Fargo Inc October Issue
Business Profile

A Career After Camo: 7 Veteran Business Owners In The Fargo Metro

Career After Camo

So why aren’t we doing more as a business community to encourage veteran entrepreneurship? That’s one of the many questions we asked this month’s cover-story participants, a diverse collection of servicemen and women who own and operate businesses in the Fargo metro.

By Nate Mickelberg & Kara Jeffers | Photography by J. Alan Paul Photography

While nearly 50 percent of veterans owned a business after World War II, there’s been a curious trend over the last half century. Veteran entrepreneurship is on a steep decline, and only about six percent now own companies. What makes it even more puzzling is the fact that veteran-founded businesses succeed at a much higher rate—some data suggest they’re three times more likely to make it.

So why aren’t we doing more as a business community to encourage veteran entrepreneurship?

That’s one of the many questions we asked this month’s cover-story participants, a diverse collection of servicemen and women who own and operate businesses in the Fargo metro.

DAVID MORSE

Founder,”American Heroes Outdoors”

Career After Camo

When David Morse returned home to the Fargo-Moorhead area in 2007 after a 16-month deployment to Iraq, things were . . . different.

“Our unit experienced success and felt immense loss,” recalls Morse, who was a part of the Iraq War troop surge of 2007 and a team tasked with protecting the Marine headquarters at Al Taqaddum Air Force Base near Fallujah. “Daily patrols took their tolls, and lives were lost. Life as I knew it had changed.”

Upon returning, re-assimilation was difficult for a number of reasons, he recalls, made even more stark by the fact that he was a 21-year-old freshman at Concordia College—a seasoned veteran of war among a sea of fresh-faced 18-year-olds.

Career After Camo

“My perspective on life and what was important differed greatly from my classmates,” says Morse, who still serves in the Minnesota National Guard. “It was hard for me to do simple tasks such as paying bills, cooking or doing laundry. In war, (the Army) does that stuff for you.”

After graduating, Morse took a job with SCHEELS, spending time as both an assistant store leader and in the corporate office with the hunting and fishing departments. Many of his comrades, though, weren’t fairing quite as well.

 

“After seeing some of them struggling with the same re-assimilation issues I had and looking toward substance abuse as a cure, I decided to get back to my roots and into the outdoors,” recalls Morse, who grew up spending much of his free time fishing and hunting with his family. “That’s where I found my peace, and I wanted to share it with others.”

Wanting to combine his two lifelong passions, the outdoors and a profound respect for those who serve, in 2009, Morse launched a nonprofit called Wounded Warriors Guide Service, a nonprofit that helps facilitate free outdoor adventures for combat-injured service members.

Soon after founding Wounded Warriors, he was approach by a representative of the outdoors TV industry about turning the adventures of the organization—and numerous other nonprofits—into a TV series, and not long after, “American Heroes Outdoors” was born.

The show that Morse helped create now airs more than 200 times annually on Fox Sports North, among other channels, and continues to grow.

Career After Camo
Q: What role do you believe your military training played in your success with “American Heroes Outdoors”?

A: “The main tie-in between my military experience and success in the business world is drive. The military teaches you to never quit and never give up. I’ve made so many mistakes in my career and never had an option to quit or give up. My only option was to find another way to reach my goal.

“I honestly think a lack of personal fortitude is the reason most people aren’t successful. It’s hard to keep moving forward, but in the military, you have no other option.”

Q: What are some of the unique challenges veteran business owners face?

A: “It’s easy to get tunnel vision and surround yourself with comfort. One of the things I knew I had to do was get people on board who weren’t like me. People who didn’t think the way I did and who had different strengths that would complement my weaknesses.

“It’s hard for anyone to start a business. Now, take the other challenges veterans have—communication barriers, different personality traits, trust issues—and it compounds those difficulties.”

Q: How can we better communicate to veterans that starting a business is a possibility and, more importantly, encourage them to do so?

A: “Seek out other veterans who have been successful, and bend their ear. Don’t reinvent the wheel—in fact, join up with them. We can accomplish so much more together.”

Q: What are some other ways people can support veteran businesses?

“Veterans don’t really go looking for support. They are very self-sufficient. They are also close knit and look to other veterans for support.

