On Oct. 11-12, 2018, veteran-owned business leaders rendezvoused at the Clever Talks, Made in America event in San Diego CA. I’m grateful I was able to attend the event as well as speak on the panel titled - How to build a profitable veteran owned business.
The mission of Clever Talks is to improve the lives of active-duty military and veterans through ideas. My intent for writing this, as PrimePay’s Veterans in Business Director, is to spread those ideas. My hope is that at least one strategy, philosophy or nugget of wisdom speaks to you; and, subsequently becomes an aspect of your default programming.
The event kicked off with a performance from The Marine Rapper.
With his bright red, white and blue leather flag jacket and bullet studded boots, pants and gloves, I couldn’t help but to think ‘Merica. He rapped an original song; his lyrics stating universal laws of combat. “If you wanna live…keep your head down, and on a swivel…Keep it moving, complacency kills…” Imagine wormtongue from Lord of the Rings, whispering in the King’s ear. He is complacent. In my mind, the whispers have been, “Is anyone shooting at us or trying to blow us up right now? No? Then, what’s the big deal? Who really cares?”
That voice needs to be silenced. Slice through it with a wicked sword (or two) of your choosing. Give power to the other voice who boldly speaks; start now, hustle, learn, apply, train, get moving.
The opening speaker was Steven Kuhn.
The Army veteran, who was once a 300 lb. body builder, shared a vulnerable story of being miraculously saved from catastrophic events, twice, by a person he hadn’t met before, and hasn’t seen since.
He suggested we live our lives and conduct ourselves with HIT: honesty, integrity and transparency.
He said if we are honest with ourselves and there is transparency - the byproduct will be integrity. When I think about those three terms, courage comes to mind. It requires massive amounts of courage to live with honesty, integrity and transparency. Reminder: courage is not lack of fear. Courage is feeling the fear and doing it anyway.
Next up was Flossie Hall, the founder of Healthy Momma.
Flossie, a mother and spouse of an active duty serviceman, created a business in the prepared meals market; and it grew like wildfire. In addition to running a large profitable business, Flossie’s philanthropic goal is to feed as many hungry mouths as possible. She has already dispersed 500,000 free meals!
Her question to the audience was, “What is your plan for world domination?“ That caught me off guard sort of like not sprawling quickly enough against a double leg takedown. Have I been setting large enough goals? Perhaps not.
Next up was Ryan Michler, author of Order of Man, and an all-around wise individual.
His first point was – success means autonomy.
In the context of financial health and wealth, I agree completely. I think success equals financial freedom. Financial freedom being the combination of abundant choice and financial capacity. This man with an amazing beard then gave us a five-step formula to “capture and realize the American dream.”
- “Discover your purpose and passion.”
- I add that if a passionate idea or business hasn’t happened for you there is another choice. We can build a business around a high profit margin product or service. It doesn’t have to be cool or sexy. If cardboard boxes are profitable, make cardboard boxes. After a successful exit of the cardboard box business, perhaps we’ll be passionate about our second business.
- “Develop new skill sets.”
- I think all skills can be learned and upgraded. Business acumen, awareness, communication skills, relationship skills, wheelie skills, chainsaw skills – you get the idea.
- “What is wrong with the world?”
- In my words, find a problem for a business to fix.
- “Learn to shape your story."
- I’m still working on this one!
- “Offer a solution.”
- The extra takeaway from Ryan was (paraphrasing) when things are rough they don’t happen to us, they happen for us.
Next up was Evan Hafer from Black Rifle Coffee.
I was thoroughly impressed with him as a human. I’d spoken to him before, as he was a guest veteran speaker for VetToCEO, but I had no idea how dedicated and driven he truly is to help the veteran.
This man at the helm of Black Rifle Coffee company, a corporation that is unapologetically pro second amendment and hires mostly veterans, spoke of love. Evan spoke of love being way more powerful than hate. He spoke of a culture of love. He spoke of his own struggles returning from war. [Paraphrasing] Those who come home from war without PTSD may come home with another issue – “the inability to feel.” He was worried he might not be able to love his own children. Powerful; and, I could relate. We can become desensitized to even the harshest circumstances; lack vulnerability and sabotage relationships or situations if things get too touchy-feely. My wife could probably attest.
