Blake Stilwell is a columnist for Military.com.
In the more than two years since the start of the global COVID-19 pandemic, veteran entrepreneurs and military-affiliated businesses are showing many of the same challenges that face businesses nationwide.
Although many veterans were able to adapt their businesses in some way to pandemic-related restrictions, finding good employees and the loss of regular customers still creates issues for many of those businesses, according to a recently released study from Syracuse University's Institute for Veterans and Military Families (IVMF).
But perhaps most importantly, the 2021 National Survey of Military Affiliated Entrepreneurs, released in April 2022, also reveals that access to capital is still the top barrier facing new and existing veteran-owned businesses.
The 2021 survey included 220 questions, with more than 2,600 veteran and military-affiliated entrepreneurs responding. It also tracks responses from the individuals year over year, offering a long view of conditions and changes. Questions in the survey covered individual and business information, metrics and attitudes, and gauged access to networks, resources and mentorship. It also asked about local and economic factors for individual businesses and the impacts of COVID-19 pandemic.
About 87% of participants said they were able to adapt their businesses to pandemic restrictions, with about 56% noting those same changes brought them additional opportunities.
Yet, 64% of respondents still reported losing business during the pandemic. And even more said they lost good employees during the same time period, noting that finding replacements has been even more difficult in the aftermath.
Although labor has always been an issue for veteran entrepreneurs, the ongoing "Great Resignation" has caused more and more veteran employers to list finding labor as a major barrier to business growth. That lack of employees has propelled the issue to a close second behind the veteran entrepreneur's perennial top issue: access to capital.
The majority of entrepreneurs responding to the survey reported feeling stressed about their businesses' financial situation, whether they were a startup or looking to grow. Both required some kind of financial support during the survey period.
Many of those were sustained by the CARES Act Disaster Loans and Paycheck Protection Program, but many found that taxes and federal regulations and policies were also significant barriers to entry and growth. Sixty-three percent of those who did seek federal funds reported that it wasn't helpful for their business.
About 27% of respondents weren't able to secure funding for growing their business at all, and 32% of those seeking financing from a creditor or lending institution were turned down. For 71% of new startups, capital came from their personal or family savings accounts.
Many business owners, 66%, relied on business or personal credit cards to grow or start up during the pandemic period, with half of those having almost all of their business debt on credit cards. Veteran entrepreneurs reported an average of more than $191,000 in business debt in 2021.
Venture capital, crowdfunding and the Community Development Financial Institutions (CDFI) fund are the least-used sources of capital among veteran entrepreneurs. CDFI funds are sources of capital set aside by the U.S. Department of the Treasury for distressed communities. They offer funding and information, but 66% of respondents reported not knowing what CDFI fund sources are, even though they can be ideal for startups requiring less than $75,000 in capital.
The IVMF’s survey was also meant to help veterans by providing a checklist of actions entrepreneurs and stakeholders -- family members, business partners and investors -- can take in mitigating some of the issues uncovered annually on page 78 of the final report.
These potential solutions include increasing awareness of CDFIs in the veteran community, utilizing available resources from the U.S. Small Business Administration and finding technical assistance through business incubators. Other groups, like The Institute for Veterans and Military Families have published resources also meant to steer veterans to help for their businesses.
Though the survey's results might seem to spell doom and gloom for new and existing veteran entrepreneurs, it does report that most veteran businesses were prepared or somewhat prepared for the demands of the COVID-19 pandemic and that half of those who responded say the pandemic had no effect on their desire to start or grow their business.
Previous IVMF studies have shown that veterans are more likely to own a business than nonveterans and tend to out-earn non-veteran entrepreneurs. Their military experience tends to give them a higher degree of independence, high self-efficacy and self-confidence, and shows they make good decisions, even in chaotic environments. All of which are traits that make vets good business owners.