Veterans Head Back to Boot Camp, Business Plans in Hand
Veterans and military spouses from across the country came to Madison, WI, last weekend to take part in Techstars‘ Patriot Boot Camp.
“We’ve been working with a group of approximately thirty military veterans and their spouses to focus on how they can become successful entrepreneurs,” said Taylor McLemore, founder of the Patriot Boot Camp. According to McLemore, the camp is designed to help them evaluate their business idea, teach them how to build teams, and help them get launched as a technology-enabled company.
Until now, the Patriot Boot Camps have been an East-Coast phenomenon (there have been two in Washington, DC, and one in New York City), but Techstars is keen to bring them to locations across the country, and Madison seemed like a natural choice. “There’s a lot of great assets and resources in the state,” said Michael Ertmer, director of the Wisconsin Patriot Boot Camp. “We’re just starting to get traction where firms can get access to the growth capital they need as startups,” Ertmer said. The boot camp “seems like another important step forward to help bring those resources together, to give Wisconsin and Madison some additional exposure, and to create some new opportunities for veterans,” he added.
Over the boot camp’s three-day run, entrepreneurs attended panel sessions, received one-on-one mentoring with industry professionals, and heard keynote speeches from Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker and Lieutenant General Marc Rogers (USAF, Ret.). The mentors for the weekend came from a range of backgrounds, from software to finance, and the mentor sessions were structured in such a way that entrepreneurs were able to discuss their projects with a wide variety of people who could give them advice and help them network.
Scott Mosley of The Water Council was one of the mentors. “I believe it’s important to give back,” Mosley said, explaining why he took part in the boot camp. “There is an emerging entrepreneurial culture here in the state of Wisconsin, and I’m very interested in trying to help build that.”
For Mosley, the diversity of the entrepreneurs was one of the highlights of the weekend. “Even though the commonality is that everyone’s a vet, there are a lot of people with very divergent backgrounds and very interesting ideas about starting new businesses.”
The entrepreneurs brought a diverse array of projects to the boot camp. J. P. Yampey wants to create an online platform aimed at soccer players that will make it easier to organize matches and assemble teams. Eric, who asked that we not use his surname because of his background in the Special Forces, wants to help underprivileged students prep for the SATs and find the right college. Derek Distenfield wants to offer low-cost legal document preparation for service personnel. Akili King wants to provide companies with a better understanding of veterans’ capabilities by translating military evaluations into civilian language.
Some ideas were more fleshed out than others; some entrepreneurs had business plans and slick demos, while others had little more than an idea and ambition. But the boot camp is not a forum for wheeling and dealing with investors, and the organizers do not expect participants to have a fully formed business.
Many of the entrepreneurs spoke warmly of their experiences at the boot camp. “What I’ve taken away from [the boot camp] is that a startup is a business that you really have to be ingrained in, but there is a huge community out there that exists to help you be successful,” said Distenfield.
Others stressed more practical benefits. “I learned a lot about raising money that I did not know,” said Yampey.
During one of the mentoring sessions, Gen. Rogers discussed the predicament that many vets find themselves in after leaving the service. After years of challenging and rewarding service to the nation, they are often faced with the prospect of becoming a faceless cog in a corporate machine. Not surprisingly, many of them yearn for something more.
Whether last weekend’s Patriot Boot Camp winds up helping participants realize those dreams will, of course, remain to be seen. “This is not an accelerator; it’s intentionally a three-day educational program. We focus on the earliest-stage entrepreneurs…and it takes some time for the companies to mature,” said McLemore. “We’re so early in the lifecycle that we usually don’t hear back for a little while, but that makes it a lot of fun.”
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