Almost every military career ends with the service member making a decision: find a job or start a business. For those in the National Guard or reserves, this choice parallels time in uniform.
Veterans who choose the path of entrepreneurship have an added resource to lean on. Jason Van Camp founded Warrior Rising — a nonprofit organization dedicated to helping veterans and their immediate family members start their own businesses.
"When you were getting out of the military you had a question, and that question was 'now what? What am I going to do with myself?'" Van Camp said. "You probably thought to yourself 'you know I could just sit back and collect my retirement or I could get a job or I could start a business."
Starting a business after leaving the military is a journey Van Camp knows well. The former green beret left the Army after a seizure disorder forced him to medically retire. He founded Mission 6 Zero, a leadership development firm with high-profile clients including the NFL and Major League Baseball.
Warrior Rising was launched to help other veterans make the transition to business ownership. The resources provided by the organization are free to veterans and their immediate family members. It is funded by donations with 82.4% of every dollar going to veterans. The rest, Van Camp said, goes to overhead. He added that initially, 100% of donations went to veterans, but the company grew too large and he had to hire paid staff to keep up with demand.
In the five years since its founding, Warrior Rising has grown exponentially. In 2015 the company helped six veterans establish businesses. Last year the number was 1,016. This year, Van Camp said, Warrior Rising on pace to help 1,500 veterans start new businesses with about 40 signing up every two weeks.
Despite frequently saying during an online interview that "business is hard," Van Camp said Warrior Rising already has some success stories.
Firebrand Flag Company, for example, recently sold out on a limited run of fireproof American flags.
"They're ramping up business right now and I have no doubt this is going to be a multi-million-dollar company," Van Camp said.
People interested in using Warrior Rising's free services should first go to the organization's website to sign up. Van Camp said an intake specialist will call the applicant within 48 hours.
"So, you have an intimate one-on-one conversation with someone about your business idea, what you're trying to accomplish, why you're trying to do it. Is it a good idea? Do you have the money for this? Does your spouse support you?" Van Camp said. "Questions about the actual journey you're about to embark on."
From there, applicants are sent to Warrior Rising's education platform, Warrior Academy – online training that translates a military operations order into a business model. Van Camp said the training is designed to be difficult to prepare would-be entrepreneurs for the realities of owning a business.
"You can't start out with $150,000 salary. That's not how it works in business," he said. "You're going to have to grind and go without pay and suffer for a while before you start seeing revenue — before you start seeing everything start to pay off and you see a return on investment."
After the training is complete, applicants are paired with mentors who are successful in the industry the veteran hopes to succeed in. Van Camp said the mentors are usually, but not always veterans.
Eventually, after the veteran has met all of the requirements, they can ask Warrior Rising for financial assistance and the organization will assist them in finding investors, loans or grants.
But that's not the end of a veteran entrepreneur's journey with Warrior Rising.
"What I realized is it wasn't just about starting a business and finding your purpose through business ownership, it was also about creating a community and joining a community and joining a tribe of people that can support you and you can feel comfortable with like you're part of the family with," Van Camp said. "We have platoons all over the country."
In the past, the organization hosted numerous in-person events, but the ongoing coronavirus pandemic has forced Warrior Rising to turn to online venues for events.
Van Camp described coronavirus as a game changer in many ways for those hoping to start businesses. First, he said, more people are applying for Warrior Rising's assistance.
"It's been even more prevalent because of COVID," he said. "Because people are at home looking for that next step because they ask the question 'now what' and they come to Warrior Rising for help."
He said the pandemic will continue to affect the business world for the foreseeable future. He said trucking and logistics, online services and recreational vehicle sales businesses are doing well. His outlook is equally optimistic for credit card processing companies, home security and solar sales.
The outlook is less rosy for commercial real estate.
"Clients of mine that have office space, they're realizing right now that they don't need office space. They can work from home," Van Camp said. "They're putting as much product out the door as they did before. Private equity firms, venture capitalist firms, the companies that basically control their finances are going to say 'listen, anything that doesn't affect the bottom line, get rid of'. They're going say 'we don't need office space. We don't need to pay rent.' Coronavirus is going to change the game."
Van Camp said it's hard to predict what kind of businesses will be successful. The deciding factor usually has more to do with the would-be entrepreneur than the business itself. Even those with ideas others think are bad might succeed if they're tenacious and adaptable, he added.
"We try to make it difficult for them and if they continue to try to move forward and if they say 'I don't care what you think. I don't care if you laugh at me, I'm doing this no matter what', those are the guys that succeed," Van Camp said. "We try to make sure they understand all the risks. We try to help them understand there's no guarantees and they're probably going to fail. We give them all the stats. For some people it scares them off. That's a good thing because they would have been scared off during their business endeavor anyway. I've seen some things that I thought 'well that's a dumb idea.' Because they didn't quit, they proved me wrong."