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Vets get advice, investment dollars at entrepreneurship event

Nov. 7, 2013 - 06:10PM   | — a name that evokes William Shatner in various outlandish travel adventures — is one of the world’s most popular travel websites.

But before achieving that status, it was a startup few people believed in.

“They told me, of course, it wasn’t going to work,” said founder Jay Walker. “One airline CEO actually said to me, in a private conference room, ‘We would be better off, Jay, if you were hit by a truck.’ ”

Entrepreneurs must be able to push past such doubters — but they also must seek and consider honest, constructive criticism from partners — to create successful businesses, Walker told a packed auditorium of students, investors and veterans hoping to follow in his footsteps.

After that keynote address, some 20 vets pitched their startup ideas and fledgling small businesses to venture capitalists ready to back the best with investment money as part of the Veterans Venture Forum Capstone Demo Day on Oct. 29.

A joint project of the National Defense University Foundation and the Angel Venture Forum, the Veterans Venture Forum, held on the school’s Fort McNair campus in Washington, D.C., included a half-dozen training workshops for aspiring vet entrepreneurs, culminating in the late October event.

Doug Doan, one of the investors behind the project, said that even prior to the formal investor pitch day, a handful of vets had received early-stage funding from investors they had met in the training workshops.

“That’s been a great success,” Doan said. “They’re well and truly launched. They’re on their way.”

One such company is RideScout, which aims to clearly lay out all available transportation options — public, private and social media-based — to get people from one place to another in an easy-to-use smartphone app.

One of RideScout’s co-founders, former Army Maj. Craig Cummings, said they’ve raised $1.35 million, most of it since the start of the workshops.

“We recognize an opportunity to do the three ‘Ps’: to help people, to help the planet and to make profit for our investors,” Joseph Kopser, a former Army lieutenant colonel and another co-founder, said during his pitch to a small room of investors.

Kopser told the investors that he got the idea for RideScout while trying to make sense of the array of transportation options in northern Virginia when he worked at the Pentagon. There were a lot of ways to get around, but getting information for all of them required using many apps and websites, he said.

RideScout was designed to solve that problem.

“We’re going to show you all your options and then let you choose,” Kopser said.

After the pitch, Kopser told Military Times that fellow vets should not sit on good business ideas that they’ve been considering.

“Start tonight. Don’t wait,” he said.

In his keynote address, Walker advised would-be entrepreneurs to focus more on figuring out what problems they’re trying to solve than on how to solve them. If the problem is defined vaguely, finding a viable solution will be difficult, he said. If defined precisely, the solution will be obvious and could be worth a lot of money.

He added that good entrepreneurs learn to look at their surroundings differently, questioning why things are done a certain way and seeking the potential business opportunities that arise from life’s problems and inconveniences.

“They’re just like artists in that sense: They’re looking at the world through a different set of glasses,” Walker said. “They’re almost always intensely curious people.”

Sheri Anderson, managing director of Golden Seeds, an investment firm focused on startups run by women, suggested aspiring entrepreneurs seek out help and advice from others.

“I think one of the best things you can do is talk to lots of smart people, so your idea will get more polished, you’ll get more clarity on who your customer really is, on how you would go to market,” Anderson said. “Sharpen your point. It’s not so that you don’t do it, but so that you do it smarter, because you don’t get a lot of chances to do [it] over.”

Doan agreed, saying vets should take advantage of the help and resources around them, while also maintaining the belief that they can succeed as entrepreneurs.

“This is where the economies really begin,” Doan said. “They start like this ... one guy just with a weird idea.”■

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