Bunker Labs helps veterans become entrepreneurs
By MEG JONES | Milwaukee Journal Sentinel | Published: May 16, 2017
MADISON, Wis. (Tribune News Service) — Billy Kesselring had an idea for a product he would buy if someone else had thought of it.
A hiker and a major in the Wisconsin National Guard, Kesselring wanted a walking stick that doubled as a survival tool, complete with fishing line, water filter, fire starter and snare wire hidden inside, along with a knife and 25 feet of parachute cord. So he built one and called it the Guardian Survival Staff.
His invention might have ended there, along with his designs for an inflatable pillow to ease the neck pain he suffers stemming from jumping out of a plane in the 82nd Airborne and a handheld rechargeable gizmo to test lights on trailers.
But some day soon he'd like to patent some of his designs, manufacture and sell them.
So, the veteran of multiple tours of Iraq and Afghanistan turned to Bunker Labs, a nonprofit that helps military veterans become entrepreneurs. Bunker Labs has offices in 15 cities, including Madison.
"We help military veterans start and grow businesses. We're like venture capitalists without the money," said Michael Ertmer, executive director of Bunker Labs in Madison, which opened in 2015. "We want to be the one source for veterans to help them get their first paying customer. Until you get a paying customer, you're a hobby, not a business."
Bunker Labs helps veterans vet their ideas, letting them know if their brainstorm is viable or likely destined for failure, and connects them with venture capital firms, corporate lawyers who specialize in startups, specialists in patents and others who can help start and build a business.
The nonprofit organizes events throughout the state to connect budding entrepreneurs who served in uniform with companies and business leaders who want to help them realize their dream. The next "Muster Across Wisconsin" event will be held May 24 at Lambeau Field in Green Bay.
Kesselring's ideas to create an adjustable foam pillow, which he calls the TekNeck, the Guardian Survival Staff and Lights On, a handheld device to quickly test lights on trailers for military fleets, semitrailer trucks and RVs, might have remained in his head had he not learned of Bunker Labs. The nonprofit is helping him file patents for the pillow and light tester.
"With all these inventions, I had a ceiling I couldn't crush through to bring them to market," said Kesselring, a 2000 West Point graduate who served two tours in Iraq and a tour in Afghanistan. "How do I raise capital? Would people buy this? Now, through Bunker Labs, I'm learning how business works, and I'm getting the connections."
World War II veterans returned home from Europe and the Pacific to open businesses that helped fuel the post-war economic boom. An estimated 49% of World War II veterans and 40% of Korean War veterans became entrepreneurs, according to the Institute for Veterans and Military Families at Syracuse University. The Department of Defense estimates roughly 200,000 service members each year are transitioning back to the civilian workforce, and although 20% say they want to start their own business, only 6% will become entrepreneurs.
Ertmer, an Army officer who served during the 1990s before spending a decade in Silicon Valley, pointed out that many, including quite a few post-9/11 service members, don't identify themselves as veterans on their resumes or LinkedIn profiles because they don't want to answer questions about their combat experience or they worry their service might be viewed negatively by prospective employers.
However, veterans and entrepreneurs share many traits — grit and perseverance, hard work and leadership skills to guide teams through adversity. They're not clock watchers. They work until the job is done. They're adventurers, in a way, willing to take risks, whether it's the dangers of war or the world of startup businesses.
Bunker Labs aims to bridge the gap for veterans who want to become employers rather than employees by educating them about starting their own companies and helping them make connections, something that has been relatively easy, Ertmer said, because many businesses and executives want to help and hire veterans. The nonprofit also created an online program called Bunker in a Box for service members deployed around the globe but thinking about their lives after the military or for veterans who live far from a Bunker Labs location and can't come to an event.
"Maybe in a lot of ways we're what the VFW or the American Legion was years ago, though probably more aspirational," said Ertmer. "Veterans these days are more interested in LinkedIn than a VFW fish fry."
Brandon Shields, a former Marine officer in his second year in the University of Wisconsin-Madison MBA program, came up with an idea he thought was marketable, and Bunker Labs helped him bring it to fruition. A single father with a 3-year-old son nicknamed Bam, Shields' busy schedule makes child care problematic. He wanted to make sure Bam's baby sitters were trustworthy and could be called upon sometimes with only a few hours notice.
So, he began talking to fellow UW students and assembled a pool of trusted baby sitters. Soon Shields thought, what if he could do this for other UW students, faculty and staff — connecting those who want to earn extra money baby-sitting and those who want to hire baby sitters?
Shields and a business partner fleshed out the idea and are now seeking funding to get an app developed for U-Sit, which would in essence be Uber for baby-sitting. He hopes to get the universitysitting.com app running by the fall 2017 semester for people with a UW email address. The difference between his idea and other baby-sitting apps is connecting a specific community and trust network, in this case UW students, staff and faculty, without charging a subscription fee. Eventually he'd like to expand to other Big 10 universities and then more large colleges.
"Child care is one of the biggest burdens for working parents. There aren't many people trying to bring the cost down and still provide sitters with meaningful wages," said Shields, who served in the Marines for 6 1/2 years, including a deployment to Afghanistan. "Bunker Labs has gotten us meetings with a top corporate lawyer we wouldn't have been able to do on our own or afford. When you say you're with Bunker Labs, there's an instant credibility."
Another Bunker Labs client, Carla Stephany, an Air Force veteran living in Fond du Lac, started Riveter Enterprises to handle engineering for commercial and private design and renovations. With an architect, project managers, and mechanical and structural engineers on staff, Riveter Enterprises has landed a few small private projects and recently bid on a small renovation project at a VA building in Colorado.
Stephany named her business after Rosie the Riveter, and her company's Facebook page features a photo of Stephany dressed like the famous "We Can Do It!" poster from World War II. She is developing a concept to help military spouses, particularly women, get trained in the trades so they can more easily get jobs as they frequently move between military bases.
Bunker Labs has helped her meet business leaders and make connections.
"We had someone from a venture capital background who talked us through the spread sheet of how you determined what's a good candidate for business or not. We had an extremely seasoned lawyer who talked to us about small business law. I'm looking into how can I expand my business in Wisconsin, and when that time comes, they're like, 'Carla, give us a call,'" said Stephany.
For more information: www.bunkerlabs.org.