Lamine Zarrad is CEO and founder of StellarFi, a credit-building tool helping Americans boost their credit scores and overall financial health.
My journey from being a humble immigrant to becoming a marine and, subsequently, a successful entrepreneur is a testament to the American Dream in action.
According to the SBA, veterans are roughly 45% more likely to form their own business compared to people who haven’t served in the military. Veterans own almost 2 million businesses and employ over 5 million Americans.
These statistics beg these questions: Are veterans naturally bred for entrepreneurship, or is there a profound connection between their military service and entrepreneurial success? Is there a unique synergy between the discipline, adaptability, resourcefulness and leadership skills instilled in service members and the qualities required to be a successful startup founder?
The short answer: Yes. But fair warning for the veteran readers — don’t let that inflate your ego and convince yourself you’re a shoo-in. My advice for aspiring veteran founders goes beyond echoing the well-documented parallels between military service and entrepreneurship.
As a fintech founder, I leverage technology to help others find economic stability, something my family lacked for many years. I was born in Baku, the capital of Azerbaijan SSR, a former republic of the USSR. When the Soviet Union fell, my family was forced to flee to Moscow, narrowly escaping the ongoing ethnic war on Armenians. After spending six years in Moscow as refugees, my family immigrated to the United States where I finished high school and then joined the marines.
The marines provided a jump-start to my trajectory of creating solutions for much larger problems like access to banking in the cannabis and freelancing industries to now building StellarFi, the third fintech I’ve founded, designed to address a problem that plagues half of the American population: poor credit.
Like many veterans, my enlistment was equally inspired by the desire to gain access and opportunities to achieve that American Dream and a deep sense of gratitude to the country. But my experience as a marine helped me understand that, much like the most crucial missions, the path to entrepreneurial success hinges on a combination of four vital elements: learning to disrupt the norm; maintaining an unwavering, resilient mindset; seeking partners who are akin to wartime allies; and tapping into the rich tapestry of veteran resources and networks.
Always have the audacity to challenge the status quo and create solutions to combat it
George S. Patton once said, “Take calculated risks. That is quite different from being rash.”
During my deployment in Iraq, I encountered an inefficient supply chain at our base. We had waterlines that were constantly compromised, so we flew in water from somewhere else, then managed that infrastructure in a very inefficient way. We hired U.S. contractors who had no idea what they were doing rather than the locals who had worked on this base for years.
According to the SBA, veterans are roughly 45% more likely to form their own business compared to people who haven’t served in the military.
Running the risk of cleaning latrines for the rest of the deployment, I pitched the colonel who ran the base on a way to fix it. He pulled me from my unit to implement my ideas and run infrastructure for the 20,000-personnel installation. Finding deficiencies and optimizing processes became a part of my daily thoughts and motivations.
Years later, as a federal bank regulator for the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency, I found myself challenging the status quo again in the way we supported and advised banks in optimizing their operations.
In that setting, the status quo prevailed and I found myself frustrated. From this need to create solutions, my first startup, Tokken, was born.
Forget the no-fail mission. You will fail. Get back up.
Before you become an entrepreneur, ask yourself if there’s something else that you could do for a living. If the answer is yes, then do yourself a huge favor and pursue that other thing. If the answer is I absolutely can not do anything else but be an entrepreneur, then go for it.
Tokken was profiled on the front page of the New York Times DealBook while still in beta mode. The problem we solved was payments and banking for cannabis dispensaries. The solution we created was to build our own rails using cryptocurrencies that would completely circumvent traditional financial rails.
We had a meteoric rise in terms of traction and growth. Then the political climate around the industry became unstable and we lost many partners on the banking side. Tokken was dead in the water.
In the spirit of the Marine Corps’ unofficial slogan, I had to improvise, adapt, and overcome after Tokken. Instead of ending my entrepreneurial journey and going back to the Treasury or some other financial services job, I decided to take the learnings from Tokken and start my second company, Joust, a neobank for freelancers.
Find the investors you would go to war with
After leaving the marines, I served as a contractor for the Corps’ special-operations command. My job was to facilitate unconventional-warfare simulations.
During these role-play exercises, I would lead small teams of “local rebels” composed of volunteer marines. The special-ops teams would then attempt to befriend us, train us, and develop a coalition of rebels that would engage in combat with our common enemy. This strategy, otherwise known as asymmetric warfare, allowed us to reduce the number of actual marines who would go into battle, optimizing U.S. resources.
Through my experience building three companies, I’ve learned that being a founder and building disruptive solutions means being a rebel. And rebels need wartime-ally investors who support their mission with guidance and resources while respecting their autonomy.
They demonstrate loyalty and risk tolerance, particularly in dire circumstances. They possess an identical mindset to those special-op marines. They are willing and eager to “embed” with the founder and the startup team, and understand how the business is run and why it thrives.
When looking for investors, find the ones who value an authentic, collaborative arrangement grounded in mutual respect and tolerance.
The veterans before you have built a network to help you succeed. Use it.
My last piece of advice is pragmatic. Find programs and people that will help you start and scale your business.
There are countless programs for veteran entrepreneurs that can connect you to information, resources, and large networks of investors and fellow founders. Here are a few notable ones:
While statistics affirm the connection between military service and entrepreneurial success, it’s imperative for aspiring veteran founders not to let this statistic inflate their egos, but rather to recognize that the entrepreneurial path, like military service, is fraught with formidable challenges.
These pillars not only support your journey as a founder but also empower you to overcome obstacles, adapt to change, and achieve remarkable outcomes in the realm of entrepreneurship, potentially impacting thousands of lives in the process.