Thirty years ago, opening a small business was a big risk and a massive financial commitment. Thanks to the ubiquity of internet shopping and the rise of social media, that's rarely the case these days. It's possible to launch a business with very little startup capital and gain customers online from all over the country. Better yet, your work could be portable. If you're a military spouse, starting your own business is a tempting solution to all the unique employment challenges you face. And it absolutely can be! But this is another area where your spouse's job might introduce a few extra hurdles and complications. You just need to know what they are, so you can include them in your plans to build a successful business.
The Process For Everyone
There are many resources out there on how to start a business, and the basics are still going to be helpful to you, so read up! First, you need to find out whether your business idea is feasible:
- Use market research to assess and refine your idea
- Gather information on your costs
- Decide whether you need financing or if you can bootstrap
- Do a break-even analysis
- Check for any legal concerns that impact your business model
Once you've decided to move forward, you need to consider some additional logistics:
- Decide what legal business structure is right for you
- Register your business with all the necessary authorities
- Decide if you need a website right away and how you'll market your business
- Set up a separate bank account for your business
- Decide whether you need insurance
- Don't forget to account for your tax obligations from the beginning (or you'll scramble later)
If you're not asking for outside capital right away, none of this needs to be slick or complicated, but you need to ask yourself the right questions and be realistic about the answers. And where the answers aren't good, you need to consider how you can make them better.
Of course, being a military spouse puts its own spin on things (always does!). There are three main considerations you need to worry about that others don't: making your business portable, deciding what state you'll register in, and accounting for any additional rules and regulations that apply.
Unique Problem #1: Is Your Business Portable?
This is really the make-or-break question that most entrepreneurs don't have to ask themselves: how easily will you be able to continue your business when you inevitably PCS? Are there measures you can take to make it easier? Consider this early, to save yourself the heartbreak of building a business that's ultimately not sustainable to your lifestyle. If you're selling virtual services (like web design, medical transcribing, proofreading, bookkeeping), then your business is probably portable by nature. Your biggest logistical concern might be time zone issues for meetings if you're moved outside the continental U.S. If you sell goods online that you make and ship from home (like jewelry or knitting), then you're also fine as long as you're stateside. The largest issue if you're sent abroad will be postage, and if that's likely to happen, you'll need to take a hard look at whether your business would remain profitable. If you sell home-based, in-person services (like child care, lawn care, or music lessons), then unfortunately, you'll face the obstacle of rebuilding your customer base from scratch every time you PCS. How hard is that likely to be for you, given your personality and your business model? Is it something you're willing to do repeatedly? And finally, any business that requires heavy equipment or a brick-and-mortar space is going to be tough, if not impossible. Is there a way you can alter your business plan to make it more portable?
Unique Problem #2: What State Should You Register In?
For traditional entrepreneurs, this question is more straightforward: where was the income earned? And if the answer is at home, then they register in the state where they live. But for you, this can get tricky. You may need to establish a "tax home" in a particular state for your business, then as you PCS, you may or may not need to register as a foreign entity in each state. The question isn't a trivial one—it impacts your tax burden, your legal liability, and the rules by which you conduct your business. You'll want to seek expert advice from a lawyer or accountant.
Unique Problem #3: What are the Additional Rules and Regulations You Need to Follow?
As a military spouse, additional rules and regs apply to your life (as you know). Normal entrepreneurs need to worry about the applicable rules for the place that they're living and wherever their customers live. You also have military regs to contend with, plus "where you live" will change and may even involve a separate country. You'll want to contact your housing or base commanding officer to get the whole picture, but here are a few examples of rules that might affect you:
- If you live on base, you can't run a business out of your home that competes with base facilities or compromises the security of the housing area.
- Installation housing regulations could make some businesses plans unfeasible or illegal that would be fine in civilian housing.
- You can't use the military postal system for commercial purposes, so forget that as a loophole to your overseas shipping problem.
- If you're stationed overseas, you have to follow the Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) between the U.S. and the country you're in.
- Anything that is legal at the state level but violates federal law will get you in hot water.
- Come tax time, you probably can't claim home office deduction if you're on-base.
This is another area where you'll want to get expert advice specific to your business and location.
Luckily for you, there are special resources available to you that make up for those extra hoops. This includes entrepreneurial education, mentoring networks, special business loans, and places for military spouses to promote their business. To get started, you should consider:
- The Office of Veterans Business Development (OVBD) within the U.S. Small Business Association (SBA) offers entrepreneurial training programs (free of charge!) on 180 installations—not just to veterans, but to military spouses, as well. They also offer one-on-one counseling through their district offices. They can help you navigate some of the trickier questions, like the licenses, permits, and zoning ordinances that might apply to you in your current location.
- The Entrepreneurship Bootcamp for Veterans' Families (EBV-F) offers a 30-day online course on business plus a 9-day in-person seminar. After that, you get 12 months of support and mentorship from their network. This program is completely free for those that are accepted, including the travel and lodging for the in-person portion.
- The Spouse Education & Career Opportunities (SECO) site has a webinar from 2016 that you can go watch right now. It reviews many of the topics mentioned in this article, in-depth.
- The Military Spouse Career Advancement Account (MyCAA) provides up to $4,000 towards specific types of professional education. It's not directly linked to starting your own business, but if you need training or coursework, check if it's eligible.
That's far from being an exhaustive list—there are many other resources out there to support you. The truth is, no one gets started in business in isolation. Tap as many resources as you can to learn and grow.
Listen to Your Gut
If you have the interest, passion, skills, and dedication, starting your own business is absolutely doable, even with the particular challenges of being a military spouse. It's also a hard road that isn't necessarily for everyone. If you ultimately decide that entrepreneurship isn't right for you, there are other paths you can take for developing a career that is portable and in demand. Do your homework, and listen to your gut. You'll find that fulfilling career you're looking for.