Since coming to Arizona, I have had the privilege of operating alongside several great people in the startup community. From entrepreneurs to investors and community leaders, Arizona is an incredibly generous community, offering time, mentorship and investment into early stage companies.

Recently, another community that was formative to my professional development merged with the startup community: military veterans. Techstars hosted their Patriot Boot Camp in Phoenix bringing together over 50 veteran entrepreneurs from Arizona communities and around the United States. The nonprofit, launched in 2012, works to equip active-duty military members, veterans and their spouses with the education, resources and community needed to be successful technology entrepreneurs.

The founder of Patriot Boot Camp, Taylor McLemore, summarized why Patriot Boot Camp is important,

“Veterans and military spouses are dynamic problem solvers and understand the tenacity required to execute a plan and mission. Those characteristics make them the best kind of entrepreneurs.”

Dave Drach, the Vice President of Partnerships at TechStars added,

“Veterans bring unique skills to entrepreneurship such as tenacity, mission focus and execution that help them be successful. I grew up in Arizona and am excited to see the development of the startup community here in Phoenix.”

This is the first year the event has been hosted west of the Mississippi. Perhaps there is some irony for me that one of the first times I traveled east of the Mississippi was when my parents drove me to West Point for “R-Day.” It was the first day of what turned out to be an amazing academic, military and leadership experience with friends and colleagues with whom I still remain in contact today.

PHX Startup Week (@PHXstartupweek)

As part of PHX Startup Week, Phil Potter, the Director of the Armory, assembled a panel to discuss how veterans can be involved in the startup community both as entrepreneurs and also part of early founding teams. Phil was kind enough to invite me to speak on the topic, and I wanted to share my notes on how well veterans can integrate into the startup ecosystem.

Employers and headhunters typically describe military veterans as hard-chargers who can lead teams and execute plans in large, process-driven companies. But that misses something – how veterans also tend to be creative thinkers who thrive in uncertain conditions, such as those found in startups and small businesses. Veterans are increasingly joining small businesses, launching nonprofit organizations and founding companies. In fact, veterans are 45% more likely to start companies than those without active duty service.

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Veterans are Mission-Driven Leaders

We all learn that mission accomplishment is paramount in everything we do in the military; failure to accomplish the mission can often result in terminal consequences. The military creates alignment of interests and a mutual trust and understanding among military members regardless of their specialty. This foundation is built through what the military calls “mission-type orders.” This type of direction is focused on outcomes over specifications, allowing small unit leaders to decide the methods to be employed based on the changing nature of their operational environment.

I often hear non-veterans think the military structure is such that veterans and military members are inflexible. In fact, the opposite tends to be true as they are constantly working in a changing environment and uniquely deciding how to apply people, resources and skills to accomplish a given outcome. The result is they make very good leaders and entrepreneurs specifically when they use and embrace products like the Business Model Canvas (Osterwalder).

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Veterans readily understand the concepts of value proposition and solving for customer problems as a natural evolution from their military background. They know also that they have a limited amount of resources, so they constantly partner with other organizations to achieve their goals.

Small Group Leadership

A brand new officer is entrusted with the mission, resources, morale, development and welfare of about 40 young American men and women immediately upon graduation. The level of responsibility in a military organization for a 22-year old immediately out of college is like no other comparable measure on the civilian side except startups. Planning, preparing, and executing military operations is an extremely decentralized process. That is why so much responsibility and authority is pushed down to junior levels.

Jason Ferris, a former member of Special Forces and currently a student in the McGuire Entrepreneurship Program at the University of Arizona, highlighted the responsibility placed on young members of the military,

“In places such as Iraq and Afghanistan, Army officers and non-commissioned officers are required to seamlessly transition from taking fire one moment, to working with village elders the next, all the while collaborating with a diverse range of multi-national partners. During my career as a young non-commissioned officer in Special Operations, I worked with Afghan leaders in building important infrastructure and instilling governance within their region, trained and advised members of the Iraqi and Philippine Army in combat operations, and collaborated with the US Ambassador and country team in Thailand to achieve Royal Thai and US Government mutual objectives.”

Composure and Creativity under Pressure

In the military, when a system does not exist, you create one. The common goal is to create a fail-proof system, much like creating systems to streamline efficiencies in business. When investors and companies think there are challenges for a business to scale, it is often because the processes built for the company to operate were not built efficiently.

I have also found that veterans tend to be a creative bunch, often because the environment and the resources you have available do not match. After all, military members deal with a procurement process that takes years and sends equipment made by the lowest bidder often designed for a previous style of conflict. Whether in Iraq or Afghanistan, I saw soldiers using commercial technology and applying it to different uses for their needs, such as building databases to manage information and welding steel to the outside of vehicles without armor to provide protection. When the risk of having the wrong equipment or information could be catastrophic, there is no greater motivation to design a solution to a problem.


The American military is the one of the most diverse socio-economic organization of its scale and size in the world. The military truly reflects our society, which carries an important benefit. Military folks are not only global thinkers because of their experiences and deployments; they are global thinkers because of their work with a very diverse group of people. The American military has been at the forefront of integration between discriminated groups for over a century. While the organization is far from perfect, military members have colleagues from around the world and from many different backgrounds. They also receive extensive training on how to manage complex topics of sexual harassment and discrimination of race, gender, religion, age and more.

Concluding Thoughts

While what makes the news often is the worst of our society, military, politics, schools and other organizations, the reality is that there are individuals who are working to protect and build our future. Working with startups over the last few years has been very similar to working with teams in the military as they work to accomplish their “mission” of building and growing a company.

Veterans join the military for many reasons: a sincere desire to perform national service, to gain experience in a trade, to pay for college, to get a paying job or to find a way out of their current circumstances. Whatever the reason for the decision, the result is that they became a part of a well-trained group of individuals who can respond to dynamic environments, apply limited resources to creatively solve immediate challenges, and work across a diverse team. They make great entrepreneurs, product owners, teammates and community builders.

I look forward to continuing to work with startups and veterans in our startup community like Dr. Paulo Shakarian, an Arizona State University Professor at the Cyber-Socio Intelligent Systems LabWest Pointgraduate, and founder of IntelliSpyre and CrossViral. While one among many, veterans are joining and launching companies throughout the state.  With organizations like The Armory, Bunker Labs, Patriot Boot Camp and veterans in programs like the McGuire Entrepreneurship Program at University of Arizona, veterans can use these resources to help make a stronger, better future.