NAVIGATING ROUGH WATERS
James Blagg served 20 years in the U.S. Navy, beginning as a seaman on a small frigate out of Mobile, Alabama. He became a navigator and served on boats chasing drug runners in the Caribbean until 9/11, when everything changed. He was transferred to military police, serving in that capacity in Naples, Italy, and as the chief of police and range chief at Naval Air Station Key West.
His love of navigation and the water never diminished. While at his last military stop in Key West, he bought a 33-foot sailboat called Jaffo. A year before he retired, he started working toward his 100-ton masters captain’s license, to prepare for his goal of starting his own charter boat business, Sail Florida Adventures. He received his captain’s license through the Florida Keys Community College, using the Post- 9/11 GI Bill.
While attending classes, he saw the Small Business Administration office at the college. That office helped him with accounting and with approaching banks for funding. He also got help from a friend who also owns a sailboat charter business.
“I’m persistent,” Blagg said. “I keep going until the job gets done. I want to be successful. In the military, I made becoming chief a goal before I could retire, and I did. And I always told myself that when I get out, I would work for myself and never work for anybody else.”
Blagg, 42, started the business, using $80,000 of his own savings, with all the marine skills he needed to run the private charters in the waters surrounding Key West. But he learned in a hurry that for his business to be successful, he needed to learn how to market it and secure clients in the competitive tourist town.
“The first year was pretty rough,” Blagg said. “I couldn’t get customers. I started out on page 37 on Google searches.”
Blagg also learned that the big companies already had the hotel concierges in their pockets. “They wouldn’t let the little guy in,” he said. Plus the concierges wanted too big a cut of the bookings, he said.
Blagg decided his best bet would be to put his money into marketing and improving his website. While he took computer classes to learn basic HTML coding, he hired a webmaster to navigate the complexity of the Internet.
But after asking his webmaster questions that the webmaster couldn’t answer, Blagg determined the only person who was going to put enough effort into his website at an affordable price was himself.
“Anybody can learn it,” Blagg said. “You have to go out and figure what Google wants and do it.”
Now, when potential customers search for “private sailing charters Key West,” his website shows up on Page One.
Last year he added a second sailboat to his fleet, a 45-footer called Vela Andato, which means “Gone Sailing” in Italian. He also got a special commercial permit to run charters to Dry Tortugas National Park, which is 70 miles west of Key West.
He said he had difficulty getting a loan to purchase a second boat because his business was too young. One local bank would loan the money, but for only the length of the two-year permit. Bragg said that was not feasible so he saved for two years to buy the second boat.
The writer can be reached at email@example.com.
A HELPING HAND FOR VETREPRENEURS
Here are some of the many resources available for U.S. military veterans who want to make the transition to entrepreneurship:
American Corporate Partners: This nonprofit organization connects U.S. veterans to business leaders for mentorship and career advice. www.acp-usa.org
Boots to Business: This two-step entrepreneurial training program includes a two-day classroom course and an eight-week online course that offer instruction on forming a business plan and other essential elements of early business ownership. www.sba.gov/offices/headquarters/ovbd/resources/160511
BusinessUSA: This interactive guide helps veteran business owners find the most relevant federal, state and local tools to help start and grow their businesses. http://business.usa.gov/veterans
EBV Foundation: The EBV Foundation’s Entrepreneurship Bootcamp for Veterans with Disabilitiesoffers experiential training in entrepreneurship and business management to post- 9/11 veterans with service-related disabilities. The foundation provides grants to graduates of the program, help with business plan development, raising donations for participating schools and more. www.ebvfoundation.org.
Florida International University’s Veterans and Military Affairs Office: This office assists veterans in using their VA educational benefits. The university has a Florida Small Business Development Center and a strong veterans’ group. http://onestop.fiu.edu/additional-information/veterans/
National Veteran Small Business Coalition: This nonprofit organization helps veteran-owned small businesses navigate federal contracting opportunities. www.nvsbc.com
NaVOBA: The National Veteran Owned Business Association is a membership-based program that advocates for veteran business owners and works as a watchdog to hold the federal government accountable to its veteran contractor mandates, while also encouraging large businesses to work with veteran owned small business vendors. www.navoba.com
Institute for Veteran and Military Families: This Syracuse University program provides a variety of resources for military veterans who are re-entering the workforce or looking to start their own businesses. http://vets.syr.edu
Partners for Self Employment: The nonprofit provides small businesses with training, technical assistance, loans and coaching. http://partnersforselfemployment.org
Venture Hive Veterans Program: The City of Fort Walton Beach and Venture have a pre-accelerator program and an accelerator program geared toward U.S. military veteran entrepreneurs. https://veterans.venturehive.com/
Veteran Business Outreach Centers: The Small Business Administration’s only Florida-based Veteran Business Outreach Center is in Panama City. This center helps veterans access business training, counseling and mentoring in their local communities. www.vboc.org
Veteran Fast Launch Initiative: This initiative from SCORE provides free mentoring and training, along with free software and other services to military veteran entrepreneurs. www.score.org/vetsfastlaunch
Veteran Entrepreneur Portal: The program, which is part of the VA’s Office of Small and Disadvantaged Business Utilization, provides access to business education, financing opportunities and links and information related to government programs and services created specifically for veterans. www.va.gov/osdbu/entrepreneur/index.asp
Victory Spark: As part of the Global Entrepreneurship Collective, Victory Spark is an accelerator program focused on startups led by U.S. military veterans. The program includes a 12-week mentor-driven Lean LaunchPad Program, along with grant funding for entrepreneurs who complete the program. http://gan.co/members/view/victory-spark
V-Wise: Veteran Women Igniting the Spirit of Entrepreneurship is an organization that provides resources, courses and mentorship to female veterans who have started businesses or are looking to do so. http://whitman.syr.edu/vwise/
EBV Foundation: The EBV Foundation’s Entrepreneurship Bootcamp for Veterans with Disabilitiesoffers training in entrepreneurship and business management to post- 9/11 veterans with service-related disabilities. www.ebvfoundation.org.