VetSmallBiz Growth Challenge: Unique Perspectives - D'Aniello Institute for Veterans and Military Families

VetSmallBiz Growth Challenge: Unique Perspectives


We recently chatted with a group of 10 military veteran business owners competing in the VetSmallBiz Growth Challenge – an initiative powered by the Institute for Veterans and Military Families (IVMF) at Syracuse University and supported by The Marcus Foundation. With the help of their business coaches, these veterans are growing their businesses and working through big challenges and tackling big ideas. Read on to learn from their unique perspectives on entrepreneurship and cheer them to the finish line as they pitch for a combined $100,000 in funding on March 3rd at the Georgia Aquarium in Atlanta. Follow along on social media with @IVMFSyracuseU and #vetbizchallenge.

Our Competitors:

VetBiz Competitor photos block

Pictured (top – left to right): Ethan Whitfield, Icebox Cryotherapy; Jill Wolfe, Distel Wolfe Experiential Design; Jim Raschella, Off Duty Blue; Kathryn Thomas, Yoga 4 Change; and Lawrence Richards, Reflections of Service LLC.

Pictured (bottom – left to right): Megan R.Williams Khmelev, Elemental Weight Loss Clinic; Stephen Woll, Tinole; Leah Olszewski, FEMTAC; Ken Kelso, Military Express LLC.; and Phil Keil, NuPhase Solutions.

Our Coaches:

VetBiz Judges photos block

Pictured (left to right): William Crane, Rachelle Oribio, Philip Cardenas, Lauren McDanell, and Thomas Crane.

The Why Behind Distell Wolfe by Jill Wolfe

“There’s lots of bad reasons to start a company. But there’s only one good, legitimate reason, and I think you know what it is: it’s to change the world.” – Phil Libin, CEO of Evernote

“While it may not seem that designing high-tech scavenger hunts for companies, nonprofits and universities has the potential to change the world, we’ve seen that it absolutely does. Our clients teach us so much about the world. We have watched high-powered pharmaceutical representatives dance with homeless teens. We have witnessed two competing teams come together and stage a mass conga line with a group of elementary school kids. We have seen a CEO help her male employee don a $10,000 wedding dress while the shop owner snapped his photo. At the end of the day, we know that our technology is just a tool — a tool to help our clients build better connections, happier experiences, and more meaningful relationships. But it’s also a tool that can change the world. We think that’s the most powerful ‘why’ there is!” – Jill Wolfe, Competitor  

Applying Skills to New Markets
Can we create new markets by applying our skills to different problems?

seed spotSurely many other problems might be solved with your skills/solution. The challenge that entrepreneurs face once they have a beautiful technology such as yours is to remain committed to solving problems rather than repurposing solutions for the sake of new markets. Imagine taking a hammer (solution) built to hammer in nails (problem) and using it to prop open a heavy door, stir soup or scratch your back. Could the hammer do those things? Yes. Are those new problems best solved with a hammer solution? Probably not. If new markets share the same or similar problem with your initial market, repurposing makes sense. But as you identify new problems worth solving in these markets, be willing to create a custom solution that fits the problem perfectly – just as you did in the first place.” – Coach Lauren McDannell 

NuPhase Solutions Thinks Beyond Profit Motives
“I often ask people why they do what they do. What is their motivation for getting up every day? Each business must answer this important question. This ‘why’ is outside the realm of any profit margin. Instead, the answer to this burning question is the foundational reason why anyone would be interested in your business over the competition. And, your strategy, communication and actions must all align with why you exist.” – Phil Keil, Competitor 

Keil says the ‘why’ for NuPhase Solutions is simple. “We want to enhance the quality of life for people suffering from major neurological and psychiatric disorders. We are challenging the status quo and advancing the safest, most targeted, noninvasive treatment option for depression.” 

Yoga4Change Contemplates the Pitch
Given the diversity of the communities I serve, I find it challenging to pitch my company in 90 seconds. Where should I focus? – Kathryn Thomas, Competitor 

seed spot

It’s impossible to communicate everything about your venture in 90 seconds. The great news is that communicating everything isn’t the purpose of the 90-second pitch! Your main goal is two-fold: one, the listener should understand (a) the problem you’re solving, (b) who you’re solving it for, and (c) how you’re solving it; two, the listener should have enough foundational understanding and interest to ask a follow-up question. The most common mistakes I see in a pitch are overwhelming the listener with TMI (too much information) and emphasizing features rather than benefits (often in the form of technical/industry language or acronyms). Keep your description simple, straightforward, and outcome-focused.” – Coach Lauren McDanell 

