#36: From the SEALs to addressing pride and ego with Alexander Kunz. This episode will make an impact on you! Alex discusses his past, his time as a SEAL, and the corporate and entrepreneurial journey and CHALLENGES that not many other people are willing to discuss. A LOT here, you’ll love it.
#36: From the SEALs to addressing pride and ego with Alexander Kunz
September 30, 2020 • 56:15
Aaron Spatz, Host, America’s Entrepreneur
Alexander Kunz, Co-Founder and CEO, OP2 Labs
I’m Aaron Spatz and this is The Veterans Business Podcast. A podcast centered around the stories of US military veterans and their adventures in the business world following their time in service, its stories of challenges and obstacles and an inside look at how veterans find their life’s work, their purpose in their post-military lives. Just real quick before we get started, I need to do the obligatory explicit content warning. There’s just a little bit of foul language spread out throughout the episode.
Welcome to another edition of The Veterans Business Podcast. I’m so delighted that you’ve chosen to tune in today. And it’s my hope through the stories of this podcast that you’ll find stories of encouragement and insights to help propel you in your own ventures. If you enjoy the show, I’d love it if you were to tell other people about. It’d be great. If you really enjoy it, subscribe, which is always fun. I love interacting with you. I love being accessible. So feel free to email me at email@example.com. And let me know if there’s a particular episode that really jumps out at you or if there’s just something that you just really enjoy about the show. I would love to hear from you.
I’m pleased to introduce this week’s guest. We have Alexander Kunz. Alex is a veteran of the US Navy served in Special Warfare as a SEAL for ten years before punching out and taking on a variety of roles inside of various organizations before serving in a government agency for four years, then taking on a whole bunch of other different roles and starting a variety of ventures. And we’re going to dig more into that and learn a whole bunch more about his story today. Alexander, I just want to thank you. Thank you so much for joining the show.
Thanks for having me. I really appreciate it.
Yeah. No, this is will be a lot of fun. It’s always great to network with other just outstanding veterans. I love to see what folks are doing in the civilian space. If you wouldn’t mind, just share with us a little bit about your background, your upbringing, what compelled you to join the Navy?
Yeah, sure. So, I grew up in a fairly traditional background but my descent is I’m a part Chinese German. My mother was very strict raising me. It’s kind of their fundamental belief that she was raised is either you’re a doctor or you’re a lawyer or you’re nothing. And at the time, my father was a medical doctor, what they call a flight surgeon. So he’s both a doctor and a pilot in the Navy. But I never thought about joining the military. I wanted to pursue a career based on kind of living through my father’s life. So he had private practice in our house that was just a small little office where he treated individuals. And so I knew that that lifestyle.
And I graduated, you know, I did well in school. So I graduated high school a year early and enrolled in U of A. And in my second year, it was kind of an interesting story. So when I started my second year, my father said, “Hey, I want to talk to you about your future education.” And he had said to me, he said, “Listen, I know that your experience has been through my lens and what the medical field looks like.” He says, “But I want to tell you this because I don’t think you’re going to be happy in this career.” He says, “The reality is that medicine’s moving away from true care to patient care to just how many patients you can see in a day. It’s really not about diagnosis. It’s about treatment.” And he said, “I’m telling you this because what you see now is not what your future is going to be.”
And so I had wrestled with changing my degree a few times. So at that time, I was set to be a medical doctor. And then I went into computer science. And I remember this day to distinctly, I was walking between classes and walking down this path that kind of splits the whole U of A campus toward, you know, it’s walking towards the stadium. And I had my head down just kind of thinking about my future and ended up almost running into the guy. This guy was wearing a set of khakis. And kind of funny. He just made a comment and said, “Hey, it looks like you’re kind of not doing what you want to do in life.” You know, I remember thinking like, who the hell is this guy, right? How does he know me?
And so, of course, I stopped, started talking. And the first thing I noticed was this big gold emblem on his chest and I didn’t know what it was. I didn’t know what the SEALs were at the time. And so he asked me a little bit about what I was doing. And I told him that I had an idea of what I wanted for a career and now I don’t know what I want to do. And he looked up at me, he said, “Well, do you want to do the hardest thing you’ll ever do in your life?” Then it kind of made me think a little bit. So we had a conversation. And about a half an hour later, I knew that’s what I wanted to do.
