'Vetrepreneurs' should look to Internet to raise capital

Mark L. Rockefeller is the co-founder & CEO of StreetShares.com, an interactive marketplace where lenders bid to provide shares of commercial loans to veteran-owned small businesses. He is a Legionnaire and veteran of the Iraq War. Many thanks to StreetShares Associate Stuart Spooner for research assistance with this article.

In the middle of an anemic economic recovery, many of us are looking for something to kick-start U.S. economic growth. If we want to learn from history, here’s an idea: Look to America’s military veterans. Veterans saved the economy before, and they can do it again. And even though capital is tight, today’s veterans have a secret weapon.

Veterans are natural business owners.

Surveys show that military service is one of the strongest predictors of business ownership- Military veterans make up only 6 percent of the U.S. population, but nearly 15 percent of business owners, and these businesses produce a whopping $1.6 trillion in annual receipts and employ 8.2 million Americans.

Veterans have done this before.

Following WWII, when my grandparents generation, the “Greatest Generation,” turned their swords into plowshares, the economy boomed. During that period, nearly half (49.7 percent) of World War II veterans started or owned their own business, and America enjoyed an economic golden age.

A new generation of veterans is ready to start and grow their businesses.

Fast-forward 60 years. My generation is filled with talented would-be business owners leaving active duty. About 2.5 million of us served in Iraq and Afghanistan. Over 200,000 military members transition into civilian life each year and an additional 600,000 will exit the military by 2016. I count myself as a proud member of the growing, vibrant, and diverse movement of veteran-entrepreneurs (or “Vetrepreneurs”).

The problem? Access to capital is not what is used to be.

Post-World War II, American small businesses had access to capital through banks, of all shapes and sizes, and many of the small and community banks were committed to the success of local business customers.

By contrast, my generation of veterans has returned home to a capital landscape as inhospitable as the Afghan countryside. Today, we only have half as many banks, and bank consolidations and regulatory burdens have hit the smallest banks the hardest. What’s worse, according to the Federal Reserve, the Big Banks that remain have been exiting the small business lending market for over a decade.

But today’s veterans have a secret weapon.

The Internet. In case you missed it, there is an Internet-fueled capital-raising revolution happening right now.

Crowdfunding platforms (such as Kickstarter and Indiegogo) allow thousands of individuals to interact with and collectively fund new projects, artists and charitable causes. Less interactive, but booming, peer-to-peer lending sites (such as Lending Club and Prosper) allow thousands of people to collectively lend to each other anonymously.

Funding directly from individuals over the Internet is slowly replacing traditional financial institutions in some sectors of the economy. And the movement is just getting started.

How to fund a new generation of veteran-owned businesses.

The next generation of peer-funding platforms will be more interactive. Interactive small business-focused lending platforms are emerging, such as StreetShares.com (disclaimer: my company) that harness the power of online lending and combine it with social affinities – all to provide capital to business owners.

Big picture? We are in a unique position to fund a new generation of veteran-owned and Main Street small businesses... all without the Big Banks.

Let’s use online funding communities to get capital into the hands of vetrepreneurs. Doing so will kick-start the U.S. economy, and create opportunities for investors, businesses and veterans alike. We might even make our grandparents proud.

An earlier version of this article was published by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.

© Mark L. Rockefeller, 2014. All Rights Reserved.