Iterations: Putting Entrepreneurial Risk In Perspective

Editor’s Note: Semil Shah is an EIR with Javelin Venture Partners and has been a TechCrunch contributor since January 2011. You can follow him on Twitter at @semil.

In today’s world of popularized tech entrepreneurship, especially the consumer-facing variety, the constant (social) media attention maintains a fever pitch. In this current lifestyle wave, the plethora of online publishing and distribution tools means that folks with knowledge can openly share it with others, and one of the most popular topics people in this ecosystem enjoy creating, sharing, and reading about concerns–broadly–the “struggle and risk” startup founders face in building the next thing on the web or mobile.

Yes, founding any kind of startup is hard work. It’s risky. It’s lonely. It’s emotional. The odds of success at inception make nearly everyone appear foolish. People found startups nowadays fueled by a range of motivations, none of them bad, yet important to distinguish. Some are compelled to change the world, some are determined to build something new, others simply don’t want to work at a big company, while others see arbitrage to exploit, some want to strike out (or hit it big) on their own. Whatever the catalyst, the struggles of tech entrepreneurship make for good reading material, a break from the stress to commiserate with brethren and know others are going through hell, or “eating glass.”

But, today is a good day to broaden our scope, as there’s also a class of founder for whom the standard struggles cited above seem like molehills compared to what they may have endured, multiple times over. Yes, building web and mobile startups is a daily battle. it’s really hard. The startup world should pause today (and more often) to recognize those who have served in their country’s armed forces, fought wars, engaged in direct combat, witnessed their battalion members lose their lives, returned for two or three or even four tours of duty, have spent time away from their families and, upon homecoming, elect to  start a company.

The military makeup of other countries are certainly different, and I don’t know enough to know the nuances, though I recognize people read TechCrunch outside of the U.S. The military relationship with technology entrepreneurship has been well-documented in countries such as Israel (with Talpiot), captured in the book “Startup Nation.” I’ll admit that I grew up as far away from these military realities at possible, up to the time during college when my freshman year roommate enrolled through ROTC. I started to slowly open my eyes then, but they were mostly shut. Years later in graduate school, my university maintained a deeper, institutional-level relationship with all the country’s armed forces and, as a result, I made lifelong friends who were recent veterans and was able to meet many current and former officers. It was only then I started to understand the gravity of what I didn’t know before.

The subject of “veteran affairs” is often the fodder of lip service during political campaigns, and candidates are skewered if they forget to mention the topic during big speeches. I’m optimistic that things are changing for the better here in America, thankfully. Unfortunately, even in many advanced economies, all veterans who are lucky enough to return home aren’t treated equally. Some are unable to reenter the workforce or need to be retrained. In the U.S., The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports the unemployment rate among U.S. veterans has fallen a bit to 8.3%, but a closer reading of the report reveals rates higher for more recent veterans in what it calls “Gulf War-era II” vets, those who have been deployed more recently–oftentimes not just once or twice.

While official efforts are underway to improve these statistics, it’s worth noting some examples in the startup community that are also making a difference. VictorySpark, for instance, is the first-ever technology accelerator program for military veterans, a part of the Global Accelerator Network — today, their first class is currently in the program. Founding GAN member TechStars also has a Patriot Boot Camp, which showcased technology companies involving veterans. Then there’s VetsInTech, a San Francisco nonprofit helping veterans connect with technology companies in the Bay Area, and are hosting a hackathon this weekend. In the private sector, companies like LinkedIn have made impressive, concerted efforts to work with the government and actively participate in the organization and retraining of veterans, through events like Veterans HackDay 2011. And, a newer startup, Incline, seeks to train veterans specifically in web development, a smart (and useful) approach to leverage the technical, math, and computer science skills of so many returning service-men and women.

There are, of course, many individual veterans who have founded companies, and just too many to list here. When I asked about this on Twitter and checked responses hours later, my feed was full of suggestions. I was blown away how many people reached out, way too many to list here. What is clear is that there were almost 100 responses about different founders with military backgrounds starting and running young companies, most of which I’d never heard of. It’s hard to list them all here in this post, so I’d ask and encourage if you know someone who fits this bill, to mention it in the comments below and build a good repository for the audience to read and reference. (Thank you in advance for contributing, and I will add a comment below with the ones I collected.)

A final note in honor of Veterans Day.

I do want to single out one person, but for an unusual reason. A few years ago, I met a “kid” named Nick Frost at a series of startup events. I didn’t know who he was, but he was eager to chat and get to know me. We kept in touch loosely and I heard about his work at this startup, or that startup, and how he worked for AngelList for a bit. Sometimes at tech conferences, my mind wanders and I don’t pick up on everything or each conversation, so I kind of forgot about Nick. Many months later, we ran into each other again and reconnected. He was looking for hires at his company, so I sent along a few candidates, and as usual, genuinely asked me if there was anything he could help me with.

All along the way, I never knew that Nick fought in war on my behalf, even starting up a company while he was in Afghanistan. I only found out this week when doing some Google searches for this column and his name came up. He never once mentioned to me this part of his career path. Perhaps it wasn’t relevant to our discussions, but Nick never once sought to leverage this piece of information while talking to me so many times. Perhaps, in this, something for the rest of us to learn from.

Photo Credit: The United States Army / Creative Commons Flickr