When Navy Veteran Thomas H. Douglas Came out of the military, he did what many in the military do – he started a job.
Douglas began a civilian career as an entry-level engineer at JMARK Business Solutions.
Four years later, he purchased the company, leading JMARK to many successes, including its place on Inc. magazine’s list of America’s 5,000 Fastest-Growing Private Companies. JMARK made the list not once but nine times.
With 25 years of business experience to share, Douglas has published his first manual “Adapt or Die: How to Create Innovation, Solve Puzzles, and Win Businessin May 2022. “Adapt or Die” aims to be more than a typical business book, exploring what Douglas calls the Algorithm of Success business system and sharing real-world insights, strategies, and solutions for succeeding in companies of all sizes. Douglas will also host an Adapt or Die Masterclass in August 2022.
We asked Douglas about his book and asked for advice for those considering becoming a business owner after military service.
Q: Why did you write “Adapt or Die?”
A: When we receive special things, I believe we have a responsibility to do something to pay for that and help others. My life has been filled with special people. It started at a young age with my amazing family and friends living in an amazing community. In college, I had the chance to meet amazing people who showed me way too many ways to have fun, but also taught me how to enjoy life. In the Navy, I again met exceptional people and learned the impact of good (and bad) leadership. I could see transformation, suppression, anger, joy, and above all, people reaching new levels and abilities.
Since my time in the Navy, I have continued to connect with great people within our organization, meeting my wife, with our customers, and through wonderful board members. Along with all these amazing people, I focused on remaining a student in all things. This passion to learn, combined with the teachings of others, has helped me achieve some pretty special things with some very special people.
Maybe it’s because my mom was a teacher who helped people realize potential they didn’t know they had, or maybe it’s because my dad always focused on the serving and making a difference in people’s lives, or maybe it’s because in my heart I love seeing people reach new levels. Whatever the reasons, I decided to share as much as possible through this book and these courses.
Q: Are people and relationships central to your book?
A: The data tells us that most people are underutilized and undervalued – so much so that most people simply tolerate a job instead of enjoying a fulfilling career. Sure, culture and people are more of a focus now than in previous years, but focus doesn’t solve the problem. You need to have a real system in place to maximize results for everyone involved. When alignment happens between a company’s customers, the team within the company, and the business leaders/owners, great things happen.
“Adapt or die” describes a system that puts people at the center of the business through a set of principles that I describe as the success algorithm. The algorithm starts with leadership and then expands to product, strategy, growth, financial modeling, people, operations and processes. These principles are the things we have learned over 20+ years of failure and success. I am delighted to share the hope that others can accelerate the challenges that we have been able to overcome.
Q: What advice can you offer transitioning military service members interested in business ownership?
A: First, have a plan to do something you’re passionate about. When we’re in the military, we have responsibilities, goals, standards, orders, and a strong sense of teamwork to ensure we stay focused on the right things. During your transition, this will not exist initially, so it is important that you dedicate your time to meaningful work and come back for more. Before making the transition, do your best to learn useful skills in the civilian space. Leadership is definitely valuable, and compassionate leadership even more so. However, having a trade, specific ability, skill set, or talent is necessary for you to add value to a business or organization. Use leadership skills and abilities to maximize your impact.
If you are acquiring a business, have a team around you. There are a lot of things you’ll need to know to make sure you’re set up for success. Certainly lawyers, banks, accountants, IT partners, insurance companies, etc. These are obvious in today’s world. Be sure to build those relationships (be picky). Ask lots of questions and don’t be shy. Most business problems have already been solved by someone else, so don’t think you have to be the superhero. You also want to make sure you have a team around you day to day. Starting a business is very difficult. Surround yourself with people you like to be with, who you can trust, and who are aligned with the results you are focused on.
Q: You worked as an employee before becoming a business owner. Do you recommend going straight from the military to business ownership?
A: I would say it depends on the experiences you had before a transition. There is so much you need to know about business to do it right. If you’ve been exposed to these things, this might be right for you. If not, it’s probably worth working at a company for a while to learn some of the basics you’ll need to build on. I don’t mean to sound like I’m promoting myself, but that’s why I wrote “Adapt or Die”. It has the Success Algorithm, which shares what we had to figure out along the way. If you have a good appreciation for these things in your world, then you are ready. If you don’t, I’ll spend the time establishing them.
Q: What traits developed in the military lend themselves to business ownership?
A: The first thing I think of is discipline, which is important for a business owner in their own life. I would say another positive trait you gain in the military is perseverance. Train, drill and practice until you get something right. They don’t let you just give up and move on if it’s hard.
The pitfall that comes with it is thinking that either your business has to be run that way or that every employee has to have the same kind of discipline or they can’t be successful or as effective.
Q: What are the other potential pitfalls?
A: The next pitfall would be to rely on top-down leadership. This is necessary for the military, so that soldiers (or sailors, in the navy) are drilled and trained and accustomed to following orders without question. In a combat zone, in the middle of a battle, things have to be like this. But civilian life is not that. And effective business leadership must be collaborative and happen at all levels. That’s why I’ve worked to embed a leader-leader philosophy in my company so that anyone at any level of the company has the authority and permission to talk about the issues they see at any what other level of business.
Q: In addition to your book, are there any resources you can recommend for those looking to start a business after the military?
A: Many! I would say “Abundance” by Peter Diamandis. It helped me have the right mindset to stay optimistic. I would also say “7 Habits of Highly Effective People”, “Turn Around”, “Predictable Success”, “Scaling Up” and “Pulling”… But there are literally dozens of them.
Here’s a story: Probably one of the best lessons I learned was how to run a good leadership meeting. We were meeting once a week, but we weren’t really making the progress we needed. The meetings weren’t organized, not focused on the right things. We came and went without feeling energized or excited about what was to come and what we had accomplished.
We started with Verne Harnish’s “Scaling Up” (it was Rockefeller Habits) method of running meetings, then we migrated to the “Pull” methodology. Both are amazing and essential to putting together a good team to focus on the right things at the right time. Having an agenda where time puts the right things at the right time was a game changer for us and kept us focused. They both help you identify the key numbers, key issues, and strategic priorities you need to align. Putting the team on the same page was the gift.
I would also say that understanding where we were as an organization by learning from Les McKeown in “Predictable Success” helped us know where we were in our maturity so we could focus on the right things.
Q: What is the first thing a person should know before starting a business after leaving military service?
A: I would come back to your team. Don’t go alone. The issues have already been resolved. This includes those I have spoken about before, but it also includes your family. Don’t try to shield them from business challenges. You need an ecosystem around you to be able to win. Starting a business is a family commitment. Share challenges, successes, cash flow issues, people issues. Don’t be alone at the top. I got more good advice from my wife than I can count.