Hero Merchants: How Veterans Run Their Businesses

Alise Bailey, Editor
Square

Veteran-owned businesses make up 9 percent of U.S. businesses, and 9 percent of Square sellers. From yoga studios to coffee shops, these Square sellers do the ordinary — and the extraordinary — starting businesses and running them from the cockpits of fighter jets and behind the counter. They are the heroes among us.

To recognize and thank them, we want you to meet some of our favorite veteran Square sellers and hear about their experiences starting and running a business.

Ryan Bodenheimer, co-owner of New Man Revolution in Boise, Idaho

During a combat deployment, Ryan could only use harsh, chemical-filled mainstream shower products. When he returned home, he wanted something better.

“I wanted something that smelled great and would be good for me,” he says. “I also wanted a daily reminder to be healthy, become a better version of myself, and add more value to those around me.” When Ryan couldn’t find that combination, New Man Revolution was born.
“Men all over the world fight daily battles for a more fulfilling personal and professional life, so we created a superior product that is backed by a story that inspires them and supports their mission,” says Ryan.

new man revolution

Which branch of the military did you serve in? How long were you in?
I served in the Air Force for the last 12 years as an F-15E fighter pilot and then became a Thunderbird stunt pilot in the F-16C. I exit active duty in November of 2018 and I’m planning to run New Man Revolution full time and join the Air Force Reserves.

What’s your favorite product?
My favorite product is our red set, which includes our citrus-mint body wash and our tea tree cedarwood shampoo.

What’s your customers’ favorite product?
One of our most popular products is the green set. It includes our eucalyptus-spearmint shampoo and body wash. We formulated it to transform customers’ showers into their own private eucalyptus steam rooms.
Another favorite of our customers is our new Firepower 3 in 1 shave butter, conditioner, and face wash. We blend it with 100% real coffee, bergamot, and peppermint oils.

How do you differentiate yourself in the market?
We provide men a superior product that is free of SLS (sodium laureth sulfate), parabens, colognes, dyes, and other harsh chemicals, since 60 percent of the compounds in our shower are absorbed by our skin. We use coconut-based cleansers and purpose-driven, bold essential oils to scent all our products.

Because of this we guarantee that men will feel and see a difference in their complexion, scalp, hair, and skin after just one bottle of our products.

And our products are set at a fair price that won’t break the bank. People call us the “craft beer version” of men’s shower and shave products, and we love that distinction because it speaks to the craftsmanship we put into every bottle. Most men can make the jump to our products like they could to a craft beer because the price is only a few dollars more and provides a whole different level of experience.

Do you share your military background in your public marketing?
We share our veteran story in our marketing because we believe it inspires people, but we want that to be the intriguing follow-up to our phenomenal products. As a fighter pilot and eventually a Thunderbird stunt pilot, my whole life has been about pushing the envelope and living life on the edge. It’s been awesome to live an extreme fighter-pilot lifestyle while also showing that being healthy is manly and perhaps the key to contributing to your family and community in a deeper, more meaningful way.

What are some of the biggest challenges or adversities you’ve faced in running your business?
Time has been the most challenging aspect by far. As a Thunderbird pilot, I was on the road 250 days a year for the past two years, flying an F-16 to a new city each weekend. This made it hard to maintain partnerships with our suppliers and build relationships for marketing opportunities.

At times I was literally running the company from the cockpit of an F-16 during delays before takeoff. I would handle business deals and build relationships via text or email while in the cockpit, on the ground. It was literally do that or watch my business fail, which was not an option for me, so becoming a master of time management is something that happened to me by necessity. That’s why having solutions that work so reliably, like Square, are crucial to our success.

Recently, we used Square at a street fair in Idaho. Our Square chip readers worked 100 percent of the time and allowed us to focus on building relationship with our customers, which ultimately led to our most successful sales year to date.

How did your particular MOS (Military Occupational Specialty code) and military experiences help you prepare for starting and running your business?
As a fighter pilot I had to learn really quickly that failure was something that had to motivate me to become better instead of just knocking me down. I began to use my failures in training as learning experiences and motivation to win, and eventually it worked. I apply this same logic to our business. We take as many small risks as we can afford, and ultimately they either help us win or we learn from the failure and become stronger as a team and company.

Jesse Jordan, owner of Axhead Coffee Roasters in Jacksonville, NC

Axhead Coffee Roasters was born from Jesse’s lifelong love of coffee.

