Hear from 3 veterans on the businesses they’ve started and how their backgrounds have helped them find success.
Each Veterans Day, we celebrate the courage and sacrifice of our military members and their families. Many military personnel or their spouses also launch businesses while they’re serving their country or once they join civilian life. In fact, the United States Small Business Administration reports that there is roughly 1 veteran-owned firm for every 10 veterans, employing nearly 6 million people. Veterans are also 45% more likely to be self-employed compared to non-veterans.
In honor of Veterans Day, we’re shining the spotlight on 3 of these businesses and their owners.
Mike Lahiff, cofounder/CEO of ZeroEyes
After spending over a decade as a Navy SEAL, Lahiff earned an MBA and worked in private equity. He also did some real estate investing but wanted to create another business that would prevent active shooter situations. “My daughter was going through active lockdown drills,” he said. “She’d come home pretty upset about it.”
While at his daughter’s school for her lacrosse practice, Lahiff noticed how many cameras the school had. He knew some people who were working on facial recognition technology, which led him to wonder if artificial intelligence could also detect firearms in security footage.
Lahiff went all in on this idea — even quitting his job, liquidating his retirement account, and selling all his real estate holdings. “It was 6 of us working 70 hours a week collecting data and annotating,” he said. “We ran it over a YouTube video of a clip from The Matrix movie and it detected all these guns.” But when they hooked it up to a security camera, the tool didn’t work as well. It even mistook Lahiff’s dog for a gun!
Once they’d improved the technology, Lahiff and his cofounders demoed it to the school superintendent for the Rancocas, New Jersey school district and piloted it in that district over the summer of 2019. Since then, they’ve deployed the firearm-detection software in other places, too — including shopping malls, corporate headquarters, and military bases.
“You have to get comfortable with being uncomfortable.”
Lahiff said his experience in special operations has helped him persevere as an entrepreneur. “Things go haywire all the time,” he said. “You make all these great plans and the plans go right out the window. You have to get comfortable with being uncomfortable.”
Jen McClary, founder/owner of Grape Juice Mom LLC
McClary is an active duty Army officer, military spouse, and the founder of Grape Juice Mom LLC, a company aimed at making wine affordable and approachable. McClary and her husband have always had an interest in wine and business, so McClary decided to launch a business around wine.
Her main product is a wine subscription service called the 52 Weeks of Wine. “You can grow your palette by tasting more of different types of wines,” McClary explained. “I do a lot of virtual online tastings and wine education.” She also created an advent calendar with a design that fits mini liquor bottles.
Grape Juice Mom origins
Grape Juice Mom didn’t start out using a subscription model. Because she’s still working for the military, she wasn’t relying on the business to turn an immediate profit, which she said worked to her advantage. McClary’s original vision was to shape her business around education, where her followers would purchase the wines locally and she’d share information about those varietals. But her followers — many of them in the military — didn’t have easy access to those specific wines.
“Military bases are not always in communities that have great selections of wine,” McClary sids. “Some of these varietals were very obscure. They started asking me, can you send me the wines? How can I get these wines? That immediately had me pivoting into how can I provide these shipments?”
Shipping alcohol can have complications, but McClary falls into a category where she can work with wine distributors as a reseller but never actually handle the bottles herself. The wine distributors hold the liquor license and handle logistics.
“Another thing with the military is, you become used to being told no. Any sort of setback isn’t demoralizing to me.”
McClary’s military background taught her to not shy away from cold-calling. “Often you just have to find the right person with the information and call them, regardless of rank,” she said. “It can be intimidating but it’s served me well in business.
Another thing with the military is, you become used to being told no. Any sort of setback isn’t demoralizing to me.”
Anders Helgeson, cofounder of Time Now Hauling & Junk Removal
A former Army officer, Helgeson had been discussing business ideas with his friend and fellow service member Brandon Harvey for a while. The two started flipping furniture last summer. They’d buy a couple of couches, stash them in Helgeson’s living room, then resell them. In 3 and a half months, they earned just under $16,000, but they ultimately decided that flipping furniture wasn’t scalable.
Instead, Helgeson and Harvey decided to start a junk removal business and used the money from flipping furniture to set up an LLC, take out an insurance policy, and cover other startup costs. They handed out business cards to the people selling them furniture and got their very first junk removal customers from someone who sold them a couch.
“You start a business to serve customers. If you do that better than your competition, you will find success.”
Junk removal businesses have a low barrier to entry, so Helgeson said their commitment to customer service has helped them stand out and earn positive reviews online. “A lot of junk removal companies are guys with trucks,” he said. “That’s what we are, but I was able to pretty easily set up a professional-looking website. We’re both really good at the customer service part of the business.”
Helgeson attributes much of their early success to skills they honed in the military. “I’m inherently well organized, highly disciplined, and have gone into this with the understanding that if I’m serving my customers well, my success will follow,” he said. “A huge thing that most entrepreneurs overlook is the service aspect of business. You don’t start a business for yourself; you start a business to serve customers. If you do that better than your competition, you will find success.”