girl getting professional makeup done
Air Force veteran Natalie Setareh, one of the entrepreneurs listed below, used her passion for makeup and her skills from the military to start and grow her business. — Getty Images/Leah Knowles/https://photomomb.com/

During their time in the United States Armed Forces, military service members gain a variety of skills that are essential to entrepreneurship. They learn to build and lead a team, solve problems quickly and execute under immense pressure.

It's no wonder, then, that many current and former military personnel choose to start their own businesses. The U.S. Census estimates that nearly 10% of all small businesses in America are veteran-owned, and those companies are doing some truly amazing things.

To highlight the unique strengths and skills of entrepreneurs with military backgrounds, we spoke with 12 veterans who now run successful businesses.

[Read: A Complete Guide to Starting a Veteran-Owned Business]

VET Tv

VET Tv is a streaming video on-demand channel for military service members. Retired Marine Captain Donny O'Malley raised over $300,000 on Kickstarter to launch VET Tv in 2017. Today, the channel has 43,000 subscribers and 13 original comedy series, and just launched its first feature film.

VET Tv aims to bring military veterans together through laughter and community. The team is proud to create all their video content in-house, from concept to distribution.

"To be able to … employ people I love … while doing what we love to do, making people laugh, is my greatest accomplishment," O'Malley said.

SERP.co

While searching for ways to supplement his Coast Guard income, Sage Mauk signed up for an online course on search engine optimization.

"I spent hundreds of hours on my laptop in the barracks, consuming videos, writing notes and practicing what I was [learning]," he told CO—. "My whole world opened up to the possibility of making money using my laptop."

Mauk founded digital marketing company, SERP.co, in 2017 while still on active duty. Thanks in part to networking at local chambers of commerce, SERP.co has grown from 15 to more than 50 active clients since Mauk left the Coast Guard in March 2019.

BlackBeard's Media

Navy veteran Jameson Sharp founded his communications firm, BlackBeard's Media, in 2016. The company has worked with nonprofits, oil and gas attorneys, and politicians on marketing, advertising and PR initiatives.

While Sharp says gaining traction has been challenging, BlackBeard's Media received a "huge vote of confidence from the community" when it was nominated for Small Business of the Year by the Kansas City, Missouri Chamber of Commerce.

Innovative Supplies Worldwide

Within days of leaving the Army in 2016, Nneka Brown-Massey founded Innovative Supplies Worldwide, Inc., a stationery and school supply company that showcases artwork by black artists.

"I remember scrolling through Instagram … and seeing so much amazing art," said Brown-Massey. "Then it hit me: What if I helped these artists get more exposure by putting their artwork on notebooks?"

Of all her business achievements, Brown-Massey is most proud of being chosen by a middle schooler for a class project on a living black entrepreneur.

"To know that my business impacted a young mind to pick me as a subject for a school project … it all felt full circle at that exact moment," Brown-Massey said.

Natalie Setareh

Air Force veteran Natalie Setareh started doing makeup as a freelance side hustle while trying to get her consulting company off the ground. She quickly realized that makeup was her ticket to entrepreneurship; and, five years later, her business is now an international e-commerce operation.

Setarah also authored a book titled, "Be Your Own Makeup Artist," which she developed and self-published within five months.

"I leaned on my project management and delegating skills from my time in the military," she said. "We rolled up our sleeves and got it done."

Puppy Mama

Former Army Captain Theresa Piasta found her inspiration for entrepreneurship from an unlikely source: her dog, Waffles.

Piasta discovered the power of canine therapy for her PTSD when Waffles came into her life. This inspired her to launch Puppy Mama, a tech startup and lifestyle brand that delivers community and convenience to dog moms around the world.

Through Puppy Mama and its accompanying book series, Piasta empowers women to "live their best lives" and embrace canine therapy to cope with mental health conditions. She also donates 5% of her book proceeds to Canine Companions, which trains service dogs for veterans with PTSD.

We just get them back into function, and remind them who they are, which are heroes and champions.

Tom Spooner, co-founder, Warriors Heart

Boost Oxygen

Mike Grice spent 27 years in the Marines before transitioning into the corporate world. He currently serves as the COO of Boost Oxygen, a supplemental oxygen company that recently signed a deal on "Shark Tank."

Since joining the company five years ago, Grice has helped Boost Oxygen achieve a 50% year-over-year growth trajectory. He says he enjoys working in a small business environment because "it is dynamic and always interesting."

"Every decision we make has ramifications on the business," Grice said. "You really have to be cognizant of the environment and the effects of your decisions."

[Read: Top Resources for Veteran-Owned Businesses]

Warriors Heart

After retiring from two decades of Army service in 2011, Tom Spooner struggled with chemical dependencies, PTSD and a mild traumatic brain injury (TBI) that nearly caused him to take his own life. What helped him was connecting with another warrior like himself.

Spooner's experience inspired him to co-found Warriors Heart, a "warriors only," peer-to-peer treatment program for military members, veterans and first respondents struggling with addiction, PTSD and TBIs.

"We just get them back into function, and remind them who they are, which are heroes and champions," said Spooner.

Birdy Boutique

With an active-duty husband, Army veteran Barbara Jozwik Kent needed a flexible career that she could do from anywhere her family was stationed, while allowing her to care for her children.

In 2014, Kent and her sister, Joanna, invested about $1,000 to launch Birdy Boutique, an e-commerce shop that sells handcrafted apparel and accessories. Today they earn a regular paycheck from their sales, but Kent says "nothing beats being out in public and seeing our items on actual kids."

Dillon Consulting Services

Former Army Lieutenant and Vietnam War veteran Paul Dillon launched Dillon Consulting Services, after retiring from a corporate career in 2006.

Today, Dillon's business consulting firm is devoted to helping veteran entrepreneurs (he even created the concept for the veteran-focused incubator now known as Bunker Labs) – but it didn't start out that way. He originally intended to provide project management and business development services to service companies.

"My … big pivot point was when one my clients … asked me to do some research on companies in Chicago that were hiring veterans," said Dillon. "Things just took off from there. That one assignment launched my second career in assisting aspiring veterans who want to start their own businesses."

Tin Hut BBQ

When Frank Diaz retired from the Army, he didn't leave military life behind. Every day, he takes his mobile restaurant, Tin Hut BBQ, to the local Honolulu barracks to provide fresh mainland barbecue to active military members.

"[Tin Hut BBQ] brings comfort food to military bases nationwide, serving [individuals] who often find themselves far from home," Diaz said. "BBQ has a unique way of bringing people together."

Diaz is also committed to hiring homeless and disabled veterans transitioning back to civilian life.

"We’ve met and befriended a lot of veterans who need support," he said. "That’s why we … offer displaced veterans real work … to help them gain experience and get back on their feet."

[Read: Looking to Hire a Veteran? Here's How to Get Started]

Joust

Former Marine Lamine Zarrad co-founded Joust, a banking platform for freelancers and the self-employed, because of his passion for inclusion.

"I noticed that self-employed workers … were falling through the cracks of traditional financial systems," Zarrad said.

To that end, Joust provides financial tools and services like invoice funding, banking and merchant accounts for the self-employed.

The company has just secured $2.6 million in seed funding and is on a path to massive growth, and Zarrad credits his military career with shaping him into the entrepreneur he is today.

CO— aims to bring you inspiration from leading respected experts. However, before making any business decision, you should consult a professional who can advise you based on your individual situation.

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Published November 11, 2019