Once you become “Goliath” don’t ever think you are too big to be taken down by “David.”
Such was among the tidbits of advice offered by Troy Downing in addressing a group of veteran entrepreneurs – or a vetrepreneur – at a free workshop sponsored by Concerned Veterans for America Foundation and Bridge to Wellbeing, an organization founded by Americans For Prosperity Foundation.
Downing is a consummate entrepreneur having been part of pioneering the internet and computer technology. As a research scientist, he helped develop early technologies and started numerous enterprises. He is probably more recognizable in Montana as a recent primary candidate for the US Senate seat, but he is also a veteran, having enlisted in the US Air force the day following the 9-11 attack, and well after establishing himself as a successful entrepreneur. In fact, he was just one year under the age limit to enlist. He served eight years in a combat search and rescue squadron.
Downing’s earlier entrepreneur days included involvement with the emerging Yahoo company.
“Does anyone remember Yahoo Auction?” asked Downing of a group of about a dozen veterans with plans to continue or start their own businesses, who attended the conference at Rocky Mountain College.
As part of Yahoo, Downing said he remembers well the attitude of cohorts in the booming company as they witnessed the efforts of an upstart newcomer. They didn’t take the competitor seriously, and scoffed at their attempts to take on Yahoo.
Today, while no one remembers Yahoo Auction, everyone knows eBay, he said.
The day Downing fully came to realize the value of the internet, was a day in which he was notified that he was being sued. “I was really excited. I had never been sued before,” said Downing. That a 5ompany was suing him indicated that they saw a value in what he was doing. In that moment, Downing said he realized, about the emerging internet technology, “this is going to change everything,” which given the history of the internet since, was something of an understatement.
Downing’s story – truly a rags to riches story – was an inspiring introduction to the afternoon program which featured several presenters, aimed at helping and encouraging veterans in Montana start their own ventures. Among the other presenters was Tim Donahue, founding director of Veterans Business Outreach Center Region 8, and a Vietnam combat veteran.
Veterans are ideal candidates for entrepreneurship believes Henry Kriegel, Regional Outreach Director for Americans For Prosperity Foundation, who helped organize the event along with Samuel Redfern, who is the organization’s State Director.
In serving in the military, veterans have learned some skills – the ability to adapt and overcome. “You can apply some of those same skills in the business world,” says Kriegel, “You have to adapt and be competitive. It requires innovative and adaptive abilities and the application of discipline.” Veterans are already in tune with hard work and the stick-to-itiveness that is part of being a business owner. By encouraging them and providing them with the information and networking to get a foothold in the business world, believes Kriegel, they can “enjoy their personal freedom and pursue their passions,” while at the same time creating a successful enterprise and an opportunity to hire other veterans, which most of them want to do.
The Billings workshop was the third held in the state with previous ones held in Missoula and Hamilton. Two of those attendees have already launched businesses, said Kriegel.
Downing, who lives in Big Sky, donates his time in speaking to veterans and encouraging entrepreneurship. Other advice offered by Downing was that there is “always times to change direction….never be afraid to change if the path you are on isn’t working out….there is always another path.”
“Don’t fool yourself about your risk tolerance.”
“If you are putting all your eggs into one basket and if it doesn’t work out it hurts real bad.” Make sure you can deal with that.
When it comes to financing a business start, Downing suggests to try do it without financing. Draw upon your own resources, friends and family. It is always a struggle – “Keep trying to figure it out as you go….find a way to make it happen with almost none [financing]“
Having everything at stake is often the key to success. In his experience, said Downing, with everything on the line “…failure isn’t an option…we had to make it work.”
“The last thing you want to do is going to a venture firm. They want to take over your company.”
And – don’t short change the value of marketing. “You can have a real superior product and fail” to a competitor with an inferior product but has great marketing. Getting that kind of expertise means getting really smart people on your team, which was something that Downing often referred to with great delight.
At one point he said, “The idea was much bigger than me. I surrounded myself with a team….I was surrounded with really bright people” and through it all Downing was having fun. “It was exciting,” was a common refrain, and such was the undertone of his entire presentation: “have fun!”