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Veterans return with entrepreneurial dreams

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By The (Raleigh, N.c.) News & Observer
Saturday, July 20, 2013, 9:00 p.m.

NEW BERN, N.C. — Dan Spangler's business started to take shape as the wounded Marine started hanging around a mutt named Spanky and learned he had a soft spot for dogs.

But as you might expect from a veteran, Spangler took a disciplined but steadfast approach to building his business.

The nearly seven-year journey to opening A Dog's Dream in New Bern in 2010 included utilizing local small-business resources, going back to school and saving money by working unrelated jobs.

“We are growing by leaps and bounds,” said Spangler, 34. The transition from Marine to employee can be a difficult one, Spangler said, because some private sector opportunities limit veterans with unbending job descriptions and micro-management. That is one of the reasons self-employment is often a better — but not necessarily easier — option for many veterans.

Veterans are 45 percent more likely than their civilian counterparts to be small-business owners or entrepreneurs, said Rhett Jeppson, associate administrator for the Small Business Administration Office of Veterans Business Development.

Nearly 1 in 10 small businesses nationwide are veteran-owned, he said. Collectively, those 2.4 million veteran-owned businesses employ almost 6 million Americans and generate more than $1 trillion in receipts.

“We think supporting that small-business veteran owner is huge,” Jeppson said. “It's not only that we have a moral obligation to support our veterans, but also it makes a lot of economic sense to provide and foster opportunities to our veterans.”

Military members transitioning from active service participate in mandated transition assistance programs that introduce them to different career tracks, including entrepreneurship.

Scott Dorney, the North Carolina Military Business Center's executive director, said while there are a plethora of services available to those veterans who become entrepreneurs, navigating through all those resources can be a real challenge.

Jeppson found aid through the SBA's Veteran Business Outreach Center at Fayetteville (N.C.) State University.

The SBA and its resource partners, Jeppson said, can help veterans with everything from building a business plan to connecting them to financing opportunities.

Mark Haupt, president of the N.C. Veteran's Business Association, recommends that veterans sorting through resources talk to other business owners who have used the services. He said they should never pay for information that organizations such as the SBA provide for free.

“When you are a veteran, one of the things you have is will, and you are persistent, and even with no resources or very limited resources, you are going to figure things out,” said Army veteran Alisha Whiteway, who in 2008 opened Tellurvision, a video production firm for small businesses in Raleigh, N.C.

Whiteway said her military service gave her credibility, but she learned how to identify a target market from other business owners.

Whiteway sought help from the Women's Business Center of North Carolina, along with successful women business owners, to help her move her business forward.

When Spangler returned to Jacksonville, N.C., from Iraq in 2003, he adopted Spanky, a tan and white mutt, from a local shelter.

“We ended up spending a lot of time together,” Spangler said. “He went everywhere with me.”

Spangler enrolled Spanky in classes at PetSmart and became infatuated with the process. He started teaching classes himself when he was given a medical discharge from the Marines in 2004.

He hurt his hip diving for cover when his unit came under fire.

The former microwave and multi-channel radio technician used his GI Bill benefits to get an associate degree at a community college.

Spangler visited Anne Shaw, director of the Small Business Center there, to discuss his idea to open a dog-related business. Shaw and others encouraged him to build a plan and save money.

“I learned there were more things I needed to learn,” he said.

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