Ben Brabyn at the British Library
On Tuesday 3 July I was invited to speak at the British Library on "Inspiring Entrepreneurs: From Battlefield to Business". I was one of 4 panelists with a military background, and we were asked to share lessons from our journey from the Armed Forces to Entrepreneurship in front of an audience at the British Library and also online.
I explained my journey from the Royal Marines via JP Morgan to setting up, building and selling www.bmycharity.com and then on to www.thistribe.com, and highlighted the nine tools I have picked up along the way and found most useful. I'll summarise them here and please comment below if you think of others that could be useful to people leaving the Armed Forces to set up their own businesses. You can see the full webcast of the presentation here - my part starts at 17:17.
Hammer - symbol of determination
The first tool is the hammer - one half of the "Royal Marines Toolkit", a symbol of the determination that every member of the Armed Forces will be used to applying to the problems they encounter.
I think that the hammer mentality is transferable way beyond the Armed Forces, and every entrepreneur needs to have high levels of determination.
But as Abraham Maslow pointed out - "If the only tool you have is a hammer, every problem begins to resemble a nail".
Duct tape - symbol of adaptability
The second tool is masking tape - the second half of the Royal Marines Toolkit also known as "Black Maskers".
Just as black maskers can fix almost any problem that cannot be solved with a hammer, so military experience creates highly adaptable entrepreneurs.
For people leaving the services and considering a career in business, adaptability and the ability to improvise are key advantages that few other corporate employees get the chance to develop to the same extent.
Excel - getting to know finance
The third tool is financial analysis. This is usually less familiar to service leavers. I was lucky enough to be sent on a training course by JP Morgan. In 8 weeks on Wall Street we were taught the basics of accounting, and how to build and analyse Excel-based financial models.
It's not to everyone's taste, but understanding the commercial fundamentals of business is essential for an entrepreneur, and being able to look at a set of accounts and make sense of it is a very valuable skill.
Marketing - understanding demand
The fourth tool is marketing. One of the biggest changes in moving from the military to the commercial world is coming to terms with marketing. Having worked for a monopoly, service leavers suddenly find that they are competing with millions of other providers of expertise and services.
Learning how to prepare and present a marketing campaign is a key skill gap for many former members of the Armed Forces and time spent on a sales and marketing course is probably a very good investment.
Sense of timing
The fifth tool is a sense of timing. Every market evolves and each entrepreneur should know what stage his or her market is at - and pitch their strategy accordingly.
Agile businesses may have the best chance of addressing early adopters in the early stages of a market's development, whereas larger more established companies may be better suited to serving the mass market. If you want to compete to win you need to know when to pick your moment.
The sixth tool is understanding of capital. Ideally this should also include access to capital, but under any circumstances, an entrepreneur needs to know what to do with the capital they are using to create their business.
Before committing resources to an enterprise, an entrepreneur needs to know what rules govern their capital - whether the capital is their own or comes from external investors.
The key question to answer is - what levels of risk can I take with the capital in the business? While some high risk speculation may be possible if the investors have the stomach and resources for it, many entrepreneurs will be wise to choose lower risk uses of their capital. In all circumstances they should avoid "betting the shop" - risking capital without which they will not be able to continue to trade.
LinkedIn - ultimate networking tool
The seventh tool is LinkedIn. This is the foremost business networking website with over 100 million users, and through it it is possible to research prospective customers, investors, suppliers, employees, partners and just about anyone else in white-collar roles in the world.
To test just how far LinkedIn networking can lead, I set out to discover how connected I am with Kevin Bacon - the Hollywood actor who is famously connected to all other Hollywood actors.
Although I have never worked in Hollywood (more of a face for radio really), I was surprised to find that I have 7 contacts who have a mutual contact with Kevin Bacon. In other words, I know 7 people who each have a friend in common with Mr B. He only has 172 contacts on LinkedIn, so it's not that he is reaching out more than most people.
Of course this is only one example of the ways you can extend your network, but for a network to be really valuable you need to engage as well as reaching out.
Coffee - the networker's friend
The eighth tool is coffee. I advise every entrepreneur to spend time meeting up with people and asking their advice.
While market research and financial analysis may give a "big picture" view, there is no substitute for meeting people and learning directly from their experience. People are not machines, and often what people do, buy, like and believe in are not what the economists predict.
So I recommend taking every opportunity to spend some time over a cup of coffee with people - learning about what matters to them and also asking them who they know who they can introduce you to for further learning.
The wisdom of crowds
The ninth tool is the wisdom of crowds. Understanding individual people is important, but understanding groups is even more interesting, and so the most important tool in my list is the wisdom of crowds. While entrepreneurial vision is important, ultimately most businesses depend on customers, investors and communities, and every entrepreneur needs to become a crowd-pleaser.
Recently I've learned that it's better to ask people what they want than to try to guess it or work it out. We founded www.thistribe.com to harness the wisdom of crowds - or tribes - in the military and beyond. We're spending as much time learning to understand the needs of the customers we serve as we are making sure that the business runs smoothly. We know that communities like www.arrse.co.uk contain broad and deep expertise and our role is to find it and share it. So when some people have identified the best kit for a given situation we want to learn about it and spread the word. This even extends to how we build the business, so we've been investigating "crowdfunding" This Tribe by inviting ARRSE subscribers to invest. This approach has already flushed out some real experts, several potential investors and additional potential sources of finance - so thanks to everyone who has responded!
Over the coming months we'll be doing more to gather this crowd wisdom - both by asking questions and by inviting engagement with specific proposals, new products, and service ideas. In the meantime, I've offered my nine tools for entrepreneurs, but if you have any others you'd suggest please share them here with a comment at the end of this post.