Meet the veterans who bring their unusual discipline, perspective, and problem-solving skill to the world of game-changing start-ups.
I first met Joseph Kopser six years ago in Mosul, Iraq. He he was an Army major serving in a cavalry squadron at the time, and I was a reporter for The Washington Post.
Kopser, 42, who retired from the military last week, is now the CEO and co-founder of an Austin, Tex. start-up called RideScout--a smartphone application that aggregates all of a user's potential ground transportation options in real time, everything from buses and Zipcar to rideshare options with friends or strangers.
On Memorial Day, we remember members of our military who made the ultimate sacrifice. I've interviewed thousands of soldiers over the years. One thing they've told me repeatedly is that the best way to honor that sacrifice is to remember those who gave their lives--and to live lives worthy of them. Today, I'd like to start telling you about some veterans who do just that. These are men and women who become entrepreneurs, trying to change the world for the better.
Military training is often cited as good preparation for business leadership. People might know a few anecdotal examples of this, like the fact that Fred Smith was a Marine officer who observed the military logistics system before he founded FedEx.
Still, the more prevalent story seems to be of veterans who have difficulty transitioning to the civilian world--stories of PTSD and movies about returning veterans in crisis. (Indeed, I've written a lot about troubled veterans and even military suicide in the past. These are very real problems.)
However, veterans bring amazing advantages to to the entrepreneurial game--things like discipline, perspective, leadership ability, and the learned skill of seeing problems as opportunities--to say nothing of having accomplished ambitious goals with the weight of a gigantic bureaucracy on their backs.
It Started With Pentagon Traffic
Take Kopser, for example. A 1993 West Point graduate, he and his classmate and Army buddy Craig Cummings launched RideScout while Kopser was still on active duty, running the ROTC program at the University of Texas at Austin.
Kopser came up with the idea during a Pentagon assignment, when he had to figure out how to get to work efficiently within the Washington, D.C. traffic nightmare. Enter Cummings, who had left the military to become an investor and entrepreneur. Kopser recalled sitting on his back porch in Arlington, Va., telling Cummings about his daily commute.
"I live five miles from the Pentagon, and I could walk, ride, or drive, but...if something goes wrong, my whole day is ruined," Kopser said. He'd been up half the night before looking for a website or app that would show users their transportation options in real-time. No dice.
"So I explained RideScout," Kopser said. Soon after, Cummings called back.
"That is a billion dollar idea to change society as we know it," Cummings told him. "I'm going to give you the money to make it happen. Give me your USAA bank account number."
That was in early 2011. Today RideScout is in beta after its launch in Austin during SXSW, and has closed over $700,000 in seed financing. The plan is to expand to Washington, D.C. and Seattle by the fall.
An "Equal-Opportunity" Opportunity
It's not just officers, who are generally college-educated and a bit older than enlisted service members, who find great success in the entrepreneurial world when they're given the tools to succeed.
I talked this week with Dave Liniger, the founder of RE/MAX, the giant, international real estate company.
Liniger has a new book out, My Next Step, about his ongoing recovery from a medical condition last year that temporarily paralyzed him. What struck me from his early story was that he took the first steps toward founding RE/MAX while still on active duty in the U.S. Air Force in the 1970s.
"Even as an E-4 [senior airman, getting] hazardous duty pay, it was poverty wages," Liniger explained. "So, I had read a book on buying and fixing up houses and selling at a profit. That started my entrepreneurial career."
His first property was a $10,000 duplex that he bought with just a $500 down payment.
"I sold it in six months for a $6,000 profit. All of a sudden I made more money on one real estate investment than I did on my entire salary and three part-time jobs," he said.
Liniger had dropped out of Indiana University after three semesters, enlisting in the military in the 1960s. He served in Vietnam, and said the experience changed his life.
"The military was incredibly important to me and my success," he said. "As a farm boy growing up in Indiana, my parents instilled in me a very good work ethic, but when I went to college at 17, I had no goal, no idea where I wanted to be."
The Air Force gave him motivation. "I fell in love with it from the first day. It grounded me, gave me a sense of purpose," he said.
As we'll see in the second article in this series, which highlights my interview with Air Force veteran and "Godfather of Silicon Valley" Steve Blank, the military itself deserves a lot of credit for having created the antecedents of the phenomenal tech explosion we've seen in this country over the last half-century or so.
In fact, the hardest thing about writing this kind of article, frankly, is the sheer number of great veteran-entrepreneurs who prove the point. I'm always eager to hear about more of them, so feel free to reach out to me here.
(Memorial Day is a day to remember the fallen. I'll be thinking in particular of two West Point roommates, Lt. Todd Bryant and Capt. Tim Moshier, who gave their lives in Iraq in 2003 and 2006.)