Ben Pitts, CEO and co-founder of MyFinancialAnswers and graduate of the United States Military Academy at West Point, talks about entrepreneurship.
We recently sat down with Ben Pitts, CEO and co-founder of MyFinancialAnswers and graduate of the United States Military Academy at West Point, to talk about entrepreneurship. MyFinancialAnswers is a workplace financial wellness company that is leveraging technology and deep expertise in personal financial planning to help employees make informed financial decisions.
Comcast Business: You spent four years at the U.S. Military Academy before entering the workforce and eventually starting your own business. What is the most critical piece of advice you have for a veteran looking to start his/her own business?
Ben Pitts: I think veterans have the notion that their career experience doesn’t measure up to that of civilians. From what I’ve seen, the opposite is true. Pound for pound, a veteran often has more experience. For example, a 25-year-old in the military has probably led teams of 5, 10 or even 30 people, but a 25-year-old college graduate probably hasn’t. So my advice to veterans is this: don’t underestimate your ability. If you think you should do it, you probably have the mindset, passion and wherewithal to do it, whether that’s leadership, problem solving or technical skills.
Comcast Business: What are the biggest challenges you’ve faced as a veteran business owner and how did you overcome them?
Ben Pitts: One of the biggest challenges I faced when entering civilian life was the absence of mission. When you’re in the military, it’s never about you. It’s always about a higher purpose, and that higher purpose—that sense of mission—is really very hard to find outside of the service. Luckily I learned the power of networking almost immediately leaving the military after graduation when I got hooked up with the Service Academy Network. It is both comforting and rewarding to network with those that have had similar life experiences, and I can credit every success I’ve had in my career to someone who was also in the service.
Comcast Business: What specific challenges do veterans face (versus civilians) when it comes to small business ownership and entrepreneurship?
Ben Pitts: Successful entrepreneurs are experts at the art of professional self-promotion. If you’re a veteran, or active military or even the spouse of someone in the military, you’re conditioned to work as a team on behalf of a greater purpose. Self-promotion is not rewarded in the military. When I went to business school alongside military classmates who were looking to get an internship or get that first job, it was clear they were struggling to promote themselves. It’s important to realize that this ability to serve the greater good is an asset when it comes to building a team and a business. It is absolutely something to market when selling oneself to potential investors, partners, customers and other constituents.
Along the same lines, while you’re in the military, you’re almost always taking orders from someone else, so you get to go about your day with a specific purpose and some certainty that as long as you follow the rules, you’re doing the right thing. This can be a hard transition to make for veterans starting out as an entrepreneur. In the startup world, you don’t have that formal structure, and you’ve got to stick your neck out on what is typically an unproven path. And because you don’t have a structure to measure against, you might feel like you’re wasting time.
Comcast Business: What is your view on the role of technology in running a business? How do you use technology to run YOUR business?
Ben Pitts: MyFinancialAnswers IS a technology business – we are a web-based, cloud-based technology platform that delivers robust financial planning for all who need it. For our business to work effectively, we need our systems to be scalable and our user experience to be good.
What I’ve found is that whether you’re running a tech business or not, this whole notion of digital – blogging, social media, social advertising, etc. – is impossible to escape, and frankly I don’t think there’s a single business that can survive without it. My advice to anyone starting a business is to figure out how to work the digital machine earlier rather than later to reap the most benefit. Or at least find someone who already knows how to work it.
Comcast Business: What attributes do you think veterans possess that give them an advantage when it comes to running their own business?
Ben Pitts: I think it’s pretty simple. Camaraderie is the lifeblood of the military, and military professionals are highly skilled at working in teams. Although it might be difficult to find a new passion outside of the military, veterans already understand how to build teams to get everyone behind a mission, and they’ve got a “never quit” attitude. All skills being equal, I would hire a veteran over a non-veteran for any position because of this innate “can do” attitude and ability to work with and motivate a group to achieve organizational goals.
Comcast Business: What are some of the best resources veterans should tap into in order to grow their business?
Ben Pitts: Here in Philadelphia, the best resource I’ve found is Bunker Labs, a local business incubator that provides entrepreneurial education, mentorship and funding opportunities to veteran-led startups. Of course, there are many other resources available to veterans looking to start a business. The important thing is to get out there and network—and not just among military colleagues. For folks just getting out of the military, check out trade associations, alumni groups, conferences and other opportunities. I’ve even attended Patriot Boot Camp, which helps veterans build technology companies of impact and scale. As military entrepreneurs, securing funding can be a challenge as most investors look for a proven track record of business leadership. By getting out there and networking, you’ll have a better chance of meeting angel investors, venture capitalists and other sources of funding that are military friendly and appreciate how military leadership can translate to business success.