In Part 1 of our blog series on veterans, entrepreneurship, and TigerSwan, we examined part of the history of veteran-owned small businesses in America and how the United States government supports Service-Disabled Veteran-Owned Small Businesses (SDVOSB). In this blog, we hear directly from TigerSwan’s founder and CEO, Jim Reese, on what it means to be a Special Operations Commander turned Small Business Owner.
In 2007, after 25 years of service, as both a Non-Commissioned and Commissioned Officer, Reese retired as a Lt. Colonel from the U.S. Army, 1st Special Forces Operational Detachment-Delta — the heralded “Delta Force.” During his time as a commander, Reese became a decorated combat leader and was called “one of the finest special operators in the modern military!” by the Commander of Coalition Forces of Iraq and Afghanistan, General David McKiernan. When asked what leadership lessons Reese took away from his career in the military, the former Lt. Colonel demonstrated his characteristic maturity and proactive mindset, responding: “Number 1: Strive to be a good listener. You have to be a good listener and an active listener. Number 2: If in charge, take charge. When a follower, be a loyal follower.”
Now as the CEO of a small business with 300+ employees and operations spanning more than 50 countries across the globe, Reese’s knack for leadership and go-getter mentality has taken an admittedly new form.
“Running a Service-Disabled, Veteran-Owned Small Business is like being a baby: I wake up every two hours crying! When you’re responsible for people’s lives–not just from the military leadership perspective but from a business leadership position–you’re responsible for people who have kids in college and they have to pay mortgages and all these type of things…that’s a big burden to carry. So with a small business, you bet a lot of your own assets; there’s a lot of risk and liability that goes into it. But it’s also one of the greatest feelings in the world to have that type of freedom, to have the ability to build something that grows and grows. To watch people who stay with you for years and who understand the vision of the company and continue to grow it – that’s just a great opportunity. It’s much harder and more stressful than Delta Selection!”
Running a Service-Disabled Veteran-Owned Small Business
Many veterans re-entering civilian life struggle to adapt their skill set to new economic opportunities. For a highly motivated, entrepreneurial person like Reese, the existence of set-aside contracts from the federal government for small businesses was a perk but not the driving factor to starting his own business. “I came up with the concept of TigerSwan on my last rotation in Iraq. Upon return from my last combat rotation, a colleague and I took my concept and devised the idea of starting a company in his kitchen over coffee one morning. With no outside capital, our big break was thanks to our disabled status, we were selected to be the SDVOSB set aside company for a major defense contractor.”
“A SDVOSB is a company that has a majority ownership by a disabled veteran. A disabled veteran is any veteran who is approved by the Veterans Administration to have incurred a 10% or more of a disability upon their retirement or separation from Military service. I am an 80% disabled veteran; however, this was not my motivation to start TigerSwan. My motivation was to start a company of my own, put other veterans and like-minded people to work, do something better for the world and grow it to the company it is today.”
“At the time, a joint venture between two large companies had a major contract to support the Department of Defense with translators. Part of that contract was set aside for different types of small businesses, like a SDVOSBs. We were awarded that contract, which gave us the working capital to begin growing TigerSwan. I took the profit we were earning on that first contract and reinvested it back into the company to acquire new business systems and hire more sharp and motivated minds in order to help us grow as a business.”
From Commander to CEO
As a commander of a Delta Force unit, Reese was given some of the military’s best soldiers to lead into the most harrowing of circumstances. Running a small business with global operations means that Reese must select his own team.
“It’s more difficult on the business side. Because now you have to take into account the financial apparatus. Being a Delta commander, I was given the best of the best, I didn’t have to worry about how much they get paid that’s all taken care of by the government. Nor did I have to worry about their capacity to perform, because I knew if they made it through selection that they were ready to go. All I had to do was lead. The military is probably one of the easiest places to lead.”
“Now over in the private sector, you want the best, but the best come with a price tag. So you have to balance the economic aspects with the human capital. You can’t hire every rock star right out of the gates, someone with an advanced degree and 20+ years of experience that you want but you can’t afford it. Navigating the balance between a budget and good people becomes a very strategic part of the business. You have to prioritize and say if ‘I could find one person, one rock star to bring in to help me, where do I need it the most?”
“And in other areas, you have to always be looking out for talent, to try to find people early in their careers…to use a Delta example, the ones most likely to make it through Selection, and invest in them early with coaching and mentorship, and help them develop into leaders. Developing, recruiting and retaining human capital is the absolute best return on investment. It’s perhaps the hardest aspect, but definitely the most enjoyable part of my job. One example is a finance intern we hired from NC State in his junior year. After his internship, we kept him on part time to help in the finance section. We saw his ability to learn and be trained, so we committed to developing him. Today, he is a Vice President at the company and handles multi-million-dollar deals – and he’s not turned 30 yet! Rock Star!”
Creating an effective, cohesive workforce
“I consider myself a Servant Leader, I lead to serve! It is my honor to reach out to veterans and give them an opportunity to expand their reach and use their skills sets and leadership they learned in the military and help develop that in the private sector. I also believe that TigerSwan is a unique organization. We are an ‘intent-based organization’ and military members understand and are used to working in an intent based organization.”
“We provide guidance and the end state we want for our employees and we let them run. ‘Big boy/girl rules!’ We don’t micromanage, but we demand 100% effort. We enable people to make decision and mistakes, just to make sure they learn from those mistakes. Working in that type of environment challenges people, ignites a fire in them, so that they may self-actualize and succeed. Don’t get me wrong, it’s not an environment for everybody and we have had some folks self-select out…not their cup of tea.”
“One factor I am proud about is our hybrid work force at TigerSwan. We have former military, law enforcement personnel that work with us, but we also have a great group of civilians on our team who have worked within different industries to bring a robust and diverse vision to the work environment. What former military employees bring is that sense of “Mission First!” When they are given a task or mission, they take ownership of the task, understand the intent and parameters and set off to accomplish that task or “Mission” until it is complete. They don’t look for constant pat on the backs throughout the process, because they realize the “Unit” or the Company and that Mission is bigger than the individual.”
“Civilians bring an entirely different approach, and where we do some of our best work is when we develop solutions to client problems using a mix of skill sets and experiences to solve a problem.”
“It takes a network to develop a solution to uncertainty to support our clients’ network.”
This is Part 2 of a four-part blog series on veterans, entrepreneurship, and TigerSwan.