Veteran to visionary: What I learned in the marines about being a fintech founder

My journey from humble immigrant to sailor and, eventually, successful entrepreneur is a testament to the American dream in action.

According to the SBA, veterans are about 45% more likely to start their own businesses than people who did not serve in the military. Veterans own nearly 2 million businesses and employ more than 5 million Americans.

These statistics raise the questions: Are veterans naturally trained for entrepreneurship, or is there a deep connection between their military service and entrepreneurial success? Is there a unique synergy between the discipline, adaptability, ingenuity and leadership skills instilled in the military and the qualities required to become a successful startup founder?

The short answer: Yes. But a word of warning to seasoned readers: don’t let this inflate your ego and convince yourself that you’re a must-read. My advice to 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 the 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 against the Armenians. After spending six years in Moscow as a refugee, my family immigrated to the United States where I completed high school and then joined the Marines.

The Marines jump-started my trajectory from creating solutions to much larger problems, such as access to banking in the cannabis and self-employment sectors, to now building StellarFithe third fintech I founded, designed to solve a problem that affects half of the American population: bad credit.

Like many veterans, my commitment was also inspired by a desire for access and opportunity to achieve this American dream and a deep sense of gratitude to the country. But my experience as a sailor helped me understand that, just like the most crucial missions, the path to entrepreneurial success lies in a combination of four essential elements: learning to disrupt the norm; maintain an unwavering and resilient mindset; seek partners who are akin to war allies; and tap into the rich tapestry of veteran resources and networks.

Always have the audacity to question the status quo and create solutions to combat it

George S. Patton once said, “Take calculated risks. It’s very different from being reckless.

While deployed to Iraq, I encountered an inefficient supply chain at our base. Our waterlines were constantly compromised, so we would fly into the water from somewhere else and then manage that infrastructure very inefficiently. We hired American contractors who had no idea what they were doing, rather than locals who had been working on this basis for years.

According to the SBA, veterans are about 45% more likely to start their own businesses than people who have not served in the military.

Running the risk of having to clean the latrines for the remainder of the deployment, I suggested to the colonel who ran the base a way to repair them. He pulled me out of my unit to implement my ideas and manage the infrastructure of the 20,000 person installation. Finding gaps and optimizing processes has become part of my daily thoughts and motivations.

Years later, as a federal banking regulator for the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency, I found myself questioning the status quo in how we supported and advised banks in optimizing their operations.

In this context, 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. Stand up.

Before becoming an entrepreneur, ask yourself if you could do anything else in life. If the answer is yes, then do yourself a huge favor and pursue that other thing. If the answer is that there is absolutely nothing I can do other than be an entrepreneur, then go for it.

Tokken was featured on the front page of the New York Times DealBook while it was 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 bypass traditional financial rails.

We’ve had a meteoric rise in terms of traction and growth. Then the political climate around the sector became unstable and we lost many partners on the banking side. Tokken was dead in the water.

In the spirit of the unofficial Marine Corps slogan, I had to improvise, adapt, and overcome after Tokken. Instead of ending my entrepreneurial journey and returning to Treasury or another job in financial services, I decided to learn 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-playing exercises, I led small teams of “local rebels” made up of volunteer marines. Special operations teams would then attempt to befriend us, train us, and develop a coalition of rebels who would engage in combat with our common enemy. This strategy, also known as asymmetric warfare, allowed us to reduce the number of Marines going into combat, thereby maximizing American resources.

Through my experience building three companies, I learned that being a founder and creating disruptive solutions means being a rebel. And the rebels need allied wartime investors who support their mission by providing advice and resources while respecting their autonomy.

They demonstrate loyalty and risk tolerance, especially in difficult circumstances. They possess a mindset identical to that of special operations marines. They are willing and eager to “fit in” alongside the startup founder and team, and understand how the business is run and why it thrives.

When looking for investors, find those who value a genuine collaborative agreement based on mutual respect and tolerance.

Veterans before you have built a network to help you succeed. Use it.

My final advice is pragmatic. Find programs and people to help you start and grow your business.

There are countless programs aimed at seasoned entrepreneurs that can connect you to information, resources, and vast networks of investors and fellow founders. Here are a few notable ones:

Even though statistics support the connection between military service and entrepreneurial success, it is imperative for aspiring veteran founders not to let these statistics inflate their egos, but rather to recognize that the entrepreneurial journey, like military service, is fraught with pitfalls.

These pillars not only support your journey as a founder, but also enable you to overcome obstacles, adapt to change, and achieve remarkable results in entrepreneurship, which could impact thousands of lives.

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