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Ex-forces entrepreneurs: How veterans can start and grow businesses

Whether you’ve already left the military, or you’re in service and thinking about life after the forces, discover why and how running your own business could be ideal

What are the necessary skills to build a career in the military? You need to be focused, willing to move, able to work in (and potentially lead) a team. 

Now, describe an entrepreneur – a leader, someone who is capable of working under pressure, adaptable, and open to change. While these are only some of the qualities that are likely to spring to mind when thinking about each role, it’s clear to see there’s overlap between life in the services and in startups.

That’s why if you’ve left, or are about to leave, the forces, you could consider becoming an entrepreneur. 

But what’s the process of launching a startup? How can your military skills be transferred to running your own business? And which resources are available to veterans who want to become entrepreneurs?

We’ll provide the information you need to know to help you set up your veteran-owned business, including the support that’s available from organisations and charities that help veterans, as well as which ex-forces business grants are available, and more.

Veteran-owned businesses in the UK: The landscape

Every year, more than 14,000 people leave the Armed Forces in the UK. While some may look into reentering employment in another sector, a small number become startup founders. 

According to the Federation of Small Businesses’ (FSB) 2019 A Force for Business report, there are approximately 340,000 small businesses run by ex-military personnel, representing 6% of all small businesses in Britain.

The same research found that the four most popular sectors for service leavers to start their own business in were:

  1. Manufacturing (18%)
  2. Wholesale, retail and repair (12%)
  3. Professional, scientific and technical (12%)
  4. Construction (10%)

But when researching this article, many of the keywords and search terms around veterans returning to civilian life were focused on gaining employment, along with what support was available to help them during resettlement. 

Also, there were fewer searches around veterans starting their own businesses, suggesting that people aren’t looking as much for this information – if so, why not, and how can this be changed? 

The Independent reported on how we can ‘treat military veterans better by helping them to become entrepreneurs’ – for example, it highlights how in the US there is greater public awareness about supporting veterans, including in business. 

Business Leader described ex-forces in Britain as ‘an untapped business resource’ when it reported on the same FSB research into military veterans involvement in entrepreneurship and employment. 

The Centre for Entrepreneurs published The Military Entrepreneurship Manifesto in June 2018. It lists five recommendations for supporting entrepreneurship in the military community, including launching entrepreneurship boot camps for service leavers and establishing a military entrepreneurship hub, as well as focusing on innovation.

A guide to veteran support for starting a business

Here, we outline some of the main areas to consider when thinking about starting your own business, including business grants for UK veterans, other forms of funding, training, events, and other resources.

Funding

The Royal British Legion and RFEA – The Forces Employment Charity can provide support and assistance with employment, as well as other aspects of life after the forces. 

Through this partnership, you can apply for an employment grant to gain the skills needed to start a business, such as attending a business course. There are two types of employment grant available: 

  1. Training, travel, accommodation, equipment grant e.g. to take a training course. The maximum value for this grant is £1,000
  2. Licenses grant – this is to help you find work e.g. getting a security licence. This is an one-off grant, with amounts available up to £250 

You can either apply through the RFEA directly, or contact the British Legion – find more information here.

You could also consider a military business loan. For example, SME Loans offers loans for military veterans, with amounts ranging between £1,000-£500,000. 

Training

Help for Heroes offers the Business Experience Course, supporting wounded veterans with a programme to help you decide if self-employment is for you. Help for Heroes runs the course in partnership with X Forces, covering topics such as: 

  • How to go about creating and maintaining a business that makes a profit
  • How to market your business
  • Managing cash flow and budgeting
  • Preparing for launch

Ongoing support is also provided. The course is offered free of charge. You can learn more about the course and register your interest on the Help for Heroes site.

Offering services specifically for those based in north-east England, Finchale offers self-employment support through training courses. 

Examples include City & Guilds, where one of the options includes a business administration course. Training is also available for Maths and English, as well as Highfield qualifications, including the Security Industry Authority (SIA) license.

