Military veteran-owned businesses make up a substantial percentage of businesses operating in the United States. In fact, more than 2.5 million U.S. businesses are veteran-owned, and more than 2 million of those businesses are run by veterans who are classified as self-employed. To be considered a veteran-owned business, at least 51% of the ownership must be allocated to a veteran, and that veteran must share in all risk and profits equal to their ownership interest.
Starting a business as a self-employed veteran can be a difficult process. However, we’re here to ease that process with information about planning, funding, setting up, managing, and growing a veteran-owned business. The article concludes with a list of resources that a veteran might use during the process of starting a business.
Beginning the Process
The first step in starting any business is choosing the type of business to launch. Veterans should begin by asking themselves four key questions:
- What are my skills?
- What am I interested in?
- What resources do I have?
- What need could I fill or problem could I solve?
Taking time to evaluate one’s talents or strengths can help with homing in on the types of businesses that might be a good fit. Playing to one’s strengths is important, so a good tactic is to identify as many skills as possible and look for patterns or themes that emerge. It’s also a good idea to consider business ideas based on established interests, such as a hobby or a lifelong dream.
In addition, starting a business typically requires a significant upfront investment, and it may require equipment. We’ll cover funding sources in more detail in the second article of this series, but potential business owners should consider now whether they have equipment that could form the basis of a business. For example, an existing work shed full of carpentry tools, skills as a craftsman, and an interest in continuing that line of work might be something to think about.
Finally, the needs of other people in one’s community can provide insight into potential businesses. Is there something that isn’t already in the local area—some product or service need that could be filled? Solving that problem for potential customers is a great way to get a business up and running quickly.
Conducting Market Research
Before launching any new business, the new veteran owner must understand what the business landscape looks like for the type of business he or she wants to start. Essentially, market research involves gathering information about potential customers and the target market. It’s important to understand who one’s customers are and what they want or need up front. The new owner’s goal is to determine whether there is an adequate market before writing a business plan.
Three key areas are crucial for conducting market research:
- Industry Description and Outlook, which will help you understand the current size, trends, and growth rate for your industry
- Target Market, which will help you describe the market you’re targeting, who is in it, what their demographics are, and so forth
- Competitive Analysis, which will help you identify who your competitors are, what they offer, what makes them unique, and how successful they are
Franchising, Buying, or Starting from Scratch
Once a type of business is chosen, the next step is to determine whether to open a franchise, buy out an existing business, or start a brand new business from scratch. This decision is largely dependent on the type of business. For example, if a potential business owner wants to open a fast-food restaurant, a car wash, or a retail store, a franchise is probably the best way to get started. Maybe you completed your accounting degree while you were still in the military or did so immediately after separating; you could start your own accounting firm, or you could buy a practice from someone who’s retiring.
Something else to consider, according to the Small Business Administration, is the balance of control and guidance one desires in the business. For example, new owners wanting full control of the business who don’t need much guidance may find starting from scratch or buying a business from someone is the way to go. On the other hand, someone needing a lot of guidance who doesn’t mind giving up control will find a franchise structure is essentially a “business in a box,” in that you’re given everything you need to get up and running, but you don’t get to determine what that looks like or how it’s done.
Regardless of which startup method you choose, due diligence is essential. Those who choose franchising will want to review the franchisor’s Uniform Franchise Offering Circular and read it thoroughly. Franchisees will also want to know what their rights and obligations are, and should seek legal and financial advice from professionals with franchise experience.
When buying a business from someone else, it’s important to make sure that the sale price being offered is fair. There are several methods for valuing a business, and some of them are quite complicated. In addition, there may be licensing, zoning, and other concerns that need to be addressed. As such, it’s critical to consult legal and financial experts early in the acquisition process to ensure you understand exactly what you’re buying.
The next step is setting goals for a business. It might seem counterintuitive to set goals at this point—before writing a business plan—but the goals set will help in creating a business plan that is realistic and actionable. When setting goals, you’ll probably find it easiest to use the SMART method:
- Specific: Clearly defined in precise terms. Not just “I want to have a successful business,” but “I want to attract X number of clients in the first year.”
- Measurable: Determine how you will measure your progress toward achieving your goal? What specific criteria will you use to determine whether you have accomplished your goals?
- Achievable: Goals must be realistic to be effective. Your goal might be difficult to achieve, but it must be possible to achieve it.
- Relevant: Is the goal appropriate at this time? Worth achieving in the specified time period?
- Time-Based: Specify a time period within which you want to achieve each goal.
Preparing the Pitch
The next step in starting a business is to create a pitch deck. Television shows like Shark Tank, demonstrate this step in action. The pitch itself is a proof of concept for the business that is then floated to trusted friends, family, and advisors. Their feedback will help with refining the pitch deck for potential investors.
A pitch deck can almost feel like a business plan, but it really should be a summarized version of that document. And, with a pitch, you likely only have a few minutes to describe your business idea to your target audience. Here are some tips for preparing a pitch deck:
- Keep it short, typically no more than 10 minutes, and less is even better.
- Use a story-telling strategy. Investors want to hear a story, not a series of statistics.
- Describe the product or service clearly and concisely.
- Provide a summary of the target market and the acquisition strategy.
- Identify the revenue model(s) chosen.
Naming the Business
A business’s name is almost as important as the product or service it offers. It needs to be catchy and descriptive. Don’t be afraid to try out lots of different name ideas within your advice circle, and consider getting help from an expert if you find that you’re not landing on a name that fits.
Choosing a Business Location
One of the most important elements of starting a business is choosing where it will be located. There are three main types of business locations: brick and mortar, online, and home-based.
Brick and Mortar
Setting up a brick and mortar-based business will be the most cost-intensive choice. Options will include buying or leasing a commercial property, with leasing being the most affordable and flexible (flexible in that you can move if necessary). Typically when leasing, you won’t have to spring for unexpected property repairs (unless you cause the damage). When buying, on the other hand, you do build equity and can make almost any physical changes to the space you desire.
The key here is really location, however. Where is the target demographic? A savvy business owner probably won’t want to open a bridal shop in an industrial park, for example—although local zoning codes most likely won’t allow that anyway. A good realtor can help one navigate issues like demographics and zoning, along with others, such as visibility, access, appropriate spaces and features, and local competition.
In short, the ideal site is located near potential customers or clients, in an appropriately zoned area where customers can easily find the business and access it conveniently. It’s cheaper if the location chosen has the features required for conducting the business, such as a kitchen or dressing rooms or whatever a particular business needs to operate. All of this should be in a market that is not already saturated with competitors.
The beauty of launching a business online is that the overhead can be much lower than that of a brick and mortar entity. In addition, an online business has the ability to reach even more customers or clients, potentially anywhere in the world! Another benefit of an online business is that new owners can visit many, many successful businesses online to see what is working for them. There are plenty of well-reviewed website builders, too, such as Wix, Network Solutions, Web.com, Site123, Squarespace, and more.
Any site that helps one build a navigable, clear, and simple layout with consistency will work. Look for customer-friendly features such as ease of transactions and limited clicks between item, cart, and payment. Your site is your storefront, and its appearance and the user’s experience will be what keeps new customers coming in and existing customers coming back.
For some types of business, home is the ideal location (although most often these days, home-based and online go hand in hand). The home-based setting can be anything from a corner in one’s house with a desk, computer, and file cabinet, or an actual shop built onto the side of the garage or even a new detached building. It’s a good idea to keep the business operations center away from the family living area, which can help one present more professionally, away from the noise and interruptions of family life.
Consider what you need to invest in to make your home-based office effective, whether it be upgraded Internet access, a comfortable new desk chair to accommodate long hours at the computer, or a new table saw in your woodshop. It’s important to know how and what you can deduct come tax time for your home-based business as well. A professional can help you stay on the right side of the IRS.
Writing the Business Plan
Next, it’s time to write a complete business plan, which will help clarify where the business is heading and what resources are available—or needed—to launch. The plan will also show any potential investors, lenders, or partners that you know what you’re doing. Several sections of a “standard” business plan are described here, but keep in mind that a business plan should be heavily customized to the type of business you plan to launch. In addition, Microsoft Office templates for several types of business plans are available, and they can make deciding what to include much simpler.
The executive summary is a general overview of the business’s purpose and what the plan includes. It should be as clear and concise as possible. Any reader should be able to understand the gist of the business from this section. The executive summary is divided into several parts, each of which is typically a short paragraph. Paragraphs one should consider include the following:
- Mission Statement, which explains the purpose of the business.
- General Company Information, which explains when the company was or will be founded, who is involved and in what capacity, the number of potential employees, and the proposed location of the business.
