Veteran applying for a business loan

From Soldier to Small Business Owner (Veteran’s Guide)

10+ min read • Feb 27, 2020 • Jesse Sumrak

Looking to make the jump from soldier to small business owner? Chances are you’re much better prepared than most aspiring entrepreneurs (fact, not opinion). Your training, leadership, and experience have likely sharpened you into an efficient weapon—one that’s incredibly valuable outside of combat, too.

America hasn’t always shown the appreciation veterans deserve. Fortunately, we’re finally getting our act together. Now more than 10% of US small business owners are veterans—and for good reason. Veterans have the resilience, discipline, and willingness to sacrifice that make for top-notch business owners.

From finance and insurance to mining to real estate, veterans are making an impact in every industry you can imagine. According to the SBA, veterans are 45% more likely to be self-employed than those who have not served. Veterans now own more than 2.5 million businesses in the US, and that number doesn’t appear to be slowing down.

“You go through so much in the military, but really what the military is teaching you is how to be resilient,” said Dawn Halfaker, founder and CEO of Halfaker and Associates. “You plan a mission, and then you execute, but nothing ever goes according to plan. Your job is to continue to lead in not-ideal circumstances.”

That sounds like entrepreneurship in a nutshell. If you’re a veteran looking to build a business from the ground up, then hold your head high—the odds are in your favor! And fortunately for you, there are concrete fiscal benefits to running a veteran-owned small business, and we want to help you take advantage of all of them. This guide will walk you through everything you need to know to make your business-owning dream a profitable reality. First, let’s make a plan.

Creating a Small Business Plan

Before you start building your business, you need a plan. Your plan will be the roadmap to your success. Where are you currently? Where do you want to be 1 year, 5 years, and 10 years from now? What do you need to do to get there? Your business plan will help you answer these critical questions, and these answers will guide your business like Siri guides your car…except better.

Don’t have a business plan yet? No problem! Take an hour or a day (or a week) to walk through our Step-by-Step Guide to Creating a Business Plan. This plan will help you decide which industry you should target and what kind of business you should build. Where is their demand? What startup would be best served by your skillset?

Benjamin Franklin said, “If you fail to plan, you are planning to fail!” You’d probably nod your head at that. Then, you might tack on a well-known quote from Valkyrie, “Remember, this is a military operation. Nothing ever goes according to plan.” Then, we would take our turn to nod ours.

Entrepreneurship is full of surprises and unknown variables. You can’t plan for everything, and even when you do, everything could still go wrong. That’s where your resilient attribute really comes in handy. When faced with challenges, others would likely throw in the towel, but you’ve been trained to grit your teeth and fight through the hard times.

If you’re struggling to come up with a viable business plan, don’t stress too much. There are plenty of veteran-specific resources we’ll discuss later that will help you fill in all the critical details. Free education, training, mentorship, online courses—there are tools available for whatever you need to find the best path forward.

Now, with your plan in hand, it’s time to start building your business. Where do we begin? You’ll need to get your certification, so let’s start there.

How to Get Certified as a Veteran-Owned Business

You’d think it’d be simple for a former soldier to register his or her business as veteran-owned, but this is America—haven’t you seen the tax forms? No, the process is far from as cut and dry as it should be. But don’t let that stop you from getting registered! Studies show that 70% of Americans would prefer to do business with a veteran-owned business than a non-veteran-owned one. This is an opportunity you can’t pass up.

1. First, determine if you qualify. 

The requirements are fairly stringent:

  • Your business must be labeled as a small business. This designation generally means it must have 500 or fewer employees and average annual receipts under $7.5 million.
  • You’ll need to own at least 51% of the company you’re trying to certify. Plus, you’ll need to be in charge and part of the day-to-day management and operations.
  • Of course, you’ll need to be a veteran. To prove you’re a veteran, you’ll need a Department of Defense Form 214 (DD 214). This form is given when a service member retires, separates, or is honorably discharged from the military.
  • You must work full-time for the business.

Keep in mind that this is just the process for the official government-issued certification. You’ll need it to win large government contracts, but many corporations have their own certification processes to prove your eligibility. So this lengthy certification method isn’t the only way to benefit from your veteran status.