Back to Evan. He described an operation early in his military career where he began to learn the concept of “psychology is more contagious than the flu; don’t add to the chaos.” He had keyed up his radio during a firefight and passed non-actionable, well-no-crap kind of words. His leadership took note and discussed it with him later.
He summed up his lesson learned as, we must “remain calm while solving a complex problem.”
If we’re going to say anything, it must add to the solution – war, business, life – it applies everywhere. To me, there are few things on this planet better than working alongside people that perform well under the worst conditions. Evan created a personal mission statement and clearly lives by it; and suggested we all do the same. I haven’t; now I will. Evan, positive vibes are headed your way via an up-armored unicorn galloping on a rainbow of American flags, jockeyed by a bald eagle holding a BRCC coffee cup in one scaled foot and a tricked out M4 in the other.
Next up was the founder of VET Tv, Danny O’Malley; funny guy for sure.
He explained how intension guides everything, and you’ve got to hit people in the feels. When we produce videos, for whatever reason, the viewer must feel … something. That something ought to be intentional.
He believes to be successful one must have humility and also be willing to push the limit. He described the work ethic of the amazing team he works with as, family destroying. We often hear about balance; we are often told to seek balance. I’ve spoken to many successful business owners; most believe balance and success do NOT coincide; and, we must choose one or the other.
If you find a way to have both, good on you. He left us with another nugget - the “number one contributor to success is our mindset”. I agree whole heartedly. Without the right mindset, capabilities, knowledge, wisdom, all may prove useless.
Next up was Rudy Reyes.
I loved his energy, his story, what he endured as a child and his accomplishments later in life. Just to name a few, U.S. Marine Recon, world champion kickboxer and co-founder of Force Blue, a non-profit that addresses:
- The declining health of our oceans.
- Our veterans’ struggle to adjust to civilian life.
His final takeaway was for all of us to become weapons of mass construction. Over his life, he has clearly done (and continues to do) that. Sage advice; I myself was stuck in destruction for many years – before I gained the taste for construction.
I found Rudy’s energy and determination infectious. I left his presentation feeling pumped and ready to crush my goals to smithereens.
Next up was David Hasselhoff; yes really.
The Hoff: Knight Rider, Baywatch, European singer. I grew up watching Knight Rider; I loved that show. If I can’t have Kit (the car), can I at least have all the features and benefits? Incredibly fast, bullet proof, can jump, bust through walls, shoot and blow things up, jam radio signals, give great advice and even tells jokes.
The Hoff walks up on the stage, addresses the crowd, asks to cue the music, and then proceeds to belt out our National Anthem. And, he sung it well. I enjoyed it; but, I also found it quite odd. Talk about mindshare struggles. My mind struggling to stay present, trying to maintain my normal sense of patriotism – but it was fighting against images and video of explosions and jumping, fast cars.
What does the Hoff do next? Cue the video; a highlight reel of Knight Rider is played on the event’s large screens. My eyes and ears were exposed to the 36-year-old scenes my mind had just internally played for me. If someone had told me at any point in my life that I would someday watch reruns of Knight Rider with David Hasselhoff – but only AFTER he sung me the National Anthem, skeptical would be an understatement.
Hoff’s advice to the crowd was, “ya gotta go for it, and if you see it, if you believe it, you’re going to live it.”
Another topic he spoke of was that “life isn’t fair.” And, if we want to succeed, we cannot dwell on it; we must move past it. Good advice. My personal takeaway? Knight Rider the movie is in the works; and, it’s going to be him and that car (not some younger dude, with a newer car). I cannot wait.
Andrew O’Brien and Omari Broussard from Vet Tribe, offered some unique perspectives.
“Become a celebrity and then generate an ROI on that celebrity.”
That spoke to me. I’ve personally been hiding out, dare I say isolating for years. I live in a small town and, until recently, haven’t put myself out there. We can all capitalize on our collective experience to generate ’celebrity’ – then use it to our advantage.
Andrew’s next point hit me like a ton of bricks. He prefaced it by saying it tends to make people mad. His message to veterans, who specifically want to help other veterans, help yourself first; help your family first!