- Business Highlights, which explains progress made thus far, such as whether you have procured a start-up loan.
- Products and Services, which explains what the business will actually be selling—and to whom.
- Financial Information, which explains your current financial situation—what resources you already have and what you need.
- Future Plans, which explains very briefly a three- or five-year plan.
The majority of the business plan includes information about the company. This section is typically divided into several sections.
- Ownership and legal entity: This section describes who the owners are and what business type they will form.
- Location: This section identifies potential physical locations or intent to operate fully online.
- Products and services: This section describes, in detail, the products and/or services the business will offer, as well as the manufacturing or supply chain process to be followed. Service-only providers will describe how services will be delivered. The section should also include a value proposition, discussing what makes the new business better than the competition and why customers should purchase its product or service. If the product or service includes intellectual property in need of protection, that should be explained in this section, as well.
- Management structure: This section explains how the business will be managed, including who potential managers are and what makes them qualified (or what qualifications are necessary), potential numbers and types of employees (for example, W-2 or contractors), and similar. This section should also identify any gaps that must be filled and what hiring needs are expected over time. If you will be the only employee in your business, focus on your own responsibilities in this section.
- Financial management: This section explains what the new owner expects to need to get started, including any equipment, supplies, advertising, or other costs. The section should also include a one-year draft budget and the funding sources available or plans to pursue funding.
This is a summary of the market research already conducted. Information may change after the pitch deck is developed, so the market analysis should present the most recent, relevant information in this section. You’ll also want to take a deeper dive here than you did in the pitch deck. For example, you will want to consider market segmentation, pricing, and advertising, and promotion plans.
Many business plans include an appendix to serve as a catch-all for everything else that isn’t included in the body of the document itself or to provide additional detail for summarized information that is presented elsewhere. Examples of information that an appendix might include are as follows:
- License and permit information or plans
- Banking and insurance information, if already set up
- Equipment requirements (detailed lists and costs)
- Marketing materials, if already developed
- A summary table of all start-up expenses
Finding a Mentor
While it’s not expressly necessary to have a mentor when launching a new business, a mentor can help in many ways, and not just because they’re more experienced. A good mentor will ask questions that help a new owner think critically about the new business and will help with goal-setting and networking early on. A mentor can also be a sounding board for ideas, offering constructive feedback and opinions that can help shape strategy and implementation plans. Plus, if you find yourself getting frustrated or running into roadblocks in your business launch process, a mentor can help with words of encouragement and strategies for getting past the obstacles encountered.
One of the best resources for finding mentors is SCORE. In addition, Veterati is a mentoring network specifically designed for military service members, spouses, and veterans. The Veterans Administration also offers a mentoring program that is geared toward military service members entering the civilian workforce, but the information is likely valuable to veterans who are looking to launch their own businesses, too.
Seeking Professional Advice
There may be times when advice from outside experts becomes necessary. For example, when choosing a business structure (corporation, partnership, sole proprietorship, etc.) or negotiating a franchising contract, it is a good idea to consult an attorney. Similarly, when working on revenue models and other financial information, think about leveraging the services of an accountant with experience in the industry. You should never hesitate to ask for help. Even though there may be a cost involved, you’re likely to recoup that cost in the long run.
Funding the Business
It is no secret that starting, buying, or opening a business typically requires a significant amount of capital. There are many ways military veterans in the process of developing a new business can generate the funds to get a business off the ground. There are several options for military veteran entrepreneurs to consider when looking to fund a new business.
The first option for funding a new business is self-funding, which means that the potential business owner doesn’t borrow anything from anyone to cover start-up costs. The major advantage of self-funding is that the owner actually does own 100% of the business, meaning the owner can run the business the way they want, without answering to anyone else. In addition, using cash to fund a business means not owing anyone any money and not having to repay any borrowed funds during the early period of the business when profits may be low.
There are some disadvantages to self-funding. The most obvious disadvantage is the need for capital. A new entrepreneur may have to consider cashing in retirement accounts or using personal credit cards for startup costs. In addition, the new business owner may have to continue working another job to cover personal bills, which creates another disadvantage: the lack of time to launch and grow the new business.
Friends and Family
Another source of funding for the military veteran looking to start a new business might be family and friends. Asking for money from those close to us can be awkward, so it’s important to come into the conversation with a plan to show commitment to a worthwhile endeavor. It’s important to be specific about how much money is required, too.
Think of it as a pitch deck presentation. Although presented verbally, it should be backed up with written information for friends and family who ask for it. Some tips for preparing a pitch include the following:
- Practice it. Prepare with adequate information.
- Treat friends and family with the respect that would be shown to any investor by valuing their time and consideration.
- Provide research for their review. This shows due diligence and allows them to see the “cold, hard facts.”
- Be up front about risks and discuss a plan to address those risks.
- Be honest. It’s important to be clear about the goal: are you seeking gifts, loans, or investments?
The primary advantage of funding a business with investments from friends and family is that they are familiar, and they want the new business owner to succeed. In addition, some friends and family members may be able to provide guidance based on their own experiences, along with money. Some friends and family investors may want to join as active partners in the business.
Disadvantages of seeking contributions from friends and family include not being able to pay back loans in a timely fashion, thus negatively affecting close relationships. In addition, those who contribute may want to provide advice for running the business, and if that advice conflicts with how the entrepreneur wants to do things, this may lead to an unpleasant situation. Hiring a lawyer at some point in the process to draw up the paperwork can help clarify expectations and protect everyone involved by specifying exactly how things will work, such as repayment terms for loans and partnership agreements for equity investors.
Crowdfunding is just what it sounds like: raising money by seeking small amounts from a large number of people. One advantage of crowdfunding is that it can help generate interest and a potential customer base for a new business before it launches. In addition, crowdfunding participants often offer feedback on the business idea, which can help refine an approach. Disadvantages include giving away too much information, which could potentially affect any patents or copyrights not yet reserved, and not raising enough capital. In addition, not all crowdfunding platforms approve all applications, so simply applying doesn’t guarantee acceptance.
There are different types of crowdfunding, including equity, donation, debt, and rewards:
- Equity crowdfunding means selling a portion of one’s business to an investor or group of investors who then provide the capital needed to get started or move forward with the business. The investors then have equity in the business.
- A source of crowdfunding that has become familiar to Internet users in recent years is starting a campaign to solicit donations. Who hasn’t seen a GoFundMe campaign these days? The beauty of crowdfunding by donation is that no repayment is necessary.
- Debt crowdfunding is essentially the same as borrowing money from a bank or from friends and family, but the loans are offered peer-to-peer. In other words, the hopeful business owner borrows money from people outside of the friends and family network and is expected to pay it back (principal and interest).
- Another type of donation crowdfunding is offering rewards to donors. For example, a person opening a bakery might offer free pastries for a period of time in exchange for a specified amount of money.
Not sure how to get started with crowdfunding? The good news is that, in addition to GoFundMe, there are other crowdfunding sites that can help:
- Kickstarter is a rewards crowdfunding site where aspiring entrepreneurs can create a project for free. However, if the project doesn’t reach its goal in an allotted amount of time, all donations are returned to the donors. When a campaign is successful, Kickstarter applies an 8 to 10 % fee for collection and processing.
- Indiegogo is an equity-based crowdfunding site. The main purpose is for donors to acquire equity in a budding business. Indiegogo charges a 5% fee on all donations. Its sister site is GoFundMe, the free version that is donation only.
- IFundWomen is a women-owned business funding site. In addition to supporting crowdfunding, IFundWomen also provides access to small business grant opportunities and coaching for female business owners.
- Patreon is a crowdfunding platform that is designed to support creative business owners, including artists, musicians, and writers. Donors support artists through a monthly subscription, allowing the business owner to focus on the craft instead of the money.
- Fundable, a platform provided by Startups.com, facilitates equity, debt, and rewards crowdfunding using a hands-on approach to help new business owners raise funds.
- A new crowdfunding option specifically for veteran-owned startups is VetFunder, which is currently raising capital through its own crowdfunding efforts.
SBA Loans, Investment Capital, and Grants
Traditional sources of funding for small business include grants and loans, and the U.S. Small Business Administration (SBA) is a good place to start, whether you are a military veteran or not. For new businesses, the SBA offers loans, investment capital, and grants.
The main funding method available from the SBA is loans. The SBA can help emerging business owners, including military veterans, connect with lenders and will guarantee some loans. The SBA also provides a free online referral tool called Lender Match, which connects small businesses with participating SBA-approved lenders.