But it’s kind of interesting because, at the same time, that’s what I wanted to do, I also realized, had to tell my mother that I was going to pursue a career that in her mind was not a respectable career. And so I went home and I told my mother, “Hey, I’m dropping out of college here and I want to become a Navy SEAL.” And that was the day that she told me, she said, “Well, if you drop out of school and you join the military, you’re no longer my son.” And I said, “Okay. I guess I’m no longer your son.” And I left.
So it was kind of interesting because obviously there was a lot of pressure there from the family to have a perception of respectable career, but I believed in following, if you want to call it, my destiny and I knew that’s what I wanted to do. And you know, not to make it appear that my mother’s the devil by any means, she ended up understanding what the SEAL program is about. And later when we reconnected, and of course, she’s still my mother.
That’s how I started my career. I did ten years in the SEAL Teams, you know, freefall jumpmaster sniper, I went to a lot of different countries. And then I got out after ten years and was lucky enough, fortunate enough, to get a job in the technology field doing cybersecurity. So my first job, believe it or not, was actually building the new network operation centers for both the Navy and Marine Corps internet. So I had a lot of hands-on practical experience installing, building systems. I achieved all kinds of certifications for networking, cybersecurity.
So I did that for a few years. So I worked for two Fortune 250 companies. I went from a consultant to managing a department. And then about that time, 9/11 occurred. And I just kind of remember sitting in this huge network operations center, I’m watching these planes flying to the towers and I felt like I had to kind of do something there. And at that time, kind of I had an interesting life. I was separated from my kids’ mother and so we were going through a custody battle. And so that was challenging because my first thought was to go back in the SEAL Teams, but then based on the custody battle and what I would have to pay, I realized I couldn’t afford to do that. So I decided to go to the contract route. So for another three years, I contracted, working for as a contract for other government agencies. So it’s a term that we use for three-letter agencies.
And I really enjoyed that. It’s interesting. A lot of people ask, “You go from a corporate career that’s fairly low risk to something that’s high risk, how did you feel?” And my explanation was, you know, I just kind of provided an image. I said, “Everyday going to work, I felt like I was stressed out about something.” The stack of papers was building up. Nobody was ever really accountable for anything. So your workload just builds and builds and builds, but nobody ever really takes accountability for anything so nothing ever gets done.
And I remember the day I signed up to the contract work, it was a little kind of interesting how we had to fly in a country because we had to fly into a couple other countries and we had to go to the small airport and we got onto this small plane. I didn’t know who I was meeting. I didn’t know who was supposed to pick me up, but it was this kind of strange little endeavor of handing off envelopes, making phone calls, finding out where you’re supposed to be and being at a certain place at a certain time.
And needless to say, we got onto a small plane and we were flying over the Afghanistan mountains. And I remember flying over this peak and looking down. And as soon as we came over the precipice of the peak, I could see these gun placements, AAA guns sitting there on the ground about 200 feet below us. And clearly, you could see that they were bombed and nobody who was hit on. But I remember when I saw that, I actually felt at home. It felt like I needed to be there. So the stress levels had changed. I had been doing something for ten years and then moved into a career for which I really wasn’t accustomed. So for me, I was really just going back to what I had been used to for many years.
So I really enjoyed it. The job was great, fairly dynamic job, but I will say, you know, what we did is nothing compared to the actual combat units, like the SEAL platoons went over there. We did have jobs to do and we did go out in the field, we did participate in combat operations, but not to the extent that the typical Special Operations community would.
About that time, again, we were in Chicago for a second custody battle and I really wanted full custody of my son at that time because the mother at that time was having some challenges. And the one excuse for me losing full custody was that I wasn’t at home. I was traveling a lot with contract work. So, at that time, I realized I left the military because I wanted to pursue and start a company. So that was really the indication that, hey, you know, either you need to just contract for the rest of your life, let your son being raised by somebody else, or you just need to make that clean cut and really focus on what you’re not good at – obtain new knowledge and learn a new skillset. And so I kind of applied practical knowledge, and said, listen, it doesn’t matter who you were. What defines you as a person is what you do now. And so what that told me is that I’m going to have to spend quite a few years to learn a new trade and be good at it.
So coincidentally, at that time, there was a company called Sempra Energy that was hiring and they were specifically looking for guys with a technology background. So I got hired. And then three years later, they gave me the job to run the entire cybersecurity department. And so, fast forward three years, I had 400 people working for me. I was responsible for procurement, to some extent, audits, some audit responsibility. We did a lot of legal legislative work on lobbying through legislation, became a subject matter expert for two different national cyber security bills and was also a subject matter expert, coincidentally, for the national pandemic response plan while I worked at Sempra.