“I grew up going to the local coffee shop with my grandfather. All of the older men in town would congregate there and chat for hours,” he says. “I’ve always had an outgoing personality, so I thought that a coffee shop would be a great way to combine my personality and a career. It’s also a wonderful platform to give back to the men and women in the U.S. military — a great cup of coffee can be the constant in chaos. It’s the one thing that can bring you back to home when you are far away.”

axhead coffee

Which branch of the military did you serve in? How long were you in?
I am currently in the U.S. Marines. I am set to retire after 20 years of service in July of 2019.

What’s your favorite coffee drink or blend?
I enjoy our Kenyan coffee. It’s a light-to-medium roast, but it still packs huge flavor. It is smooth and the flavor stays with you for a while. We also have an excellent espresso that is bold but doesn’t mask the nuances in the beans.

What is your customers’ favorite coffee drink?
It’s a close race between the Kenyan and the Brazil coffees we have. It’s crazy, when I have a customer that doesn’t like one, I can recommend the other, and they absolutely love it. As my mentor in the coffee industry always says, “quality is a matter of taste.”

How do you differentiate yourself in the market? Do you share your military background in your public marketing?
I do wear my veteran tag as a source of pride in what I have accomplished in my life, but it doesn’t define my company.

We want to provide great coffee to hardworking, blue-collar people. The military falls in that realm. We salute those who keep us safe, like law enforcement and first responders, and those who keep America running, the factory workers, the mill workers, truck drivers, loggers, and miners. These people don’t need good coffee — they will drink whatever is burnt at the bottom of the pot — but they deserve great coffee.

I want them to know, when they are enjoying Axhead Coffee, that someone is thinking about them. Although I love telling my military stories and sharing that with my customers, I think my product will speak for itself in the long run.

What are some of the biggest challenges or adversities you’ve faced in running your business?
The toughest step was taking that leap of faith and just saying, “I’m doing this.” After that, every day brings new challenges, but I have learned to fall in love with the process.

How did your particular MOS (Military Occupational Specialty code) and military experiences help you prepare for starting and running your business?
I started out as an infantryman. I did that for eight years with combat and non-combat deployments that taught me perseverance and the mental toughness to push my limits mentally and physically. After that, I went into the intelligence field, where I operated in the special operations community for nine years. That really honed my communication skills and really taught me how to problem solve on a deeper level.

James Reynolds, CEO and cofounder of BeneFIT Medical in Owasso, OK

As a former health-care professional, James always hated wearing medical scrubs, so he decided to create better ones.

“I believe that hardworking professionals deserve higher-quality uniforms for what they do,” he says. “BeneFIT scrubs are made with higher-quality fabrics, more aesthetic designs and fits, better functionality, and more comfortable uniforms to help professionals look and feel good in the workplace.”

benefit medical

Which branch of the military did you serve in? How long were you in?
United States Air Force (Air National Guard), which I’ve been in for almost 11 years and am still currently in.

What’s your favorite product?
My favorites are currently our Helix and Stealth scrub lines — customers also love them. They can be mixed and matched. They are lightweight, breathable, liquid resistant, and extremely comfortable, with four-way stretch and 13 total pockets for functionality.

What’s your customers’ favorite product?
Beyond the Helix and Stealth scrubs, many customers enjoy our lifestyle gear. The branding lets the world know that they are health-care professionals who also live an active lifestyle.

How do you differentiate yourself in the market?
Unlike with traditional scrubs, we offer athletically engineered medical apparel. We combined the concept of medical scrubs with your favorite workout/yoga apparel.

Do you share your military background in your public marketing?
We do market that we are veteran owned and operated, and share our story.

What are some of the biggest challenges or adversities you’ve faced in running your business?
We’re entirely self funded — no funding rounds or angel investors — so our biggest growing pain is keeping up with inventory fast enough for our customers’ high demand.

How did your particular MOS (Military Occupational Specialty code) and military experiences help you prepare for starting and running your business?
The military culture has taught us the importance of discipline and building a strong culture, which we have applied to our team at BeneFIT.

Jeff Mallo, owner of Orange Diamond Underwater Photography in Colorado Springs, CO

“I’ve always had an entrepreneurial side to me that I attribute to my parents, and I never wanted a desk job,” Jeff says. “After I got out of the Army, I started scuba diving for fun and eventually became a PADI Master Instructor. It was a great way to see the world. I began taking photographs underwater after my dad asked why I was wasting money on dive trips since there was ‘nothing to see underwater.’ These photos led to me winning several live-aboard dive boat contests and some local dive club photography contests, too.”

