Veteran-Owned Business Success: An Interview with Spartan Blades
Mark Carey and Curtis Iovito know a few things about taking risks to achieve success. The retired NCOs from 1st Special Forces Group (Airborne) started Spartan Blades, LLC over eight years ago after leaving high-paying contracting jobs. Since then, Spartan Blades has risen from a small start-up to an internationally recognizable brand of knives that recently won American-Made Knife of the Year. The Southern Pines, North Carolina business owners were kind enough to spend an hour with The Havok Journal talking about veteran transition and starting a business.
On Their Humble Beginnings:
Mark Carey: We started Spartan Blades in February 2008 and opened to the public September 2008. The six-month gap was spent doing business planning. We focused on growing our online sales and dealer network from the start.
Curtis: We got the name because the first package we shipped was held together by 100mph tape. Our customer commented on the “spartan” nature of the material and thus, the name was born.
Mark Carey: When we looked into starting our business we were thinking guns, knives, or accessories. After doing our research we saw knives had a lower start up cost so it was easier to form a start-up, and we had experience with it as well.
Curtis Iovito: I used to make knives as a hobby. It wasn’t just a pragmatic business decision; we picked something we were interested in.
On Business Planning and Special Forces experience:
Mark: We followed a lot of the Special Forces planning principles like Mission Analysis in our business planning. We did our own independent research, called friends in the industry, and read a lot of “open source” information. We wrote three business plans before we decided on the final one. The business planning software we purchased cost about $200.
We also got involved in SCORE, a free non-profit run by retired CEOs and CFOs. Bottom line, there is a lot of free and low-cost help out there, you just have to look.
Curtis: Look at it this way, killing people is a business and foreign internal defense is a business. There are a lot of transferable skills from SF [Special Forces] to business e.g. decision making process, leveraging peoples’ time and resources, doing a lot with a little. You already have a lot of practical application from your military service.
Mark: That brings up an important point to Special Forces guys leaving the military: you have exceptional organization and planning skills. A lot of people can analyze statistics and ask questions but often times they don’t know why. If they don’t understand the why, they don’t know what they are working towards. SF soldiers understand the “why.” You can learn the basic foundations and learn the rest OJT (on-the-job). The hardest part for us was learning the civilian business lingo.
Curtis: Do not underestimate yourself or your value. Know yourself and understand your value before you retire. Industry already knows your value and they won’t have any problem signing you on for potentially less than your worth and using up your skill sets over a number of years. Get what you are worth.
On Business Lingo:
Mark: Six Sigma and Lean are very similar to military planning processes: Troop Leading Procedures (TLPs), the Military Decision Making Process (MDMP), deliberate intelligence preparation, deliberate planning. Soldiers, especially SF, have a lot of practical application in those areas.
How the Knife Industry is Different:
Curtis: During our research we realized the firearms industry is rampant with secrecy. The knife industry is quite courteous and accepting in comparison. Gaining mentorship in the industry was critical and received it from companies like Gerber™ and Chris Reeve Knives™.
Mark: We decided to hit a higher price point because trying to manufacture a $20 to $100 knife, especially in the America, is extremely competitive. A higher-priced, higher quality knife “excites” the market.
Curtis: We know when someone buys a high quality knife it won’t be the only knife they buy, so we’re helping out the market as a whole, competitors included, as well as ourselves.
On Running a Successful Business:
Curtis: A lesson I learned as a young private was “Know yourself and seek improvement.” Know your strengths and weakness. Work to improve your weakness or simply get someone else to take care of those tasks. There are things I’m good, things Mark is good at, so we talk about it and learn from one another constantly.
Mark: I equate it with Foreign Internal Defense (FID). You establish good relationships with suppliers and vendors and you maintain those good relationships by understanding their operating environment. Knowing what’s important to them upfront will help create mutually beneficial relationships.
Curtis: Special Forces soldiers especially can crush others in establishing relationships because it is what they’re trained to do. Interview your suppliers and vendors before you decide to do business with them.
On Starting Something New, Especially in a Non-Traditional Market:
Curtis: Too many people let fear drive what they do. You can’t let fear drive what you do; at some point you’re going to have to take a risk, even though you may not feel like you know everything you need to know.
