HJ: There seem to be a lot of companies involved in the military/adventure apparel business. What is your relationship like with other veteran-owned companies that sell similar products, such as Ranger Up, Article 15 Clothing, and Grunt Works?
B2B: The market is big enough and our products different enough that we don’t directly compete with any of the companies you named. There are of course veteran-owned companies who are direct competitors of ours, but we’re glad they’re in the market too because the competition makes all of us better. We don’t really have any current relationships with any of those particular companies although we have had preliminary discussions about doing business with Ranger Up and Art15 in the past, and would like to do some collaboration them and similar companies in the future.
HJ: What are some of the major differences between serving in the military and running a small business?
B2B: That’s a tough one! One major factor is the profit consequences, the whole idea of profitability as the main driver compared to “accomplishing the mission is a huge difference. In terms of the number of people, there is much less of a team to rely on here in private business compared to my time in the Marine Corps, particularly with B2B being such a small company personnel-wise. Out here there’s much less of a built-in safety net like you have in the military—in a small-business environment you don’t automatically have seniors and mentors who are personally invested in your success. So that makes networking that much more important—you’ve gotta seek out partnerships and relationships that are mutually beneficial, and you have to justify to those people why you’re worth their time and attention. But in many ways it’s similar; there is still a job to be done, a mission to be accomplished, and people counting on you to do your part. The desired end state is just different.
HJ: I understand your company is active in veterans’ advocacy, in fact it says “supporting veteran charities” on your logo. Can you describe how you give back to the veteran community?
B2B: We donate at least 15% of our corporate profits (and sometimes considerably more) to our dozen or so partner charities. In fact for 2014 it ended up being more like 60% of our profits going to these organizations, including Travis Manion Foundation, MARSOC Foundation, 31 Heroes, Recon Foundation, and many others that are listed on our website. In addition to financial contributions, we also help them out with branded products from our product line, so if a charity wants something with their name and logo on it, we can get them bottle openers, keychains, necklaces, coffee mugs, or whatever else they need at a below-wholesale rate so they can sell market them on their own sites or at their own functions and generate funds for themselves in that way.
We also market charity-specific materials on our own site, with 40% off the top going directly to those charities. For example, for every Travis Manion bottle opener we sell for $25, we give $10 directly to the Travis Manion Foundation. That option is very appealing to smaller charities that don’t want to mess with handling inventory or fulfilling orders—all they have to do is point people towards our site then deposit a check from us once every quarter.
We also have a fairly large social media reach, so we can help spread the word about the various charities we support. Basically, however we can help our partner charities out, we are more than willing to do it.
HJ: What is your favorite B2B product line?
B2B: It’s got to be the .50 caliber bottle opener, that’s our best selling item. Because we were able to move early on licensing and trademark agreements with all four military branches, that gave us a leg up on the competition.
It’s always a good feeling to put 500 or 1000 of these in the hands of a battalion or squadron of Marines for the Marine Corps Ball or something like that. Those folks go on to be pretty enthusiastic brand ambassadors for us. One development over the past year or so is that we’re not just selling to military audiences; we sell a lot of customized bottle openers as groomsman gifts or as prizes for fundraisers for various charities.
HJ: You and the other owners of B2B are 2004 Naval Academy graduates. Any thoughts about the Army’s recent “rebranding” effort, which now makes them the “Army West Point” cadets/black knights/mules?
B2B: (laughs) I can’t understand that decision. I was just talking to the West Point graduate who runs the satire and humor site Center Stall, and he recently started up the Army Point Academy satire page in response to the rebranding effort. He can’t really explain the change either, but being in the satire business he’s happy that USMA dumped this gift in his lap. So we’re going to do our best to get our products up on his site as well. Bottom line: as Navy grads we are more than happy to get in on making fun of West Point’s poor branding decision.
HJ: Predictions for the 2015 Army/Navy football game?
B2B: Well, the streak has to end sometime. There have been years recently where Army got close, and while I’d like to see the streak continue the rest of my life, I know that’s probably not going to happen. Navy is probably OK for this year, as long as Keenan Reynolds is playing quarterback it will be tough for Army to win. But Coach Monken is doing good things in turning things around at Army, so that will probably start paying off somewhere down the line. Right now though, Navy has won so many consecutive times that some people are starting to see Air Force as our big academy rival—whenever Army does pull off a win it’ll remind those people of how bad it hurts losing to Army and that any other game takes a backseat to Army/Navy. Army West Point or whatever they’re calling themselves now is always going to be that bolded, double-underlined name on the schedule.