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More Vets Choose To Be Entrepreneurs

Shaped by their war experiences and military training, many veterans are opting to go into business for themselves rather than work for someone else.

Jose Martinez received a medical discharge from the Army in 2006 at age 24. He was a sergeant with the U.S. Army Ranger unit that found Saddam Hussein in Iraq in 2003.

Today, he owns Siglo 22, an Escondido-based record company he began two years ago. It specializes in Norteno, or music from Northern Mexico. He also manages four bands and has six employees who book gigs for the groups, design graphics and perform other tasks.

After his discharge, Martinez weighed his options and decided he did not want to start at the bottom in a minimum-wage job. So he went out on his own, gradually establishing his business.

"It was the only answer. I held a couple of retail jobs when I was first discharged, but it wasn't working out," Martinez said. "Paychecks were small and there was no future in it. Being a huge fan of music, I decided to start a record company."

When he did not find enough business locally, Martinez cast his net further. His bands have gigs now in Los Angeles, Sacramento, and even Colorado and Utah.

"It's a business that will one day give me the financial security I'm looking for."

Martinez said he likes having control over both the business and his finances. He applies everything he learned in the military, he said, even though the missions are not the same.

"There's nothing like the leadership skills you learn in the military. When you come out, you're automatically at the top of the totem pole, because you've lead people on combat and training missions, and this just becomes second nature to you."

Martinez put discipline at the top of the list of traits he acquired while serving. A close second was dogged persistence, since quitting on the battlefield was not an option.

"I'm never going to give up on my dreams, I want to work harder because I want to be the best and I want to instill that in my employees," Martinez said.

The intrinsic discipline of military men and women, combined with risk-taking and persistence, form strong foundations for entrepreneurial veterans.

"I think so many veterans decide to go into business for themselves because the skills and characteristics they acquire during their service align with traits that successful small business owners typically have," explained Rachel Fischer. She is deputy program manager at the San Diego Contracting Opportunities Center.

"(Veterans have) persistence, tenacity, great organizational skills, initiative, and follow-through," she said.

The Center, which is part of Southwestern College, just launched a federal contractor-certification program. It will train local service-disabled veterans in the skills and knowledge they need to go after government contracts.

Having worked with hundreds of veteran-owned small businesses at the center, Fischer noted that veterans often tend to choose construction or trade-related businesses, falling back on what they know or learned.

But there are exceptions, such as Martinez, who chose the music industry, or Josh Evans, who went into private security.

Evans founded Global Security Options five years ago. It has three employees and provides perimeter security for government and utility-company facilities, such as waste-water plants, wells, substations and refineries.

Evans served in the Marine Corps for 10 years, as a C-130 pilot. He was a captain when he left active duty in 2005, and is a Navy reservist now.

He decided not to become a civilian pilot, choosing an unrelated field because of circumstances.

"In 2005, the airline industry was in chaos; it wasn't a very healthy industry then. I felt there was an opportunity in the security market," Evans said.

He came across an East Coast company with impressive products and decided to sell their solutions out here. He also wanted to be his own boss with flexible hours, to be with his growing family.

"The freedom and flexibility of working for yourself is a real driver for me. A lot of the veterans out there are at least partially accustomed to taking risks and succeeding or failing on their own," Evans said.

Serving in the Marine Corps helped Evans in many ways, he said.

"I think probably the largest is mission accomplishment. You set a goal, you figure out a plan on how to get there. You execute your plan and you can measure yourself based against the plan," Evans said.

In San Diego, there are about 90 businesses owned by service-disabled veterans which are registered with the California Disabled Veterans Business Enterprise.

Evans, a member of the statewide association, said there are many more that are not certified, or do not meet the disability requirement to be certified.

San Diego is also home to the Elite Service-Disabled Veteran-Owned Business Network. It is a national organization helping veterans start businesses and find government-contract opportunities.

Veterans have also begun more than 2,000 franchise businesses across the country in the last few years, through an initiative called VetFran, started by the International Franchise Association. The program offers discounts on the initial franchise fee, which can lower up-front costs by thousands of dollars.

The most popular franchise choices are retail and service businesses.

Veterans benefit from contracting opportunities that give veteran-owned businesses priority, and are able to tap the vast network of veterans and mentoring organizations. But they also have unique challenges.

Among them are adopting to a less-rigid routine and dealing with the fallout from Post-Traumatic-Stress Disorder, or PTSD.

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