(Originally published on FinancialPost.com)
REGINA — If you read my Financial Post column on Tuesday, you will know that I am reporting from the University of Regina, which is hosting Based in Business, an innovative week-long bootcamp that is helping 19 Canadian military veterans become smarter, savvier entrepreneurs.
As a business journalist in Toronto specializing in entrepreneurship for 25 years, I have had limited exposure to military personnel or veterans. After two busy days of classes and conversation, it’s clear to me Canada’s veterans are incredibly intelligent, engaged people who are deeply concerned with the world around them and still anxious — whether they’re 39 or 59 — to make their mark on it.
For this update, a few observations about my classmates and the program:
Stereotypes aside You can’t stereotype veterans. There’s a wide range of personality types here, from grim, results-first types to class clowns and process-oriented intellectuals. In general, however, they are eager to learn, they ask great questions, and they’re quick to respond whenever an instructor asks for volunteers. If there’s a new experience to be had — even if it’s exposing your nascent business plan to the scrutiny of the entire group — they are quick to grab it.
Pride and patriotism They’re proud of their military careers and fierce patriots. They believe in the Canadian Forces as the home of high-performing specialists who continually form and reform teams based on shared values, trust, and willingness to sacrifice their individuality for the sake of the mission. They’ll kid each other mercilessly, but watch out for each other like brothers and sisters.
Equality in the classroom I’ve been very impressed by the absence of rank. At this camp, majors and corporals and warrant officers work and socialize with each other as equals. In their heads, they have probably all figured out the approximate ranks of all their colleagues, but they know this is a new world where everyone can learn from each other.
Shared Values The veterans at Based in Business Regina — many of whom are still on active military duty, for one more week, six months, or up to two years — miss their military experience, but are excited about the business adventures on which they’re embarking. They worry, however, that the culture of shared values and trust will not be present in the business world. I have tried to convince several of them that in most industries and markets, trust plays a huge role in business. Indeed, we could barely make agreements, collaborate or buy from each other without a strong sense of mutual trust. They’ll believe it when they see it.
(On Tuesday evening, the veterans met nine Regina entrepreneurs for speed networking: a series of 10-minute get-to-know-you sessions. Many seemed blown away that so many successful local entrepreneurs would take the time to meet with them, and show so much interest in their business plans. I tried to tell them that they will find caring and supportive business networks wherever they go in Canada. They’ll believe it when they see it.)
No sympathy expected In general, these veterans think the Canadian public is indifferent to their military experiences and their sacrifices. But they don’t really expect anyone to care; “the man on the wall” does it out of a sense of duty, not for other people’s appreciation. Several of these vets have suffered injuries, both mental and physical, but they have worked hard to overcome them and expect no sympathy. Just a fair shake.
Competitive, confident Yes, they’re competitive. And they have no doubt their business ideas are going to succeed.
Slowly, however, these veterans are realizing confidence is not enough, and that in business, overconfidence can kill. So far, the instructors from the University of Regina have managed to sow some healthy self-doubt. They’ve demonstrated that the first job of any startup — selecting a promising market and the most appropriate business model for it — is more complex than these budding entrepreneurs thought.
That’s a good thing. These veterans know every successful mission begins with an objective assessment of its threats and opportunities.
The participants’ resilience has been seen again and again. Between Monday morning and Tuesday afternoon, many changed the way they described their business objectives. Some who arrived with a dram of pursuing two or three business ideas at once have winnowed them down to one — the most promising opportunity they can see. Others learned to finesse their plan, narrowing down their addressable target market or resetting their expectations of how long it would take to succeed.
Based in Business has a difficult mission: Improve the prospects of its confident, capable participants while showing them how much they don’t yet know. Without that kind of tough love, how can they learn to put in the huge effort required to succeed?
But so far, the process seems to be working. Probability of mission success: almost certain.