When military veterans return from service, they face the daunting task of re-assimilating back into civilian life. In the case of the veterans attending the second Techstars Patriot Bootcamp, under the RisingStars umbrella, they are going for the gold … entrepreneurship. Starting a business is an extreme challenge, even for the experienced, so SendGrid teamed up with Techstars to help these amazing people accelerate their journey, converting their passion to strategic action.

In addition to spending time in a mentor role (BIG thanks to SendGrid and Techstars for allowing me to do so) I had the great fortune to attend many of the sessions. In this post I will summarize what I learned in the hope that this information will prove helpful to both those that attended and other veterans who have aspirations to start a business. Much of this information is also helpful to entrepreneurs in general.

General George Casey

General George Casey reminded us that we are never alone in our endeavors and to never sell ourselves short. Military veterans are able to plan, organize, build a team and get things done in complex environments. These are all skills valuable to entrepreneurship. He also noted that vision without focused action is failure.

US CTO Todd Park

Todd Park, CTO of the US, introduced us to the amazing amount of free data provided by the US government followed by a sneak peek at the next version of the Data.gov website.

He encouraged us to find co-founders because you = awesome, but you + someone else = more awesome. Sorta like Voltron. He also advised that we must fall in love with our idea, so much so that we develop a passion for making sure the world has access to our idea.

We also learned of the Blue Button program, which gives patients access to their own data. By 2014 the government will give bonuses to doctors & hospitals that provide data to their patients in a consolidated CTA format (Blue Button Protocol), and use that data to provide meaningful guidance.

In addition, the RFPEZ program was introduced, allowing small businesses to easily bid on government contracts.

Finally, Mr. Park left us with these three keys to business:

  1. Are you solving an important/meaningful problem for a well defined customer?
  2. Does your customer have more money with you than without you?
  3. Does your company have a network effect. As you add customers, does it help the existing user base?

Former US CTO Aneesh Chopra

We were also treated to a talk by the former US CTO, Aneesh Chopra who told us about the best market opportunities today: government, healthcare (data driven prevention) and education (competency-based learning models).

Steve Blank

Steve Blank told us that “You are not smarter than the collective intelligence of your customers.” Thus, the “get out of the building and talk to your customers” mantra. Check out his Business Model Generation tool and his free startup course on Udacity.

Uvize Founder David Cass

The Co-Founder and CEO of Uvize, David Cass recommended that we read Fred Wilson and Brad Feld’s blogs as well as The Lean Startup, Do More Faster and Founders Dilemmas.

PivotDesk Founder David Mandell

David Mandell, Founder and CEO of PivotDesk taught us about rockin’ the pitch. The number one thing to remember about pitching your business is that nobody cares! With that in mind, believe in what you do and tell the story.

Make sure you answer these questions when telling your story: Who is your target market, what is their pain, who are the competitors and what is your differentiation? If you are an iPad user, he recommends that you check out HaikuDeck.

AddThis CEO Ramsey McGrory

AddThis CEO, Ramsey McGrory suggested that we take the following three points to heart:

  1. Know yourself, find your story and inspire.
  2. Always be learning before always be closing. Knowledge compounds.
  3. Treat failure as a fork. Make a decision from this point about what to do.

Mr. McGrory also recommended we read The Startup Playbook, by David Kidder and watch Jiro Dreams of Sushi.

Global Accelerator Network’s Patrick Riley

Patrick Riley, Director of GAN, told us that the two biggest problems for startups was 1) a focus on money and 2) not knowing what you need. He advised the creation of a type of business plan that consists of 12 slides that answer questions about market, product, revenue and team with an emphasis on keeping that plan lightweight. For help with the business plan, he suggested the Lean Startup Machine and Startup Weekend.

When emailing mentores, he advised to keep it down to three sentences that explain, who you are, what you are doing and what you need help with and why you are asking this particular question.

Mr. Riley suggested that we read Venture Deals and The Startup Owners Manual.

Fasttrac’s Michele Markey

Michele Markey, Vice President of Fasttrac, told us about the Kauffman foundation’s program for startups. There are options for every entrepreneur, with focuses on some under-represented groups like boomers, women and–of course–veterans.

Connections Through Mentorship

First of all, a big Thank You goes to the all the veterans that attended for their service both abroad and now here at home. The Techstars team deserves high fives, fist bumps and hugs for putting on a successful event, complete with amazing speakers, coaches, venues (yes, multiple venues) and logistics.

During the mentor sessions, I had the great opportunity to interact with 11 veteran entrepreneurs, I encourage you to check out their work:

Whatever your current experience is, you can be a mentor to someone. Make a real effort to do so. In many cases, you will learn more than you teach. Pay it forward in your own life and to those whom you have influence over.

Elmer Thomas is SendGrid's Developer Experience Engineer. His mission is to help SendGrid live up to its slogan: "Email Delivery. Simplified" by improving the lives of developers, both internally and externally. Via all sorts of hackery, of course. Follow his exploits on Twitter and GitHub.