The University of Wolverhampton offers The Unsung Hero Business Start-up Programme. This is a free course that can teach you the skills needed to start a business. 

General

X-Forces should be a go-to if you’re in the military community and are looking to start your own business. Not only is it an online hub of information, it can help you get started with its training, funding and events. 

Training is mostly available free of charge, and includes workshops about self-employment and startup skills, along with programmes to help you start a business.

As an official delivery partner of the Start Up Loans Company, X-Forces can supply loans of up to £25,000 – read more about it and start the application process on its funding page.

X-Forces also runs events and workshops alongside its partners, with topics including startup skills, self employment awareness, business advice, and marketing. These are offered for free, although be sure to check the criteria. X-Forces also offers an enterprise and self-employment course for service leavers (price on application). 

Leona Barr Jones, Chief Operating Officer, Focus7 advises: “Being an entrepreneur is not easy. It takes determination and hard work.  Having staff is a big responsibility and sometimes a challenge. However, it is hugely rewarding being your own boss and founding a business that succeeds and gives people jobs and helps your customers along the way. 

“My advice would be to find what you love and do that. Follow your passion and work out how to get paid for it. 

“Get help and support from X-Forces who are a great organisation who can offer startup loans, mentoring and advice to veteran-owned startups.”

Premises

If you’re looking for space to work on your business from, check out The Military Coworking Hub. It offers virtual or physical membership in coworking hubs on various bases around the country. Physical membership includes use of the hub on your nearest base, and is priced at £20 per year (providing you meet the eligibility criteria).

Visit our finding premises hub for more information on choosing a space for your startup. 

Additional resources

If you’re in, or have left, the Army, then the Transition Individual Planning and Personal Development (IPDD) programme is available to you to plan for returning to civilian life.

The Career Transition Partnership offers a resettlement training services that can help you to find training and employment.

Heropreneurs is a charity that’s focused on supporting entrepreneurs in the military community – it also runs awards.

The Veterans Gateway offers veterans support services across a range of areas, and has a list of organisations that can help with self-employment.  

How do military skills equip you for entrepreneurship?

There are a number of skills that you gain in the forces that can also be applied in the business world when you’re back in civvy street, especially when running your own company. Examples of military transferable skills include:

  • Management
  • Leadership
  • Communication
  • Motivation
  • Problem-solving
  • Organisation
  • Ability to handle pressure
  • Attention to detail
  • Analytical ability
  • Technical knowledge
  • Reliability

Barr Jones comments:Serving in the forces teaches you resilience, determination and discipline. I think that we are all self-starters and can work independently, as well as in a team. This skill set lends itself well to launching a startup and driving a new business. 

“I knew when I left the army that I wanted to be self-employed and to use the skills I had learnt in the forces to make my own way. Since that time, I have always been self-employed and launching a startup was a great opportunity to put all of my leadership and management into practice in a different environment. 

“As a founder of a small business, good sound leadership and management are key skills that I brought with me from my career in the armed forces. I was lucky that I also had finance, administration and business management, project and programme management skills. All these combined have proved to be invaluable skills for building the business.”

What business skills did a career in the forces give you?

Oz Alashe MBE, CEO, CybSafe: “The Armed Forces arguably invest more time and resources into training its personnel than any other institution in the UK. One of the biggest areas of focus is leadership. Across all levels, the concept of “serving to lead” is nurtured and encouraged. This dedication to leadership gave me the confidence and motivation to start a business of my own once I had discovered a gap in the market. Rather than seeking alternative solutions – of which there were none – I created my own.

“My time in the forces also taught me the power of teamwork and how to build a strong network of people. Part of being a leader is accepting that you’re often not the smartest, fastest, or strongest in the room – in fact, it means actively seeking to fill the room with people much better at what they do than you. This has really shaped how we recruit talent at CybSafe, and I’m proud to say that the business is made up of a diverse group of people who specialise in everything from data analysis, to sales and marketing, to behavioural science.

