From SEAL To Startup CEO

 
April 19, 2014... hours before I was wounded.

April 19, 2014... hours before I was wounded.

 

Standing in the massive spotlight cast down on us from our drone thousands of feet above, I watched a hand grenade come over the wall in front of me, bounce off my right shoulder, and land in the mud between the six of us. I had enough time to realize that we were most likely going to die before the explosion sent thousands of pieces metal flying in every direction. I vividly recall the searing sensation in my legs and hip as the shrapnel slashed through. I was knocked to the ground in a heap, shoulder badly dislocated, and bullets flying overhead as our enemy tried to finish us all off.

Before I even had a chance to take stock of my own injuries, I was being dragged to safety by our SEAL medic who instantly had tourniquets wrapped around my legs, to stop me from bleeding out. Our team leader, who had also been fragged, had already called in an airstrike and our medevac helicopter (which requires talking to two different groups of people simultaneously on two different radios). I remember being genuinely in awe of the calmness that my teammates demonstrated during what was an absolutely terrible situation. No Americans died that day, or on that deployment, but out of a 24 man platoon, nine of us would get Purple Hearts.

There is nothing that can simulate real combat, but Special Operations Forces (SOF) selection programs do their best to come close. Everything from extreme sleep deprivation, to mind boggling physical trials: many will try out; few will graduate. When you meet someone in the SOF community, you should know that their soul has been tested, and they passed.

When you meet someone in the SOF community, you should know that their soul has been tested, and they passed.

Despite the time and effort it took to become a SEAL, I always knew that I was not going to stay in for 20 years because my wife and children would rarely see me. Being a Navy SEAL is more than just a full-time job, it’s a lifestyle. When we are operational, we spend three out of every four weeks, away from our families, training at various locations around the country. We also spend six months out of every two years deployed overseas. It’s an incredibly exciting job, but at the same time, you are constantly away from home and you live with the reality that your job might just kill you.

By the beginning of 2016, the pain I had from the grenade injury, combined with how little time I was spending at home drove my decision to leave the SEAL teams. Even though I didn’t know specifically what I wanted to do outside of the military, I knew I wanted to spend more time with my wife and kids and find a job that was not going to get me blown up.

I started researching what other Navy SEALs had done after they had separated from the Teams, and I found that a lot of them went on to pursue masters degrees in Business Administration. This seemed like a fantastic plan with a built-in cushion of two years to adjust to civilian life while you were a business student. So I started reaching out to ex-SEALs in business school or post business school, and started writing out my long term transition plan. I would apply to five schools while I was still on active duty and then matriculate in the fall of 2018, which would be right after my Navy contract ended, or so I thought.

This business school track would change dramatically in February of 2017 when an obscure Navy policy forced me to pick between an early separation from the Navy, 14 months early to be exact, or a full blown reenlistment of two to three years. If I opted for the early separation, I would most likely have a gap in employment not to mention zero health benefits for my wife and kids. If I opted to reenlist for a few years, it would set my business school plans back three plus years which was unacceptable considering how ready my family and I were to leave the military.

My wife and I decided that we would go with the early separation from the Navy. The plan was now that I would spend one month securing a job so that we could have enough time to sell our current house, and move into a new one wherever my job took us. My mindset was simple: there was no job, no lead, no person that I wouldn’t follow up with and take seriously. It was during this one month job hunt phase that I met Jordan Selleck, the Chairman/Co-Founder of Elite Meet and the CEO/Co-Founder of DebtMaven.

I “met” Jordan on LinkedIn when he randomly messaged me about my future plans. Mind you, my LinkedIn page said virtually nothing about what I did in the Navy, but it did say that I was in the military and was getting ready to leave, hence Jordan’s curiosity. Given the dire situation with my contract, I decided I would ask Jordan, the guy I didn't know at all, for help. That would become one of the best decisions I have ever made in my life.

Given the dire situation with my contract, I decided I would ask Jordan, the guy I didn't know at all, for help. That would become one of the best decisions I have ever made in my life.

Jordan wanted to provide me with results right away, so he helped me create a social media presence that I felt comfortable with. Jordan reassured me that in order to get a job, I needed a certain level of exposure to employers, i.e. no one knows you right now, so you need to tell them about yourself. He helped me make a 60 second intro video which was hilariously difficult for me to create. I didn’t want my wife to over hear me recording so I sounded unnaturally soft spoken in the video. Ultimately, Jordan helped me create a decent video which received thousands of views. Additionally, Jordan helped me rework my resume and helped me develop my own personal “elevator pitch” so if anyone asked me what I was doing, I had an answer that wasn’t all over the place. I became accustomed to receiving shotgun calls from Jordan where I would answer and he would instantly say, “John, you are on speaker with executives from such and such a firm, give them 60 seconds on you.” In two weeks, Jordan helped me create my own personal brand, which led to hundreds of new connections, multiple job offers, and thousands of views of my resume and LinkedIn page.

 

 
johnlinkedinblog.png
 

As Jordan and I began seeing tangible results from all the marketing we were doing for me, I started telling him how useful this type of service/mentorship would be for other SEALs and SOF in transition. I told Jordan that even though SOF have a cool-sounding resume, it doesn’t always translate to anything other than general interest in their war stories.

