refresh your website. The website you built to start your business is very likely outdated at this point. Invest a little time and money in sprucing up your website, so that it gets ranked in search engines and then converts visitors to customers. You might want to add a blog, to give customers a reason to regularly come back to your site, and make sure it is SEO-friendly.
- Consider opening a new location. If business is good and you’re quickly outgrowing your current space, does it make sense to open another location in a different part of town? Or on the other side of the country? Where are your customers, and from where can you best serve them?
- Stay focused on customer service. The best way to keep customers coming back is to remain committed to serving them. That means making sure their needs are being met, staying in touch, doing what’s best for them even when it might cost you a few bucks, and listening to their feedback. Study customer service leaders like Zappos and Wegmans supermarkets for tips on how to improve and keep your business consistently growing.
With experience gleaned from your military service, expertise earned from entrepreneurship, and access to small business resources, you can grow your business and continue to success.