BTU #139 - Founding Bunker Labs (Todd Connor)

"We tend to retrospectively tell a very clean story about how it all happened. But I think it’s important to acknowledge that it’s not always all successful. The Alumni Association wasn’t trying to call me after I quit my consulting job and started my own boutique professional services business. They weren’t calling after I ran for office and lost. But those are super important core elements of what I’ve learned as an adult and what we’re doing today as an organization. So I really celebrate all of those things”- Todd Connor

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Sponsors | Selected Resources | Transcript & Time Stamps | Comments

Todd Connor is CEO & Founder of Bunker Labs, an organization that helps military veterans start and grow businesses. He is also Co-Founder of The Collective Academy. He started out at Northwestern University, after which he served as a Surface Warfare Officer in the Navy for four years. After his transition from the Navy her held positions with the State of Illinois Inspector General, McMaster-Carr, Booz Allen Hamilton, and the Chicago Public Schools. Todd holds an MBA from the Chicago Booth School of Business.

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Selected Resources: 

  • Books
    • Mindset - Carol Dweck - studies behavioral psychology and she defines the difference between Growth Mindset and Fixed Mindset. Todd talks about how the Growth mindset leads to maximizing learning and growing
    • Lean Startup - the speed at which you can figure out what doesn’t work (and therefore what does work).
    • Big Magic - not putting too much pressure on yourself by quitting your job to start a company; keeping your current job and working nights and weekends to grow the company
    • Podcasts
      • John Gossart - 109 - veteran entrepreneurship
      • BTU 40 - Annie Taft - she talks about taking risks and honoring your own happiness. There’s not story I can think of that that embodies that more than Annie Taft
      • Jimmy Sopko - taking a step back in one's career to get ahead in the long term

Show Notes and Time Stamps:

This is Episode #139 with Bunker Labs founder and CEO Todd Connor.

Well today is one of those days when I really feel like we cut things short. I definitely had two or three more hours of potential questions we could have dived into. Todd is an awesome guy. He has a really atypical career path going from the Navy to founding Bunker Labs. One of the things that I really enjoyed about this conversation was his candor about discussing his failures along the way that helped get him to where is is now. This is often the case for both civilians and veterans, the path to where we end up can be very circuitous and unclear.


This is a great episode if you’re interested in entrepreneurship. Bunker Labs is a fantastic resource for veterans looking to start their own company. But this is also a great episode for veterans not interested in entrepreneurship. I think Todd’s story is really inspiring in the way he talks about taking risks, how to adopt a learning mindset, and how to stop caring about what people think. There’s a quick plug at the end of the episode for a cohort Bunker Labs is launching in January. It’s a 12-week online lab for veterans interested in entrepreneurship.


A reminder that Beyond the Uniform will be hosting a couple different events in January. The first is Veterans in Consulting, a seminar that will take place on January 17th. The seminar will feature three veterans that went straight from the military into consulting. Participants will get a behind the scenes look at the consulting industry. The second event is the Reprogramming Seminar which will help veterans learn more about how to prepare themselves for a successful transition.


If you haven’t had a chance to review us on iTunes, I would greatly appreciate it if you did that. I want the great advice veterans share in our interviews to be available to as many military members and veterans as possible. And with that, let’s get to the episode.


Joining me today from Chicago, Illinois is Todd Connor. Long time listeners will remember that in Episode #38, I talked to Chris Shaw, the director of the New York officer of Bunker Labs. My guest today is the founder of Bunker Labs. I think the resources that this organization provides could be beneficial to so many veterans.


Some background on Todd, he is the CEO and founder of Bunker Labs which is an organization that helps veterans start and grow their own businesses. He is also a co-founder of the Collective Academy. He started out at Northwestern University and then went on to serve in the Navy as a Surface Warfare Officer for four years. After leaving the Navy, he held positions with the State of Illinois Inspector General, McMaster-Carr,Booz Allen Hamilton, and the Chicago Public School system. He holds an MBA from the Chicago Booth School of Business


Anything to add to that introduction Todd?

I would just add that I think when you read people’s resumes, it’s easy to confuse causation with correlation. I was speaking at the University of Chicago Business School doing an interview with the Alumni Magazine and they asked me to talk about how Booth had prepared me for my entrepreneurial journey. And I said, ‘To be honest, I’m not sure Booth prepared me for most of what I did.’ I was one year out of business school working in a consulting job as many people do after business school. There’s a joke at Booth -- you can do anything in the world that you want as long as it’s finance or consulting.


I was one year into that consulting job when I decided I wanted to leave and start my own business. I also wanted to run for office. So I joked with the Alumni Magazine that they wouldn’t want to write about a lot of what I did for six or seven years after business school because a lot of it was a series of failures.


