When The Bunker incubator at 1871 launches its first startup class Nov. 1, it will realize founder and CEO Todd Connor’s ambition to translate veterans’ military experience to entrepreneurship. A U.S. Navy veteran of the Iraq War, he’s also co-founder of Flank 5 Academy, a professional-development incubator and coaching firm. His career includes stints as executive director of military programs for Chicago Public Schools and as a management consultant with Booz Allen Hamilton. He explains the common lesson on risk, failure and courage and the news that the incubator, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit, is already expanding.
Q. How many companies applied to The Bunker?
A. We’ve had 51 companies. A lot of them were out of the state and in non-technology industries. We've identified (19) companies that start Nov. 1 for six months.
We've got other venture capitalists, entrepreneurs and business school professors who happen to be veterans in other cities. So we're going to announce on Nov. 10 our national expansion into seven cities: Philadelphia, Washington, Los Angeles, Colorado Springs, Colo.; Kansas City, Mo.; Austin, Texas; and Tacoma, Wash.
We've built a model that we’re replicating in other cities almost like a franchise to enable veterans to tap the veteran entrepreneurial community where they live.
Q. So these aren’t just military companies?
A. Right. Some of the businesses do relate to a military purpose because that’s the experience of the founders. For example, Prevail Health Solutions has a behavioral health-technology platform that addresses post traumatic stress disorder as well as other discrete behavioral health conditions.
As we create the national network, we’re interested in focusing different cities on different markets. For example, at Washington D.C., we want to focus on federal procurement because that’s a really hot market with the Department of Defense. Colorado Springs has great network around aerospace because it’s the home of the U.S. Air Force Academy.
Q. One concern about specialized incubators is that they can be perceived as somehow lower than the main organization. How do you address that?
A. By way of context, there’s something fundamentally different about veterans. When civilians talk about veterans, they assume it’s an identity class. But when veterans talk about veterans, it’s a group of people that have shared an experience that’s really distinctive and special.
All of our founders have already experienced hardship circumstances through their work environment because they’ve been on active duty. We’re part of a very niche community here where there’s a language, a lingo and a way of working that is very appealing to them, and they like the idea of being surrounded by other veterans who can help create connectivity in ways they otherwise wouldn't be able to do on their own.
Q. What needs are you serving for your founders?
A. The opportunity is to help connect them to capital and the right advisers so they can grow their businesses faster than they would be able to do on their own. The average age of the CEOs in our incubator are 38 years old. Most of them, 70 percent, are already making money. Some startups need the platform to raise their profile through media attention and others to become veteran-certified to help them win federal contracts. It really depends on the business.
Q. What lessons on risk and failure will you transfer to The Bunker?
A. The self-imposed emotional barriers are always much greater than the real business barriers. The biggest challenge for most people is to convince themselves that they have the capacity to do whatever it is they want to do; the biggest challenge is never getting started. That’s the thing I’m constantly trying to role model.
Q. So how do you overcome that?
A. People over-think taking on new projects. People think about how to write a whole book, but what they need to think about is how to write the first page.