The process is fairly simple. The entrepreneur:
- describes their needs and gets matched with potential investors;
- compares options, including rates, terms, and fees;
- And, finally, submits a loan application.
Investors want to see a well-developed business plan that includes the amount of capital required and its purpose, a detailed credit history, and applicable industry experience. These loans are guaranteed by the SBA.
Advantages of obtaining loans from the SBA include length of term (up to 10 years, in some cases), clearly-defined interest rates, and small down payment amounts. In addition, the SBA allows business owners to borrow up to $5.5 million through its 7(a) program. And, business owners may be able to finance as much as 80 to 90% of business costs through the SBA.
The main disadvantage of obtaining an SBA loan is the need for collateral, sometimes referred to as a personal guarantee. While it’s not always required, it can create a downstream challenge if one’s personal property (for example, family home or other assets) is tied up in a collateral situation. Good credit is also required, so if one’s credit situation isn’t pristine, that issue needs to be addressed before attempting to borrow from an SBA lender. In addition, the application and approval process may be lengthy.
Veterans who want to apply for program benefits under the Service-Disabled Veteran-Owned Small Business program (SDVOSB) should know that although the federal government tries to reserve at least three percent of federal contracting funding for SDVOSBs every year, service disabled veterans who have a franchise may run into problems here. When determining whether a business is a large one or a small one, the SBA takes into account the entire franchise. Therefore, even if the veteran independently owns and operates a franchise and is struggling to make ends meet, the business may be considered a large business by the SBA, which would then deny the SDVOSB application.
The SBA also offers a tool to help new business owners connect with investors. Private investors contribute to a limited partnership known as Small Business Investment Company (SBIC), and the SBA partially matches the investors’ funds. Then, the SBIC invests in small businesses in one of three ways: debt (up to $10 million with interest rates ranging from 9% to 16%), equity, or a combination of debt and equity. To qualify for SBA investment capital, the business must be based in the US, meet small business size standards, and be in an approved industry.
The biggest advantage of seeking investment capital via the SBA is the amount of money that can be available. A key disadvantage is that most SBICs only work with established businesses because the investors want to know that the business is able to repay the funds borrowed or compensate the investor through equity growth. In addition, the vast majority of the legwork associated with SBA investment capital is on the business owner, and it can take quite a while to obtain funding.
Government grants may also be available to new (and existing) veteran-owned businesses. The SBA connects business owners with several grant options, including those for research and development, exporting, and COVID-19 relief. Grants generally do not have to be repaid, and that is a tremendous advantage; however, there are almost always stringent reporting requirements related to the use of the funds, so veterans seeking grant funding through the SBA and/or Grants.gov should be aware of the stipulations prior to accepting the money. Grants.gov does include a resource specifically designed for veterans, and small business grant opportunities are available through the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA).
Veteran-Specific Small Business Grants
In addition to the government grants available from the SBA and the VA, veterans should look for grantors who have worked with veterans in the past. For example, Nav offers the Legitify Your Small Business grant, and while it’s not designed specifically for veterans, Nav notes that veterans have received the grant in the past. The StreetShares Foundation also offers a veteran small business award. GrantWatch is an excellent resource for additional grant opportunities for veterans.
Commercial Loans and Financing
Outside of the SBA loans that are available, some veterans may find that they need additional funding from commercial sources. Veterans looking to start their own businesses can always reach out to their own banking institutions or credit unions regarding their lending options. When looking for a source outside of one’s current banking relationship, options include Kabbage, which is a division of American Express with a lending program specifically designed for veterans that includes:
- a revolving line of credit
- a business line of credit (kind of like a credit card)
- a business credit card
- a short-term business loan
- a working capital loan
- a microloan program (backed by the SBA)
- a peer-to-peer loan program
As with all loans and credit cards, these funds must be repaid; however, many of these options can help with the initial funding of a business. The lines of credit and business credit card options are also available later during growth phases, provided they are managed carefully and paid back according to lending terms.
Angel and Venture Capital Investors
An angel investor is a high-net-worth individual (HNWI) who provides the financial backing for start-up capital for small businesses in exchange for equity in the business. This is another form of equity financing. The angel investor usually falls somewhere between funding from family and friends and funding via venture capitalists, but an angel investor could be a family member, friend, or even a group of investors. The Vet-Biz Network is an angel investment platform designed specifically for veteran entrepreneurs.
Venture capitalists are similar to angel investors but tend to be groups, banks, or other financial institutions. Examples of venture capital firms for veteran-owned businesses include Veteran Ventures Capital, Hivers & Strivers, 1836, and TFX Capital.
A strategic partnership is a long-term business relationship between two businesses or organizations for the benefit of both. One option is to create mutual revenue streams in which one organization agrees to sell its partner company’s products or services to an established market. One famous example is the partnership between Ford and the Eddie Bauer clothing company. Ford produced the Eddie Bauer version of the Ford Explorer, and Eddie Bauer placed the Ford logo on sets of luggage. Another was the partnership between Barnes & Noble and Starbucks, with Starbucks cafes appearing in many Barnes & Noble stores. These kinds of partnerships can help each business expand and reach a broader customer base, and, depending on how the partnership is structured, there may be limited to no cost for the new business owner outside of regular business costs.
Bartering can include the exchange of services between two entities without the exchange of money. For example, a tax professional might complete the tax returns of its cleaning company in exchange for a set number of cleaning services. Bartering is the oldest form of business. For bartering to work, each side has to agree on the amount of equivalent costs or prices. Be aware that the IRS does consider bartering a source of income and expects you to pay taxes on it. Still, bartering is a way for you to get labor, goods, or services a business needs in exchange for labor, goods, or services.
Taking Care of the Legal Pieces
Choosing a Business Structure
A business’s structure is what determines its legal status and tax form submission requirements. Secondarily, the business structure clarifies the ownership of the company, which, in turn, affects the owner’s personal liability as it relates to the business. Read on for more information about common business structures and their requirements.
A sole proprietorship is the simplest formal business structure for a veteran-owned business, and it is essentially the default business structure. In other words, if the business owner doesn’t specifically register using any other business structure, the business is considered a sole proprietorship. A veteran looking to start a new business might begin with a sole proprietorship before growing into another business structure.
In a sole proprietorship, one owner operates the business and enjoys all of the equity—and takes on all the risks. When someone runs a business as a sole proprietor, the income and expenses are taxed as personal income. The biggest disadvantage of sole proprietorship is that the owner cannot sell shares of the business to anyone else.
A partnership is a legal agreement between two or more people who agree to act as co-owners. Partnerships are often referred to as “pass-through entities” because the partnership itself is not responsible for paying taxes. Instead, the owners file a Form 1065, which is essentially an income statement designed to report income and losses, and then pass through the income and losses to pay any taxes owed via their own personal tax returns.
There are two main types of partnerships: general and limited. In a general partnership (GP), the partners work together to manage the business and have total control over business activities. While the partners are not required to have equal ownership in the business, everyone with an ownership stake, regardless of the percentage, shares responsibility for liabilities. In a limited partnership (LP), the general partners have the same role as in a GP, but the limited partners do not participate in debt liability beyond their initial investment in the partnership, hence the term “limited.” Limited partners also don’t have a say in how the business is run.
Over time, partnerships have evolved, and two additional variations of the limited partnership have been created. One is the limited liability partnership (LLP), which is a common structure for licensed professionals, such as attorneys and medical professionals. In an LLP, all the partners share limited liability, but the partners are also not responsible for the actions of other partners. The second newer form is the limited liability limited partnership (LLLP), in which the general partners enjoy limited liability but the business functions essentially as an LP.
Each state has its own laws regarding the establishment and management of partnerships, so veterans who are looking to launch a partnership should seek guidance regarding their state’s requirements. For example, LPs, LLPs, and LLLPs are all classified as statutory entities, which means that they must be registered within the state in which they were formed and designate a registered agent to receive communications on behalf of the partnership.
Limited Liability Company
A limited liability company (LLC) is, for the most part, a partnership, but there are some benefits to forming an LLC that are similar to those of a corporation. As in a partnership, two or more people come together to manage the business; however, in an LLC, the partners are protected from personal liability if the business is sued or files for bankruptcy. In addition, partners are considered self-employed, which means they are responsible for paying Medicare and Social Security taxes.
An LLC is also a statutory entity, so business registration and designation of a registered agent are both required. In addition, when someone leaves an LLC, some states may require the LLC to dissolve; veterans choosing an LLC business structure should seek legal advice when initially forming to ensure that appropriate documentation is developed to protect the company from these kinds of risks.
