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Veterans Have Entrepreneurial Ambitions

Alisha Whiteway, left, goes over key talking points for a three-minute interview with Mary Michele Nidiffer, of OneChicMama, at her office, June 25 in Raleigh. (Al Drago/Raleigh News & Observer/MCT)

Alisha Whiteway, left, goes over key talking points for a three-minute interview with Mary Michele Nidiffer, of OneChicMama, at her office, June 25 in Raleigh. (Al Drago/Raleigh News & Observer/MCT)

New Bern, N.C. — Dan Spangler’s business started to take shape after the injured Marine started hanging around a mutt named Spanky and learned he had a soft spot for dogs.

But as you might expect from a veteran, Spangler took a disciplined but steadfast approach to building his business.

The nearly seven-year journey to opening A Dog’s Dream in New Bern in 2010 included utilizing local small-business resources, going back to school and saving money by working unrelated jobs.

“We are growing by leaps and bounds,” said Spangler, 34. The transition from Marine to employee can be a difficult one, Spangler said, because some private sector opportunities limit veterans with unbending job descriptions and micro-management. That is one of the reasons self-employment is often a better — but not necessarily easier — option for many veterans. Veterans are 45 percent more likely than their civilian counterparts to be small-business owners or entrepreneurs, said Rhett Jeppson, associate administrator for the U.S. Small Business Administration Office of Veterans Business Development.

Nearly 1 in 10 small businesses nationwide are veteran-owned, he said.

Collectively, those 2.4 million veteran-owned businesses employ almost 6 million Americans and generate more than $1 trillion in receipts.

“We think supporting that small-business veteran owner is huge,” Jeppson said. “It’s not only that we have a moral obligation to support our veterans, but also it makes a lot of economic sense to provide and foster opportunities to our veterans.”

Military members transitioning from active service participate in mandated transition assistance programs that introduce them to different career tracks, including entrepreneurship.

Scott Dorney, the North Carolina Military Business Center’s executive director, said while there are a plethora of services available to those veterans who become entrepreneurs, navigating through all those resources can be a real challenge.

Jeppson found aid through the SBA’s Veteran Business Outreach Center at Fayetteville (N.C.) State University.

The SBA and its resource partners, Jeppson said, can help veterans with everything from building a business plan to connecting them to financing opportunities.

Mark Haupt, president of the N.C. Veteran’s Business Association, recommends that veterans sorting through resources talk to other business owners who have used the services.

He said they should never pay for information that organizations such as the SBA provide for free.

“When you are a veteran, one of the things you have is will, and you are persistent, and even with no resources or very limited resources, you are going to figure things out,” said U.S. Army veteran Alisha Whiteway, who in 2008 opened Tellurvision, a video production firm for small businesses in Raleigh, N.C.

Whiteway said her military service gave her credibility, but she learned how to identify a target market from other business owners.

Whiteway sought help from the Women’s Business Center of North Carolina, along with successful women business owners, to help her move her business forward.

When Spangler returned to Jacksonville, N.C., from Iraq in 2003, he adopted Spanky, a tan and white mutt, from a local shelter.

“We ended up spending a lot of time together,” Spangler said. “He went everywhere with me.”

Spangler enrolled Spanky in classes at PetSmart and became infatuated with the process. He started teaching classes himself when he was given a medical discharge from the Marines in 2004.

He hurt his hip diving for cover when his unit came under fire.

The former microwave and multi-channel radio technician used his GI Bill benefits to get an associate degree at Coastal Carolina Community College.

Spangler visited Anne Shaw, director of the Small Business Center there, to discuss his idea to open a dog-related business. Shaw and others encouraged him to build a plan and save money.

“I learned there were more things I needed to learn,” he said.

Spangler left PetSmart after three years to work for the government and later for government contractors. He continued to work on his business plan as he sought a master’s degree in organizational leadership from an online program.

In June 2010, Spangler was spending 90 days in Iraq and 30 days at home doing surveillance electronic work on aircraft for a government contractor.

He had saved about $80,000, and the routine was wearing on him.

“So, I turned around and made a decision,” he said. “I was going to quit my job, come back to the States and start a company.”

Spangler found a building in New Bern and executed a marketing plan, which included standing outside on the road in an orange dog suit and turning his Ford Transit Connect into a Doggy Mobile.

Since then, the boarding and day care facility has added grooming, a retail area and a training center. The business serves up to 200 dogs - and their owners - a week, Spangler said.

In late 2011, he founded Dreamer’s Foundation, a nonprofit agency that raises awareness and money for local animal organizations and efforts.

Spangler stays in close touch with the Small Business Center and attends almost “every small business thing there is.”

“It is for the interaction with other business owners, new people that are looking to start a business,” Spangler said. “Because ideas come from anywhere, and growing and never stop learning is the most important part of being an entrepreneur.”