We had a saying in 1st SFG (A): “See it once, Do it once, Teach it once.” It’s a methodology that actually works. I was fresh out of the Special Forces Qualification Course (SFQC) when we deployed to Indonesia. I was tasked with setting up the Indonesia Mortar Leader Course and I had to teach it in my target language! The only time I had worked with mortars was in the 18B [SF Weapons Sergeant] course but I studied and learned more through teaching, and I was successful in establishing the course. If I had let fear take over, it would have been a disaster.
On Risk Management and Mistakes:
Mark: Those Composite Risk Management sheets everyone hates to do in the Army really work. Risk analysis and risk management works!
Create your P.A.C.E. (Primary, Alternate, Contingency, Emergency) plans. Everybody fails at some point so if you make a mistake and cost yourself some money, suck it up, learn from it, and move on.
On Money and Success:
Mark: Money is a byproduct of success. Don’t worry about how much money you’ll make, worry about becoming successful, and you’ll make money.
Curtis: Do good things, treat people right, treat your customer right.
Mark: You must deliver quality in whatever you provide, and exceptional customer service. Exceed expectations slightly and you’ll have loyal customers, suppliers, and vendors.
On Business Partnerships:
Mark: Do it with as few partners as possible as it makes the planning and decision making process easier. We let our personalities and talents delineate what we do at Spartan Blades™. Curtis has more experience with knife design and marketing. I’m more of a planner, linear thinker, purchasing, etc. I’ve learned some of what Curtis knows but Curtis is obviously better in some areas and I’m okay with that. We kind of compare it to left brain-right brain.
Curtis: We like each other and we get along. Many successful businesses fail because people can’t get along. Pick someone you know, pick someone you trust.
Mark: Like a marriage, pick wisely because you may be stuck with them for a long time.
Curtis: Take a look at a Special Forces team. In general, there are usually one or two “superstars” that everyone wants to be like. Then, there are 7-8 “good dudes”, one proverbial “dirtbag” you can’t fire because he meets the minimum, and one guy you cannot wait to fire from the team. This concept goes back to ancient Greek warriors and still applies to companies today. Every team, no matter how large or small has those people. If you’re able, pick the superstar. That is the person you want as a business partner.
Who Should NOT Run a Business:
Mark: Some people just aren’t cut out to be leaders. If you’re running a business you’re a leader, whether you like it or not. If you don’t want to be a leader, don’t start a business. It’s okay, go be a middle man, there are entire industries run by them.
Curtis: Again, it goes back to knowing yourself. Identify the things you’re not good at and be honest with yourself. If you still want to own a business but are weak in day-to-day leadership skills, start the business and then hire a manager to run day-to-day operations.
On Sustained Growth:
Mark: In the first 3 years we blew our 5-year plan out of the water. We have dealers all over the world now. We review our business plans periodically, formally and informally. If you’re going to change a core competency of your business, definitely write out a new business plan. Written plans expose more information than verbal conversations.
Curtis: We have seen businesses with great products fail because they had such rapid growth they couldn’t keep up with demand, so they just said “Screw it” and quit. Controlled growth saves a business.
Mark: For example, as we continued to grow, we had levers we could pull to activate more capacity or emergency supplies when needed, especially hardware to build the knives. We planned out those contingencies using P.A.C.E. You have to keep your suppliers and vendors happy, as one missed order can really stunt growth.
Curtis: We also limited our costs. We bought, and continue to buy, only what we need. Instead of paying ourselves more upfront or giving ourselves bonuses, we reinvested money into our business. Our income stayed the same throughout growth. Through that, we sustained high quality products with on-time delivery to our customers. Don’t forget, no one pays you until you deliver. Keep cash flow going, plan out your moves, and your profits will come later.
On the Future:
Mark: We’re looking at new models, new capacity with new machines, and taking things to a new level. We might branch out to a new product but we’re writing a new business plan to ensure it makes sense.
Curtis: Our Spartan-Harsey folder was just named American-Made Knife of the Year as voted on by our peers in the national and international markets, as well as the major knife magazines. We can actually say we make the best knife in America! It’s our 4th award in 8 years and we’re looking forward to winning more.
This article first appeared in The Havok Journal 1 September 2016.