A corporation (or C corp) is likely the business structure with which most people are familiar as many large companies have been established as corporations. A corporation, by definition, is a legal entity that operates completely independently of its owners—typically referred to as shareholders. Because of this separation, shareholders enjoy profits, but they are not liable for the company’s debt. A board of directors is elected by the shareholders and is responsible for managing the company. In addition, annual meetings of the shareholders are mandatory for C corporations.
Corporations can be for-profit or not-for-profit, and they pay taxes on their earnings; however, many corporations are also subject to additional recordkeeping and reporting that other business structures aren’t required to do. A corporation is a good choice for a novel company (for example, one with a brand new product or service that no one else offers) in the event the company eventually plans to have an initial public offering (commonly referred to as “going public”).
A disadvantage of forming a company as a C corp is that profits are double taxed. When a corporation makes a profit, the company itself pays taxes on that profit using Form 1120. In addition, shareholders pay taxes on any dividends they earn, thus resulting in double taxation. But, C corps are flexible in that they can offer multiple classes of stock, which is particularly helpful in raising capital quickly.
An S corporation (or S corp) is similar to a C corp except that it helps the company avoid double taxation because, like a partnership, it is a pass-through entity. As such, the shareholders assume the tax burden for any profits, and the company isn’t subject to corporate taxation. S corporations are limited to a maximum of 100 shareholders with only one class of stock, and all of the company’s shareholders must be U.S. citizens. In addition, many of the recordkeeping and reporting requirements for S corporations are similar to those for C corporations. But, individuals, specific trusts or estates, and some tax-exempt corporations can be shareholders of S corporations.
One challenge that veterans may face if they choose to form an S corporation is that not all states treat S corporations equally; some states have specific taxation rules for S corporation profits above a certain limit, and other states simply recognize S corporations as C corporations and hold them to C corporation standards. In addition, all S corporations must meet specific filing requirements with the IRS, including Form 1120S.
A B corporation, commonly called a B corp or benefit corporation, is essentially the same as a C corporation (and typically files annual tax returns using Form 1120), but it has met the highest standards of verified social and environmental performance, public transparency, and legal accountability. In other words, the company is established for the purpose of contributing to the greater good in some way. Business is conducted on the assumption that people and places matter, and B corporations work to minimize environmental or social harm caused by their product and maximize their benefit. An established corporation wanting to convert to B corporation status must apply for certification, but the effort may be worth it since the status helps give the company a stance, build relationships with like-minded people, attract talent, and improve public opinion and outreach.
A close corporation, also referred to as a family corporation, runs the same way as a C corporation, but it isn’t subject to the same rules and regulations, such as having annual shareholder meetings and electing a board of directors. The close corporation structure was designed to allow family businesses to form corporations with a single owner, shared ownership between spouses or other close family members, or shared ownership between up to 50 related or unrelated individuals. The shareholders must create an operating agreement before forming in which management provisions are clearly established. Only some states allow close corporations, so veterans considering launching a business using a close corporation structure should obtain legal advice before doing so. In addition, taxation rules for close corporations vary from state to state, thus requiring tax advice from an accounting professional.
A nonprofit corporation is a business structure for entities that are designed to benefit the public. Common nonprofit corporations include schools, private healthcare related charities, political organizations, churches and other religious organizations, labor organizations, and some membership associations. Nonprofit corporations are eligible for tax-exempt status through Internal Revenue Code Section 501(c)(3), Section 509(a), and Section 527, among others. Companies wishing to pursue tax-exempt status must complete an application with the IRS. Non-profit corporations file their annual tax returns using Form 990.
A cooperative, or co-op, is a business that is owned by its members, who in turn also use its services. Owners of the cooperative are commonly referred to as user-owners, but they may also be called shareholders in some situations as the investment process involves purchasing shares, just as with an S corporation or C corporation. Cooperatives use Form 1120-C to file their annual tax returns.
In all types of cooperatives, the user-owners share the profits and voting privileges based on their ownership percentages, and an elected board of directors manages the day-to-day operations. Common cooperatives include electric membership cooperatives, small grocery or farm-to-table cooperatives, and similar. There are several types of cooperatives that user-owners can form.
In a consumer cooperative, user-owners join the cooperative to buy goods and services. In a worker cooperative, the worker-members help manage the business and benefit from its success. In a producer cooperative, producer-members band together to produce larger quantities of similar goods or services. In a purchasing or shared services cooperative, businesses band together to buy larger quantities of goods or services at wholesale. In multi-stakeholder cooperatives, members have different roles, but the cooperative is formed for a broader overall user-owner benefit, such as combining a consumer co-op and a producer co-op to create a marketplace.
Registering the Business
Depending on the type of business structure, veterans planning to start a new business may also be required to register the business with local, state, or federal agencies. The only business structures that typically don’t require registration are sole proprietorships, but those can be registered. Veterans should seek advice regarding registration and requirements. Most local Chambers of Commerce can provide the necessary information for state and local registration, but federal registration, which results in an Employer Identification Number (EIN), is handled by the IRS.
Articles of Incorporation or Organization
Articles of incorporation or organization are formal documents filed with the state to legally create a business. Not all businesses require articles to be filed; for example, a sole proprietorship doesn’t necessarily need to take this step. To register a corporation or a nonprofit, articles of incorporation must be created. To register an LLC, articles of organization are required. Articles typically include the business name, its physical address, the name of the registered agent, the names of the initial board members, the business structure, and the amount of and type of stock that will be issued. Articles are filed with the Secretary of State in the state in which the business is being formed. Fees for registering range from $50 to $300 or more, and in most states, incorporation or registration must be renewed annually.
Employer Identification Number
An Employer Identification Number (EIN) is also referred to as a Taxpayer Identification Number (TIN) and functions the same way for a business as a Social Security number does for an individual. A C corp, S corp, B corp, partnership, nonprofit, or cooperative must have an EIN to file a tax return; however, the application process is simple and can be done online, by fax or mail, or by telephone (for international applicants only). Veterans wishing to obtain an EIN should complete IRS Form SS-4. Typically, turnaround time for receiving the EIN is just a few weeks, but online filers will receive their EINs much more quickly.
Doing Business As
In some cases, businesses may be set up using one name—the legal name of the company— and then choose to operate using a different name. This is referred to as “doing business as” (DBA or d/b/a). For example, the business name may not accurately reflect the service or product being offered, so the owner chooses to do business using a fictitious name. Similarly, a business that started with one product or service that then introduces new offerings could choose to use a DBA name for each product line. Each state has its own rules regarding doing-business-as status, so veterans who are considering using a DBA name should consult their Secretary of State’s website for more information.
Obtaining Tax IDs, Licenses, and Permits
Every state, county, and city has different requirements regarding what types of licenses and permits are necessary to open a business, and intellectual property protection is complex. The basics are summarized below.
Federal, State, and Local Permits
Some jurisdictions require a certificate of occupancy for a physical location, and many counties require business licenses to be obtained prior to the business’s opening date. New business owners will also need to check local requirements for building permits if any modifications must be made to physical space. Most government websites provide easy-to-follow instructions, and it’s a good idea for new veteran-owned businesses to contact their local Chamber of Commerce for specifics regarding what’s required in their jurisdiction.
Federal licensing is only required for businesses that are regulated by the federal government, such as agriculture, alcohol, aviation, firearms, fish and wildlife, commercial fishing, maritime transportation, mining and drilling, nuclear energy, radio and television broadcasting, or transportation and logistics.
Trademarks, Copyrights, and Patents
Trademarks protect brand names and logos, patents protect inventions and blueprints, and copyrights protect original artistic or literary works. Any veteran launching a business for which any of these things must be protected should seek legal advice before applying as the process can be complicated and expensive.
Setting up a Bank Account
Choosing a bank is an important beginning step for any business. Having a separate business account allows the owner to keep track of the business’s money and expenses. Choosing a bank can be daunting because there are so many options, but several banks, including Chase and PNC, offer business checking accounts to military service members and veterans with reduced or no monthly fees.
New business owners should look for a banking partnership with some key benefits. For example, unlimited transactions, online banking, mobile deposits, credit and/or debit cards, in-house lending support, ATM availability, built-in invoicing features, and accounting platform integration are essential elements for small businesses. In addition, some banks may even offer classes, money-saving workshops, or newsletters for account holders. Other veteran business owners are also good sources of information; asking for referrals can help new business owners learn more about what banks actually offer.
A veteran opening a new business may be tempted to run the business from a personal checking account; in reality, this isn’t a great idea. Commingling can create confusion come tax time, and depending on the type of business, clear separation of personal and business finances may actually be legally required. Typically all that is required for a business owner to open a business checking account is an EIN, proof of incorporation, and a business license, along with the guarantor’s Social Security number.
