Do ex-military people make good entrepreneurs?

Published: 16 December 2013

I read the other day about a new investment fund, a venture capital trust called Reboot Ventures, which has been launched recently and is aiming to raise an initial £20m to invest in early-stage companies run by ex-Armed Forces personnel (  Launched with no lack of publicity, the firm behind the trust says they are expecting a return in the order of 70% over the first five years. The trust will be run by Stuart Nicol who is already a well-known figure in the ex-Forces world.

Notwithstanding the pretty optimistic-looking growth figures, reading about this new fund made me stop and ask myself whether a background in the Forces is actually a help or a hindrance to becoming an entrepreneur. Certainly, there are a number of high-profile examples – Go Ape, Trailfinders, etc. – but my own experience is that of the large number of ex-military people I have met and counselled over the last few years, only a tiny percentage have a) wanted to, and b) made a success of running (and growing) their own business.

The interesting premise behind Reboot Ventures  is their belief that “many of those who leave the Armed Forces are better suited to being entrepreneurs than they are to being employees” – if by this they mean a larger percentage than in the population at large, then given that these individuals chose to join the Forces at the outset rather than start their own firm at that point,  the assumption is that their entrepreneurial suitability has been developed through their military experience; nurture not nature.

Certainly, military training and experience embeds a huge number of skills and characteristics necessary to be a successful entrepreneur:

·  Leadership

·  Resilience

·  The ability to make rapid decisions based on sound judgement

·  Organised & structured approach

·  A strong work ethic

This is all vital, but these characteristics and skills are equally important to becoming a successful employee as well.

Where the ex-military candidate sometimes struggles is in demonstrating their commercial credibility; they sometimes find it hard to really get to grips with hard financial reality, and on occasion they are forced to learn the hard way that they cannot trust every individual in the commercial world as they can in the Forces; the cultural transition is still a big deal for many. For some individuals, the benefits of a structured, highly organised and methodical approach are actually outweighed by the potential stifling of creativity and unwillingness to take commercial risks which result.

Overall, it is undeniable that a healthy proportion of ex-Forces individuals have the potential to make highly successful entrepreneurs. I say that with confidence having had a recent meeting with an ex-serviceman who has personally overseen the growth of his business from a virtual start-up to a £60m turnover within five years. But the idea that there are great numbers of frustrated ex-military out there just waiting for the opportunity to run their own business is perhaps over-stating the case, and it is clear that those who do follow this course require perhaps a greater level of mentoring, support and commercial grounding than their civilian counterparts.

Jim Robinson is a Consultant in the Energy, Manufacturing & Infrastructure (EMI) Practice at Berwick Partners specialising in recruiting roles in Aerospace & Defence businesses.

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