Bios and resumes tend to be one of those things where retrospectively we tell a very clean story. But I think it’s important to acknowledge that it’s not always all successful. The Alumni Association wasn’t trying to call me after I quit my consulting job and started my own boutique professional services business. They weren’t calling after I ran for office and lost. But those are super important core elements of what I’ve learned as an adult and what we’re doing today as an organization. So I really celebrate all of those things as we go forward. So if you’re a veteran wondering how to get where you want to go, don’t expect an honest story from other people about how they got there. I think a lot of the messy details get glossed over with time but in reality, they’re really important in getting you to where you need to be.


I appreciate that candor. I think often times in the military, we’re told to avoid failure at all costs but in the civilian world, the failures along the way are often where we learn the most. Sometimes those failures, that wandering in the woods, gets glossed over.

I completely agree and I think that the wandering in the woods is really where the research and discovery happens. There are ideas that we apply at Bunker Labs that have been percolating for years. So it’s important that entrepreneurs shift their mindset from an achievement mindset to a learning mindset. An achievement mindset says that the goal is to get it right and win. In the learning mindset, the goal is to discover. In an achievement mindset, we’re unlikely to take risks or do something reputationally makes us look bad. But with a learning mindset, we’re much more likely to take risks and discover something new.


I was talking to a retired O-6 who wanted to start a bakery with his wife. I said, ‘Ok, have you tried going and working at a bakery?’ And he hadn’t. So I think sometimes our ego can get in the way of being in that discovery and learning mindset. The reality is that we learn the most from just going out and trying and learning new things. It’s a different mentality than I think we’re used to in the military but it’s one that’s important if you want to start your own business.


Is there any exercise or practice that allowed you to adopt that mindset?

We’re actually currently putting together a year end reading list for Bunker Labs which includes about 45 entrepreneurs and leaders from across the country that run the 17 Bunker Labs chapters. One of these books that I think is terrific is a book called, Mindset by Carol Dweck. She is a professor at Stanford and studies behavioral psychology. She has really defined in a much more eloquent way than I just did the difference between a fixed mindset and a growth mindset. A growth mindset says that the goal is learning while the fixed mindset says that the goal is achieving. She’s done a lot of research to catalogue high performing teams and individuals. She has found that high performing teams have inculcated the growth mindset as a way of operating.


There’s implications as well for parenting. If you’re trying to cultivate a growth mindset in your kids, you shouldn’t just celebrate getting “A’s”. You should be focusing more on ‘What did you learn?”. So I think there’s implications in the language that we use and how we behave if a learning mindset is what we want to cultivate.


That’s great -- I’m currently reading the book Failing Forward by John Maxwell. One of the underpinnings of that book is that so many good things can come from failure but we’re a very failure averse society. I haven’t checked out Mindset yet but that will be my next book.

Yeah, and Failing Forward is that same mindset. There’s other literature about startup methodology focuses on how fast you can make discoveries by failing. And this all leads you to what does work. I think the mentality for veterans - which is misinformed - is that they are going to sit in their basement until they feel their product is perfect. But I think the better mindset is to introduce a half baked idea into the world and allow for your customers and users to inform you about what the final product should look like.


I love that idea of building the minimum viable product and then letting users tell you what they need or what they want the product to become. So often we end up polishing the Titanic when users actually want something completely different.

I couldn’t agree more, I think that’s absolutely right. This is also a learned behavior and I would say that the more you do it, the easier it will get. If you look at the greatest entrepreneurs in this country, it’s not millenials. It’s people in their 50s, 60s, and 70s. For these people, it’s become a lifestyle. For them, they like starting businesses and it’s become a lifestyle for them. At Bunker Labs, we have several Vietnam veterans that are starting their 6th, 7th, or 8th business. And each time, they get better at it and it gets easier. It’s important to think about entrepreneurship as a career skill that you will take with you throughout your life.


I’d love to take a deeper dive into Bunker Labs. How would you describe what you do as an organization?

Bunker Labs helps military veterans start and grow their own business. This includes military spouses and children as well. We want to create the biggest impact for people that are looking to start and grow their own business. We’ve done a bunch of different things - we teach programs, have a community app, host webinars, have regular meetups. We tell diverse stories to inspire people.


Our mission boils down to three things - inspire, educate, and connect. To me inspire is how to capture stories from veterans or other members of the military community and inspire other people with those stories. I think we have an obligation to be a storytelling engine that will inspire veterans to be entrepreneurs.