Did really well, had great opportunity, was moving up pretty fast. But at that time, I also decided – well, kind of cut back there a little bit too because this will speak to why I am where I am now. So while I was working at Sempra Energy, kind of an interesting story, and this goes to the fact that, really, what I learned over time is don’t judge people based on first impressions because you really never know who they are.
And coming out of the military, I think, for me, there was kind of a judgmental thing, right? There’s “you haven’t been where I’ve been, you haven’t seen what I’ve seen so you don’t know”. But it’s just a different perspective. And the reason I say that is, I was on a friend’s yacht. We were in San Clemente Island. And the way San Clemente Island works, there’s these different moorings. It’s kind of first come, first serve. And there was one mooring left and we were pulling into the slip and there was this big 80-foot, you know, our yacht was 60-foot, his was 80. And I remember this guy coming, running out on front of it because he was worried that we were going to hit his boat. And so he was telling us to tie the boat on all these different sides and it ended up being this huge cluster fuck. Sorry.
And I finally told my buddy who’s driving the boat, I said, “Listen, stop listening to this guy and just put the boat where you want to put it.” So I told him, I said, “Listen, man, just leave us alone. We’ve got this taken care of. We know how to drive a boat. Just worry about your boat.” Next morning, I’m up at five o’clock in the morning, I’m sitting on the bow of boat. The individual comes out, introduces himself. So I come to find out he was the former CEO of Westinghouse and now he ran a huge, large venture company in Los Angeles. So a conversation, you know, a rash conversation turned into an apology on his behalf. And then next thing you knew, two weeks later, I got a job as a senior vice president for strategic planning for his mergers and acquisitions firm.
Yeah, it’s pretty interesting. And so I did that while I was working for Sempra. You know, I’d work Monday through Friday, Saturday and Sunday, every day I would go up to Wilshire Boulevard, LA, and work at the office. There I learned about building global companies. So I had the responsibility of looking at acquisitions, looking at different types of technology, how to build a company around it. So it was really about globalization and how to take a commodity and how to globalize it on a global scale. So I got a lot of experience there. And then still working at Sempra.
But for me, there was a decision point. I knew that just my personality, I was more of an entrepreneur spirit. I knew what I wanted in the culture of the company. I knew the type of people I wanted and I knew the type of reputation I wanted my brand to represent and I knew I wasn’t finding that in the corporate world. What I learned, you know, believe it or not, I think what I learned in terms of invaluable skills is more of what I didn’t want to do as a company versus what I did want to do.
Just working for so many large companies, you see that the number one problem is company’s culture and it creates so many problems. I mean, meeting after meeting after meeting where nobody’s doing anything, it’s just everybody’s talking, paralysis through analysis. So I had to make a decision because I was kind of offered an advancement and I decided that’s not what I want to do. I want to start my own company.
So first company I started was with my brother and sister and that was a clothing company called Nicholas K. So high-end men’s and women’s fashion. My brother just graduated from U of A with his MBA and my sister was a clothing designer for Donna Karan, Calvin Klein, all these big companies. And we came together, kind of filled in different skillsets, and started the company. And about three years later, you know, I decided I just really didn’t want to be in the fashion industry. Just wasn’t kind of my industry. They really enjoyed it so I stepped out and then they started running everything. And that’s when I started OP2 Labs with my co-founder, Jeff Byers.
The interesting thing is Jeff and I were doing the same job. We were working overseas for OGA. We met back up during one of my deployments and we had effectively said, “We don’t want to be doing this for life. So let’s start this company.” So now you fast forward three years, I remembered the conversation. Jeff and I started talking, we said, “Okay. You know what, no excuses, let’s just do it.” And so we did it. So fast forward now, OP2 Labs, we’ve been in business for four years – excuse me, my light here. Been in business for four years. This year, we made the Inc. 5000 list of fastest growing companies in the US so I guess we’re doing something right.
Heck, yeah. That’s awesome.
Yeah, pretty cool. But you know, it was an interesting one because even though I had the business background, we didn’t really understand the industry that we were getting into. So we spent a lot of time doing a lot of research, reading through different types of scientific studies, medical information to really learn the industry. And we ended up partnering with another group of guys, medical professionals, to actually create the formulation. So they created one formulation; Jeff and I created another. And the agreement there’s kind of combining money because we didn’t really have the capital either. They started a medical company and we started the human performance retail company, FrogFuel, and the other one was Provide GOLD.