“From my earliest military experience, I’ve been involved in securing and helping those that aren’t in a position to do it for themselves. Launching CybSafe and entering the cyber security space as an entrepreneur is an extension of that interest and experience.”

Example of a small business started by ex-service personnel

Here we profile an example of a startup founded by a veteran.

Entrepreneur case study: Chris Newlands, CEO, Spelfie 

  1.     Describe your journey from the forces to starting a business. 

I joined the Royal Navy aged 16, as a Junior Assistant Stores Accountant and was soon identified as a trainee officer – I served for six years. Coming under fire 18 months after the Falklands conflict ended and surviving an Exocet missile attack certainly puts everyday business stress into context!

  1.     Why did you decide to launch your startup after leaving the forces?

“My entrepreneurial journey started after a long professional career in Financial Services – I attained Chartered status, recruiting, training and leading over 1,000 advisors during my career. I have always been creative, an intrapreneur if you like, heading up change teams within huge organisations. 

“The concept of finding a better way to travel, which helps travellers make better decisions which could save lives inspired me, as pollution is killing more people today than smoking.”

“Also, I wanted to explore the opportunities that our unique “space selfie” project Spelfie offers. It is a digital marketing disruptor with a plastic pollution option – the latter was filmed by a major broadcaster in July; the world's first spelfie, which will air on the 18th of November.”

  1.     Which skills/qualities did your career in the forces give you that help with running your own business? 

“Discipline, focus, teamwork, respect and a strong set of values, which I hope helps me be a better coach and leader. My communication skills were honed too – unlike the Army, the Royal Navy would transfer individuals, not divisions, therefore you had to make relationships quickly, with all ages and backgrounds.”

  1.     What advice would you offer to other veterans who are thinking about becoming an entrepreneur? 

“Your skills are transferable and highly valued by the people who will interview you. People who have served exude confidence, are perceived as disciplined, honest and trustworthy.”

  1.     What are some of the challenges for ex-forces re-entering civilian life/finding employment? 

“There is a general acceptance that service people are “institutionalised” as they are told where to be, when to eat and what to wear. That's true to an extent, however structure is what society relies upon – the most organised people generally get more done, quicker and to a higher standard; what's not to like?

  1.     What are some of the benefits of employing a veteran? 

“All of the above – they understand the need for team work, strategy and are particularly useful in disaster recovery scenarios (major and minor), keeping cool in the face of adversity or if there's a power surge in the IT department.”

  1.     Are there any myths about starting a business as a veteran that you’d like to bust? 

“Not that I'm aware of – I believe veterans bring a valuable set of communication and interpersonal skills that many in “Civvy Street” would die for – they will stand out from the crowd, believe and they will achieve!”

– Chris Newlands, Spelfie

Chris Newlands has been shortlisted for the Innovator of the Year award at the Scottish Ex-Forces Business Awards, taking place in December 2019.

For more inspiration, check out our business ideas guides!

What would you say to a veteran thinking about becoming an entrepreneur?

Alashe advises: “Starting and running CybSafe has been an incredibly rewarding and exciting experience, but also one of the most challenging. I would advise veterans who are considering becoming an entrepreneur to pursue founding a business wholeheartedly, and to bring some of those military skills and experiences into the business with you.

“While serving, we worked alongside a diverse group of people who were united by a single purpose, a set of shared values, and one cohesive organisation. The initial stages of building a business are similar to this – everyone working towards one shared goal – so it’s vital to connect with and recruit people with very different experiences and backgrounds. Similar to the military, a team – and a business – is strongest when its team is united by purpose but who bring different skills and outlooks to the table.”

Employing veterans: What do you need to know?

Veterans are often highly skilled and qualified, adaptable people, making them effective employees who are reliable and ambitious. And, not only does employing ex-forces make sense on a business level for the skills they can bring, it’s also a way for a company to give back to society and showcase its values.

Yet military CVs may be difficult to understand in a corporate setting, and, unlike the US, there aren’t tax incentives for hiring veterans in the UK. So what do you need to know if you want to recruit ex-forces?