“If you want to help veterans, take a page from their book: help others, volunteer, serve. There are so many ways to give back. All you have to do is find what fits for you and take a leap. Veterans want to know there are others willing to selflessly serve as well and continue to carry the torch.”

TIFFANIE HONEYMAN

CEO, OpGo Marketing

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Growing up in Mapleton, North Dakota, Tiffanie Honeyman was a self-described tomboy.

“I was competitive by nature so the idea of working in a ‘man’s’ field was right up my alley,” says Honeyman, who, after graduating from West Fargo High School in the early ’90s, joined the Navy and eventually became one of the first females to join the Seabees, which is the nickname of the Navy’s Construction Battalions.

After boot camp in Florida and electrician training in California, Honeyman was deployed to Okinawa, Japan, where she spent two years among a battalion of about 600.

“I enjoyed being an electrician simply because the idea of electricity was fascinating,” says Honeyman, who now owns OpGo Marketing, a marketing analytics company in town. “I bent a lot of conduit, ran wires, installed lights. When we didn’t have electrician work, I did other construction-related tasks such as bending rebar, packing gravel before concrete pours, replacing water lines, framing walls and a lot of trench digging.”

Career After Camo

After getting out of the Navy, she used the Montgomery G.I. Bill—a program that allows active-duty service members to pay $100 per month for 12 months to receive a monthly education benefit later—to attend college in California and later Oregon, studying advertising and illustration (she says her dream job was to illustrate children’s books).

Eventually, in 2005, she returned home to North Dakota to be closer to family and raise her two daughters, and after a decade of working in various marketing roles at local agencies, she founded OpGo in 2015.

Q: Many veterans struggle with finding a sense of purpose when reintegrating into the civilian world. How can getting involved in the business community help with that reintegration process?

A: “Any person willing to sacrifice their life for their country would feel a sense of purposelessness after military duty. There’s nothing more fulfilling than fighting for your country.

“We can help veterans find fulfillment by connecting them with other veterans who have found fulfillment after exiting the military. This can lead to more veteran-owned businesses and also create more jobs where veterans can work and feel connected.

“When an active-duty member exits the military, they are leaving a way of life, their military family and their sense of purpose. All of this creates a void and all at once. As a community, we should help veterans find fulfillment in their work outside of the military. After all, they are truly the ones who have earned the chance to live the American Dream and to wake up saying ‘I love what I do.'”

 

Q: Why do you think it’s important for people to make an effort to shop at and do business with veteran-owned businesses—not just for the owners but the larger community?

A: “Even though a veteran is someone who was willing to give their entire life for their country, it would be ludicrous for me to say we should support every veteran-owned business simply because the owner is a veteran.

“You need to earn your way in the business world just as you earn rank in the military. As a veteran, I will support any vet looking to start their own business, but I’m not giving anyone a free pass just because they are a veteran.”

Q: What words of encouragement do you have for a fellow veteran nervous about taking the plunge into entrepreneurship?

A: “Tap into the passion that drove your decision to sign up for the military, and redirect that energy into your business idea. Finding the courage to share a business idea is almost the hardest part.

“Trust your gut, and don’t let self-doubt talk you out of what could possibly be the best move of your life. It’s not easy starting your own business, but with drive, perseverance, and commitment, you will find fulfillment. The local community has your back and is here to support you. You just have to make contact.”

JAMES VAN RADEN

Owner, iCare Electronic Repair, engageBUILD

Career After Camo

James Van Raden remembers vividly how he felt that day 25 years ago as he arrived at Marine Corps basic training in San Diego.

“I sat petrified,” he recalls, “wondering what I had just done.”

After completing the rigorous School of Infantry (SOI) program, California became home for him, though he would spend the next few years traveling the world and building quite the résumé:

  • Security Forces School in Chesapeake, Virginia, where he trained with Navy SEALs, Marine Corps Force Reconnaissance (FORECON), Fleet Anti-terrorism Security Teams (FAST) and other elites
  • After Security Forces School, an assignment to a top-secret mission—code name “Operation Blue Wizard”—at Diego Garcia, a military base south of India
  • After a successful one-year tour, a return to his primary military occupational specialty (MOS) as a mortarman, stationed with the Fifth Marine Regiment

In 1996, Van Raden re-entered civilian life and held a number of differrnt occupations including a call-center supervisor, a welder, a carpenter and a corrections officer.

