How the U.S. Air Force Helped Me Succeed as an Entrepreneur

I am proud to have served in the U.S. Air Force for more than nine years. I also spent four years at the Air Force Academy. Being a veteran has been instrumental in my entrepreneurial pursuits. The discipline and training I learned in service have helped me persist long after the excitement of starting a small business gave way to the challenges of being an entrepreneur. Here are a few of the most important lessons I learned and how they have helped me succeed.

Education

The Air Force Academy provided a fabulous academic education. I earned a bachelor's of science degree despite my history major because the core curriculum was strong in math and sciences. The broad range of courses prepared us to step into any assignment - and prepared me for a number of business roles, from sales to marketing to management.

Confronting Fears

Another invaluable benefit of my years at USAF Academy and as an officer came from learning to confront my fears. When my former employer (a data solutions company) closed down in 1997 , I knew I had to take another professional step. Drawing on my Air Force training in leadership and my years in service as well as in sales and marketing, I found the confidence to start my own small business and formed Falcon International Computer Services, which focused on printer maintenance. I can't begin to describe the courage it took to start a small business in El Paso, Texas, where my only support system was my wife. I started my business knowing I was undercapitalized. But I had the drive to win.

"No Excuse, Sir!"

The military taught me this motto: "No excuse, Sir!" Growing up, I always had excuses, but while in service, I quickly learned that excuses are for victims. Obviously, a leader in the military as well as in business must accept responsibility. Those who succeed learn to first take responsibility for their actions and omissions; then look for the lessons so as to improve the next time.

In my business, I realized that when my customers had a problem they wanted action, not excuses. I accepted responsibility for any failure on our part and then took action to make the customers happy with us again.

Preparation

As a veteran, I drew on my experiences with the Air Force to handle all my sales calls and meetings with executives. Because I knew the importance of planning and preparing, I have always been able to speak comfortably when meeting with executives about their businesses.

Applying Strategy and Tactics

The military teaches its leaders about the difference between strategy and tactics. This difference is extremely important in business. Strategy is the overall vision for the business, while tactics are the means by which we will achieve any given objective. In World War II, it might have been taking a location that provided critical roads and ports needed for achieving our strategic objective of freeing Italy. The tactics included using aerial bombardment, paratroopers, and tanks with infantry.

In my business equivalent, my strategy was to grow my small business into a multimillion dollar service company. I used various tactics to grow the company. First, I focused on developing printer maintenance contracts so I had dependable income for rent and payroll. Those contracts were with manufacturing companies, primarily in Juarez, Mexico. We serviced color laser and solid ink printers in El Paso. Another revenue source was carry-in service for small printers, including inkjet and small lasers. Next, I sold national service companies on subcontracting local jobs to us.

Knowing When to Retreat to Live and Fight Again

It took persistence and flexibility to keep growing this business for six years having started from nothing. The printer industry changed radically during those years. After growing sales and profits for the first five years, we lost one-third of our income when two employees left to go into competition with us. The industry had changed so radically that I had to re-evaluate, because:

  • Prices on printers were dropping dramatically.
  • Printers became more reliable.
  • Warranties were longer on some and included replacement printers within 24 hours.
  • Our line printer contracts were disappearing as manufacturers replaced them with digital printers from copier dealers in Juarez.
 
Like U.S. Army General Douglas MacArthur who surrendered the Philippines to the Japanese at the beginning of World War II in order to fight another day, I too chose to retreat so as to come back stronger from the lessons I learned.

Though I ultimately decided not to return to printer maintenance, I have applied my knowledge and experience in my new field. Now I'm using the lessons and successes from both the Air Force and my previous business to build a new business consulting and writing business advice to help hundreds of other small business owners, managers, and staffs.



More from John R. Aberle:

 What I Learned from Starting an Undercapitalized Small Business

How I Learned Not to Trust Profit and Loss Statements

How Rotary Helped Me Feel Like a Business Owner

Empowered Employees Provide Excellent Customer Service
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