Some businesses will need to be able to process credit cards, as well. This has gotten much easier in the last decade, and many accounting platforms (such as QuickBooks Online, FreshBooks, Xero, and Wave) allow credit card transactions for a small fee. In some cases, especially in higher volume retail businesses, the veteran launching the business may want to set up a merchant services agreement (MSA) with the bank instead, which reduces the fee burden on the business.
Obtaining insurance isn’t always required, but it is an important safeguard for a business. Different states and local governments have different requirements for businesses regarding insurance. Most of the required forms of insurance can be found with the Chambers of Commerce, and proof of insurance might be needed before a business can obtain a license or permit.
General liability insurance protects a business in a number of situations, such as bodily injury on business property (either a client or an employee) and damage that occurs in the physical business location. General liability coverage will also cover legal costs in the event that a business faces a lawsuit and may cover the claim against the business if the plaintiff prevails.
Errors and omissions insurance is sometimes also referred to as professional liability insurance. Its purpose is to compensate a client for a mistake or failed service. For example, an errors and omissions claim could be made if an accountant omitted key information from a tax return resulting in a penalty or fine from the IRS.
Property insurance is designed to protect physical property and assets, but it can also protect destroyed records or documents and help with property damage in specific situations. Property insurance is also important in retail businesses to protect against theft by customers or employees.
Workers compensation insurance provides benefits to a business’s employees if they have work-related injuries or illnesses. The benefits include coverage for medical expenses and lost wages, and they may extend to other coverages such as disability or death benefits.
Other types of insurance that veterans may want to consider include:
- Commercial umbrella insurance, which extends liability coverage. This type of policy is beneficial if the cost of a claim is higher than coverage limits.
- Business auto insurance, which covers the owners and employees while they are driving for work. A business auto policy also includes coverage for damage to someone else’s vehicle, the work vehicle, the business location, or other personal property.
- Accident or disaster insurance, including flood, fire, and theft (self-explanatory).
- Business renters’ insurance, which is separate from the property owner’s insurance and is designed to protect the belongings within the business.
- Business owner’s policy, which is one of the most common forms of small business insurance and is designed to protect a business’s assets, property, and income.
Most insurance companies allow the business owner to customize their policies to cover a multitude of things depending on the business’s specific needs. It’s a good idea for veterans who are launching new businesses to consult with an insurance broker or agent for additional information before purchasing coverage.
Launching the Business
Preparing to launch a business may seem complicated, so it’s helpful to take it one step at a time instead of getting overwhelmed by the big picture. As noted here, there are different options for structuring a business from sole proprietorship (the most common for small businesses) to some form of a corporation. Once the structure is chosen, the business can be registered with the appropriate agencies, and the owner can obtain tax IDs and any licenses or permits required. The final tasks will be setting up a bank account specifically for the business and insuring the business as needed. Once all of these tasks are addressed, it’s go time! The business is ready to launch.
Managing the Business
After a business has launched, there are many things that must be done to manage it effectively. Finding the right team to conduct operations, managing accounts, dividing the percentage of labor, or even how to market a business are all things a business owner must deal with.
Division of Labor and Equity Among Founders
Before any business can be successful, the day to day division of labor must be established. In a sole proprietorship, this task isn’t challenging because the business owner makes all the decisions and implements any policies he or she chooses. In a C corporation, the board of directors sets the direction for the company, answers to the owners (the shareholders), and hires personnel to manage the business. That makes division of labor a simple process, and equity is divided based on how shareholders made their investments. In partnerships and S corporations, however, challenges can arise.
A partnership, by definition, is a business situation in which the partners are both owners and workers. In some ways, managing a business is easier with a partner or partners, but in other ways, it can be more difficult. Partners must work together; therefore, it’s essential that potential partners take some time to learn about each other.
Learning about a potential business partner should begin well before the partnership commences. If a potential partner has had other business partners in the past, it would be a good idea to see what those people have to say. Potential partners should agree upon goals and have similar values. If partners have, say, incompatible work ethics, that could be a problem down the road.
Partners who began as friends—or who previously served together in the military—have to agree that the friendship or bond they forged previously should not get in the way of making sound business decisions, and business decisions should be kept separate (as much as possible). Entering into a partnership with a friend or colleague can be a sticky situation, but it can also make identifying common goals and values easier. After all, the would-be partners were friends for reasons. In addition, they have a sense of how each will respond to challenges and the skills each brings to the partnership.
Whether the partner is an existing or new relationship, it’s important to be clear about roles. For example, is one owner the majority owner or expected to handle day to day operations? Perhaps one partner only contributed money or a minority share and is expected to play a limited role? Who will be accountable for what? Roles and expectations must be explicitly stated at the outset and a method of maintaining accountability established. Old friend or new acquaintance, each must be honest in the partnership and feel comfortable sharing ideas and opinions. Addressing concerns early and often can help partners avoid resentment building up over time.
How will the business owners determine accountability or monitor whether stipulated responsibilities have been met? It will be important for all partners to review not only their peers, but also themselves. Partners will need to make sure they are holding up their end of the bargain.
The most important thing new partners can do in the beginning is put everything in writing and have the agreement reviewed by a professional. Documentation should include the chosen business structure, what each partner is expected to contribute to the business in terms of capital and work effort, how business decisions will be made, and how disagreements will be addressed. The documents should also address what will happen if the partnership ends in the event that one partner wants to leave or the business dissolves.
S corporations are, in many ways, a hybrid of partnerships and C corporations. Shareholders who take an active role in the business are both owners and employees, just as partners are. In addition, inactive shareholders—those who have simply invested in the business—are owners but not employees, which is closer to the functionality of a C corporation. Although S corporations can be owned by one person, often they are owned by multiple shareholders, and conflict may arise when the shareholders want to make decisions about business operations. When shareholders are involved, S corporations are governed by a board of directors.
Building a Team
For any business beyond the sole proprietorship, team-building is going to be essential. A team may include members in addition to shareholders, partners, or employees: advisors, consultants, and contractors, for example. In fact, trying out freelancers when possible is a good way to get a sense of what you need from a team and how others can fill those needs. These types of team members can be engaged only as needed.
New business owners should not be in a hurry to hire a team. First, the owner needs to understand what roles must be filled and what responsibilities potential employees would have. What does the owner need help with? Again, hiring freelancers early on will help clarify needs. Owners will also have to decide if employees should be full-time or part-time, and if they need to be onsite or remote.
Of course, employees cost money, so the owner must be prepared to take on payroll or contractor expenses. In addition, owners will need to make sure wages are adequate for expectations. For example, an employer would pay someone more to monitor the front desk, answer phones, and do paperwork than someone expected to simply monitor the front desk.
How will the new owner know it’s time to hire help? When business is being turned away because of existing workload, when the owner can never get out from under the pile of paperwork, when specialized skills are required, or when the owner doesn’t have time to bring in new clients or explore new product ideas, it’s probably time to bring in some extra help and start building a team.
One of the best things a new employer can do is to make it a commitment to build a team. It does take time, but it will ensure the business starts on a positive note. The owner needs to set guidelines in place for the team early on and establish the culture he or she wants to develop. The owner needs to model expected behaviors, such as respect, keeping lines of communication open, and making sure everyone is clear about expectations and goals.
Businesses can’t create everything they need to run a business by themselves. Often, business owners need to choose vendors to supply materials or provide services. Choosing the right vendors is not a quick or especially easy process, but time spent choosing the best option is time well spent.
Veterans looking to launch businesses may want to do business only with other veteran-owned businesses. While this is likely possible, veteran business owners should take the time to evaluate a number of factors before entering into a vendor relationship, irrespective of its ownership structure.
Cost is the primary concern. However, getting the cheapest vendor isn’t always the best deal, either. Cheap may mean that the product or service will be inferior. Instead, new owners should research the vendor’s reputation and product or service; other business owners may be able to provide insight and suggestions here, and so can customer reviews. A vendor’s website should be professional in appearance, tone, and editing. Overall, the key factor here is to choose the vendor that provides the best value for the money.
The owner will need to pay close attention to any contracts for services and make certain he or she knows exactly what to expect and how expenses will be addressed. What are the vendor’s capabilities when it comes to shipping and delivery? Also, if it’s a service being contracted, the owner should inquire about training for personnel.
Availability is another issue. Will the vendor be available when needed? Will the vendor be able to maintain the service or provide the product within a specified window? Will the business owner be able to meet his or her obligations in the meantime? In addition, the veteran owner wishing to engage a vendor should note the vendor’s availability through phone or email.
