Veterans & Start-ups

Defence members transitioning to civilian employment is a hot topic these days, in large part to the new Government initiatives announced in November supporting this, as well as the excellent work being done by organisations such as With You With Me. Many great articles and blogs havealready been written in this area – not only aimed at assisting Veterans to understand the transition process and what civilian employers expect of them, but also targeted at civilian employers to help them understand the valuable capabilities a veteran brings to the table.

One area, though, that has not received much attention is Veterans transitioning to start-ups. This is surprising for a number of reasons. Firstly, because of the Government focus on innovation and Turnbull’s concept of the “ideas boom”, but more importantly, because Defence members are taught to be innovative, resourceful and hard working – exactly the traits a successful start-up needs.

In order to address this deficit, here are some similarities (and differences) between Defence life and working in a start-up, in order to expose transitioning Veterans to start-ups and help them determine if this is an area they may want to work in. It may also highlight to start-up founders the key skills and attributes that a Veteran would bring with them that may help their new business succeed.

Operational deployment vs a start-up

If you ask Defence members what their best experience has been, many would reply that it was when they were on operational deployment. This may seem paradoxical, as during this time they would often have been working extremely long hours under (sometime enormous) pressure, however most Veterans thrive in this environment – working as part of a tight-knit team on something that really matters.

In many ways working for a start-up can have many of the characteristics of an operational deployment. Sure, no one is getting shot at or making life or death decisions (which being a Veteran myself I would never try to diminish), however there is still tremendous pressure that start-up members can be placed under. For example, a mistake at an early stage in a start-up can sink the entire venture, and pressure on decision-making certainly mounts when the business only has enough cash flow to pay staff for another few weeks.

In addition, long hours are part and parcel of the start-up journey. It is not uncommon for employees to be working right through the night, and on most weekends. For some Veterans though, having worked 6.5 days a week over the course of a 7-month operational deployment may have prepared them for this.

It is not all bad news though. The team camaraderie most Veterans enjoyed during an operational deployment is alive and well at a start-up company. The entire team, working together towards a common goal, is the only way a start-up will beat the odds to become a success. And the high-pressure stakes involved simply reflects the amount of responsibility a start-up employee has, and this is something that a number of Veterans crave. Responsibility, and having the buck stop with them, is important to some Veterans because it means that their actions have meaning, and the work they are doing is important.

Bringing order to chaos

A valued mentor once told me that an important role of any leader is to bring order to chaos. Nowhere in the corporate world is this more relevant than in the early stages of a start-up. Here, most business processes have yet to be developed or implemented, and every day brings with it a new challenge or problem never faced before.

Veterans, from the rank of Corporal all the way up to Major and beyond, are uniquely suited to help a start-up navigate this period for a number of reasons. Firstly, right from the beginning of their training, Veterans are taught the value of routine. Not just at the superficial level of having a standard time to wake up or for the mess hall to be open for lunch, but rather the importance of developing Standard Operating Procedures to allow all members of a team to deal with an everyday or standard occurrence in a similar fashion. A Veteran can easily bring this skill across to a start-up to help them develop their business processes.

Another way in which Veterans can provide value is through the conduct of After Action Reviews. Taking the time to get the key members together to walkthrough an incident and make recommendations for future action allows an organisation to learn lessons and amend processes. For a start-up, this will shorten its learning cycle and allow it to move on from mistakes quickly.


By the time they are considering transitioning from Defence, a Sergeant could be earning up to $85K-$90K or higher per year, while a Captain could be on $100K+. Throw in the Defence health and housing benefits received, and it quickly becomes a very generous salary package overall. While some civilian companies may match this package for transitioning Veterans, start-ups will not. It is likely that a beginning salary at a start-up will only be 50%-70% of what a Veteran would be used to, without all the benefits they received in the past. In fact, it may even be lower than this, or they may not even offer a salary! Why then would anyone, let alone a Veteran, want to be part of a start-up?

The reason is because of the tantalising possibility that the start-up becomes the next Google, FaceBook or Atlassian, and the opportunity to participate in building a million, or even a billion, dollar company. Essentially, it’s a high risk/high reward strategy. The high reward is this – although not providing a large paycheck, a start-up may offer other incentives such as a share of the company in order to attract quality staff. Even if it is not a large share, owning 2 percent of a company valued at $500M can sound pretty enticing.

This, however, needs to weighed up against the high risk involved – that is, that the vast majority of start-ups fail (and 10 or even 20 percent of nothing still equals nothing). This high risk/high reward dilemma faces all members of a start-up, not just Veterans, however some Veterans may actually be in a better position to handle it than other members of the general population. Having been on 1, 2 or more operational deployments, these Veterans may have built up a sizable nest egg that they can use as a safety net, or to supplement their income during the lean beginnings of a start-up.

Therefore, before joining a start-up, a Veteran should consider if they and their families can survive on a lower salary than they are used to – possibly for an extended amount of time. If the answer to this is no, then they may need to look for other opportunities.

Final thoughts

Despite the numerous differences between Defence life and a start-up, many Veterans may be excited by the challenges they would face working for a new up-and-coming company, and the founders and CEO’s of start-ups that take a chance on Veterans may be pleasantly surprised with the skills and attributes they bring with them.

I would love to hear your start-up experiences – are you a Veteran who is working in one, or are you a CEO employing a Veteran? What are your thoughts?

Written by John Harris

Business Development & Client Relations Manager


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