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Marine Corps Base Quantico annually hosts "Boots to Business" workshops conducted by the U.S. Small Business Administration to assist military members with running a business when they transition into civilian life.

Photo by Adele Uphaus-Conner

Marines learn how to go from boots to business-owners in free two-day training program

16 Nov 2015 | Adele Uphaus-Conner Marine Corps Base Quantico

Jack C. Taylor, a veteran of the U.S. Navy, was having a difficult time brainstorming names for his fledgling rental car business.

“Suddenly he thought, ‘I’ll name it after the ship I sailed on in World War II,’” said James Williams, lead economic development specialist at the Richmond district office of the U.S. Small Business Administration (SBA).

And that’s how Enterprise Rent-a-Car was born. It’s just one of the many large and small businesses started by veterans of the U.S. armed services.

“Historically, the number of veterans who start businesses exceeds the number of civilians,” Williams said. “The military is mission-focused, it’s all about focusing on something and accomplishing it. That’s the military spirit, and it turns people into good leaders.”

In order to help those transitioning out of the military start their own businesses, the Department of Defense and the SBA developed Operation Boots to Business, a two-day entrepreneurial education and training program. The program is offered at U.S. military installations worldwide. It comes to Marine Corps Base Quantico six times a year, most recently Nov. 12-13.

“It’s meant to give those exiting the military a leg-up in business,” Williams said. “And it’s standardized so that everyone around the country gets the same program and the same access to local resources.

“It’s been very popular,” he continued. “We’re averaging 20 students a class.”

Williams said Boots to Business was established three years ago to accommodate the draw-down of military personnel. It is offered in conjunction with America’s Small Business Development Center, SCORE (a national network of free business mentors), the Association of Women’s Business Centers, the Veterans Business Outreach Centers, and the Institute for Veterans and Military Families (IVMF) at Syracuse University.

Following the two-day intensive program, participants can elect to enroll in an eight-week online course taught by a consortium of professors through the Syracuse IVMF. The two-day intensive and the eight-week course are both free.

The two-day program was broken into modules which gave the basics of entrepreneurship. Students learned how to turn a good idea into a business plan, how to finance a business venture, how to conduct market research and understand their competition, how to set price points and measure profit potential, how to contract with the U.S. government, and what resources are available to help.

The modules were interspersed with “action sessions” in which students answered questions designed to help them better understand themselves, their ideas, and the conflicts that might be in the way.

Some of the important lessons for the students were that their business idea should be extremely specific, that they should never try to beat anyone else’s price, and that while making money should be a fundamental concern, they also need to be passionate about their businesses if they’re going to be successful.

“Often, you will be the brand,” Joseph Brisby, a mentor with the Richmond SCORE office, told the room. “Make meaning for yourself through your venture.”

Brisby showed the class a video of a talk by Guy Kawasaki, the former chief product evangelist for Apple, who said that there are only three reasons to go into business: to increase the quality of life, to right a wrong, or to prevent the end of something good.

“If you don’t have one of those motivations, you should re-think what you’re doing,” Kawasaki said in the video.

The class was full of Marines and sailors with diverse interests, passions, and problems they wanted to solve, from helping people go on their dream vacations to making organic food more accessible locally. Many had already started small businesses on the side.

Damarcus Montgomery, a hospital corpsman, will be leaving the Navy in three days, and attended the class to obtain tips on how to start a business.

“I don’t so much have a business idea as a problem I want to solve,” he said. The problem is the type of music that comes out of his hometown of Houston, Tex.

“There’s a cap on it,” he said. “There are artists who are going unnoticed. I want to fix that.”

Maj. Nicole Bohannon, who works at Headquarters Marine Corps, already owns an event-planning business. She currently plans two to three events a month, but she’d like to take the business full time when she retires in 2020. The most valuable take aways from the class for her were the importance of specifically defining the services her business can offer and the number of resources available to help business owners.

“The level of support out there is tremendous,” Bohannon said.

Gunnery Sgt. Willie Canty, who works at Marine Barracks Washington, D.C., said the class helped him see that the skills he developed in the Marine Corps would be useful in the civilian world as well.

“Everything we do in the Marine Corps makes us good business owners,” he said. “Work ethic, follow-through, how to motivate people and help them meet their goals, how to be on time.”

Canty said he would be retiring from the Marine Corps in 2018 and that he wanted to start planning for his family’s future early. He didn’t have a specific business idea yet but was mulling several.

“The door’s wide open,” he said. “This is America!”

Marine Corps Base Quantico