In 2006, he took his first leap as an entrepreneur as a remodeling contractor, though only three years later, a freak home accident left him with a broken neck.

Career After Camo

“This started a path upon which I would leave entrepreneurship momentarily,” recalls Van Raden, who, in 2011, started repairing phones in his basement, growing his clientele at night and on the weekend while supporting himself with a daytime job as a welder.

“Remember that a veteran is someone who, at one point, wrote a blank check made payable to the United States of America for an amount of ‘up to and including their life.'”

He was soon approached by a local business owner to start a repair operation, though he was fired not long after. Immediately after the firing, he was brought in to start a similar operation and was again let go.

“Two consecutive terminations devastated both myself and my family,” Van Raden says. “However, it became an inspiration. There were opportunities, and I was determined to find them.”

 

In 2013, he founded iCare Electronic Repair, a Downtown Fargo electronics repair shop that has since grown to a team of seven.

Van Raden’s not stopping with electronics repair, though. He recently started a second business called engageBUILD, a residential, general contracting company that specializes in super energy-efficient homes.

Q: What are some of the unique challenges veteran business owners face?

A: “Too often, consumers are concerned with bottom-line dollars. I, too, am a consumer and seek the best pricing, however, I am passionate about supporting others who served our great nation. I have seen people choosing to go to other businesses because they save an incremental amount—sometimes as little as $5 – $10.

“I also think consumers forget quickly that businesses are veteran-owned so awareness can be one of the biggest challenges to the veteran business owner. It’s challenging to keep that awareness top-of-mind for consumers.

“Available resources are another challenge. All too often, resources are not easily publicized in our business community. We keep them hidden away and don’t go far enough to extend a hand to veterans—not only at the startup phase but continued support for them in their business endeavors.”

Q: Data show that veteran-owned businesses are significantly more likely to succeed than companies founded by non-veterans. Why do you think this is?

“Three reasons:

1) Mindset—I can remember one particular mantra I heard time and time again. And although it was said in a physical context, I think it applies to mentality as well: If you don’t mind, it doesn’t matter.

“It’s like going on a long-distance hike where the hills are steep and the terrain is treacherous. When we would be climbing hills with 100-pound packs on our backs and the pain started to get excruciating and our morale would drop, our fellow Marines would shout, ‘IF YOU DON’T MIND, IT DOESN’T MATTER, MARINE!’

“We would also often be reminded to stop looking at the top of the hill because if you focused on the top of the hill, it would seem to get further and further away. Instead, we were encouraged to put our heads down and look at the boots in front of us. The top of the hill never moved, and if we thought about each step instead of how far the top of the hill was, we would beat ourselves mentally.

 

“It’s the same in business. Sometimes, the path becomes excruciating and you want to give up, but the mindset of the military can often carry you to the top of the hill.

2) Tenacity—One thing you are taught is you must be tenacious. You never retreat. You may have to regroup, you may have to come up with another strategy, but you never give up. In business, you can’t give up because if you do, you are sure to lose.

3) Dedication—The Marine Corps is the most loyal dedicated branch. Our traditions, courtesies and protocols are the most strict of any branch. We do not slouch, we do not tolerate less than the utmost respect for our fellow Marines, and most of all, we push through to the finish.”

Career After Camo

Q: Why do you think it’s important for people to make an effort to shop at and do business with veteran-owned businesses?

A: “For a business to succeed, it requires support. If we choose to support our veteran-owned businesses, we ensure their success. If we ensure their success, we grow jobs, increase contributions to our community’s fabric and spur future business growth.

“So why are veteran-owned businesses different from non-veteran-owned businesses? Look at my fellow veterans featured in this article. Each one of them has a successful business that inspires our community in positive ways. This is not by accident, this is by intent. Our veteran business owners think differently than some of those who have never served.

“These veteran-owned businesses give back to their community, and by us supporting them, they, in turn, offer great support to our community.”

Q: What are some other ways people can support veteran-owned businesses?

A: “You could mentor a veteran-owned business. If you have certain skill sets that you feel could help a veteran succeed, reach out.

“Choose a veteran over a few dollars. Remember that a veteran is someone who, at one point, wrote a blank check made payable to the United States of America for an amount of ‘up to and including their life.’

