The Washington Post

Translating military service to entrepreneurship

Former U.S. Army and Air Force intelligence officers Craig Cummings and Sean Lane noticed a particular military practice when deployed in Afghanistan and Iraq, which they thought might make a strong business later.

American forces overseas were fingerprinting locals and compiling a database of “biometric” data, allowing the military to identify key and potentially dangerous individuals later.

Members of the Marine Corps march up 5th Avenue during the Veterans Day Parade in New York November 11, 2012. (CARLO ALLEGRI/REUTERS)

This is one of several companies Cummings is concurrently involved with in either a managerial or advisory position. As a veteran entrepreneur, Cummings frequently applies the technology skills he acquired in the military to his businesses. In addition to his work with CrossChx, he founded BTS (Battlefield Telecommunications Systems), a Columbia, Md.-based service, in 2008. BTS sets up cellular networks overseas, and was responsible for the first deployment of the 3G network in Afghanistan. He’s also a co-founder and chair of RideScout, which developed an app that attempts to help people find the most efficient method of ground transportation.

Cummings feels veterans are well suited for entre­pre­neur­ship. Many “like being told to execute, and not being told exactly how to do it. We like being told to take the hill, and we’ll figure out how to take the hill,” he said.

When he resigned from the military in 2009 to satisfy his “entrepreneurial itch,” he got off to a rocky start. He left after 17 years of service, just three years shy of the minimum requirement for starting to receive increased benefits from the military. “It was a gutsy move,” he said.

Two weeks after he resigned, his wife was diagnosed with breast cancer. “Four months later, when she’s in the throes of chemotherapy, we only had 45 days of cash left. That was a serious moment of motivation for me,” he said.

But soon, he found demand for BTS services was sufficient to replenish his cash flow. Since then, he said, he’s become a serial entrepreneur.

Though not all the businesses in his portfolio directly address the military or veteran market, most do have some military connection. For instance, though RideScout’s target market is the general public, Cummings co-founded it with Joseph Kopser, a fellow West Point graduate and Army veteran.

Veterans are naturally compatible business partners, he said, because “even if you’ve just met them, you feel like the history of the U.S. military bonds you,” he said.

Cummings is plugged into a strong network of veteran entrepreneurs, and is committed to the economic advancement of veterans and their families. He is currently launching a real estate company whose agents are exclusively current or former military spouses. He is also a member of First Wave, a group of military veterans and West Point graduates who aim to connect veteran entrepreneurs to advice and capital.

However, Cummings has noticed one common problem among military veterans as entrepreneurs. “A lot of people in the military aren’t comfortable asking for money,” he said. “You get used to telling people what to do [in the military], and when you ask people for money, it’s a significant change in behavior,” he said.

Cummings may be part of a declining number of veteran entrepreneurs. Until three years ago, U.S. veterans started companies at higher rates than non-veterans, according to a Kauffman Institute report – in 1996, veterans accounted for 12.3 percent of all entrepreneurs, but by 2011, they comprised only six percent.

This drop in veteran entrepreneurship rates could coincide with increasing numbers of veterans aging out of the working-age population, the report noted.

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