A Veteran’s Guide on How to Start an Online Business (Getting Started)

So here’s the reality…  If you’re a Veteran, chances are you’ve thought about starting a business as a means of transitioning into civilian life.  Starting a business is tough, trust me, but I want to offer a few tips to get you going.  I personally love to see Veterans be successful in any area of life, but even more so when it comes to business.  You guys did a lot of your country, you deserve to run a successful business more than anyone. I hope that these posts offer you some insight on how to get started and be successful.

When I initially started RE Factor Tactical, I had no idea where to begin.  Being a Veteran I knew I had a lot of resources to help me with, but I didn’t know where to begin.  I started off by making t-shirts just so I could learn about supply and demand, but every single thing I came across was new territory.  I had to learn from my mistakes, and even today I am continually learning new things and venturing into new territory.  Business is an unbelievably stressful and will test your will and patience daily.  You will most likely go for years without making a profit and work 80-90 hours a week just so you can keep from working 40 hours a week.  But if you’re successful, the pain and agony will be worth it.  So here are a few things I’ve learned along the way that I suggest anyone looking to get into business consider before getting started.

 

 

Choose a Profitable Industry

This one is the most important of all which is why it’s first.  Here’s the reality…  Tactical gear isn’t the most profitable industry around.  I always like to use this analogy: if I walk into a restaurant with all of my company’s product in a bag and I showed it to every person in the restaurant, chances are only a small group of people there MIGHT be interested in a couple of products that I sell.  However, if I walked into a restaurant with let’s say a belt or a bag of coffee, EVERYONE in that restaurant would be interested in the product and I’d have a good chance of making a sale.  If I could go back and talk to the younger me, I would talk myself out of starting a tactical gear business.  This is primarily because for me to make a sale in this industry takes A LOT of work.  I am only selling to a fraction of America and of the people that I can sell to I am swimming in a saturated market.  I think an easy way to look at is; when was the last time you saw a tactical gear company be a fortune 500 company?  The answer is you haven’t.  There aren’t any.  Maybe Lockheed Martin, but they sell Jets, and rockets and billion-dollar projects.  Sorry but you’re not going to get there by selling the same nylon pouches as everyone else.
So what product should you be selling???  Think of something that everyone needs, that’s a consumable that also has excellent margins.  That’s where the money is.  Think about it… What companies are on that Fortune 500 list? Coca-Cola, Apple, Ford… All sell items that anyone could want are consumable and have high margins.  So when you start to look at that online business start asking yourself, “what does everyone want and need?”.   One of our company’s best selling items is t-shirts, only because everyone needs them and they are consumable.  Now, that doesn’t mean I’d recommend starting a t-shirt business, it’s another super tough industry to compete in, but it’s a great example of a profitable product.

Get Involved in the Veteran Community

Throughout my time as a business owner I’ve worked continuously with other companies whether through collaborations or through retail sales, the ones that have helped me out the most have always been Veteran business owners.  That’s not to say that non-veteran business owners aren’t great.  Companies like Black Point Tactical, Ferro Concepts, and Tactical Distributors have been some of our best associates and are excellent business owners with outstanding morals.  But it seems like a lot of Veteran business owners tend to be “in it together.”  We have a brotherhood that now extends the military and into the business world.  Guys like Jeff from Readyman, Evan from Black Rifle and Sam from Quantico Tactical have been some of my most prominent advocates.  They often place my company’s success before their own which is a trait you’ll rarely find in the civilian world.  With that being said, I always advocate treading lightly.  Some Veteran companies have also been my biggest enemy.  For some reason a lot of Veteran companies will see my company’s success and rather than help out, they will copy my company product and use my ideas for their own profit.  Chances are they are reading this blog and know exactly who they are.  Hats off to you turds for being THAT guy even after getting out of the military.
But in general, the Veteran community is a great place to start.  Before you get too far down the business path ensure you register as a Veteran Owned Business and start looking at getting a VA Business Loan.  This is especially important if you plan to do any sort of contracting with the US Government.
One thing I do suggest is when it’s all said and done, and you are rolling in the doe…  Don’t forget about the community you came from.  Always donate back to the guys still in the fight.  Once you are crushing it in the business world, turn around and offer some assistance to your brotherhood.  Whether it’s through jobs, donations or mentorship, you have a duty to help others.

Only Hire the Best 

One of the biggest mistakes you can make is hiring a friend because he’s a friend.  In business, friends come second.  It sucks, but a friend can bring down your entire company.  You should strive to hire studs.  Hire the guy that is going to crush sales.  Hire the woman who won’t take no for an answer.  Who you surround yourself with is just as important as being a successful person yourself.  The people you surround yourself with can either make up for your deficiencies, or they can bring down your best assets because you’re always having to carry them. RE Factor is where it is today, not because of me, but because of my team of guys who work their asses off constantly.  Those are the guys that make up the company, and without them, the company wouldn’t be around at all.

Choose a Good eCommerce Website

Ok, I know this is getting particular, but this is something I wish I would have known off the bat.  I started off with WordPress Gold Cart, then went to Volusion, then to BigCommerce, then to WooCommerce, and I’ve finally settled on Volusion.  Each one of these took hours of redesign and work and cost tens of thousands of dollars in web development.  The bottom line is your online store is crucial to your success.  You can have the best product in the world, but if you have a garbage website, you will always struggle to sell it.  Think about it like this…  If you had a brick and mortar store where you sold a product would you have it be totally dirty with product strung all around?  No, because nobody would go in there.  The same principle applies to your website.  Make it clean.  Make people want to visit it.  If it’s difficult to make a sale, chances are you are losing a lot of money.  While it’s easy to argue which online eCommerce Platform is the best, I’d strongly recommend looking at them in this order:

1. Shopify (this is who we currently have)
2. BigCommerce
3. Volusion
4. 3D Cart (We’ve never used these guys but hear good things)
5. WooCommerce (inexpensive but can have lots of issues)Regardless of who you go with, do your research.  Also, when you go to invest your initial capital, spend some money on getting a really well-designed website.  Again, make your site look professional, make it easy to navigate and make your customers want to stay there.