“Share word of mouth. Word of mouth is one of the most valuable things you can share. If you hear of someone seeking services or a product that you know a veteran-owned business offers, share that information.

“Write a positive review for a veteran-owned business you have had a good experience with. Share those positive experiences as voraciously as you may share a negative one. Be the voice that helps others become aware. Google reviews are as valuable as a word-of-mouth reference—in some cases, they’re even more important.

“Share a resource. If you know of a program or an opportunity that you think might spur a veteran-owned business to greater success, reach out to them. Too often, resources in our community are unknown to veteran business owners.”

Q: What words of encouragement do you have for a fellow veteran nervous about taking the plunge into entrepreneurship?

A: “I would say think back to that first day when you arrived at boot camp. I remember boarding that bus with my head down, unsure of where I was going or what life had in store for me. But at the end of the day, it was those other Marines around me who helped keep me going. If you have a dream, do NOT let fear be your guiding force. Let your vision take over. You have the ability to exceed your fears, which are no more than False Evidence Appearing Real. Remember that drive that got you through those difficult times. You have a support network out here, and many of us are here for you.”

JANI SKALA

Founder, Fargo Fashion Week

Career After Camo

For Jani Skala, Fargo Fashion Week is a chance to get back to her roots, as well as do some personal healing.

“Before I joined the military, I was a pretty creative teen,” recalls the founder of Fargo’s largest runway fashion event. “I used to hand sew different outfits, and I was big into makeup. I remember buying a book by the late celebrity makeup artist Kevyn Aucoin and doing my sister’s makeup for her ‘night out on the town.'”

After joining the Army at age 20 to escape an abusive relationship and an alcoholic parent, Skala was deployed in 2005 to forward operating base (FOB) Normanday in Iraq, where she was later awarded a Combat Action Badge (CAB) for her time as a 50-caliber machine gunner for supply and security missions.

“After six years and two deployments, I returned home a completely different person,” says Skala, who now suffers from chronic Complex PTSD and Borderline Personality Disorder. “Fargo Fashion Week is my way to try and get my creativity out there again. I am really trying to find that girl I was before I became a soldier. It’s definitely not easy.”

While none of Skala’s deployments left her with any major physical injures, the mental toll they took was a different story entirely.
She lost a number of comrades in Iraq, dealt with the suicide of a fellow soldier and friend in Afghanistan, and while stationed at Fort Hood, Texas, in 2009, saw her battalion attacked at the base’s Soldier Readiness Processing (SRP) Center in what’s commonly known as the “Fort Hood Massacre.”

Career After Camo

“I lost a friend that day,” she recalls of that afternoon that a deranged Army psychiatrist gunned down 13 people and wounded 30 others. “I was put to duty to take incoming calls at the Battalion from families that did not know the outcome of their loved ones. The total experience was completely numbing.”

In the coming years, Skala says she hopes to turn Fargo Fashion Week into a nonprofit and “to help the community out as much as she can.”

Q: Many veterans struggle with finding a sense of purpose when reintegrating into the civilian world. How can getting involved in the business community help with that reintegration process?

A: “This one was very hard for me and still is to this day. When I don’t have a stable environment with set times for almost everything, I feel aimless. I can see how starting a business and getting out into the community will bring a sense of belonging to some soldiers. Men especially always had a stronger sense of belonging when enlisted compared to women. I feel women were more of the outcasts, which to be honest, I could understand (but that’s another story).”

Q: What are some of the unique challenges veteran business owners face?

A: “The biggest and hardest challenge I have faced so far is working with and leading civilian women. I never got along with many female soldiers for personal reasons and am trained to lead and direct military men. I absolutely cannot stand gossip and am not at all good with handling emotions.

“I find myself trying to talk through how to tactfully and respectfully bring up issues. It may sound funny and easy to some, but for me, I am used to swearing and overall emotional numbness so when I can’t swear and when empathy is valued and needed, it’s a totally different ballgame.”

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Q: What are some ways people can support veteran businesses?

A: “I think that what’s most important overall is acknowledging and trying to understand the sacrifice that some veterans have made. I was out one night on Broadway with a fellow veteran who served in the Marines for 27 years. We were at a “younger demographic” bar, and I mentioned to a lady—she must’ve been 22, 23 years old—that my friend served in the Marines for most of his life, and the response I received from her was appalling.

