As the United States and its European allies launched air strikes against Libya’s Muammar Qaddafi on Saturday, my thoughts, like those of many others, focused on civilians and their safety. This includes men and women serving in uniform. No soldier I know wants to inflict harm on ordinary citizens. To avoid that, while also ensuring its victory, the military prepares rigorously through training, simulations and drills. “Failure is not an option.”
Mike LaValle, a former soldier, agrees. Moreover, he believes that it is military preparation that makes soldiers ideally suited for the life of an entrepreneur. It is a life he has chosen. LaValle, a West Point grad, former Army infantry platoon leader and Afghan war veteran, has dived head-on into the life of start-ups along with Tian He to launch Gojee.com, a food technology platform. The platform will be released in May.
“Entrepreneurship is going to war,” LaValle says with humility and the recognition that they are entirely separate yet connected experiences. “Working on a start-up has the same intensity as being deployed in a war zone,” he says. Except, the war zone leaves you better prepared.
“How many entrepreneurs tell the story of their first three failed start-ups before they got it right?” he writes on his blog, War and the Entrepreneur, “The time to fail is not when you start your first company or when you take your first platoon into combat. I failed Ranger School the first time I tried and had to do it again. I’m glad I got failure out of the way then and didn’t fail my platoon when it mattered.”
What matters to him today: groceries. That is at the heart of Gojee.com. It is a technology platform that analyses a customer’s food purchases then suggests recipes based on those items. In the spirit of Foursquare and Mint, Gojee is rooted in user-experience in order to enhance and improve user lives. It is a tool that caught the attention of Nicholas D’Agostino, grandson of the founder of “New York’s grocer.” D’Agostino is the first supermarket to pilot Gojee.com, which has started marketing on the chain’s website.
The idea to collect and analyse buying habits of grocery store customers came to LaValle and He while both worked brutal hours in the technology group for the investment giant Morgan Stanley in late 2009. “Everyone was hot on retail but no one was focused on food,” LaValle says. It was only a year later that the concept gained momentum after they recognised the benefits they could provide by suggesting recipes based on those purchases. “Right now a person has to go to recipe sites such as epicurious.com and search for something to make,” he says. Through Gojee, the recipes are delivered to the customer.
It’s an idea that excited enough investors that LaValle and He have raised an undisclosed amount that has allowed them to hire a staff of nine, all of whom sit around and work at a common table in a loft in SoHo, New York. One of Gojee’s investors is a major Silicon Valley figure. They weren’t ready to reveal who.
“Our first round of financing came from professional angel investors,” LaValle says. That’s whom they chose to go to first before turning to their friends and family. “We weren’t comfortable taking our own friend’s and family’s money if we couldn’t convince other sources to invest as well.” That, along with LaValle’s passionate defence of the military, is what distinguishes his enterprise, which is still finessing a revenue model.
That Gojee’s revenue model was not final does not worry LaValle. In fact, he anticipates further hurdles and obstacles ahead. That’s the nature of entrepreneurship. Given his war experience, which he calls, “managing chaos,” he’s confident he can succeed. The Iraqi and Afghan wars, LaValle says, have forced men and women to operate in situations with a high level of uncertainty. It’s not just ordinary military duty. They are given impossible tasks, in unfamiliar and oppressive conditions, that they then are expected to complete with success. That has led to the surge of a new generation of soldiers interested in entrepreneurship. Adrenaline is what LaValle sees as the deciding factor.
Though LaValle didn’t mention it, the changed nature of combat operations is another. In addition to traditional warfare, more and more U.S. soldiers are engaged in “nation building.” In 2008, the U.S. Army issued a new field manual, which, as it states, “equally weighs the tasks dealing with the population – stability or civil support – with those related to offensive and defensive operations. Winning battles and engagements is important but alone is not sufficient. Shaping the civil situation is just as important to success.”
This past June, Carl Schramm the President and CEO of the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation went further. In an article in Foreign Affairs, he called for “expeditionary economics” in which “….the U.S. military develop its competence in economics,” and “economic reconstruction.”
It is a competence that several soldiers, or former ones such as LaValle, have leveraged back home. LaValle’s West Point classmates Brad Hunstable, John Ham and Adrian Talapan are three others that left the U.S. Army to launch enterprises. Hunstable and Ham founded Ustream.tv, which has been recently popularised by Charlie Sheen. Talapan launched and sold the pharmaceutical software company formerly Clarix, now Phase Forward, to Oracle. He is in the middle of launching a second enterprise.
With engagements in Iraq, Afghanistan and now Libya, indications are that we’ll see more. That is a mixed blessing. With so many lives at risk, including the citizens of those countries, digging the trenches of entrepreneurship out of war puts a sobering reality on valuation. It also puts a badly needed spotlight on the question that most entrepreneurs and soldiers weigh heavily on, “tell me how this ends.”
This post originally appeared at Elmira Bayrasil’s blog, Entreventures on Forbes.com.
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