Veterans take care of business moving from battlefields to small firms

vbridges@newsobserver.comJuly 1, 2013 

— Dan Spangler’s business started to take shape after the injured Marine started hanging around a mutt named Spanky and learned he had a soft spot for dogs.

But as you might expect from a veteran, Spangler took a disciplined but steadfast approach to building his business.

The nearly seven-year journey to opening A Dog’s Dream in New Bern in 2010 included utilizing local small-business resources, going back to school and saving money by working unrelated jobs.

“We are growing by leaps and bounds,” said Spangler, 34. The transition from Marine to employee can be a difficult one, Spangler said, because some private sector opportunities limit veterans with unbending job descriptions and micro-management. That is one of the reasons self-employment is often a better – but not necessarily easier – option for many veterans.

Veterans are 45 percent more likely than their civilian counterparts to be small-business owners or entrepreneurs, said Rhett Jeppson, associate administrator for the U.S. Small Business Administration Office of Veterans Business Development.

Nearly 1 in 10 small businesses nationwide are veteran-owned, he said. Collectively, those 2.4 million veteran-owned businesses employ almost 6 million Americans and generate more than $1 trillion in receipts.

“We think supporting that small business veteran owner, is huge,” Jeppson said. “It’s not only that we have a moral obligation to support our veterans, but also it makes a lot of economic sense to provide and foster opportunities to our veterans.”

Persistence pays

Military members transitioning from active service participate in mandated transition assistance programs that introduce them to different career tracks, including entrepreneurship.

Scott Dorney, the N.C. Military Business Center’s executive director, said while there are a plethora of services available to those veterans who become entrepreneurs, navigating through all those resources can be a real challenge.

Jeppson said the first thing veterans should do is to call Robert Rehder, director of the SBA’s Veteran Business Outreach Center at Fayetteville State University.

“All he does is work with veteran small-business owners, the guys who are looking to start businesses and the guys who already have a business,” Jeppson said.

SBA and its resource partners, Jeppson said, can help veterans with everything from building a business plan to connecting them to financing opportunities.

Beyond the SBA, the state has a hierarchy of resources that veterans can use to build their skills and businesses, Dorney said.

Small-business centers at community colleges across the state are an excellent place to start, Dorney said.

The small-business centers, along with the N.C. Small Business & Technology Development Centers at public universities across the state will also help connect small business owners to SBA and other programs and seminars offered to veterans, he said.

The N.C. Veteran’s Business Association is a membership, nonprofit organization that also seeks to help veteran entrepreneurs, said Mark Haupt, the organization’s president.

The association seeks to help other owners streamline the business-starting process by connecting entrepreneurs with mentors and services, he said.

When sorting through resources, Haupt recommends that veterans talk to other business owners who have used the service. He said they should never pay for information that organizations such as the SBA provide for free.

“When you are a veteran, one of the things you have is will, and you are persistent, and even with no resources or very limited resources, you are going to figure things out,” said U.S. Army veteran Alisha Whiteway, who in 2008 opened Tellurvision, a video production firm for small businesses in Raleigh.

Whiteway said her military service gave her creditability, but she learned how to identify a target market from other business owners.

Whiteway sought help from the Women’s Business Center of North Carolina, along with successful women business owners, to help her move her business forward.

Creating the Doggy Mobile

When Spangler returned to Jacksonville from Iraq in 2003, he adopted Spanky, a tan and white mutt, from a local shelter.

“We ended up spending a lot of time together,” Spangler said. “He went everywhere with me.”

Spangler enrolled Spanky in classes at PetSmart and became infatuated with the process. He started teaching classes himself when he was given a medical discharge from the Marines in 2004.

He hurt his hip diving for cover when his unit came under fire.

The former microwave and multi-channel radio technician used his GI Bill benefits to get an associate degree at Coastal Carolina Community College.

Spangler visited Anne Shaw, director of the Small Business Center there, to discuss his idea to open a dog-related business. Shaw and others encouraged him to build a plan and save money.

“I learned there were more things I needed to learn,” he said.

Spangler left PetSmart after three years to work for the government and later for government contractors. He continued to work on his business plan as he sought a master’s degree in organizational leadership from an online program.

In June 2010, Spangler was spending 90 days in Iraq and 30 days at home doing surveillance electronic work on aircraft for a government contractor.

He had saved about $80,000, and the routine was wearing on him.

“So, I turned around and made a decision,” he said. “I was going to quit my job, come back to the states and start a company.”

Spangler found a building in New Bern and executed a marketing plan, which included standing outside on the road in an orange dog suit and turning his Ford Transit Connect into a Doggy Mobile.

The key: Keep learning

Since then, the boarding and day care facility has added grooming, a retail area and a training center. The business serves up to 200 dogs and their owners – a week, Spangler said.

In late 2011, he founded Dreamer’s Foundation, a nonprofit agency that raises awareness and money for local animal organizations and efforts.

Spangler stays in close touch with the Small Business Center and attends almost “every small business thing there is.”

“It is for the interaction with other business owners, new people that are looking to start a business,” Spangler said. “Because ideas come from anywhere, and growing and never stop learning is the most important part of being an entrepreneur.”

Bridges: 919-829-8917

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