“She said something along the lines of ‘Thanks for the warning” and walked off. I feel the younger crowd nowadays does not entirely understand the value of what some soldiers go through and what it means to be a veteran. We give up damn near every freedom while serving so you can keep yours.”

Q: What words of encouragement do you have for a fellow veteran nervous about taking the plunge into entrepreneurship—or maybe a veteran who started a business and is struggling?

A: “For a veteran thinking about opening a business, just take the plunge. Make that jump. Life is short and, more than likely, you’ve already seen the worst of it. Working for myself is the only way I’m able to work. It’s absolutely worth the try.”

MARK LINDQUIST

CEO, Mark J. Lindquist Motivational Speaking

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One of the reasons Mark Lindquist says he’s glad he served in the military is that it showed him what his true gifts and talents were (and also maybe his weaknesses).

“I wasn’t the greatest sergeant the U.S. Armed Forces had ever seen, and I wasn’t the best analyst for NSA (National Security Agency),” says Lindquist, whom you’ve probably seen sing the National Anthem if you’ve attended a sporting event in the area in the last few years. “When I was singing for retirement ceremonies, MAJCOM (Major Command) balls, or change-of-command ceremonies, though, I really felt like I was giving my best to my branch of service.”

Lindquist, who hails from small town Ortonville, Minnesota, joined the Air Force at age 26 following a brief stint with the Department of Homeland Security in Cincinnati.

“As I was looking for my next adventure in life,” says Lindquist, who traveled to more than 20 countries and nearly 40 states during his time in the service, “my colleagues at Homeland would share with me their war stories from all over the globe, and I was inspired to answer the call of service.”

After basic training in San Antonio, he settled in as a network intelligence analyst for the NSA at Hickam Air Force Base in Honolulu, and, while on active duty, performed the National Anthem for all the military ceremonies on base—eventually applying for a special duty that allowed him to entertain troops around the globe in a USO-style show.

Career After Camo

Since his honorable discharge in 2012 following a six-year enlistment, Lindquist says he’s used many of the skills he honed in the military to build Mark J. Lindquist Motivational Speaking, one of the fastest-growing and largest motivational speaking companies in America.

As an entertainer, he’s performed live for more than 2.5 million people, including at NFL, NBA, MLB and NCAA sporting events and in venues such as Madison Square Garden in New York City, Dodger Stadium in Los Angeles and Cameron Indoor Stadium at Duke University in Durham, North Carolina. He’s also delivered corporate conference keynotes in nearly 30 states for more than 350 audiences.

Q: Does the military encourage entrepreneurship in any way?

A: “In my humble opinion, military culture is the exact opposite of the entrepreneurial experience. So, in short, my answer is no. The U.S. military is not a meritocracy. Business ownership is. Creativity and entrepreneurial spirit aren’t exactly the characteristics that are rewarded by drill sergeants and military-training leaders.

“Obedience and an ability to follow instruction are the premium skills that are encouraged. As an entrepreneur, I believe one must push the envelope of creativity, innovation, initiative and outside-the-box thinking on a daily basis. I believe the determining factor in entrepreneurial success is a veteran’s ability to reprogram their mind to think as an owner, not just a rule-follower.”

Q: What are some of the unique challenges veteran business owners face?

A: “The system you’re a part of in the U.S. military is one of detailed policies developed over the course of time, standard operating procedures, chain of command, following orders, doing what you’re told, staying in your lane and influence based on rank.

“As an entrepreneur, you have none of those things. There’s no playbook to work from. You are making the rules as you go. You are creating the procedures. There isn’t anyone to give orders to (when you first start out as a solo-preneur).

“All of a sudden, creativity is your best friend, and risk-taking is a must. These are experiences that most veterans aren’t accustomed to. We used to live in a universe filled with structure, and we thrive on predictable outcomes. As an entrepreneur, we are constantly surrounded by chaos and uncertainty. It takes a couple years to get used to that in the civilian world.”

Q: What words of encouragement do you have for a fellow veteran nervous about taking the plunge into entrepreneurship—or maybe a veteran who started a business and is struggling?

A: “As an entrepreneur, my success is determined by how quickly I can analyze the situation, test an idea, get a result, keep what works and discard what doesn’t. This process requires a free spirit and willingness to try, look foolish and move on. I believe that we, as veterans, aren’t necessarily equipped with that willingness to try a new thing and look foolish because we have spent an entire career striving for task proficiency and avoiding a low mark on an inspection.