The next component is educate. I think educate is the obvious thing people think about with entrepreneurship. But for me, education is not just teaching someone how to write a business plan, execute business fundamentals, etc. There’s so much information out there and we’re never going to be better at providing that information than, for example, the Kauffman Foundation or Harvard Business School. The education that we are trying to create is specific to the veteran community. We want you to learn how to find the resources and information you need. Our education responsibility is to teach members of the military community to be self-directed and self-aware.


The third pillar of our organization, which I would argue is the most important, is to connect. I think the military community is the most powerful alumni network in the world but we don’t have any kind of Alumni Association. I look at where I went to college - there’s constantly introductions that are being made across those networks. And even though I don’t know the person, I’m likely to take the introduction because of that common background. For military members and veterans -- this is our secret weapon. Even though I was in the Navy on ships, if a Marine called me asking for help, I’m always going to prioritize that phone call. So I keep thinking, how do we make that opportunity available at scale. If we can connect the military alumni community, we can get anywhere we need to go in the world because there are veterans in every industry, We have veterans in C-suites, at prestigious venture capital firms, at investment banking companies, and at their own companies.


My goal for Bunker Labs is to see these disparate elements come together and meet each other. If we can do that, we can unlock a tremendous opportunity for veterans to start and grow businesses. How we do this is through a variety of events such as monthly meetups, national events, leadership conferences, and technology.


What was the genesis of Bunker Labs?

I was on the USS BUNKER HILL in the Navy so that was the namesake for Bunker Labs. I was talking to the folks at 1871 - a technology and entrepreneurship center here in Chicago. I had asked if they had thought about doing any special programming for veterans. They said that they hadn’t but that they thought there was definitely interest there and they would be happy to support me if I wanted to go down that road. So I put a PowerPoint together and started up with the initial idea. I circulated it around to some people I knew at the Mayor’s Office. Within six weeks, we were announcing this new initiative at a Pat Tillman Foundation luncheon. That was three and a half years ago. Since then, it’s just been a learning journey. I originally thought it would be nothing more than a side project. We eventually moved into a chapter model. We got calls from people in other cities - Joseph Kopser - who was running for Congress in Texas. He wanted to bring Bunker Labs to Austin. Then, I had that the same conversation with other veteran leaders in different cities. So the expansion since then has been totally organic. Today we’re in 17 cities including San Antonio which we just launched this past Friday.


Are there any common misconceptions you believe veterans have about starting their own company?

There’s lots of misconceptions. I think veterans underestimate their capacity to be successful. Starting a business is fundamentally about leadership. Everything is about leadership. If you don’t know how to take feedback or articulate a vision, you won’t be able to succeed as an entrepreneur. So, the fundamentals of leading are the basic building blocks of building a business and I think most veterans have that in spades.


Another misconception is that all startups are technology startups. Tech startups really make up a small percentage of startups overall. We just know them better because the successful ones end up being huge brands like Airbnb and Facebook. But all other startups are something else. Someone wants to start their own consulting business, or leadership business, or start a food truck.  There’s a lot of businesses out there that are going to be really successful but they’re not the next Facebook. All long as you have a particular expertise and there is a market for it, you can be an entrepreneur. And you also need the discipline to stick with and take market signals if it’s not working.


There’s also misconceptions that non-military people have about veteran entrepreneurs. I don’t like to spend a lot of time thinking about that. The reality is that it should neither be an asset or a liability. What really matters is that you have a valuable product to offer to customers. When we talk about veteran entrepreneurship, sometimes we have a misconception that veteran entrepreneurship is different from entrepreneurship. But it’s not. Starting a business is starting a business. Being a veteran might open some doors but just being a veteran is not sufficient to creating a good business. Having a good business is having a good business.


In Episode #109 with John Gossart he echoes so much of what you just talked about. That being a veteran entrepreneur might open some doors but it doesn’t entitle you to funding any more than the next entrepreneur.

That’s great and John is awesome. People say we need to change the narrative for veterans. And I think we do that by doing something that catches people’s attention. It’s not about talking about it. It’s about doing something. So to me the best thing we can do is role model what effective leadership looks like. I want to change the narrative about veterans by showcasing how hard work and hustle executed by veterans yields great businesses. To me, that’s how you change the narrative.


Bunker Labs is an entrepreneurship based organization. So if you ask me who are peers are, I would say organizations like Future Founders, Black Men Code, Kauffman Foundation, 1 Million Cups, and Techstars. I view us as an entrepreneurship organization that happens to be founded by military veterans. I think we change the narrative by being the most effective entrepreneurship organization we can be. I want to run a great organization and have the entrepreneurship industry take notice. And that’s how you change the conversation.

(37:15) For someone that will be getting out of the military within the next few years, how would you recommend they think about that first move after the military if they’re interested in entrepreneurship?