Jeff’s hobby quickly evolved into a career and a business, Orange Diamond Underwater Photography. Today Jeff participates in local and regional shows, and is based at the Veterans of Foreign Wars Post (VFW) 1 in Denver.

“The post recently moved into a new building located in the Art District on Santa Fe,” he says. “Several of the members are artists, so I started showing my work there.”

orange diamond underwater photography

Which branch of the military did you serve in? How long were you in?
United States Army for over 27 years.

Your favorite piece/print?
If I had to choose just one, I think I would have to say the image I call “Orange Soft Coral Lightning.” I was about 80 feet underwater in Fiji when I saw this coral — I liked how it looked and knew it would fill the frame really well, but it was an ugly greenish-brown color. Once I took the picture, the flash fired to reveal a brilliant white and orange that the light-absorbing water hid.

Your customers’ favorite piece/print?
“Hawksbill Turtle in Open Water” is by far the most-purchased image, and also the one that people talk about most when I am at shows. The combination of color and subject draws people in.

How do you differentiate yourself in the market?
The intense colors that the aluminum prints show so well, and the underwater subjects, are the main differentiation of my photography, especially in Colorado! I joke that I am the best underwater photographer in the Santa Fe Art District, where I am the only underwater photographer in the district.

Do you share your military background in your public marketing? Veteran-owned business identification?
I emphasize my military experience in my business description and advertising. When I talk to people at the VFW Post 1, I try to emphasize that the artwork at the post is about 80 percent veteran or military-affiliated artists, and people really respond positively to that. I tend to downplay my exact military history. I’ll talk about it if someone asks, but this is a new chapter in my life and I would hope that people focus on the photography more than my specific military past.

What are some of the biggest challenges or adversities you’ve faced in running your business?
I think the unknown of the business side of things is what held me back for a while. It is a daunting task to figure out how to set up all the legal requirements that go into starting a business. I think that holds many people back. Even though I knew no more than anyone else, I figured out I should just go for it and figure it out.

How did your particular MOS (Military Occupational Specialty code) and military experiences help you prepare for starting and running your business?
I was an 11C — a smart Infantryman, also known as a mortar man — which doesn’t directly correlate to the civilian world. However, being successful in the military wasn’t always directly related to my specialty.

For instance, I had to be an expert at keeping my radio and vehicle working — if either broke down while I was out in a tactical position, I couldn’t do my job, so I learned to troubleshoot and at least develop a temporary fix until the team could get to the experts or get a new part.

I also took away the ability to react to changing situations. In combat the enemy also has a say, and that may cause you to have to adjust your plans to ensure you win. You also have to be flexible and adapt in business.

Jebbye Lemons, owner of Your Pace Yoga Studio in Pace, FL

After 23 years in the United States Navy, Jebbye was ready for a change of pace.

“I wanted to spend more time with my kids after retiring, and find something that worked with our schedule,” she says.

Yoga provided the perfect intersection, and she opened Your Pace Yoga studio in early 2018.

your pace yoga studio
Which branch of the military did you serve in? How long were you in?
I served 23 years, from 1993 to 2016, in the United States Navy as a Cryptologic Technical Technician.

Your favorite class?
Hot yoga.

Your customers’ favorite class?
Most of our customers enjoy hot yoga, beginners yoga, and restorative yoga.

How do you differentiate yourself in the market?
Our community is growing and we try to provide a variety of classes to fit the needs of everyone.

Do you share your military background in your public marketing?
I have the information in my bio on our website, the logo on the site, and a sticker on the door advertising a veteran-owned business.

What are some of the biggest challenges or adversities you’ve faced in running your business?
We’ve only been open for five months, so we’re still trying to determine patterns — like why some weeks are busier than others. We’re also figuring out which times and classes work best for our community.

How did your particular MOS (Military Occupational Specialty code) and military experiences help you prepare for starting and running your business?
In the service, you’re taken out of your comfort zone throughout the years. Whether I was stepping into a new job or a new house, or moving from one city and/or country to another, the military gave me courage to step outside of my comfort zone and try something new.

To all veterans, thank you for your service.

Alise is an editor at Square, where she writes about how to start, run, and grow a business, highlighting our sellers around the world.