Vets starting tech businesses rely on each other for support

Leaving military service to join civilian life can be a tricky transition for many veterans — but even more so when they hope to go into business for themselves.

Some vets seek government support as they are starting out, while others turn to fellow veterans and their own personal networks for private funding and advice. Here’s a look at the experiences of some veterans starting businesses in the tech sector:

(Jahi Chikwendiu/WASHINGTON POST)

Just three years after leading a sniper team in Iraq, former Army Captain Blake Hall has had some early success creating a daily deals site for servicemen, veterans and their dependents called TroopSwap.

Hall didn’t initially plan to be an entrepreneur. When he left the Army, he said his battalion commander refused to write him a recommendation letter unless he applied to Harvard Business School. Hall was accepted, and quickly did well. He thought he might wind up at a prominent consulting firm, but while taking part in an internship he and another veteran, Matt Thompson, realized they would rather break off on their own and target a market they knew well — the military.

TroopSwap caught the eye of several angel investors including Kelly Perdew, a former Army Ranger, “Apprentice’” television show winner and chief executive of TargetClose, a company optimizing customer engagement for online ads.

Perdew happened to be a member of FirstWave, a group of approximately 100 investors whose “mission is to support other veteran entrepreneurs,” according to Hall.

After connecting with Perdew, TroopSwap was able to raise a significant part of its seed funding through First Wave.

“From there, we had access to everything we needed—capital, great advice, connections, because of how influential these people were,” Hall said.

As veterans in tech, “they understood my background.” Today, TroopSwap has raised $2.6 million in equity financing.

Currently in the reserves, former Staff Sgt. Nigel LeBlanc served in the Air Force from 1999 to 2008 and was later deployed in Afghanistan and Iraq as a field service engineer.

He launched his hairstyle-focused social networking and user review site this summer, patterning Houston-based Hairslayer after Pinterest and allowing stylists and their customers to post pictures of their favorite styles online. LeBlanc founded the business when he realized it was “recession proof — no matter what happens, people still need to get their hair done.”

LeBlanc is now in the process of trying to secure funding to grow his startup.

He has tried applying for the Small Business Administration’s Patriot Express Pilot Loan, which targets veterans and service members looking to establish businesses, but has so far not been able to secure financing.

“Without funding, it’s a Catch-22,” he said. “Someone needs to be embedded in these federal agencies who does business development or who understands what it takes to do a tech start-up.”

Alfonzo Brooks, a former F-16 avionics craftsman who served six years in the Air Force before joining the National Guard, found a novel way to finance his idea for a photo-printing and shipping service he calls Fotopigeon.

Recently, one of Brooks’ business partners’ cars was rear-ended by another car – they used the insurance money to support the launch of Fotopigeon, which was beta-tested in March. “It happened at the perfect time and no one was hurt,” Brooks explained.Fotopigeon is based in Tampa, Florida.

Former Air Force captain Dan Stratman has been an airline pilot for 23 years, giving him a healthy appreciation for the challenges of travel. Eight months ago, he founded Airport Life, an app for download in the iTunes app store, to help “frustrated and stressed out passengers.”

The app—downloaded over 25,000 times—features airport terminal maps, weather charts and a range of other free features. Stratman’s app runs on a “freemium” model—while most features are free, the “cooler” ones (a “Where’s My Car” feature, for example) are available for a $1.99 monthly subscription. As of now, only 3 percent of users pay for subscriptions, but Stratman eventually plans to place ads on the app to generate revenue. He also is considering pitching the app to angel investors. His startup is based in Kansas City, Missouri.

Mary Hagy served six years in active duty—including a stint in Kuwait during Desert Storm—and for 11 years as a civilian executive with the Armed Forces radio and TV network. She united her love for video with entre­pre­neur­ship when she founded cWyze, a cloud-based video content platform. The Philadelphia-area company is currently partnering with Microsoft, and offers analytics packages to businesses to improve viewer retention for ads. So far, Hagy and her co-founders have supported the company through personal funds and several rounds of angel investment.

Lt. Commander Marlon Terrell is a Navy reservist, but in his freetime has started a tech business to support veteran entre­pre­neur­ship. He uses a Kickstarter-like crowdfunding model -- veterans can post their projects on RepayVets and request pledges. The Maryland-based company started last year but had its soft-launch last month—so far, it has already funded one successful venture (a jump-rope adapted to the Crossfit workout.)

Terrell started RepayVets out of concern for the returning service members , a couple hundred thousand of which he estimates will be looking for enterprise opportunities.

Many veterans find, upon coming back to their families, that they “don’t have a lot of capital when they return,” Terrell said.

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