Last Friday I launched a Reality Check Video Series, a video a day, giving advice to Veterans about making the transition from the military to the corporate world. Today, I am asking for everyone to give me a reality check.
I left a very lucrative career a little over a year and a half ago, specifically to build a company to help Veterans. I have been an engineer and businessman for many years and didn’t enter this as a rookie. The market seemed ripe for change. The need was high. The only thing missing was someone stepping up to take it on. So, I did.
Over 250,000 Veterans enter the civilian workforce each year. These heroes, for the most part, are hard-working and dedicated people that deserve a chance at a successful career. They have a high acumen for technology and the IT market is growing. They are the last known ‘old-school’ talent pool. They are an incredible contrast to the entitled millennial generation that is afraid of working hard.
The traditional Veteran education market is tired and outdated. It’s also prone to corruption. Schools are focused on profits and the GI Bill is a huge target. They prey on the Veterans and sell them the lowest credentials at the highest prices. The result is our heroes work hard, spend their benefit, earn these credentials and then try to enter the job market. This is where they realize the skills they received are not the right ones. The ‘good’ training is out there but its priced for corporations and thereby not available to the Veteran. They cannot afford the $3,000-$5,000 price for 5 days of training.
I saw the potential and the need.
I worked hard with the government, the Department of Labor and the Department of Veterans Affairs to create a unique apprenticeship/on-the-job-training program. I fought hard at this for over a year. I called Congressmen, Senators, the White House and I submitted testimony to the House Committee of Veterans Affairs. This resulted in an official program that is now approved in all 50 states. Veterans anywhere can use this as a much-needed alternative to the corrupt traditional schools. It’s the only nationally approved IT program of its kind.
I partnered and made relationships to bring the highest level of training and instructors to the Veteran… so they could learn from the best. We did this while constantly adjusting everything to keep our overhead to as close to zero as we could. We operate virtually, no wasted money on buildings. We work on the equipment and laptops we have, no new stuff. I have personally coded and created the website and continue to create most of our marketing. The result is we have classes as low as $50. We help them with everything from interviewing, resumes and technical training. They can purchase each piece for $50-65 keeping their monthly costs to something they can afford.
It seemed to me that I had accomplished my goal of creating a purpose-built solution to solve the problem and address the market.
I put my own investment and retirement money in, our savings. I even downsized my house and cars and sold my favorite motorcycle. All to reduce my expenses. My family has done less so I could help more. I have spent the past 18 months working between 12-18 hours a day, 7 days a week. I run the company, I mentor, I teach, I market and anything else I can do to try to make this successful. I started with the goal of helping people and if I ended up helping enough to become financially successful it would be a bonus. Today, I just try to survive and keep it going.
WHAT AM I MISSING?
Over the past 7 days I have put out a video a day on LinkedIn, Facebook, Rally Point and email. I have monitored the analytics hourly. We have achieved over 100,000 impressions and views and several hundred likes and comments. We launched a $20 raffle to win $300 prizes. I have 8500 direct connections on LinkedIn and pay for marketing to reach more. I have used places like Recruit Military that advertise 300,000 registered Veterans on their newsletter. All of this effort and, over the past week, we didn’t even sell a single raffle ticket and not one $50 course was purchased. How is that possible?
I am constantly approached by lead generation and marketing companies all wanting $3,000-$10,000 a month to market for us. I try not to lose focus on the fact that the right price must be one the Veteran can afford. Besides, at this point I don’t have $10,000 a month I could spend on marketing anyway. But am I really doing this so wrong that out of 100,000 people seeing our message in one form or another no one sees it as something they need? I target the advertisements towards HR, Veterans, etc. so its not a blind campaign. This drives the engineer in me nuts, there is no logic to this voodoo black magic marketing.
We are helping, it hasn’t been a total failure
Over the past 18 months we have had roughly 400 Veterans enter our program. Some come to the table ready to leverage what we have, and they see the success, it works. Some come in and do nothing. Many we have tried to help by raising money and letting them in for free. For these people it was a mixed result; some did great, but some took advantage of us. I have pushed the Veterans to help me help them by posting on social media and by sharing the message out. This is more difficult to get them to do than I had imagined. Something so easy, with the potential impact so direct to them, and yet I have only about 20-30 that regularly participate. I even offer them money off their own courses if they do this, but few will put out the effort. This leads me to believe I am finding the wrong type of Veterans. I just can’t believe this describes all Veterans today. So, how do I find more of the ones that are willing to see the huge opportunity I have created for them?
