Starting a Business in a Military Family

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Are you part of a military family and want to start a business you can run from anywhere, even if you have to move across the world? Perhaps your spouse is retiring and you want to start something new as a family to focus on after they’re discharged. Starting a company in a military family requires a bit of foresight and planning but is more than doable. 

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Out of 12 million military spouses in the United States, approximately 48% are self-employed or business owners. You’ve likely heard of the military wives helping sew handmade bags and selling them. Perhaps you know someone who has an online clothing boutique. Whatever your interest, online businesses and military life mesh well together. 

Are You Allowed to Run a Business While in the Military?

The challenges of deployment include significant financial sacrifices a small business can help offset. If you or your spouse is currently active, you may also worry about the legalities and ethics of running a business while in the military. 

The only thing you have to be aware of is that you must avoid conflicts of interest. For example, if your spouse is deployed to battle a foreign country and you do business with the top brass there, you have a potential issue. 

You must be aware of outright and perceived conflicts of interest. If it looks potentially bad, don’t do it. 

Follow these tips if you’re ready to start a business in your military family. The extra money may help during your active years, and you will have a career path when the service period ends. 

1. Find an Interest

What skills do you have? For example, perhaps your family passed down furniture making and you want to open a store. On the other hand, you might not have any specific skills. In that case, think about what you love.

Are you passionate about children’s clothing? Maybe you enjoy a great book and want to start a publishing imprint. Whatever you love should aligh with your skills or at least be something you’ll want to learn more about and pass on to others. 

The military also teaches specific skills that might apply to civilian life. For example, you could revamp people’s closets if you’re highly organized. You could use your security skills to start a firm and offer help to other companies. 

2. Seek Help

The United States government offers specific help for military families leaving the service to help them get started on owning their journey. The Transition Assistance Program (TAP) provides tools and resources to help prepare families to move from the military to civilian life. You can take training through the Small Business Administration (SBA) and other government agencies. 

Take advantage of any TAP resources that help build your skills or offer free advice on how to run your new business. The SBA has more than 180 training programs around the country. 

Talk to your commanding officer about what programs are out there and which ones you can take advantage of to get your own business going. 

3. Evaluate Location

Another consideration is whether or not you live in base housing and how that impacts your home-based business. You may need to get permission from the Housing Office to run your company, even if you only sell things via mail. 

You’ll need a backup plan if you fail to get permission, such as renting a local office space for storage and shipping. The military doesn’t tell families they can’t own a small business. It can limit what you do in housing the government provides, though. 

Perhaps you have family members coming on board who live in the area and can step up if your spouse is deployed. Having a full support system helps your business survive the lean times or when you can’t invest as much time as you’d like. 

4. Understand AAFES Restrictions

The military offers some services to base residents. You have to make sure yours doesn’t compete if you’re going to run it there. For example, you might sell an item already sold in the commissary. The Housing Authority likely would not approve you selling to those who live around you.

Having an outside office that delivers for you could be seen as a violation of AAFES restrictions. When in doubt, always ask and err on the side of caution. You may need to change your business model, offer different products with approval or find a new client base. 

Make a list of what’s currently available and look for holes. Where are other families not being served, and can you step up without stepping on toes? 

5. Find Inspiration

Some of the largest companies on the planet have former military veterans behind them. A marine veteran founded FedEx. Two Army veterans started Nike. An Air Force veteran started RE/MAX. Others have successfully begun a business and made it grow beyond what anyone could dream. 

Do you need even more motivation? Look for more recent success stories, such as:

  • Goodworld 
  • Anchors Aweigh 
  • Black Rifle Coffee Co. 
  • Bottle Breacher 
  • Combat Flip Flops

Former military officers have the discipline and life skills to excel at owning businesses. Read success stories and try to find others who’ve gone before you to remind your family it has been and can be done. 

6. Don’t Abuse Base Privileges

Be careful about mingling base privileges with growing your new business. For example, don’t use a military vehicle to run company errands. Instead, you’ll need to secure a personal car and keep careful account of how you use it. 

It’s easy to cross over into gray areas, so make a list of potential conflicts and read it over frequently to avoid slipping into bad habits that could get you or your spouse into trouble. In a nutshell, if the military pays for it, it shouldn’t be used to start, run or promote your company. Completely separate military and business life. 

7. Watch Overseas Sales

Thinking about going global is natural if you sell online. However, you have to be extremely careful not to violate SOFA privileges. You don’t want to stay behind or your spouse to be discharged due to a conflict if they are deployed to the host country. 

All taxes owed to foreign entities must be paid appropriately and all paperwork in order. Seek the advice of a foreign business attorney if you’re unsure of anything. 

You also must be cautious about anything that could be perceived as a conflict of interest. Ask those around you for advice. If something doesn’t sit right, senior officers or fellow military personnel can help you see the issues and avoid them before they become problems. 

8. Seek Federal Grants

You may be eligible for various grants. They are typically given as a gift. You won’t have to pay it back, although you may have to pay taxes on any money as income in the year you receive it. 

Read through the thousands of grants the United States government offers to see if any apply to your situation. You should also contact your local SBA office to see if they have anything available for military families. 

You’ll find specific grants for the military, but don’t rule out other types, such as those for minority or women-owned businesses. 

9. Make a Plan

Most military families are used to the structure of life on base. You’ll probably thrive if you write out a business plan and know your next steps. Take time to research the market you want to enter. Find out who your competitors are and how you can fit into the local economy.

Make a plan for if you get transferred to another area if your spouse is active. You may have difficulty setting up shop in a new location if your business is based on a local need. 

It’s probably best to focus on businesses that thrive in an online environment. You’ll only have to make plans to send your inventory to a new building and set up shop there, rather than having to seek new customers and get permission again to run your company via military housing. 

10. Tap Into Family and Friends

Asking other military families to support your new business isn’t always viable. Some may run similar companies, and a handful might even take your idea and run with it. You’re much better off enlisting the help of family and friends to promote your new venture.

In the beginning, word-of-mouth marketing will be your biggest path to growth. Ask your closest allies to spread the word for you. Post on social media and ask them to share and comment on your content. 

11. Learn Bookkeeping

One of the biggest challenges small businesses face is cash flow. Staying on top of your finances and figuring out how to keep money flowing will often determine whether you grow and how fast.

Learn some basic bookkeeping skills and track your expenses carefully. You’ll be thankful you kept careful records when tax season arrives. If you have employees, you may have to withhold and pay taxes quarterly, as well. 

Applying What You Know

Military training is an excellent start to running a business. You’ll need the discipline and organization that comes from years of high-intensity training. Owning your own company also helps with finances and gives you a career to move into when you leave the service. Seek the financial help, educational grants and mentors to help you on your way, and your new venture is certain to be a success.