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JBLM Program aids aspiring entrepreneurs

By Christopher Gaylord, JBLM PAO Instructor Linda Jadwin fields questions from Spc. Ross Potter and his wife, Spc. Michaela Potter, at the Army Career and Alumni Program annex on JBLM Lewis North March 18 during a two-day Boots to Business class.

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Ross and Michaela Potter know they have plenty of opportunities waiting for them when they leave the Army later this year.

Michaela, a specialist and EMT-certified combat medic with experience working in the private sector as a first responder, could probably land a job as a technician in a hospital emergency room if she wanted to.

And Ross, also a specialist, has worked as an executive sous-chef for multiple five-star restaurants, to include a world-renowned cruise line, in addition to his time as an Army food service specialist. He might fare well walking back into the culinary industry.

But none of that, the couple agreed several months ago, would be half as fun as opening an outdoor store in a small Nebraska town - and maybe an indoor shooting range if all goes according to plan.

The two, who met in Afghanistan and married shortly after, will soon end their terms of service to the Army together. The Potters joined nearly 20 other transitioning Soldiers at the Army Career and Alumni Program annex on Lewis North March 18 and 19 who, like them, are currently weighing the possibilities of working for themselves.

"Both of our Families were small business owners; I grew up thinking that a Family was supposed to have a business," said Ross during a lunch break from the first Boots to Business class to be offered on JBLM.

Operation Boots to Business: From Service to Startup, was developed out of a partnership between the U.S. Small Business Administration, The Department of Veterans Affairs, the Department of Defense and Syracuse University and launched as a pilot program last spring. Claiming in its mission statement that service members are natural entrepreneurs, Boots to Business seeks to arm transitioning military men and women across the nation with the basics in small business ownership.

The program, an initiative under the Veterans Opportunity to Work to Hire Heroes Act of 2011, uses a three-step approach that ensures a service member's business plan is sound enough to withstand in today's economy and that his or her business could survive against competitors in its own industry.

The first phase is a short introductory video that urges transitioning military members to consider entrepreneurship. The second phase is a two-day, in-person class that covers the fundamentals of owning a business - things like choosing the right location and successfully reaching a target customer demographic. The final phase is an in-depth, eight-week online distance learning course that ends with students creating their own individual business plans.

The two-day class on Lewis North that the Potters just finished makes up the second phase of the program. "We're just really hitting the highlights here," said Lorin Smith, veterans business development officer with the SBA's Seattle District office, who oversees the program locally.

Smith said the two-day class mainly serves to wet service members' appetites for the eight-week course offered through Syracuse University's Institute for Veterans and Military Families.

"Two days is not really that much time to provide the full array of what any small business owner needs to know," he said.

Veterans, Smith said, tend to possess the ideal traits of successful business owners. He speaks from personal experience having served in the Army from 1999 to 2007.

"Being veterans, knowing how to persevere, how to overcome obstacles and how to effectively deal with change makes them wonderful small business owners," he said, although, he admitted, owning a business didn't appeal to him.

The SBA has done its research and come up with the facts: Veterans make up only 6 percent of the U.S. population, but almost 14 percent of those across the country who own and run small businesses. And veterans, the administration says, are 45 percent more likely than their peers who haven't served to end up self-employed.

For Boots to Business, the SBA brings together instructors and coaches from local Women's Business Centers, Small Business Development Centers, Veterans Business Opportunity Centers, and from local chapters of SCORE, a nonprofit association dedicated to helping launch and grow small businesses.

The instructors cover the legalities of owning a business and the basics of putting together a solid business plan. They explain how service members can analyze the market for their proposed business concepts, giving them the tools and resources to consider ideal locations, identify and reach target demographics and decide on the possibility of partnering with other local businesses to offer better service, among other things.

The only real competition for the Potters, who plan to open their store in Neligh, Neb., where Michaela has Family, Ross said, is a Wal-Mart 40 miles away. They would be the only real supplier of hunting rifles and bows, tactical gear and camping equipment for Neligh, a town that, in 2010, had a population of less than 1,600.

"Where it happens to be is a smaller town, and they don't have any sporting equipment," Ross said.

The Potters plan to call their sporting goods and outdoor store the Liberty Box. And the hope is to one day add an indoor shooting range onto their store where locals can practice. They also want to carry the clothing and equipment necessary to supply sports teams for schools in the area.

"It's stuff we're interested in, and something I could see us doing for the rest of our lives - something we could pass on down to our kids, and that we could be passionate about," Michaela said.

Both grew up highly active in outdoor sports.

"Hunting and fishing every day - it was part of your life," said Ross, who hails from Miami and frequently fished and hunted in the Everglades when he was younger.

Michaela woke up early most mornings growing up in Washington state to fish in a nearby pond with her cousins.

But their recent class has helped them turn their childhood hobbies into a realistic business possibility.

"I was scared hearing two full days of class, but the amount of knowledge I've sucked in already has been amazing," said Ross, halfway through the first day of the class. "I didn't understand how in-depth a business plan was until we got here.

"This is going to happen for us no matter what, so it's good to not be lost."

There are no limits, Smith said, to what service members who take part in the Boots to Business program can achieve, citing Nike and as highly successful businesses known the world over that started out with help from the SBA.

"Those were all people who were just like everybody in the classroom," he said. "Phil Knight had an idea about making tennis shoes that could be sold to a large market, and look where Nike's at now.

"It's not outside the realm of possibility that anyone going through our course could be the next Bill Gates or the next Steve Jobs."

The SBA's Seattle District office offers Boots to Business on Lewis-Main, McChord Field, Fairchild Air Force Base, Naval Air Station Whidbey Island, Naval Station Everett and Naval Base Kitsap.

The next Boots to Business classes on JBLM are scheduled for April 15 and 16 on McChord Field, and April 29 and 30 on Lewis North.

For more information on Boots to Business, visit or To register for the two-day course and to find out about upcoming classes on JBLM, contact the JBLM ACAP center at 967-3258.

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