Experian Business Information Services has been honoring Veteran Entrepreneurs in the month of May on the Small Business Matters blog featuring a series of posts highlighting military veterans who went into business for themselves. We asked them about making the transition from military to small business, what challenges they faced, and how their career in the service prepared them to run their own small businesses.
A common thread among the veteran entrepreneurs we’ve interviewed for this series is family. They came from a military family, they built a family with those who work in their business, or they left active duty to spend more time with their family. To these veterans, it is an honor and duty to serve their country. They show the same commitment and respect to those closest to them.
With a family legacy of military service, entrepreneurship and a “passion to serve”, this veteran honors his heritage by sharing his story, starting with his father’s choice to join the Army.
In his late teens, Blake Vaughn’s father was involved in a deadly bar fight. When he was given the choice to go to prison or join the Army, he chose to serve. He left the military early to take care of his ailing parents, and, after his parents died, he took in his siblings as well. He soon started his own family and worked for the post office before going into business for himself. In 26 years, he grew his business from nothing into a multi-million-dollar company. Between the 2001 recession and a divorce, the family suffered multiple setbacks, including foreclosure on their home.
After the divorce, Blake, still, a teenager, decided he needed to do something to help lift his family out of poverty and help his mother put food on the table. He decided to follow in the footsteps of his father, grandfather, uncles, and brother and join the military.
What did you like most about serving in the U.S. Military?
“Serving my country and building strong relationships with people. On a personal level, it’s fulfilling to know you’re participating in something greater than yourself. I feel weird and undeserving when someone says, “thank you for serving.” I think of my brother… his vehicle was destroyed by an IED. Thankfully, nobody got hurt. I don’t like to compare the two of us but at the same time, I at least participated in the security of the country. I’ve always had a huge love for our history, values, the Constitution and our country. My wife homeschools our son and part of that is history… so from the perspective of serving in the military, sharing that with my son is cool.
The most enjoyable part is the people and the camaraderie. I was a junior officer, so I learned the leadership that comes with that. I’m a big fan of leadership and personal development. As a leader, people don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care. I am more interested in getting to know people first and building relationships and letting them shine. By doing that, I had some excellent relationships with those guys I led. I still have great relationships with them.”
What inspired you to make the transition to entrepreneurship?
“My father was a veteran and entrepreneur. He was given the choice to go to prison or go to the army after a bar fight. He chose to serve and straightened up his life. He got out and worked for a little while until he decided to start his own business. He built a $12 million business and then lost it after 20+ years. I wanted to serve just as my father, grandfather, several uncles, and brother did as well, but I also wanted to pursue entrepreneurship because I saw the satisfaction that comes from creating something for your family.”
Blake worked through college earning his MBA in marketing while waiting to go into the military. Due to delays in his selection process and a government sequester, it took many years before Blake was finally able to attend officer candidate school in the Navy. He served as a gunnery/ordnance officer on the USS CHAFEE in Hawaii before exiting with an honorable discharge into the reserves. In that time, he also married his college sweetheart, whose first husband had passed away and left her with a 1-year-old son. Between his time working through college and after leaving the military, he “bounced around to all areas of business”, working various customer service, finance and hospitality jobs before finally taking the entrepreneurship leap.
Tell us about your business.
“We started our first business, a restoration franchise in August 2016, handling water and fire damage. Our second business, Patriot Services Construction, started in May of 2017. In our first calendar year, we generated $1.1 million in gross revenue. For our 2nd full year, we hope to close over $2M. We’re also adding roofing to our services.”
Blake’s business can be found online here: Restore NTX LLC & Patriot Services LLC
What skills from your military career do you apply most often to your business?
“Administrative, risk assessment and management, program management, leadership, motivation, inspection, and accountability.
It (the military) was extremely grueling work. Only about 2% is cool. The other 98% is mundane repetitive tasks. It can tear you down, so you have to keep focused and motivated to do what’s necessary because if the country calls on you, you have to be ready. I find fulfillment from motivating people and that allowed me to press harder and stay focused. It was a great learning experience for me.”
Did you access Government programs to launch your business such as SBA loans?
“Yes, we did get an SBA 7A loan for $110K when we first started. We combined that with personal funds and I took on a partner when we started – a guy I know from church named Jeff Lott. We both wanted financial freedom and control of our time. We partnered together to buy vehicles and equipment to launch our business.
There’s a book called Rocket Fuel that talks about the combination of visionaries and integrators when building a business. The book is good. I’m a visionary. I look for new revenue sources and he’s the integrator. We compliment each other in business. We’ve found a really good spot. It’s been an excellent partnership.”
What is the biggest challenge about being an entrepreneur?
“Facing the unknown and taking risks that could cost us greatly.
I took away from the military, and my time during training especially, that you’re used to having pleasures in life, being comfortable, and they strip that away… 6 months living out of a backpack. You learn perseverance. You don’t need a lot to live. It allows you to lay it all on the line when you do have challenges. Entrepreneurs, when failure looks like it could happen, they begin to backtrack. Several people I know went back to their corporate jobs. You have to define what is essential and get rid of everything else that doesn’t take you closer to what’s important to you.
It’s a challenge… “what if we fail”. Jeff and I didn’t have experience. In our industry, people typically use a direct sales force to get off the ground, build relationships with trade partners to refer work. We tried that and it didn’t get off the ground. Instead of getting scared, we looked into internet marketing instead. We shifted heavily into internet marketing. We have no salespeople whatsoever and 90% of our business now comes from internet marketing. Creating the right mindset is most important, and being willing to take a risk is part of that. As Grant Cordone says, “Commit first and figure it out later.” We also try to automate our business as best we can, taking advice from Tim Ferris’ 4 Hour Work Week.
What is the greatest reward in being an entrepreneur?
“Our technicians do hard work and their mindset is serving people, not just making money. It was nice to volunteer a short time in Houston after Hurricane Harvey and tracking through the disaster to help with recovery. We didn’t need to be directed. We knew what to do so we just got to work helping those folks.
There’s also satisfaction in creating something important and it’s nice to have more freedom to enjoy life.”