The Spark Behind Off Duty Blue
“I have been talking about starting a business with my business partner and best friend, Mark Grady, since we met in the U.S. Marine Corps in 2005. Ideas came and went, but nothing seemed to stick.  Our lives took different paths when we left the Marines, but we always remained close.  In 2013, after a few years living in Florida, I moved back to our hometown where Mark still lived and worked as a Deputy Sheriff. We got together most Mondays to watch football and catch up. Every week we bounced ideas off of each other and talk through how we could or couldn’t pull off becoming entrepreneurs. Then one day, our dream seemed to be within reach. During a commercial break of a Monday Night Football game, a news brief aired regarding the indictment of several officers from Mark’s department for allegedly falsifying off-duty detail timesheets. Confused as to what happened, I asked Mark how the department usually keeps track of off-duty hours for employees. He simply shrugged his shoulders and said “We really don’t.” After a few seconds we each had a lightbulb moment, and the idea that would eventually become Off-Duty Blue was born.” – Jim Raschella, Competitor  

Reflections of Service Ponders Building the Team
As an entrepreneur I have to wear many hats. Currently I am the marketer, designer, craftsman, photographer, web designer, etc. for my company.  What is the best way to decide how and when to delegate some tasks to outside individuals so that my business can grow? – Lawrence Richards, Competitor

Coach Thomas Crane says “As an entrepreneur, this can be a very challenging bridge to cross. No one knows your business like you; therefore, you think no one can do as great a job as you. However, once you clear that hurdle, things can become more efficient. As for what and when, that depends on your specific business needs. This is what works best for me.”

bunker labsWhat: The “what” depends on your business needs. Whether it’s someone keeping sales records or helping create intricate pieces of art with advanced machinery, the “what” is whatever you need for your business to grow. Delegating was something I always struggled with, so I did a lot of research and found this framework to be very effective. As soon as you do it once or twice, it will become much easier, and you will trust people to do the job more easily.

When: The “when” is whenever a task gets in the way of you running and marketing your business. As the entrepreneur, you are the face of your business. You are the one in the trenches, grinding to get the sale. If you find yourself bogged down with clerical and other non-essential tasks, not making moves to further your business, it may be time to delegate.

  • Pick the right people: Everything starts by having the right people around you. If you don’t have the right people around you, it makes it harder for you to trust them.
  • Provide complete instructions: Make sure they know exactly what they are doing. (i.e. provide a step-by-step manual detailing the correct procedure.)
  • Teach them: Go through the process once or twice and show them how to do it. Then let them do it.
  • Check up on them: Don’t micromanage, but check up on them to make sure they are doing it up to standard. This will help the process run smoothly, as well as help you relax a little bit.
  • Recognition: Say thank you. Let them know that you trust them either by verbally saying thank you or giving them another project to work on. They will appreciate it.

FEMTAC Finds an Audience
“Our A-HA moment came during a women veterans training conference (V-WISE) in 2013. I was in the hot seat between top business coaches Phil Dyer and Larry Broughton during a women veterans training conference (V-WISE) in 2013 and explained to them and an audience of women what my sister and I wanted to do. Following my session, there was a long line of veteran women and military spouses waiting to talk to me. Yes, me.  I was shocked. Outside of soldiers waiting to talk to me because of my leadership position (in the military), there had never been a line of people waiting to talk to me. Ever. At this moment, I told my sister, “We’ve been brainstorming on this, you’ve thought about this for years and years. All kinds of ladies are interested in seeing this come together because of the need/want. We need to do this and starting now.” It wasn’t about my sister or me. It was about what we were going to do. It was bigger than us. That was really the beginning.” – Leah Olszewski, Competitor 

Military Express and Growing Culture
What mishaps can we avoid as we grow to almost 200 employees in the next three years? – Ken Kelso, Competitor

Coach Philip Cardenas recommends the following approach as your organization scales:

  • patriot boot campMake sure you have a strong vision. This vision should be both company-specific and time-independent aspirational.
  • Ensure you have business metrics that roll up and down. These metrics will allow the leadership team to have knowledge of the health of the business and will give the team the ability to see their impact on the larger vision.
  • Focus on the culture and always monitor for success. The culture will become critical for the company to achieve business success and build to the future vision.

The Elemental Weight Loss Approach
“After four years serving on active duty in the U.S. Air Force and treating family medicine patients, we knew that although each appointment is technically 15 minutes long, we effectively had seven minutes to see a patient and cover a multitude of medical elements.  The PA/Physician team realized that if we took more time getting to know how the patient was actually living and eating, the weight would drop. We started seeing results after implementing our new approach to patient care. Along with weight loss, sugar control improved, blood pressure dropped and patients were healthier overall.  We worked with patients to decrease and even discontinue medications. This is not a typical approach to medicine. Our A-HA moment was the realization that getting to the root cause of weight struggles — lifestyle — helped create better outcomes for patients. Clinically, results proved again and again that this approach worked and led to far better outcomes than traditional models. At last, Elemental Weight Loss Clinic was born.” – Megan R. Williams Khmelev, Competitor