SOF veterans want to be more than just a vanity hire at a company, they want to serve a purpose like they did in their SOF unit. Transition out of the military for SOF is an identity crisis more than a job hunt. These men and women are hungry to succeed like they did when they were on active duty. There is also an acute paralysis of choice in terms of how many different jobs there are to choose from.

SOF veterans want to be more than just a vanity hire at a company, they want to serve a purpose

Jordan and I decided that we needed to put together an event, "Elite Meet," which would help SOF veterans find jobs. I had an extensive network in the SOF community, and Jordan had deep ties to the financial world of NYC, as he previously had spent six years as an investment banker amongst other things. So we began leveraging our networks and finding people that might be interested in attending our event.

In typical Jordan Selleck fashion, well before we had funding for the event, or even a basic planning structure for the event, he had already created a flyer with a hard date (just 50 days away) and was collecting private donations from people who he wanted to attend. I was so impressed with his ability to exist calmly and effortlessly in the crazy world of entrepreneurship, that a light bulb went off for me: SOF would make fantastic entrepreneurs! Ask someone from SOF to work in an ambiguous environment, and they will thrive. Entrepreneurship is all about dealing with ambiguity and pressure, something that all SOF are trained to operate in.

Ask someone from SOF to work in an ambiguous environment, and they will thrive.

Jordan didn’t care that we didn’t have a product yet, he simply expected that between the two of us, we would get it done somehow. Honestly, that attitude is totally inspiring and contagious, and it also completely plays to the strengths of SOF veterans.

The two of us spoke on the phone multiple times a day and recruited people from all over the country to attend our event. What we really cared about was making sure the business professionals we invited understood that this was not just a chance to go hang out with some cool SOF veterans, but rather an opportunity to recruit some of the most incredible and talented Americans in this country. It was amazing how much that message resonated with the business people we recruited for the event, because truly, they showed up motivated to be there, and were immensely helpful to the SOF attendees.

This was not just a chance to go hang out with some cool SOF veterans, but rather an opportunity to recruit some of the most incredible and talented Americans in this country.

I went from not understanding what Bcc’ing someone meant when we first started Elite Meet 50 days out, to building a 100 slide presentation that even Jordan Selleck, the “recovering” banker, said was “actually really good.” I learned how to be concise in my email traffic, and how to be comfortable asking for things like money and influence when it makes sense to ask. I also learned how much work goes into building something from the ground up, especially when that something is being funded by investor money, not Department of Defense money which is pretty much monopoly money. There is a different kind of pressure that exists when the stakes are private investors seeking a return on their investment. That type of pressure is what makes entrepreneurship totally fun and purposeful. Ultimately, it is on you to control your destiny.

There is a different kind of pressure that exists when the stakes are private investors seeking a return on their investment. That type of pressure is what makes entrepreneurship totally fun and purposeful.

Jordan treated me like an entrepreneur well before I would have called myself that. He never acted like I was entitled to anything because of my SOF background, instead he treated me like I had a world of potential waiting to be tapped into. Jordan made sure that I was in charge of planning every aspect of Elite Meet. He always made sure that I had what I needed, but he also fully expected me to figure it out on my own, because that’s what SOF are good at.

50 days and $50K later we launched our first event in NYC for 50 people. Within 72 hours of the event concluding, 5 of our SOF attendees had job offers, 1 of our business professionals offered himself as a full time mentor, and we had offers from Morgan Stanley and Bank of America to utilize their venue for future events. Our return on investment metric had become clear, achieve tangible results for our SOF attendees. With the success of the first event, and the demand for more events this year, Jordan and I are excited to say that we are going to launch our own non-profit, with me, the guy who recently learned what Bcc’ing meant, as the CEO.

50 days and $50K later we launched our first event in NYC for 50 people.
 
 

I hope that if nothing else my story serves as an example for other transitioning SOF looking for a path to follow out of the military. Remember that we are inherently atypical people, and therefore will most likely end up doing atypical things in our transition.

We are inherently atypical people, and therefore will most likely end up doing atypical things in our transition.

Key Takeaways for SOF:

  • Plan your transition, but embrace all the deviations from it; disruptions to your plan may end up being better options anyways.
  • Take every opportunity in front of you during your transition; you never know when you might meet your Jordan Selleck.
  • If you have special forces training, you already have a master’s degree in getting stuff done; find ways to demonstrate that skill to employers.

I want to say thank you to Robin King and Alison Messick of the Navy SEAL Foundation, Robin Kelleher, Nicholas Montini and Chris Sharon of Hope For The Warriors, and Joe Mussellman, Kristen Robillard, and Steve Jones of The Honor Foundation for all your amazing support. Without all of you there would not be Elite Meet. Your organizations and your people are not only full of purpose, but incredibly easy and fun to work with.

We also want to say thank you to Comvest Partners, Chardan Capital Markets, GSV Growth Credit, Black Buffalo, DeliverFund and all the rest of our generous private donations.

John Allen

John Allen

Elite Meet