At some point the relationship with the vendor will end, and the business owner will have the option to decide whether to enter into business with that vendor again. Therefore, it’s essential to monitor how well the vendor is at providing the service or product. Was the vendor flexible when changes became necessary? Was the vendor responsive to problems, such as mistakes? Were there hidden costs or surprise fees? The business owner should identify the positives and negatives of the relationship with each particular vendor and make a thoughtful decision about whether to continue the relationship.
Choosing an Accounting Platform
As part of the original business plan, many new business owners will establish a preliminary budget. Once the business has launched, monitoring income and expenses becomes a daily activity. Many accounting software packages will help veterans with new businesses ease into this responsibility. Examples of easy-to-use, top-rated accounting software include FreshBooks, Intuit QuickBooks Online, Xero, ZohoBooks, and GoDaddy Online Bookkeeping, among others. The accounting platform you choose should be based on whether you need double-entry accounting, a desktop or cloud-based option, and add-ons, such as time tracking, payroll, CRM or ERP features, and point of sale integration. In addition, veterans who have launched specialized businesses, such as nonprofit organizations, Shopify stores, or real estate brokerages should look for accounting software that suits their needs.
Separating Business Finances from Personal Finances
When business owners manage their personal and business finances together, such as when having only one checking account or credit card for both, commingling occurs. When business and personal assets and liabilities are combined, it can be difficult, if not impossible, to accurately reflect a business’s financial status or file business or personal tax returns. In addition, commingling can put personal assets at risk, even for business owners who’ve striven to set up their businesses in a way that limits liability.
Filing Annual Tax Returns
At the end of each fiscal year, a veteran-owned business—just like all other businesses—must file a tax return. The type of tax return that’s filed is determined by the type of business structure chosen early on. Business owners who need advice regarding which tax form(s) to file and what information to report should consult a tax professional.
Marketing and Advertising
Getting a business out into the market is only the first step to making it successful. Getting the business into the public eye is the next biggest step. Marketing and advertising can help generate new customers while showing existing customers you can handle their business. There are many ways a military vetaran can attract new customers for their business, and each one comes with its own benefits and obstacles.
Having a website will help show the public what a business is about. From a business’s location, sales opportunities, telephone number, and other important information, a website can bring a business into the 21st century. Setting up a website includes two important tasks: registering a domain name and finding a company to host the account.
Registering the Domain Name
The domain name for a business website should be secured early in the business development process, probably as soon as a business name is settled upon because new websites are created every day. Even if the owner has no intention of developing a website right away, it’s a good idea to grab the domain name because it’s part of the business’s brand. If online presence is a key part of the business plan, available domain names might even affect the business name. This is something that should be known sooner rather than later.
When choosing a domain name, the owner should go for short and simple. The name should be easy to spell or have an easily identifiable unique spelling. It should be memorable. Most of all, it should be relevant to the business.
Finding an available name is as easy as searching hosting websites like GoDaddy, Domain.com, Squarespace, Network Solutions, Bluehost, or HostGator for a specific name. Start a search with the first choice, and if it isn’t available, the search will return other options and provide a starting point for finding a reasonable alternative. Most hosting websites offer domain registration for a fairly low cost that is accessible for even the newest and smallest veteran-owned businesses.
Not all domains are equal, though. A search for a good domain name should begin with top-level domains (TLD). These are the regular domains that people are accustomed to, such as .com, .net, and .org. As the more familiar entities, these domains are more trusted by individuals and are easier to find on search engines such as Google. If a domain name is not available as a TLD, lower level domains such as .co, .info, or .biz might be alternatives. However, if a domain name is already registered as a top-level domain, it is unwise to copy it with a lower-level domain, such as dogs.com versus dogs.info because they can easily be confused with your site.
Many companies, as Squarespace, Wix, Bluehost, Network Solutions, HostGator, and Site123, offer both hosting and domain purchases. These companies make it easy to acquire a domain name and set up a site—all at the same time. Some hosting sites provide websites but not domain hosting, so it’s important for the business owner to watch out for that. Choosing a hosting service will be based on one’s needs and the provider’s features. It’s a good idea to look into the scalability of the website, too. Can it be easily expanded?
Another consideration when choosing a hosting plan is whether the plan includes a shared server, dedicated server, or virtual private server. A shared server is just what the name implies—it is shared with other customers. This can impact the performance of individual websites on the server when it gets busy. Also, websites on a shared server are more vulnerable to hacking. A dedicated server is the most expensive option, often beyond what a new small business can afford, but it’s more secure than a shared server and website performance is typically optimal. The virtual private server (VPS) falls somewhere between shared and dedicated servers. It’s a more affordable option than a dedicated server but offers more security and better performance than a shared server.
Designing the Site
These days, it’s easy to build a website and the functionality for building one is typically included in the hosting service. More often than not, this includes WYSIWYG (what you see is what you get) editing capability, so that’s a feature to look for to avoid coding, if you don’t have that expertise. Military veteran business owners who need help with building a website can likely find other veterans with that skill set, however.
Entrepreneurs with an online presence want a website to stand out, and there are some ways to achieve that. For example, regular updates can keep it looking fresh and up-to-date. Even something as simple as changing a picture now and then can help accomplish this to provide something new for returning visitors. This sends the message that the business and website are active.
The purpose of the business should be clear up front and center. The banner should help to clarify the business’s service or product. The business’s contact information and hours of operation should be clearly visible on the homepage or easy to access quickly. Menus should provide links to important pages and present them prominently.
Most of the hosting services will provide website templates. New website owners should seriously consider making use of these templates; they exist because they work! Still, it’s okay to add one’s own style. Keep in mind that remaining consistent with font styles is important, although it’s acceptable to mix them if mixing is kept to a minimum. For example, headings on a page can be one font and size while text is another. Make use of the heading types embedded in the template. Color draws people’s attention, but too much of it can be distracting and even confusing. All websites should be mobile friendly, as well.
Adding a video to a website can help explain the business to potential or new customers. Many people will choose a video over reading these days, and a video is a quick and easy way to explain the business, what it does, who’s part of it, and what customers can expect from it. A video is also a good way for the veteran business owner to provide an introduction and show a little personality. It’s best to keep these kinds of videos brief—no more than five minutes.
A website should contain links to the owner’s other social media accounts when applicable. Most design sites will allow the user to set up the common social media icons for easy clicks. A social media presence is essential for modern business marketing. Social media channels provide another way to get a brand out there, advertise freely, and connect with customers to keep them coming back. Social media is another avenue for showing off one’s expertise. People expect to engage with a business on social media these days and will share, like, and even respond to posts.
Two standard features on most business websites are an “About Us” page and a testimonials page. Not only does the “About Us” page enhance credibility, but it makes the business more personable. Again, this is a place where a video might work well. Testimonials from satisfied customers can enhance a potential customer’s faith in a business’s product or service.
Businesses selling products through the website need to be built on a solid e-commerce platform. Some options here are Squarespace’s Business plan, Shopify and Shopify Plus, Wix, WooCommerce, and GoDaddy’s Online Store. Each of these sites provides a set of features worth studying carefully before making a decision. Features to look for include themes, plugins, flexibility, scalability, bandwidth, amount of products allowed, support, security, marketing tools (including social media integration!), and shipping integration.
Choosing an Online Selling Platform
Veterans who are launching retail businesses should consider whether an online selling platform is necessary. Several good options exist, including Shopify, Square, WooCommerce, BigCommerce, Squarespace, and Wix. Any platform that can track inventory, take and record payments, record shipping details, sync to in-person point of sale systems, and transfer sales information to an accounting platform would be an acceptable choice here. In addition, users will want to look for scalability, marketing tools, social media integration, and bandwidth requirements as they’re making decisions regarding the best online selling platform. Amazon, Etsy, and eBay are also platforms that higher-volume retailers might want to consider.
Taking Online and Other Payments
Many website hosting services and accounting platforms facilitate taking online payments, but veteran-owned brick and mortar retailers and service providers may need to process in-person payments, as well. Several options are available, including Square, PayPal, Leaders Merchant Services, Flagship Merchant Services, Merchant One, and many others. In some cases, banking institutions also offer merchant processing services, so it’s worth taking the time to explore the options available before making a decision.
Delivering the Product
How a business delivers its products is largely dependent on the products themselves, but geography also plays a role. For example, smaller products, such as cosmetics, clothing, and smaller toys, can easily be delivered by the U.S. Postal Service, which is generally the least expensive option. Larger products and high-volume shipments may be better served by companies like UPS or FedEx, and both offer business owners discounts for volume-based shipping.