2. Register with the United States Department of Veterans Affairs (VA).

If you meet the qualifications above, then you should register with the VA. This step will help you win veteran-first contracts from the federal government. All you need to do is apply through the Vets First Verification Program.

3. Register with the Central Contractor Registration (CCR).

Before you win any contract, you’ll also need to register with the CCR. The process is straightforward and has no cost, but it’s something else you’ll need to take care of to work with the government.

4. Consider Registering as a Service-Disabled Veteran.

Certain government contracts are set aside specifically for service-disabled veterans. To find out if you’re eligible, take a look at the VA’s qualifications. Whether you’ve lost your hearing or suffered a gunshot wound, most disabilities will make you eligible for this benefit. If you qualify, file your claim online.

5. Register with the General Services Administration (GSA).

The GSA certification isn’t necessary to work with the government, but it sure does help in winning the bigger contracts. The GSA is basically a list of companies that the government trusts for certain products—if you’re listed here, you’ll be front and center for new government business.

Registering as a GSA vendor is a lengthy process, but it’s worth it. Here are the tedious steps:

  • Obtain a Data Universal Numbering System (DUNS) Number
  • Complete a Past Performance Evaluation
  • Get a North American Industrial Classification System (NAICS) Code
  • Verify Your Small Business Status on the Small Business Administration (SBA) Website
  • Register with the System for Award Management (SAM)

Once you’ve done all that, then you have a chance at getting into the GSA vendor catalog.

Now what? Well, it takes a little bit of money to change the world, so let’s look at your financing options.

How to Find Financing for Your Veteran-Owned Business

You can find a variety of financing options for your veteran-owned business. You could secure veteran-specific programs and grants or debt financing.

Veteran-Specific Financing Programs

You can find several financing options that are veteran-specific. These loans usually come with fantastic rates and terms, so if you qualify, they’re a shoo-in.

1. Veterans Business Fund (VBF)

The VBF is a nonprofit organization formed to help a growing number of unemployed veterans get access to supplemental capital to qualify for small business loans. So if you’re struggling to qualify for a loan because you don’t have the necessary base capital, apply for help from VBF.

2. StreetShares

StreetShares is an online loan marketplace created by veterans for veterans. It is a different kind of peer-to-peer lending platform model that connects borrowers and investors that have commonalities, like military service. StreetShares is a great option for low-revenue businesses and new startups.

3. Military Reservist Economic Injury Disaster Loan program (MREIDL)

This interesting financing option is run by the US Small Business Administration (SBA). MREIDL provides funds to small businesses that have been impacted by a leader or critical employee being called up to active duty with the reserves. Veterans can apply for this loan within 1 year of returning from active duty, but some of the terms last up to 30 years.

4. Hivers and Strivers

If you’re a veteran who graduated from a US military academy, you may qualify for financing from Hivers and Strivers. Hivers and Strivers is an angel investment group that focuses on early-stage startups. Most of the group’s founders and leaders have served in the military, so they’re all about supporting young veteran entrepreneurs.

This list is by no means definitive, but it’s a great place to start looking for veteran-specific financing options. Plenty of other grants and programs are also available, especially if you’re looking to join a specific franchise like UPS, Little Caesars, Anytime Fitness, and many others.

Debt Financing

Veteran status or not, you likely qualify for a variety of loans. Here are some standard small business financing options to consider:

  • Business Line of Credit: Capital you can use for practically any business need. An awesome financial safety net that’s there when you need it, but you’re under no obligation to use it.
  • Short Term Loan: Quick financing that can get you access to cash in as little as 24 hours, but the speed comes at the price of a higher rate.
  • Business Term Loan: The classic loan. You get a lump sum of cash that you pay back (with interest) over a set amount of time.
  • Equipment Financing: Financing to buy equipment ranging from your toaster to your computer to your forklift.  
  • Accounts Receivable Financing: Accounts receivable financing exchanges your outstanding receivables for immediate cash.
  • Business Acquisition Loan: Capital you can use to buy an existing business or franchise.
  • SBA Loan: Special government-backed loans that come with fantastic rates and terms. Hard to qualify for but definitely worth it.
  • Merchant Cash Advance: Cash now in exchange for a percentage of your future earnings.
  • Business Credit Card: Like a personal credit card, except it’s for your business.
  • Commercial Mortgage: Funding to help you buy, rent, renovate, or refinance real estate.
  • Startup Loan: Loans intended to help fund your early stages while retaining your valuable equity.

