HJ: Between West Point, graduating from Ranger School, and serving as an infantry officer overseas I imagine you’ve had quite a bit of leadership training and experience. Does any of that carry over into running your own small business?
Nick: Yeah, absolutely. I think the military is the absolutely the best training ground to be an entrepreneur. You know, as most people in the military know, that military leadership is not what civilians think it is. It’s not just some dude standing on the hill barking orders and everyone just listening to him. You know, it’s a bunch of guys in weird situations they have never been in before trying to solve problems; sometimes the problems are the obvious ones like there are bad guys shooting at us but most of the times, the problems are weird things like, “these people don’t have water, these people don’t have electricity, these people need food, these people need this, these people need that” and you’re solving problems that have nothing to do with the military job but in order for the mission to be successful you have to solve these problems. So you start learning things on the fly, you start figuring things out.
An example that I always use is when I was part of one of the first missions to Kosovo, we got there and we were in an embalming station guarding this church and the first time it rained, it started raining rat feces on top of us because the roof had holes in it and there were rats in the top roof of this building. Well that sucked obviously, no one wants rat feces raining on top of them.
So the next day, my platoon sergeant and I went and figured out how to fix a roof. And it was probably the crappiest roof fixing job of all time, it involved plastic, caulk, plywood, you know, whatever but at the end of it we had vacuumed out all the rats that were inside this roof and we had coated this thing so that when it rained, it no longer rained on top of us and we improved that roof over the course of the deployment over and over again. That’s weird. That’s not something that’s taught in Infantry Basic. It’s really hard to explain to people. It’s just the kind of thing that happens on deployment. It’s the kind of things that happens to units all the time. Even when you’re training, you’re doing weird things like that. But it’s by being flexible and focusing on the immediate problem that a unit succeeds, regardless of what it is.
Business is the same way. In the military, we focus on solving problems regardless of how impossible they are, we always take care of the things that need to be taken care of first. We prioritize. One of the hardest things to do when you go into business is you have 400 things you need to do, but in order for a business to be able to survive you have to figure out what missions are critical and you need to find ways to solve them, and sometimes its super easy and you just have to put in the leg work and sometimes it’s incredibly complicated and you need to the whole team to figure it out. But that mentality is what keeps a business moving forward, it’s what keeps a business growing, keeps the business changing and there’s no place that does that better than the military. Because the military puts us in absurd situations that you can’t replicate anywhere else.
HJ: That makes a lot of sense to me. A lot of veterans internalize that “can do” spirit, and the sense of “just get it done.” So how did being a veteran affect starting your company? How different is it being a civilian leader as opposed to a military leader?
Nick: That’s kind of a hard question for me to answer because I have never been a civilian entrepreneur. I will tell you that I’m not one of these smart people that figures out all of the different things that is available for you through the government for veterans or any of that stuff. I didn’t even know it existed; I never used any of it. I’m sure it could have made my life easier with a little research in that area. The only thing that I will say is no matter how bad it got, the military gave me perspective.
So you know, when I had $1300 to my name and it felt like the world was crashing down, I looked around thought “Eh, you know what? I’ve got a roof over my head, I’m going to eat tonight, I’ve got friends if things really go wrong. This isn’t that bad, It sucks that I don’t have money like I did before, it sucks that things aren’t going the way I want them to but let me put this in perspective: some of my friends are in Iraq right now, some of my friends are in Afghanistan right now—they’re having a harder time than I’m having. I just need to suck it up and suffer a little while longer and figure out how to solve the problem.” I always had that in my back pocket and that always calmed me down because no matter who you are or no matter what you’re doing, whatever problem is in front of you–it is your entire world unless you can take a step back and build perspective around it.
So nowadays it’s a lot easier for me to handle even the biggest challenges. Half-a-million-dollar problems? I can still solve that problem because I have so many iterations of taking a step back and figuring out what are the levers I can pull. What are the things I can do? It’s something that entrepreneurs that have been in the game for a while know how to do. They know their business, they know what makes their business work, they know what makes their business not work. You stay calm when things are bad, and you just systematically work through everything until its good again.
Next: “Good Products, Good People”