“My advice to them is to shed that over-structured thinking as fast as you can. As an entrepreneur, there is never a rule book as thick as our standard operating procedures were in the military. The rulebook for you as an entrepreneur is written one page at a time, one day at a time and one mistake at a time. Go out and make a bunch of mistakes, and then grow from them. That’s the only way you’ll survive in this entrepreneurial jungle.”

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Q: In many ways, business underpins a society’s values and guiding principles. Does it seem important, then, to have as many veterans as possible in positions of business leadership?

A: “No, not necessarily. A veteran brings a varied perspective and a wealth of unique experiences to their positions of business leadership. However, it’s incumbent upon the veteran to understand that the way you have been trained to see the world is not the way 99 percent of the room sees the world. If you, as a five-, 10-, 20- or 30-year veteran are going to come into a business-leadership situation and expect that all of your military leadership principles are supposed to apply to the civilian world, then I think you’re in for a rude awakening and a difficult transition ahead.

“The two cultures are simply too distant from one another to expect that what works in the military is also supposed to work in the business world. Yes, you may have been a high-ranking military member, but don’t think that you should just be handed a leadership position in business. You haven’t earned it there yet.

“You succeeded inside one system, but it doesn’t mean your success will perfectly translate to business. Tread lightly, adapt, be patient with yourself and others. You be the one to change. It is not they who need to listen to us. It is us who must learn to speak the language of the civilian world. It is my hope that my military experience will provide an eye-opening second opinion and unique way of looking at a problem, but my way is not necessarily right simply because I served.”

THOMAS JEFFERSON

Owner, Thomas Jefferson State Farm Insurance Agency

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My military career was a positive experience. I learned a lot about discipline and social interaction, which I continue to practice in my business today.”

In his life, Thomas Jefferson served two years in the Army, from 1970 to 1972, and 25 years in the Air Force, from 1988 to 2013.

“After eight months of training at Fort Dix, N.J., and Fort Leonard Wood, Mo., I was shipped overseas to Germany, my permanent duty station, 1st Infantry Division or “THE BIG RED 1,” Jefferson says. “I was a company clerk in an infantry battalion, meaning I was the mail and shop office clerk.”

Even though his military job was a clerk, he spent most of that career in sports. “The division had football, basketball and baseball teams,” he says. “They weren’t my primary duty station, though. I was first a soldier in a maintenance Co., which was part of the Infantry. I had some time in field maneuvers, too.”

Jefferson says his military and post-military careers complement each other well. “Everything I did during my years in the service was positive. It was a gain for my future. My experiences shaped me for what I did afterward, especially in the areas of people, places, language, tolerance and having an open mind about the world. This is what I mean about one career complementing the other. I bring everything that I’ve learned from each area of my life to the next because, in order to know where you’re going, you must know where you’ve been.”

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For Jefferson, there was no connection between his time in the military and choosing a career afterward. “I feel like this career picked me, it fits me. I’m considered a Risk Manager. Helping people avoid risks, or manage them. So it’s my make-up, in a sense.”

Q: Many veterans struggle with finding a sense of purpose when reintegrating into the civilian world. How can getting involved in the business community help with that reintegration process?

A: “When you are approaching your end date, you must have developed a vision to see how what you did in your military assignment relates to civilian occupations. The transformation should be smooth when you see the similarities.

“I had eight years of work experience prior to going into the army, so the ability to follow leadership and be a leader came with me to my duty station early in that career. The experience that I obtained carried from each career. Military and civilian just complemented each other.”

Q: What are some of the unique challenges veteran business owners face?

A: “One of the biggest challenges is having the ability to distinguish between giving and receiving orders and giving directions—understanding that we lead, as well as follow, in a work environment.

“We have to develop the kind of patience to see that the best practices can come from your team members.

“When you transition from one position to another, you bring the best practices and incorporate those into whatever it is you do. That has been my experience.”

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Q: Do you think some veterans don’t start businesses because they don’t even think of it as a possibility?

“Many don’t attempt to start a business primarily because they haven’t thought through the principles of starting a business. They haven’t done the homework such as a written plan in simple steps and seeking advice from people who have been successful in similar fields. They fail to reach out to the professionals. We have to keep in mind that the principles that made us successful in military missions can be applied to our business strategies as well.

