The Credit Junction interviewed Todd Connor, CEO of Bunker Labs, a national not-for-profit organization built by military veteran entrepreneurs to empower other military veterans as leaders in innovation. Through local chapters organized in 12 different cities, Bunker Labs provides educational programming, mentors, events, and thriving local networks to help military veterans start and grow businesses.
1. What is Bunker Labs, and how does it help the veteran community?
Bunker Labs is a not-for-profit organization that we started in 2014 to help military veterans start and grow their own businesses. In fact, 25% of veterans express a desire to become entrepreneurs after their tours in active duty, which is why we launched the organization to help them transition into careers in entrepreneurship. There historically has been a lot of programming around employment in transition, but not a lot of it has been focused around entrepreneurship transition and training. As a result, we have been laser focused in helping military veterans start their own businesses.
2. As someone who helps and speaks to veteran small business owners and entrepreneurs, how would you describe the small business landscape in the USA today?
I think it’s an incredibly exciting time to be a small business owner and an entrepreneur. I think we are on the midst of an economic shift that is really going to empower innovators and small business owners to deliver new innovative solutions faster than they ever have before. I think there is a real appetite on the part of what I call ‘corporate entities’ to seek to find new and creative ways to partner with upstart and new businesses. I think that we are going to see the emergence of a confluence of new relationships that include small businesses, large corporations, and even the government not-for-profit sectors working together to solve some of our countries’ biggest challenges. I think it’s an exciting time to be an entrepreneur.
3. What are some of the biggest challenges veteran entrepreneurs face in the country today?
I think one of the challenges for entrepreneurs is that we’ve made entrepreneurship something of a celebrity cult by holding up the icons like Mark Zuckerberg and the Harvard dropouts that have made billions of dollars building technology platforms. The reality is that those technology success stories represent the vast minority of entrepreneurs in the United States. The vast majority of business in the US are still traditional businesses in sectors like professional services, products, brick and mortar business, retail… Things like that. So, I worry that a lot of people come to us, thinking “I don’t have what it takes to be an entrepreneur, because of what I understand about entrepreneurship based off of what is on TV”.
We are real advocates for what we call Mainstream Entrepreneurs, which are people that solve a need and impact people in their local communities by hiring locally, for example. I think we’ve under told the story of these more traditional businesses that continue to be the backbone of the American economy, and certainly represent a number of the businesses that we support here at Bunker Labs
4. What skills do veterans bring to starting a business that other business owners do not have?
What’s interesting about military veterans starting a business is that they might be young in a lot of cases, with the average person getting out of military being about 26 or 27 years old. But people that have served in the military have done quite a few things- almost all of them have served abroad, for example- so they are bringing a global perspective that a lot of young people in the United States do not have. They are also bring work experience, having by definition done something besides studying in classrooms, so they know what it means to be on a team, to be a leader, and to take on a mission. They come to this work having gained professionalism, which I think is a big deal. Some of the things that we see a lot of startups struggle with are how to create a coherent team, how to institutionalize an operating structure, how to identify goals and how to build a healthy dynamic to then achieve their goals. All of these things are huge assets in entrepreneurship and are assets that the military veterans bring to the table.
5. For veteran entrepreneurs looking to open their business, what are the benefits of being a part of Bunker Labs?
One of the biggest challenges for anybody trying to start a business is that you need a network. Research from the Compton Foundation JP Morgan Chase, and a few other institutions has indicated that 45% of entrepreneurs say that their biggest need is access to a network. And so we really think that the impact that we can have as an organization needs to move beyond just simple education. If you’re actually trying to start a business, you don’t need to sit in the classroom and watch a PowerPoint. What you need, is access to a lawyer who you can meet, have a coffee with, and obtain some free advice. You need a key contact at a big company that you could partner with. You need somebody that can do 20 hours of coding work a week and not charge you and arm and a leg. These are practically the things that I think any entrepreneur needs when they are trying to start a business. Just a series of lifelines from the local community. And so that’s what Bunker Labs is really building.
We like to be a hyper connected network that helps every military veteran trying to start a business get whatever they need with just one phone call. That’s our model. We get many people that are very smart and experienced, but they may not have the people or the network that we have cultivated through our brand and through our programming, and so we help get them to the next people that they need to really help them and impact their business. This is not just in the theoretical, educational way but mainly in terms of a direct introduction- somebody who could really specifically be helpful for their business.
6. Do you have any parting words or advice to service members transitioning, or small business owners?
I encourage them to go out there and start a business. There is a lot of fear and nervousness about starting a business, and I understand that. But I also think it’s the greatest opportunity, and our economy needs the talent and the potential that those who have worn the uniform and served our country bring to the table, and so my encouragement to them is to find a way to start a business if they are interested in doing that. And to ‘de-risk it’- starting a business at night or on the weekends. Bunker Labs supports people- we encourage people to keep their day job while they build their businesses at night. That’s why we do all of the programming at night. I’m a fond believer that more people can be entrepreneurs than they’d think, but it is important to find ways to de-risk that jump to entrepreneurship from a personal financial standpoint. To optimize your chances for success and to ensure that your business can be successful both for the short term and the long term.