Invest in Marketing

Ok, so you’re ready to get your product out there, it’s the best of the best, and you’re confident it’s going to sell… now it’s time to market the shit out of it.  No matter how excellent your product is, if people don’t know about it, they won’t buy it.  Period.  Besides, if you have a killer, revolutionary product and you don’t crush it on marketing, someone will take your idea and market it better and then take all your sales.  It happens constantly.  When you go for your initial loan or investment, make sure you earmark a substantial amount of it to marketing.  One company that crushes it at marketing is Black Rifle Coffee Company.  They have a great product which helps their business, and they have a good CEO who is driving the company in the right direction…  But where they absolutely crush it, is marketing.  There are a ton of other great coffee companies out there with excellent coffee.  But BRCC continually makes viral videos that get millions of views and therefore their coffee is purchased more often than a company that also has great coffee but doesn’t have good marketing.  In the end, your marketing will literally make you or break you, and in a world of social media, you have to make sure you’re on top.  If you don’t know how to get into marketing, I’d recommend hiring a marketing firm (we actually do marketing for a few different companies, just saying), or start by purchasing some good stock photography and use it to help make your website look legit.  If you’re looking for some good stock photography companies, I’d recommend
1. Adobe Stock
2. iStock Photo
3. 123RF
In the end a lot it doesn’t matter what company you go with, just use GOOD photography and stick with good marketing.  Spend the money for a photographer and don’t post pictures on your primary social media account of boring stuff, or what you ate, or some cool sunset.  That’s not what sells a product.  Good marketing sells the product so make sure you’re focusing on that!

Protect your Intellectual Property

If you come up with a good design, spend the money to protect it.  Patents, copyright and registered trademarks will help keep those turd business owners away, and it will help ensure you can profit off of your idea. Currently, I am having to get the copyright on a product I made a while back that was blatantly copied but another company.  Now I have to spend the money to first understand the copyright, and then I can go after them for damages, had I done the filing in the first place I wouldn’t be trying to play catch up.  The bottom line is a Patent, Patent Pending, Registered Trademark or a Copyright gives you some legal protection.  Of course, there is always a workaround to all of those, but it does give you a fighting chance of keeping your intellectual property.  The hard truth is that there are people out there that simply can’t come up with their own ideas.  So they look at others great ideas and then use it to make their own profit.  While these people are the scum that makes running a business a pain, they do exist, and they will force you to spends thousands to maintain your idea.  However, at the end of the day, it’s crucial that you take the time and spend the money to keep your ideas legally protected.

Hire an Accountant

This is another one of those big ones.  Make sure your books are in order and make sure you are diligently tracking money in and money out.  If you don’t, you can be hemorrhaging money somewhere and not even know it.  In hindsight, I wish I had done this part a lot better starting out.

Blog

That’s right, blog.  Get online and write blogs about your industry or product.  Blogs drive traffic.  Chances are you fell upon this blog either because we drove you here from social media, or because you typed something into google that made this article populate.  Blogging helps capture customers that you might not have captured because you are building your online presence.  This one is huge and something you should put a lot of time and effort into.

Write a business plan

Before you take the final plunge into starting your business take everything above and write it into a business plan.  Write out how you plan on making money, what your profit margins will look like, how big your industry is, where you might have issues and everything else that goes into a business.  I started the company fully thinking it would fail within a month and here we are 7 years later still chugging along.  But I never wrote out that business plan, and it took us years to figure out what kind of a company we wanted to be.  The sooner you can establish your “elevator speech” the better.  An elevator speech is basically what you would tell someone your company does in the course of an elevator ride.  It should be short, concise with clear objectives and goals.  Don’t say that you want to be a Kydex Holster company.  Say how you want to be a Kydex holster company.  Is it because you create some incredible new holster that nobody has thought of before?  Or is it a new way of making Kydex that somehow revolutionizes the industry?  If you just say you want to be a Kydex holster company, guess what, you’ll be swimming in a sea of Kydex holster companies.

Get a Small Business Loan

Even if you have the money to start a company, consider getting a small business loan first.  The reason is that if you take your life savings, put it into a business and then fail, you just lost your business and your life savings.  Small business loans are designed to give you a little bit of an out.  Also, if your company starts to fail and you started it with your own capital you have no fallback.  However, if you start the company with a small business loan and start to fail, you can pad your tougher times with a small business loan.  It’s always harder to go to the bank and ask for a small business loan once your company starts to falter than it is to get one right off the bat.  There are a ton of places to get a loan through, but if you want a few places to start looking I’d suggest:

1. Ondeck
2. Loan Builder
3. Blue Vine
4. Funding Circle
5. Seek Business Captial
6. National Funding

While this isn’t the definitive guide to building a business, it’s at least a place to get started.  Again, my goal here is to offer some ideas/info that I wish I had when I started RE Factor in 2011.  I hope that this blog helps a Veteran start something profitable so they can hire more veterans and help out the veteran community as a whole.

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