If deliveries are primarily local, such as food products or similar, the business owner might consider purchasing an appropriately outfitted delivery truck; software like OptimoRoute can help the driver deliver the packages in the most efficient route. Alternatively, a local delivery service may be a better option, particularly if the volume of local deliveries is relatively low. And, for businesses with special delivery requirements, additional research may be required.
Social media provides a free avenue for reaching customers directly. All business owners should take some time to learn about the various social media options because different sites have different specialities and different user bases. Current military service members should keep in mind the specific rules related to social media use and use platforms responsibly.
Veteran-Specific Social Media
Currently, there are several social media platforms dedicated to military service veterans. VetFriends has nearly 3 million members and was designed to facilitate connecting service members after separation. In addition, VetFriends allows advertising, hosts a membership directory, and offers several membership levels. RallyPoint includes additional features, such as a job search platform for recruiting and offers networking opportunities for veterans and family members with similar interests. Together We Served isn’t focused as much on networking or business opportunities, but it does facilitate engagement with other veterans, so business owners looking for advice, potential customers, or employees may find it useful.
Other Social Media
The site with the largest user base is Facebook. Statista puts the number of active monthly users at 2.7 billion. According to SproutSocial, the fastest-growing demographic on Facebook is the 65 years and older crowd, while teen usage has declined. Businesses hoping to reach international customers will definitely want to be active on Facebook. Facebook also hosts more high-income earners, even more than LinkedIn. The best day to post on Facebook appears to be Wednesday, while Sunday is the least effective day.
While older generations tend to gravitate toward Facebook, younger generations prefer Instagram and Twitter. Instagram (also owned by Facebook) is a good tool for sharing pictures, while Twitter is useful for announcing specials. New business owners should not only have a Facebook presence but should do research to determine which social media platform can bring the most attention to a specific business brand. Also, researching the options can help a business owner determine what kind of content to post and when to post it.
To build one’s presence on social media, a good place for an owner to start is the one where he or she has the most experience. If the owner knows and uses Facebook, that’s a good starting point. Other accounts can be added over time. The key is to update regularly with fresh content to keep customers interested and coming back. Here is where partnering with a younger individual can benefit the entrepreneur with less social media experience. It might be a worthwhile investment to pay someone to run social media campaigns, too. A campaign consisting of a couple of posts a week shouldn’t be terribly time-consuming or expensive.
Search Engine Optimization
Although search engine optimization can drive traffic toward a business’s website, it’s important to remember that website content is ultimately for the reader and not the search engine itself. Search engines like Google seek to answer questions for the individual typing into the search bar. A website that answers as many of those questions as possible will draw users to the site. The more often users click a link to a site, the higher it will rank in future searches.
Search engines—like Google and Yahoo—provide some good tips for boosting web traffic and achieving search engine optimization. The first rule is not to deceive the website visitor by embellishing the business’s functions or abilities. Pages should contain original content that is not plagiarized or copied from another site, which could result in traffic going to the other site instead. Google, for example, will favor original content. Beyond that, it’s important to provide not only clear and easy-to-find content, but to keep page titles clear and relevant. An easily recognizable URL is helpful, too. Providing the user a way to share the content will result in a positive signal to the search engine when the content is actually shared.
Taking some time to analyze the type of searcher one wants to attract to a site is worthwhile—identifying whether they are informational, navigational, or transactional. The informational category includes people looking for information, such as “veteran owned business near me,” “bbq near me,” or “which truck should I buy?” Those in the navigational category are seeking a specific website. Perhaps they have visited the site before or were looking for another business with the same product or service but stumbled onto a different business. The transactional category includes people who are shopping for products or services or comparing prices (and for reaching this group, having products online can be especially beneficial).
Google Analytics is a free service provided by Google that can help a website owner identify who is visiting the business’s website, app, social media, or even purchasing products. This information can help a business identify which online components and strategies are working and which are not, and where revenue is coming from and where it can be generated. Owners with multiple businesses can connect them and see reports in one dashboard. Also, systems such as point of sale, CRM, and QuickBooks can be connected. Overall, Google Analytics can help owners understand how customers are interacting with your site and create a multitude of reports on topics such as audience, advertising, conversion, and user flow.
Email is a cheap and fast marketing method. Email can be used to promote products and services and to develop relationships with existing or potential customers. Email provides a way to keep customers informed and tailor marketing messages to specific audiences. An email newsletter powered by Mailchimp, Constant Contact, Drip, Sendinblue, or ConvertKit can be used to share updates on the business, information about sales, or exclusive subscriber deals. Email marketing works best when the recipients have opted into the service, so veteran business owners should include a sign-up option for customers to add themselves to email campaigns from the website or social media. Adding social media links to email can also enhance both marketing strategies. A mix of content such as tips or company information and new products/services and ads is also more effective than just bombarding customers with ads continuously. As with any online marketing option, emails should be delivered on a set schedule.
Print and Mass Media Advertising
Veteran-owned businesses with bigger budgets may be able to afford broader advertising, such as print and mass media, including newspapers, magazines, direct mail, brochures, and billboards. One advantage of print advertising is that print advertising results in better response rates. But, print advertising and other forms of media marketing tend to be quite expensive, so business owners should purchase advertising based on both their target audience and their budget.
Another option to advertise a veteran-owned business is digital, or online, which includes social media platforms, websites, and search engines. Newly-launched small veteran-owned businesses should consider online advertising as a more affordable option, particularly because it can be targeted to a specific audience. Google Analytics is helpful here, too, given that it allows the business owner to see click rates, impressions, and bounce rates. A key disadvantage of online advertising is that target customers frequently don’t remember what they’ve seen once they’ve scrolled past it, so online advertising needs to be memorable without being “over the top.”
The oldest form of advertising is the referral, which is when someone refers a customer to a business for a purchase, a service, or advice. While referrals happen organically and can’t be controlled like other forms of advertising, they are one of the most effective ways to grow a business. People like buying from businesses that their friends and family know and trust. New veteran-owned businesses can generate word of mouth marketing by reminding new customers to share information about their buying experience with their friends.
Much of the information in this article could apply to non-veteran entrepreneurs, as well. However, there are some resources specifically developed for military veterans. Here, our guide ends with a collection of resources to which veterans can turn for funding, mentoring, and education.
SBA Veterans Advantage Loan
Part of the Small Business Administration’s 7(a) Loan Program, this loan offers service members and veterans loans up to $5 million. Loans under $125,000 incur no up-front fees, and fees for loans over $125,000 are modest compared to other loan sources. Average repayment plans range from 10 to 25 years, and funds can be used for any business purposes, such as real estate, equipment, or working capital. Qualifying veterans include honorably discharged veterans, service-disabled veterans, active duty military service members eligible for the Transition Assistance Program (TAP), active reserves or National Guard members, and spouses or widowed spouses of any qualifying service member.
Small Business Development Centers
Each state has an SBDC, some more than one, as do the District of Columbia, Guam, Puerto Rico, Samoa, and the U.S. Virgin Islands. The lead organization in each state coordinates with subcenters in colleges, universities, vocational schools, chambers of commerce, and so on. Each center coordinates with the SBA district offices on resources and is staffed with qualified personnel and volunteers from professions and trades. Services include counseling, training, and technical assistance in managing a small business. The SBDC reaches out to veterans, in particular.
Military Reservist Economic Injury Disaster Loan
Military reservists or National Guard members who are called into combat while operating a small business may qualify for a Military Reservist Economic Injury Disaster Loan (MREIDL). This loan is designed to help maintain business operations until the owner can return from duty. In other words, loan monies may only be used for regular operating expenses. There is a 4% interest rate with payment plans up to 30 years, and payments don’t begin until normal business operations resume.
The maximum amount of the loan is dependent on the amount needed to maintain normal business operations while the service member is deployed, but typically, the maximum is $2 million; however, businesses that are considered major sources of employment may be eligible for more. In addition, businesses that are able to self-fund during the military service member’s deployment are not eligible to apply. Loans in excess of $50,000 must also be collateralized.
Veteran Entrepreneur Portal
The Veteran Entrepreneur Portal (VEP) connects small business owners to an abundance of federal resources. From beginning stages to growth stages, VEP gives veteran business owners sources for funding, franchising, government contracts, programs, and myriad other topics. If users wish to further their education, VEP can connect veterans to training and employment advancement programs. VEP also connects veterans with one another for potential partnerships, networking, and contracting through its VA Direct Access Program.