Two years later, we decided to make an offer to acquire the medical business. And so we did. We took it over and then we combined it under OP2 Labs and so now OP2 Labs has two brands. So it’s no longer Provide GOLD. Well, that’s the old brand right there.
Yeah, now it’s ProT Gold. And the reason why we did that is really for market synergy. Because what we realized is that a lot of the major retail was moving towards pharmacies, health consulting. And we said, “If we have a sales team that’s successful in getting one brand into retail, why couldn’t we then leverage that relationship to get the other brand there?” So we were missing out a lot. So the synergy’s really improved. Since we’ve done that, we’ve grown considerably every year. So it’s a great thing.
But for us, you know, when I look back at how we were successful and how we did well as a company, it really came down a lot of the lessons learned while were in the military. The military is not only, you know, I think people tend to look at education as the important aspect of being successful. But for me, what I learned is that it’s about leadership and experience and being adaptable, right? Anybody can do a great job at anything. You just have to be adaptable when you have to be willing to, in some cases, swallow your pride and ego and say, “Hey, I’m not really the expert anymore, I’m just the ground pounder. So what do I need to do to get up to that point where I am truly an expert in the field now?”
Wow. Well, that’s incredible, incredible story. I appreciate you sharing just all the different stops and all the different things that you’ve been through. Because it’s a quite a bit that you went through. And I love to kind of go back and unpack a few points that you made. So you served in the Teams for ten years, you punched out. So what inspired you then? Or what was the decision process, if there was much of one, but what was it that drew you into the career that you chose when you punched out?
Well, you know, to be honest with you, I didn’t really know what I wanted to do, but what I did know is that at some point I wanted to start my own company. And I say the reason why I really didn’t know what I want to do is, really, I just didn’t know the path to get there. I didn’t understand it. Lots changed since I left. But back then, the amount of time the military spends with you to try to transition you over to civilian life was nothing. And it was a simple meeting I had and it was somebody helping me write a resume and ended up not getting me anywhere.
So, you know, what I realized is that when you do something like that and become a SEAL, I mean, you’re operating at a very high level with just phenomenal people. I mean, everybody’s like you. Same standards, same level of performance. And there is a pride and ego thing about it because you start as a nobody and you have to build yourself up to having a reputation. And so now you’ve got this reputation but now you’re stepping into this world where nobody knows who you are, nobody cares, right? Sure, there’s respect for you being a SEAL but that doesn’t mean you can work at my company and perform. It might get your foot in the door, but at the end of the day, you still need to know what you’re doing.
So for me, I just didn’t know what the path was to get there. What I knew I needed was experience. And so what I started doing is, you know, I started off with really a skills assessment and I just said, “Okay. This is where I want to be. What skills do I have and what do I not have?” And so part of it is, you know, I started enrolling in classes and UCSD. So for things like I realized that my writing has got pretty terrible being in the military, my speaking skills, critical thinking. And so I was taking very targeted classes on things that I felt were my weaknesses to help advance my myself professionally and over the course of years.
And then the most immediate opportunity for me was really a technical job. What I realized early on is this cybersecurity field was very much… if you were to take a cybersecurity and the actors and threats and the type of attackers and overlay it in physical world, there wasn’t very much difference. So what I realized is just from my knowledge of being a SEAL, I understood cybersecurity very well. And that’s why I went from being not knowing that field to running a department, the entire cybersecurity department of one of the largest energy companies in the world just because everything made sense to me.
Yeah. I mean, that makes total sense. Because there’s just all these different parallels and there’s just so much that just is a very quick translation from one world into the next. So I love that. And so, I mean, you hit on a number of things. I want to make sure I get to the things that I was really wanting to ask you. You’d kind of hit on it, I think, already. But as you’re going through your entrepreneurial journey, what was one of the big challenges? And I suspect it was probably early on, but what were one of the big entrepreneurial challenges that you had starting out? And just being completely blunt, it’s like, you know, how do we take something from nothing and how do we start actually making revenue? And so what was that whole journey and process like for you?
Well, I think, inevitably, you know, I hate to say it because there’s not a lot of things that I’m afraid of, right? Even my wife to date tells me that you’ve got like zero emotions, but, you know, I have emotions, right? I just do not show them. But for me, it was really more fear of failure to some extent because the there’s perspective of my mind that I have achieved success, but now there’s this potential that I’m stepping into something I have no idea about, I have no training on.