According to Business in the Community, one of the biggest challenges for ex-forces reentering employment is having their military experience understood by employers. 

This is reinforced through data published by Hire a Hero – a charity that supports service leavers with the transition to civilian life – which states that 58% of service personnel feel the majority of employers don’t understand them. 

To show your understanding, one option could be to sign the Armed Forces Covenant, pledging to support the Armed Forces community. 

If you’re interested in hiring veterans but aren’t sure how to go about it, consider using a specialist recruitment agency that focuses on finding ex-military talent for vacancies.  

There are also a number of organisations that you could connect with to help recruit veterans, like the Veterans Employment Transition Support (VETS), which provides the opportunity to sign up as a corporate partner. 

Similarly, The Poppy Factory is an employment charity that can match and support veterans and businesses during the recruitment process.Ex-Mil Recruitment and Forces Recruitment Services (FRS) are other examples of recruitment services that connect veterans with employers. 

If you’re looking to hire veterans, consider where your company is based – the South West is the most popular region for veterans to live in, representing 24% of respondents in the Veterans Work: Moving On report published in 2018. 

You should also think about what your organisation can offer veterans, especially as the same research found that 70% of veterans under 30 stated ‘career progression’ as the most important factor when looking for a civilian job.

On the challenges that ex-forces can face re-entering civilian life and finding employment, Barr Jones says: It can be a challenge entering civilian life. However there are many businesses who have signed the Armed Forces Covenant and are part of the MOD’s Employer Recognition Scheme who have pledged their support to service leavers and the rest of the Armed Forces community. You can also get support from The Poppy Factory if you are struggling to find employment.”

 Are there any myths about starting a business as a veteran that you’d like to bust?

 Alashe comments: “It’s a common misconception that ex-military personnel all have a regimented way of thinking and working, which they carry with them into other careers. The reality is often very different. 

“At CybSafe, for example, with my business goals in mind, we have created an environment that in many ways is quite dissimilar to a traditional military environment. Here we have built a diverse team of data scientists, sales specialists, marketing executives, software engineers, professional designers and other experts; all of whom are encouraged to think as freely and creatively as possible. 

“That said, in many ways, the eclectic mix of skills is also very reflective of teams built for military or national security objectives. Every business has a different recipe for success, and assuming one regimented fit-for-all organisation can negatively impact growth. The majority of ex-military personnel are particularly adept at adapting to new practices.

“In many ways, veterans are the same as everyone else, and everyone deserves the opportunity to achieve, whether that’s within the army or the business world. I would implore organisations not to make snap decisions about ex-military applicants based on preconceived ideas, but to review their experience and transferable skills in relation to the role at hand.”

Summary

While the business and military sectors may seem worlds apart at first, if you look a little closer you can see how the two are connected, along with the skills that could take you from the barracks to the boardroom. 

Although you’re likely to have a lot of questions about how to start your own business, there are a wealth of resources out there that veterans can access to become self-employed. When returning back to civilian life after being in the forces, it’s important to remember that the skills gained in a military career are a valuable asset that can be applied to starting your own business. 

And, for more inspiration, look at how other veterans have made the transition into entrepreneurship. While veteran-owned businesses may currently be a minority in the small business sector, it is possible – especially if you can see the ways in which others before you have forged a path.

Thinking further down the line, consider employing other ex-forces, when you’re in a position to do so. Not only will this help the individual that you employ, and benefit your business by building your team, it could help to contribute to changing the perspective of what life after the military can be like.

So wherever you are in your journey to starting your business, use our article to guide you from service leaver to startup founder – good luck!

Have you worked with one of the organisations above, and if so, how did you find it? Have we missed out any businesses that help veterans become entrepreneurs? If so, let us know!

Scarlett Cook
Scarlett Cook

Scarlett writes about a wide range of topics on the site, from business security to digital marketing and EPOS systems. She can also be found writing about diversity and sustainability in business, as well as managing the Just Started profiles.