He mentioned knowing veterans that were almost homeless, trying to help homeless veterans. His point was to make a ton of money first, then you can help many more veterans later.
He phrased it as, a lot of veterans leave military service “wanting to save the world, but they don’t save themselves.” He also mentioned veteran entrepreneurs need to “be the leader; it is time to get out of the grunt mindset.”
There is no doubt a learning curve involved with changing from an operator to an owner.
Tom Davin, the CEO of 5.11 tactical spoke of the level of engagement (or lack thereof) of the common employee.
Only 23% of employees are engaged, 51% are not engaged, and 16% are actively disengaged. He spoke of fixing this dilemma by leadership focusing on culture and mission, on people.
Focus on the dollars last, not first. Employees don’t want to hear about how much money the company is making (unless perhaps their compensation is directly tied to it). He outlined two main points, or super powers as he called them:
- Everyone is a leader and leadership is a choice.
- Everything is a mission.
- “Don’t lecture about the mission – tell stories about the mission.” He suggested we talk to our people about those in the company, especially junior personnel, who live mission. And, reference specific examples.
An audience member asked him the question, knowing what he knows now, what would he have done differently starting out? His answer, let go of people who don’t fit sooner. If people aren’t going to work within your culture and mission, move them out. I’ve personally never heard anyone say we let go of him too early; but too late, for sure.
The closing speaker on day one was Jocko Willink.
He owns MMA gyms, wrote best-selling books, runs a successful podcast, and has his own tea brand. He probably has other businesses I’m unaware of; the point is he’s crushing it.
I often get the question, is Jocko for real? Unfortunately, I never got to work with him directly. However, I rolled (Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu/BJJ) with Jocko in 1999, while on deployment in Germany. In those days, BJJ was still a relatively unknown skillset. But, I knew it, and was quite proficient in the basics.
If one man knew BJJ, and the other didn’t, the chances of the other winning a fight or match were close to zero. When we squared off, I weighed approximately 215; he 235. BJJ is much more about leverage and technique than brute force. Though, not only was he stronger than me, he was also better than me. He tapped me every time – I did not tap him. Each time I wound up mounted, with an ezekiel choke across the neck.
Once the wars broke out, Jocko went on to successfully lead major combat operations in some of the harshest environments of this century. So, yes, he’s the real deal. His on-stage performance was intense and on-point. He had the crowd in the palm of his hand. He presents universal leadership principles and mindsets that simply can’t be argued – in combat, the civilian sector, life. “Discipline equals freedom.” It definitely does.
As for me, I spoke on the panel - How to build a profitable, veteran owned business.
With all of the heavy hitters at the event, I focused my content on the psychology of the veteran. Begin the process of building a profitable business by examining yourself: your brain, your mind, your mental health.
Do this by taking an inventory of your strengths and weaknesses. Write your strengths on one side of the page, and your weaknesses on the other, be brutally honest. Most importantly, note your issues: your baggage, your trauma, etc.
We’ve all experienced trauma and, here’s a secret, no matter when it occurred if you haven’t worked through it, it affects your life today. Commit to therapy; seek out a therapist. If you don’t find one you like, keep trying until you do. Therapy will be uncomfortable, that means you’re doing it right. Growth or change doesn’t occur in the comfort zone. Without risk there is no reward.
Are there wonderful psychiatrists out there who prescribe medication to those who legitimately need it? Yes, of course. However, for everyone else, pharmaceuticals mask, they don’t fix. They are simply band aids placed on a festering wound. Sorry, not sorry.
Finally, develop a plan to address everything you wrote on the weakness side. Either commit to learn and improve each item or surround yourself with people whose strengths offset those weaknesses. In other words, either work on your weaknesses or hire people who don’t have them.
Clever Talks San Diego was an amazing event filled with positive, helpful and awesome people. I was proud to be a part of it. I left the event pumped and ready for world domination. Who’s with me?
Monty Heath is the Executive Director VetToCEO, Director Military Programs Higher Ground, Owner American Revolution Vodka, Director Veterans in Business PrimePay, board member Hyperbarics of Sun Valley, and VetFran committee member.