While you’re still on active duty is a great time to start thinking about it. The best time to start a business is while you still have a job. That’s a way to de-risk your business. Start it while you still have a job whether that’s inside or outside the military. Starting your own business is not a go for broke exercise. There’s a smarter way to do it than immediately maxing out 19 credit cards. You don’t have to look at it in such binary terms as ‘Do I want a job or do I want to start my own business?’. You can start the business while you still have a job.


I would also align my job search to be toward the domain that you eventually want your business to be in. If you want to open a bakery, go work at a restaurant. Get a job as close to the functional area where you want your business to be. That way you’re getting on the job training while you’re getting paid. So I would tell you if you want to start your own business, don’t forgo getting a job. But get a job in the same field that you want your business to be in.


My advice is start thinking about it now. Find ways to try doing the thing that you want to do even while your still in the military. Also start to build a network outside the military. Only 1% of young people join the military. I would challenge you to get to a place and an industry where you want to be and start building networks. If your network is mostly veterans, I would argue that you’re not going to be able to build the network that you need to be relevant. The best thing you can do is be the only veteran at a event. That’s a great thing because you’ll be able to build you network and get calibrated to the industry you want to enter. You have to be proactive in that way to find those resources.


I completely agree with all of that. I also love that idea of not quitting your day job. A great book is Big Magic by Elizabeth Gilbert. In that she talks about not asking too much of your inspiration. It seems that if you’re able to find nooks and crannies of time during your day to start working on your own business while you still have a job, that gives you a longer runway to get your business off the ground.

Whatever it is you think you want to do, develop an operating thesis. And then find free ways to test that out. If you think you want to become a baker, go bake and make sure it’s actually something you like doing. Or if you think you want to go into consulting, find a small consulting firm and offer to help them for free. Go after opportunities and offering to help for free can be two great ways to build your network and get qualified in whatever it is you want to do. And you also can discover whether or not it’s actually something you want to pursue in the future.


Do you have any insight to offer listeners on how your failures from leaving the military to where you are now helped make Bunker Labs into such a success?

There is a battle between what you perceive to be your reputational risk - which I would argue is other people’s happiness - or are you going to honor your own happiness. To me that’s what it boils down to. This past week, I was part of a roundtable at the USO in San Antonio. One of the other people there was telling me about an O-5 he had been in contact with. The O-5 was getting out of the military after 25 years and was being offered a job. He believed the offer was less than what he should be making and he wasn’t sure that it was the right opportunity. What it boiled down was the fear of getting off of active duty without a job. Ultimately, he decided that it wasn’t the right opportunity and I’m happy he did. He spent the next six months figuring out for himself what he wanted to do with the rest of his life. Reputationally, that’s the hard thing to do but for him, it was the right thing to do. Pursue things that you really think you have a point of view on or you really think you can bring something valuable to market. Doing this almost always requires you to do something that isn’t going to look clean, pretty, celebrated, etc. It’s going to look dirty or even humiliating. But that’s just the journey. So I would argue that the things that people think are holding them back are not actually holding them back. Rather it’s a fear over a negative impact to our reputation. There’s fear over announcing that you’re going after a career or idea that is a little bit different. But those are the moments of truth in entrepreneurship. I would say don’t be afraid to take these risks because ultimately you are going to be able to create a destiny you are happy with.


This is fantastic advice and two other episode that jump  to mind mind that speak to the same thing are Episode #40 with Annie Taft and Episode #6 with Jimmy Sopko. Annie went straight from active duty military to culinary school and Jimmy went from active duty to Pinterest but he had to take a significant pay and seniority decrease in order to get himself in the door. I love this advice of just letting go of the fear of what other people will think.

I couldn’t agree more. And please reach out to the Bunker Labs because we have so many people here that want to connect with you and support you. I do also want to give a plug for Launch Lab Online, a Bunker Labs hosted event taking place in January. It’s a 12-week process where we take you through the journey of starting a business. There’s awesome TED  Talks, articles, and podcasts that will be part of the program. We’ll also do several self-assessments. If you’re thinking about starting on the entrepreneurial journey, I would highly encourage you to apply.


Is there anything else that we haven’t covered that you want to leave listeners with?

I would just tell you that everyone can be great. As you transition, give yourself some forgiveness for the mistakes you make along the way. It’s OK to have the wrong job before you get the right job. It’s not about perfection, it’s more about the number of at bats. So try lots of different things and figure out what works for you. No change is final and you can change at any moment. You don’t have to get it perfect right out of the gate.


I would also say if you’re interested in starting a business, take the chance. You only have one life. And I hope Bunker Labs can help you along the way.