How is a small business, with a focus on helping, supposed to reach enough of the market to survive? I can’t believe that who we are or what we are doing is that far off the mark. I can’t believe that Veterans don’t see the value. I can’t believe that companies can’t see the benefit of using our services to help hire people, especially when others are charging $20,000 to $40,000 to place them. Am I just fishing in the wrong pond? Or am I blind to the fact that the need and the market was an illusion? Is the only way to help Veterans in IT… working the VA system and overcharging them? Am I naïve to think doing it the right way, treating them fairly and trying to ‘have their back’ by charging them less will ever work? Is it true that nice guys finish last? Or am I missing some obvious thing? I need help. I am going crazy working so hard, giving so much of myself and seeing so little movement. The engineer in me says, “Idiot, you’re missing something obvious”. So, as I have always done in major engineering design, I am reaching out. I am asking a simple question… is it broken or am I a dumbass that can’t see the problem?
Why not be a Non-Profit – is this a problem for people?
I chose not to form as a non-profit because I feel I should earn my own way. I didn’t want to survive off donations and charity, I wanted to work hard at it and prove it out. This is why I personally downsized; I never wanted to look them in the eye while they were going through a hard time and say I know what you mean, when in reality I was living large. But, I must ask now, was this a smart choice? Are people hesitant because I am not a non-profit? Do people realize that status is only for the IRS? It doesn’t give you safety from being screwed over, that comes from the people that own the company. But perceptions drive the reactions, so maybe I should change my status?
Am I just saying it wrong?
How does a company like mine get noticed, how do we get our message to the people we are trying to help? How do we convince people we are real and honest? How do we convince companies to give us a chance? How do we simply get people to do something as little as spend $20 on a raffle ticket? I have written and re-written our website, I have listened to people tell me you have to say it in a minute on a video. Everything at the surface seems to work, I get more connections and my audience grows every day, but the sales haven’t grown with it. I feel that if I stopped helping Veterans and just talked about helping Veterans I could be a major influencer on social media in a year. I would add many followers and my popularity would continue to grow. But what the hell is the point of this if I am not doing something to help them? Is my lot to make money spewing hot air and watching the problem grow? To see more Veteran suicides that could be prevented with simple actions and practical solutions that lead to jobs… to have hope and purpose restored in their lives? I can’t do this, it’s just not who I am. I would rather be invisible but have helped one person than to be popular and have helped no one.
Why this article?
It’s simple, is my pride in the way? Writing this is difficult for me as I have never accepted failure in anything. I am not capable of quitting. I will fight until it’s over, I don’t know any other way. So, this is the last bit of my pride going away. This is me asking of anyone that will listen… what am I doing wrong, what should I try next? People’s lives are at stake; I have some that have reached such low depths that death seemed like a suitable alternative. I can’t fail them, yet I can’t seem to break through this fundamental business problem.
No, I can’t take out loans and so far, no one has seriously offered to invest in the idea. I am not done but everyday I walk dangerously close to that line. I won’t go down without a fight, but at what point is the fight useless? If no one else sees this as a problem that needs to be addressed, if no one else helps me, can I win fighting alone? The most frustrating thing through all of this is how much positive feedback I get. So many messages, so many likes and shares, so many comments and phone calls. All telling me how great it is that I am doing what I am doing for the Veterans. But is this lip service, are the comments and likes to piggy back on my message for their own gain? If not, why not a single $20 raffle ticket? Why have some Veterans come into the program for free, used it, gotten a job and then never pay back anything? Its so frustrating. It would be easier for me if people just said, “Terry, this is a stupid idea and it will never work”. At least then I would understand the response.
This is not a unique scenario that just affects me and my family. The two men that have stayed close to me through all of this, working as much as I have, also put money and time in. We have all sacrificed to help our brothers and sisters. However, either we are not reaching them, or we are only reaching those that are looking for a handout.
Will you help?
All I am asking for, is another set of eyes, your input and opinions. Help me discover what I could do better to make this work and still be able to provide for my family. Even if the feedback is harsh, even if the answer is I should walk away. I can’t see it and I’m hoping maybe one of you can.