Entrepreneurs / Small Business  July 13, 2015

‘Boot camp’ preps vets for startup success

Ray Antonino knew plenty about the startup accelerators and other tools geared toward helping technology entrepreneurs scale their ventures. What he didn’t know was whether there was anything aimed at military veterans who were merely trying to break into the tech scene as entrepreneurs themselves.

So when the construction company owner from Myrtle Beach, S.C., stumbled across a tweet about Boulder-based Patriot Boot Camp late one night, it was like a beacon from cyberspace. A few hours later, Antonino had filled out an online application. It was a move that would set his software startup FieldVine on a course he hardly could have imagined at the start of this year. 

In April, Antonino attended a three-day Patriot Boot Camp cohort. That led to an invitation to pitch at an event in Chicago held by The Bunker, a veteran-geared startup incubator. And in August, he’ll be in the first cohort of a 12-week accelerator put on by Venture Hive and the city of Fort Walton Beach, Fla., that is geared toward veteran-led startups.

“I went back to the drawing board with everything I had done to that point and got to refine it,” Antonino, who spent eight years in the Army, said recently of his Patriot Boot Camp experience. “It’s helped us hugely. I think each entrepreneur takes away their own thing. For me, I took away transcending friendships and connections. Spending time with those mentors and building relationships is critical.”

Antonino’s story is just the type Patriot Boot Camp founder Taylor McLemore envisioned when he first pitched the idea for PBC to Techstars founder David Cohen four years ago. The idea was that veterans come out of the military with lots of skills that are valuable to leading companies, but they don’t always have the tech credentials or network of connections and mentors to help them navigate getting a company off the ground. PBC aimed to bridge that gap for veteran entrepreneurs in the earliest stages of forming their companies.

Run within Techstars for the first four years, PBC is now in its first year as its own nonprofit organization, with growth and added programming in its sights. After holding one PBC event per year previously, PBC is already getting geared to host its second of 2015 at the end of this month, with a third on the horizon for the fall. An online platform for helping the PBC community of entrepreneurs stay connected is also in the works.

“For us it’s an exciting venture because veterans are such great entrepreneurs,” McLemore said. “They’re dynamic problem solvers and have lots of life experience that is unique that helps them as entrepreneurs.”

McLemore, 29, had several relatives who served in the military but hadn’t done so himself. He’d worked in investment banking and management consulting before launching his own startup. He now works for a digital product studio based in New York and San Francisco called Able. He’s still based in Boulder, however, and serves on the PBC board.

A grant from the Jared Polis Foundation is helping PBC spin off on its own this year to try and scale the operation. Volunteer-run until this year, McLemore now has Air Force veteran Sean Maday and military spouse Charlotte Creech — a PBC alumna who co-founded ed-tech startup Combat2Career — onboard running the day-to-day operations of the organization. 

Maday, the PBC program director, spent four and a half years as an intelligence officer in the Air Force. When he got out, he spent four years at Google in California and Boulder, and did a stint with Gnip. He said he was inspired to join Patriot Boot Camp after noticing that plenty of veterans were applying for great jobs in the tech world, but that often large companies were looking for a specific tech pedigree among new hires. He felt like there was no clear path, he said, for veterans to break in and lead companies.

PBC is hoping not only to help veterans get started with the basics of starting their own companies, but also to connect and help mentor others like them. The online community platform PBC is building is based on technology from Uvize, a Boulder-based firm that is another PBC alum.

The community of PBC alumni is growing quickly. The program, which includes 50 to 100 entrepreneurs per cohort, has so far worked with more than 360 individuals. Each cohort also includes 40 to 60 mentors from the tech community with whom the entrepreneurs can connect for advice on which steps they should be thinking about and taking next. The program continues to partner with Techstars on programming and tapping into the mentor network. But as its own nonprofit entity, PBC can access funding from other sources as well to grow.

“In the end, it’s ‘are they building a real business, is it gaining traction, is it creating employment and are veterans leading these entities,’” McLemore said. “That’s what’s important to us.”

Ray Antonino knew plenty about the startup accelerators and other tools geared toward helping technology entrepreneurs scale their ventures. What he didn’t know was whether there was anything aimed at military veterans who were merely trying to break into the tech scene as entrepreneurs themselves.

So when the construction company owner from Myrtle Beach, S.C., stumbled across a tweet about Boulder-based Patriot Boot Camp late one night, it was like a beacon from cyberspace. A few hours later, Antonino had filled out an online application. It was a move that would set his software startup FieldVine…

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