How the Military Prepared Me to Run a Small Business

H M Barrett picking zipper peas at his U-Pick farm operation.When I entered the Navy my goal was simple: to use the education and experience of military service as a platform off which to build the rest of my professional life. I had no intentions of making the military a career, but rather saw it as a way to both serve my country and prepare myself for the future. While my time in the military was cut short after a car accident (a drunk driver in another vehicle caused the collision), I was still able to transfer the knowledge I gained into the private sector.

After using the GI Bill to get a degree, I went to work first in the financial world as a stock broker. Several years and a few regrets later, I left the financial services industry and found myself back home trying to save the family farm from a mountain of debt. It was then that my military training proved its worth as I entered the world of being a small business owner.

Starting and successfully operating a small business can be an overwhelming task for anyone. It was my experience in the U.S. Navy that gave me the opportunity and advantage needed to compete and succeed.

The Rain Man

While I was in boot camp, one of the memories that made the most positive lasting impression was the time our barracks got a visit from the "Rain Man." For several weeks, we had heard rumors of an instructor so brutal in his punishments that he would literally make the sweat of recruits rain from the ceiling before he stopped. Many of my buddies and I were certain this rumor was a myth used to intimidate us, as none of us believed such a thing was actually possible.

About six weeks into boot camp, one of the recruits made the mistake of … well, in all honesty, in boot camp, it didn't matter what we did - we were gonna get in trouble daily. This particular day, our instructors chose to call in the Rain Man to administer the "beating." Upon his arrival, we were instructed to close all windows and clear the deck. Two hours and 42 minutes later, I learned that it was indeed possible for 87 recruits to sweat so much and generate enough heat to make it drip from the ceiling.

When I returned home to the family farm, continuing to farm in the same manner as my father was simply not a financially viable alternative. The debt on the property had reached the point where no further credit was available to finance operations. As I looked toward the budding agri-tourism industry for ideas, the prospect of starting a business venture with virtually no capital seemed impossible.

While suffering from the Rain Man's visit years earlier, I had learned that through a lot of sweat and tears, just about anything was possible. During boot camp, I had endured the pain because I wanted to be a sailor in the U.S. Navy. Now, at home on the farm, I was willing to accept the struggle because I wanted that property to stay in my family.

Starting any small business will be a struggle, even under the best of conditions. Accepting that task requires a commitment. There will be times when you feel you do everything right, and yet you end up with results that seem like a punishment. At the end of the day, before you go down the path of opening any small business, you must first question your own personal commitment and be absolutely certain the reward will be worth the pain.

It wasn't until many years later, looking back, that I understood the visit of the Rain Man. When I first arrived at the training center, myself and the other recruits were collectively in terrible physical shape. If the Rain Man had visited the first week, it is highly doubtful that we could have endured a workout so extreme. We could not have made it rain. Recruits would have given up, refused to train, and left the service that very day. But six weeks in, it was a rite of passage, proof positive that we were now that strong.

If you are considering starting your own small business, be ready to put in a lot of sweat and tears. If it is the life you really want, it will be worth the effort. In the end, the struggle itself will seem more like a reward in hindsight.

As my military career continued beyond boot camp, a few other memories stood out that are also essential to running a successful small business.

Galley Duty

Even though the U.S. Navy invested large sums of money in my advanced training in electronics, upon arrival to my first ship, I learned that I was still expected to serve six months of galley duty. While it seemed absurd to me on a personal level, it was essential for each of the ships' departments to contribute to an understaffed galley personnel.

When running a small business, no job is beneath you. No matter what your level of expertise or training, essential functions require everyone to contribute. You don't have to like it, but you do have to eat.

'Fix It ... Or We Don't Move'

A few weeks into my first ship's movement, my own gear (the CIWS) went down. When the captain looked at me and explained that if I didn't get it fixed our ship would be forced to stay at dock and how much that cost, you could say I felt the pressure.

Often in a small business, problems will arise that can interrupt your entire operation. The pressure will be on for you to perform, and in many cases, your future literally will depend on it.


One day onboard the USS John L. Hall, as we loaded stores for our next voyage, several of the members of the work detail were grumbling about the task. Walking by, a senior chief didn't miss a step as he growled, "We are here to protect democracy, boys, not practice it. Get back to work and shut up."

When running your own small business, sometimes you have to be the boss. Don't blur the lines between a working relationship and friendship. Workers are going to grumble at times, don't argue with them, assert your position, and move on.

Even the Best-Laid Plans Fail

When my career in the Navy ended abruptly after a collision with a drunk driver, all the plans I had made for my future were suddenly changed. My personal life was in turmoil, and without notice, I was forced to make decisions about a new direction in which take my professional life. Sometimes you have to accept things beyond your control and move on.

Years later, after I returned home to the farm, I reorganized the farm operations into three different small business units. The first was the use of our small acreage for U-pick crops. Another was a small-scale chicken hatchery. The third and last utilized the farm's small ponds, where people paid to fish. While all three business models proved effective and profitable, in the end, forces beyond my control forced the sale of the farm.

In the world of small business, you have to pick yourself up from failures, no matter the reason, and move on. While my last foray into the world of small business ownership ended, I will certainly work my way toward that goal again in the future. The decision to run your own business is a choice regarding how you choose to live your life. You have to believe that you can make it rain.
More from H M Barrett:
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