Woah. You have a lot of loans to choose from. And that’s not all—there are a couple of debt financing options available to everyone that come with a slight advantage for veterans:

  • SBA Express Loan Program: Thanks to the SBA’s Veterans Advantage program, veterans can have the up-front guarantee fee waived if they qualify for this loan. Maximum funding through the SBA Express Loan Program is capped at $350,000, but that’s really the only downside to this financing option.
  • SBA 7(a) Loan: This loan is available to all small business owners, but the Veterans Advantage program will also waive up-front guarantee fees here, too. You could score a loan up to $5 million with terms as long as 25 years—plus, they have incredibly low interest rates.

Veteran-Owned Small Business Resources

Money is only one part (although a large one) of building a business. You also need the know-how to use that money wisely. Veterans get a leg up on the competition with access to several veteran-specific small business resources. There are a lot of resources available, but here are a few of our favorites:

Patriot Boot Camp

Patriot Boot Camp (PBC) is an accelerator program (presented by Techstars) that helps veterans and their spouses create tech companies. PBC’s flagship program is a free 3-day event that includes education training and 1:1 mentorship. If you’re thinking of starting a tech startup, trust PBC to give you the tools and talents you need to kick things off with a bang.

Veteran Business Outreach Centers

The SBA provides veteran-specific business training all over the US right in the heart of the communities. Check the SBA’s local assistance page to find a center near you. These Veterans Business Outreach Centers offer training, counseling, and mentorship to help start and grow your business. Plus, the professionals helping you are from your community—so they’ll be best positioned to answer your questions and guide you in the right direction.

Boots to Business

Boots to Business (B2B) is another SBA-offered program that provides business and entrepreneurship training to veterans. Registrants start with a 2-day in-person program to learn the fundamentals. Afterward, participants can advance their studies with a free 8-week online course that walks students through creating their business plan and other critical elements of a startup. 

SAM.gov

SAM.gov is a conglomerate of a ton of valuable (but older) resources and programs for veteran business owners. Currently in beta, this site has replaced FBO.gov, WDOL.gov, CFDA.gov, and others to become “the official US government website for people who make, receive, and manage federal awards.” If you’re looking for information on federal contracts, grants, assistance, or entities, this site is now your one-stop-shop.

Veteran Entrepreneur Portal

The VA’s Veteran Entrepreneur Portal (VEP) is a go-to resource for all things startup. Whether you’re looking for best practices, financing, government contracting opportunities, or training, the VEP has it all and much more. All veteran business owners should spend some time scrolling through the incredible amount of free information and resources on this platform.

VetToCEO

VetToCEO is a nonprofit organization that supports veteran entrepreneurs through a 7-week core program. The program is run by veterans for veterans, so the experience is tailored specifically to your unique circumstances. Learn how to make entrepreneurship a viable career path by collaboratively building everything from your business plan to your intended sources of funding.

Thank You for Your Service

Free resources, simple financing, and federal contracts won’t come close to repaying you for the service you’ve rendered our country, but hopefully they can play an important role in getting your veteran-owned business off the ground. 

Let’s be honest. You don’t need any of these additional advantages, but they sure can help. You now have a business plan, financing to get it off the ground, veteran certification, and every resource you could imagine. Plus, you have the training, experience, discipline, and leadership to create a successful business. Now you just need to take action to make your business-owning dream a reality.

There’s a reason close to half of all American World War II veterans went on to become business owners. You notice problems and work hard to find solutions. You have the tenacity to fight for what you believe in, even if it’s not easy.

We thank you for your military service to our country, and we hope you can continue to make America a great place in a different capacity. As a small business owner, you can still play a significant role in your community, the government, our country, and the world. Now go get after it, entrepreneur.

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Jesse Sumrak

Jesse Sumrak is a Social Media Manager for SendGrid, a leading digital communication platform. He's created and managed content for startups, growth-stage companies, and publicly-traded businesses. Jesse has spent almost a decade writing about small business and entrepreneurship topics, having built and sold his own post-apocalyptic fitness bootstrapped startup. When he's not dabbling in digital marketing, you'll find him ultrarunning in the Rocky Mountains of Colorado. Jesse studied Public Relations at Brigham Young University.