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PART 1: Bunker Labs Nashville helping ex-military entrepreneurs

Bunker Labs Nashville(EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the first article in a three-part series focused on Bunker Labs, which has an operation in the Nashville Entrepreneur Center, and one of its client companies, also located in Nashville.)

By Tom Ballard, Chief Alliance Officer, PYA

“We’re the American Legion for ex-military entrepreneurs,” Blake Hogan of Bunker Labs says in explaining the organization that now has a footprint in Nashville.

Founded three years ago in Chicago, the national not-for-profit organization recently added Music City to its growing list that totals 15 communities. The next closest locations are Columbus, OH; Kansas City; and the Raleigh-Durham area.

The program, founded by veterans, is all about tapping into the knowledge, experience and expertise of those leaving military service in ways that allow them to succeed.

“One and a half million veterans will leave (military) service in the next five years,” Hogan, Executive Director of the Nashville operation, says, adding that 25 percent of them are interested in starting a business, but less than five percent are actually doing it. That compares with 49 percent of World War II veterans who either owned or operated a business after exiting the service.

“We work to inspire, educate, and connect veterans with the right people and the right resources to be successful as entrepreneurs and as innovators,” the organization states on its webpage.

Hogan is a former Marine Officer who has experienced the entrepreneurial journey firsthand.

After leaving the U.S. Marines in 2012, he says he wanted to “find a way to continue to serve.” That goal led him to California and Austin for a brief tour with a company that electronically tinted glass. Hogan helped them get acquired before starting a company named Tech Commander.

“I heard former military guys say if they could only get facetime with someone who was hiring, they could succeed” Hogan says. “I heard employers say the same thing about getting facetime with veterans.”

So, he and a few good Marines built what Hogan describes as “a great technology” to address what they had heard. Then, with the technology developed, the team set-out to validate the business need.

You probably have already guessed about the result of the “build it and they will come” approach. “It was a total disaster,” the straight talking Hogan said. “I learned a lot, but I did not ask enough questions.”

As he was deciding what came next after the start-up transitioned to a foundation to continue connecting troops to jobs, he learned about Bunker Labs and joined to help found the second location in Austin. In less than three years, the organization reports that 300 jobs have been created in companies it has served with a total of nearly $17.5 million in revenue and $23 million in capital raised.

The secret sauce is simple. “If we bet on individual entrepreneurs and leverage our network, we can help them succeed,” Hogan says. “We want that individual entrepreneur to decide what success looks like, then succeed.”

To illustrate how Bunker Labs works, he cited an entrepreneur in Austin who was selling un-sweet tea out of the back of his Chevrolet Tahoe. This veteran defined success as 15 stores plus one in the airport. After the 12-week Bunker Labs cohort, the entrepreneur was able to successfully realize his goal.

Hogan explains that Bunker Labs has programs for veterans that live close to its 15 locations as well as services for those who connect remotely. A good starting point for any veteran, whether near one of the 15 locations or elsewhere, is a new effort named “Bunker in a Box.” Adopting the military theme of missions, it takes individuals through 14 activities geared to helping them understand if entrepreneurship is a good match and, if it is, preparing them for that new career mission.

Other activities include:

  • “Bunker Brews,” monthly happy hours that connect military entrepreneurs with business leaders through pitch sessions and panels to share their business lessons from the frontline.
  • The “Bunker EPIC Cohort,” a once-a-week session for 12 weeks that provides entrepreneurial training with a special emphasis on veterans. The goal is to help participants answer this question: “Will someone take money out of their pocket and give it to you?”
  • The “Bunker Labs: CEO Circle” where successful business executive, many of them veterans, give their time as mentors to those who are part of the Bunker Labs programming.
  • “Muster Nashville,” a half-day veteran business conference as part of national tour taking place in every Bunker market. The Bunker Muster Nashville event is set for May 24.

NEXT: More about the May 24 event.


Tom Ballard

By Tom Ballard, Chief Alliance Officer,
Pershing Yoakley & Associates. P.C.

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