American Corporate Partners
A nonprofit organization developed by veterans for veterans who are entering the civilian workforce, American Corporate Partners (ACP) has partnered with more than 80 companies since its inception. ACP’s main goal is to provide transitional counseling, training, and employment placement services, and its overarching goal is to help service members find their next career.
ACP’s Mentoring Program connects veterans with coaches who can assist with resume building, career development, and job opportunities, as well as work-life balance, networking, professional communication, and small business development. The ACP uses past military experience and personal goals to help each applicant achieve the best post-military career possible.
Syracuse University Institute for Veterans & Military Families
The Syracuse University Institute for Veterans & Military Families (IVMF) is the nation’s first higher education institute focused on the post-service lives of veterans. IVMF offers many programs in entrepreneurship advancement, career training, and community services, along with higher education opportunities for veterans and their families.
One of IVMF’s most important initiatives is the Coalition for Veteran Owned Business, which is designed to connect veteran-owned businesses with corporate partners. In addition, the Center of Excellence for Veteran Entrepreneurship conducts research, develops policy, provides education, and helps connect veteran-owned businesses to potential strategic partners. VETNET is an online educational source, and IVMF also connects program graduates through Arsenal, a unique alumni network.
Small Business Administration Veteran-Owned Business
The Small Business Veteran-Owned Business portal includes links to a number of resources available to veteran business owners and veterans who are considering launching new businesses. The Office of Veterans Business Development (OVBD) is open to any past or present service members and their families and is designed to connect veterans to funding (Lender Match and MREIDL), training, and even government business contracts.
Training options include programs offered by Boots to Business, the Veteran Federal Procurement Entrepreneurship Training Program (through the Veteran Institute for Procurement), the Women Veteran Entrepreneurship Training Program (through IVMF and LiftFund), and the Service Disabled Veteran Entrepreneurship Training Program (through IVMF, Veterans Entrepreneurship Program, Entrepreneurship Bootcamp for Veterans – St. Joseph’s University, and Dog Tag Inc.).
BusinessUSA’s Small Business Directory resource can help connect military business owners with a multitude of guides, programs, and financing sources. Searchable categories within BusinessUSA include government benefits, grants and loans, commercial grants and loans, insurance information, and even small business counseling opportunities. BusinessUSA is essentially a one-stop-shop for information and resources for veterans wishing to launch their own businesses.
Department of Defense Office of Small Business Programs
The U.S. Department of Defense Office of Small Business Programs (OSB) aims to maximize Service-Disabled Veteran-Owned Small Businesses’ opportunities to procure government contracts. This resource is an excellent FAQ for veterans who want to understand who qualifies as a service-disabled veteran and the rules that service-disabled veterans must follow when seeking prime and subcontracting opportunities.
Veteran and Military Business Owners Association
The Veteran and Military Business Owners Association (VAMBOA) is designed to connect veterans with one another. A non-profit veteran-run trade association, VAMBOA works to promote veteran-owned businesses and help them succeed. VAMBOA partners corporations and small businesses for mentoring and provides educational blog posts to help veterans understand various business principles. In addition, VAMBOA membership, which is free, entitles members to referrals and discounts, as well as access to training and certification seminars and educational opportunities. VAMBOA is connected to hundreds of industries including finance, public relations, shipping and logistics, entrepreneurship, and electronics.
SCORE’s Resources for Veteran Entrepreneurs
SCORE is a mentoring network partially funded by the U.S. Small Business Administration comprising experienced professionals who want to offer their knowledge to others, but SCORE is more than just mentoring. SCORE’s Resources for Veteran Entrepreneurs (RVE) is an educational resource for veterans who own their own businesses. RVE provides information from prominent industry leaders on a variety of topics, including leadership, funding, and diversity.
National Veteran Small Business Coalition
A non-profit trade association, the National Veteran Small Business Coalition (NVSBC) works to advocate for and aid veterans in starting or expanding small businesses. The primary purpose of the NVSBC is to ensure that veteran-owned businesses are prioritized in the government contracting process. Through its GovMates Matchmaking program, NVSBC connects veteran business owners with each other for employment, mentoring, and partnering opportunities. The NVSBC also has monthly webinars to help combat veterans successfully return to civilian life.
A free virtual education program, VETtoCEO aims to help qualifying veterans who are exploring entrepreneurship or business expansion opportunities. Taught solely by veterans, the VETtoCEO five-week program is designed to help potential business owners construct a business model, collaborate with other veterans, develop a funding strategy, and gain contacts within their industry. VETtoCEO also connects new students with past students for coaching and mentoring opportunities and provides a blog focused on important entrepreneurship topics for veterans, including marketing, fundraising, loan procurement, and leadership development.
Patriot Boot Camp
With connections to powerhouse companies such as Google and Dell, Patriot Boot Camp was founded to identify and mitigate support gaps for veteran-owned businesses. Patriot Boot Camp offers three-day in-person programs and a virtual two-day program. Both options teach veterans about the technology industry and how they can enter it through entrepreneurship or employment. The program is open to active service members, veterans, and their spouses.
The Entrepreneurship Bootcamp for Veterans (EBV) Foundation is a non-profit organization that provides mentorship and ongoing coaching opportunities for graduates of the EBV Program, which is a key initiative of the IVMF. Graduates are eligible to compete in a biannual business plan competition, which is designed to improve the quality of business plans written by veterans. The EBV Foundation’s fundraising efforts are focused on raising money specifically to support veteran-owned businesses. To date, the EBV Foundation has awarded more than $500,000 in support.
Conclusion and Review
Starting a business takes time, commitment, and patience. It can’t be done overnight, but when the planning is done well, the payoff is getting your business up and running efficiently.
Money does make the business world go round, and just like any new business owner, a military veteran looking to start his or her own business is going to need money. Fortunately, there are a range of options to consider, from self-funding to family and friends networks, crowdfunding, and a range of loans. In addition, modern entrepreneurs can engage in newer practices like strategic partnerships or age-old options like bartering to raise money needed. Once funding is secured, it will be time to get down to the nitty gritty of choosing a business structure and registering the business.
Once funding is secured for the business, the next step is to set it up on paper. This includes choosing a structure (will it be a sole proprietorship or a corporation or something else?), registering the business and obtaining any required licenses or permits, setting up the business bank account, and obtaining insurance as needed.
Managing a business day to day is smoother when partner roles and responsibilities are hashed out beforehand (when applicable), teams are built carefully over time, and vendors are chosen and monitored with care. Once the business is on firm footing, owners can turn their attention to other considerations, as well, such as how much to invest back into the business and expanding when ready.
The beauty of starting a business in the Internet age is the potential for low overhead and inexpensive advertising. A new business owner can start out with a website and social media and make some headway, stepping up the marketing game later when funds are available. With WYSIWYG design tools, setting up an attractive and effective website is within the reach of most Internet users and would-be business owners. Taking a little time to learn about search engine optimization and using free tools like Google analytics can make marketing even easier.
Starting one’s own business is both exciting and scary. It’s hard to take that leap of faith required to strike out on your own. However, military veterans don’t have to do it alone. There are lots of resources that can help veterans find the support needed to achieve the dream of financial independence. The more you know about starting a business and the more support you have, the more confident you will feel.
What type of business should I start?
There are plenty of resources online to help you come up with ideas. In short, deciding on a business focus should begin with your interests and experiences, but searching online for “best small business ideas” will get you started with brainstorming ideas.
Doesn’t the VA help military veterans with funding for a business?
The VA directs military veterans to the Small Business Association (SBA) for assistance with loans. The SBA provides a number of options for veterans under the SBA 7(a) program.
Where can military veterans get advice to start a business?
There’s no end to the advice you can find online; you just need to evaluate it for credibility. A good place to start is the Small Business Administration (SBA) website, where you can find not only funding but training. Two popular in-person training programs are Boots to Business (for active duty service members, veterans, and spouses; provided on military installations) and Boots to Business Reboot (provided off-installation for veterans with no access to a military installation).
I would like to support veteran-owned businesses; how do I find them?
One way is to search a directory, like the one provided at VeteranOwnedBusiness.com or at BuyVeteran.com. Another way to support veteran-owned businesses is a basic online search, using search strings like “veteran-owned businesses near me.
- Beginning the Process
- Funding the Business
- Taking Care of the Legal Pieces
- Launching the Business
- Managing the Business
- Marketing and Advertising
- Conclusion and Review
- What type of business should I start?
- Doesn’t the VA help military veterans with funding for a business?
- Where can military veterans get advice to start a business?
- I would like to support veteran-owned businesses; how do I find them?