“When I was first approached about becoming an insurance agent and starting a business from scratch, meaning having clients, no office, no staff and no means of acquiring any of those key ingredients, I had a lot of fear. I hadn’t gotten my wife on-board, I thought my current job was great, I had what I thought was a good salary and a safe job. However, I made the leap and started learning what I had to do from good people who had very good principles and knowledge about the business.

“Through this, many of the fears were relieved. However, nothing came easy and there was some struggle. I had a great manager who taught me so much about having and running a business. I also got advice from other old-pros in the Small Business Administration (SBA), listening to their stories of successes. I used some of the same principles when I was in my military career, talked to people with a lot of experience, who had been in their positions for many years, and I adopted many of their skills. Those are the skills that I bring to what I do today.”

BILL ERICKSON

Owner, Total Imaging

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After enlisting in the Navy in the early ’70s, Bill Erickson was trained as an electronics technician, serving on five different Navy ships, including the Nespelen, Columbus, Yarnell, Barry and Comte de Grasse.

Achieving the rank of chief petty officer in just nine years, Erickson was selected and commissioned as a limited-duty officer, an officer selected for commissioning based on skill and expertise who’s not required to have a bachelor’s degree.

Following stints as an electronics material officer and assistant electronics material officer on the USS Kitty Hawk and USS Saratoga, respectively, Erickson served two tours as the director and later the assistant director of training of the Navy’s Electronics Technician School at the Great Lakes Naval Training Center in Great Lakes, Illinois.

He later earned a degree in workforce training and development from Southern Illinois University before retiring from the Navy in 1997 as a lieutenant commander.

Erickson eventually returned to the Fargo area, working for a couple different technology companies before earning a master’s degree in business management from the University of Mary.

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Becoming an entrepreneur a little later than most, in 2005, Erickson founded Total Imaging, a company that initially sold ink and toner and later added promotional products.

In February of last year, Total Imaging purchased Rapid Refill, with the former now handling all promotional items and the latter fulfilling ink and toner sales.

Q: Do you think some veterans don’t start businesses because they don’t even think of it as a possibility? How can we communicate to them that it is a possibility and, more importantly, encourage them to do so?

A: “I think many veterans never consider the possibility. When they go through the transition of leaving the military, veterans need more information about the opportunities associated with starting a business. We need to work with Veteran Service Officers and perhaps the VA to get that sort of information to veterans.”

“One of the big issues for veterans returning home or settling somewhere else is they have been away and are not well networked within the community—certainly not the business community. Efforts on the part of communities and organizations to connect with returning veterans and offer job-placement services and information on starting a business would be an asset to everyone.

“I read an article a while ago proposing that the government should start a program similar to the G.I. bill but to help veterans start businesses. It could consist of a fund or franchise bank loan to allow vets to invest money into franchise ownership instead of a college education.”

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Q: What are some other ways people can help support veteran businesses?

A: “I think communities and organizations could make a larger effort to promote veteran-owned businesses. Veteran business owners naturally hire other veterans and help to reduce veteran unemployment and homelessness.

“When you help veteran businesses succeed, you are giving back to those who helped protect our country. Supporting their business is another meaningful way of saying ‘thank you’ to them. When a veteran’s business succeeds, it will have a positive impact on their community, as well as the country.

“People can support veteran-owned businesses, of course, by buying products from them, and a great way to support veteran businesses is to refer your friends and family to them. We should encourage everyone to support those veteran-owned businesses in our community. Referring others to veteran-owned businesses allows more people to know about the products offered, and they will buy and even refer others to the business.”

Q: What words of encouragement do you have for a fellow veteran nervous about taking the plunge into entrepreneurship—or maybe for a veteran who started a business and is struggling?

A: “I would encourage veterans who have an idea and desire to be in business for themselves to just do it. I think that too often people want to get into business but are waiting for the perfect opportunity, idea or situation to get started.

“My experience is that there is no better time to start than now. Running a small business is not easy, but you don’t need the perfect situation to get started. The skills veterans have from their time in the military—working under extreme conditions and hardship—will serve them well in business.

“I would also recommend developing a good business plan, finding a good attorney and getting an accountant to start you off on the right path.”

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