And what I mean by fear of failure, it’s not whether or not I fall, can I get back up, it’s losing the livelihood that I’ve already built, right? I’m not 20 anymore. I’m going into my 30s and I’m already working in a good career and I’m making good money that I know I can retire off of, but now I’m stepping into the unknown void, so to say, not knowing whether or not I have the right team, whether I have the right capital, whether or not I can still afford my house.
And you know, it’s interesting, but I also realize that that’s fear’s perspective. I also realized the thing that overcame that was I realized that, okay, I’m 30, so that means I’m still young enough that even if I do inevitably fail in that company, that I can still start a new career over. So I was willing to embrace that. I said, “Listen, it’s perspective. I don’t want to be one of those people who talks about starting a business and never does.” And when I hear that all the time, you know, to me, it’s like the guys who jump on social media and talk about the world’s problems every day but never do anything about it. I didn’t want to be one of those people. I want to be the person who took action.
I love that. No, I absolutely love that. It’s being able to look back and know that you left it all on the table, man. Like you gave it everything that you had. So, no, I think that’s incredible. And yeah, I mean, trying to get companies going is definitely a challenge and there’s a lot of different ways to do that. I mean, whether it’s venture backed or you’re taking out a fat loan or you’re just bootstrapping it from nothing. But I mean, every company, I feel like – I mean, again, this is just one man’s view. But a lot of these companies, I mean, they all have the same basic needs and revenue is the oxygen for that company. And it’s like you’ve either got it or you don’t. Or you’ve got it and you’re trying to grow it. Or you’re trying to make sure that your revenue exceeds your expenses and all your other liabilities and keeping it going. So I love that.
You know, I got something to share there too.
Please. Yeah, please. I kind of felt like you did.
Yeah. But I think it’s an important point here, you know, I hear all the time the excuses of “now I have a family, I have a child, I have bills”. And I’m going to put things in perspective here. Of course I had the clothing company going, but that was kind of a very slower company. It wasn’t income for me. That went to my brother and sister because I wanted them to have something. Frog Performance or OP2 Labs was a new venture. And you know, yes, I had bought a house. Yes, I had a company. And working at Sempra, I was making a lot of money. But when I left, we bootstrapped our company. I didn’t have investor money. I had a child, I had a house, I had bills I had to pay and I lived off savings. For three years, I didn’t pay myself a salary. I just lived off savings and selling things. I was smart enough at the time. All the little toys I was able to afford at the time, I had paid for cash so I could sell things off as I needed to.
But it was interesting because my wife, who I met at the time, kind of went through this lifestyle, right? We had met when I was doing really well. I was able to take her to do nice things. And then we went into the lifestyle of poverty which I’m not really inflating and it’s the truth. I had to sell my house. I bought the house and I put a lot of money into it. We love the house, but I had to sell it. And we had to use the money to live off of.
And now you fast forward two years later, we’re back to where we were when we first started. And the funny thing is that, you know, I always say it’s the memories that are most important and that’s what I really realized. It wasn’t the struggle. It was the memories along the way. And to be honest with you, I wouldn’t do it any differently. I mean, I enjoyed. Even though we didn’t have the things that we did when we first started, it was great because I learned to appreciate what we had more than what we’ve built. And if I had to do it over again, I absolutely would without question.
Yeah, I love that. Thank you for sharing that. I love hearing – I mean, because I think it’s a huge encouragement to those that are either a) wanting to start a company or two, they’re still in the in the beginning stages of getting their company off the ground. And so I feel like one of the pitfalls or one of the struggles that a lot of entrepreneurs face is this feeling that what you’re going through is unique to you and not realizing that so many people have gone through the exact same problems or the exact same challenges anyway and that you’re not alone. A lot of people have gone those. And so I appreciate you sharing that because I think that’s a tremendous encouragement to others. Because it doesn’t mean it’s easy, right? It’s a crap ton of work and a lot of sacrifice. But you knew where you wanted to be though. You knew where you were headed and it was just a matter of just getting it there, right?
Yeah. Some of it, I think, to be honest with you, a lot of it is ego-driven too because of your friends. You were a CEO. When I got out, I had a lot of CEO buddies, and part of it is you don’t want those people to see weakness in you. In other words, failure, you’re afraid for them to see that because when they last saw you, you’ve been operating up here. So inevitably you kind of put these artificial pressures on yourself. How people perceive you, how your friends perceive you. And then the important thing there is they’re artificial because it doesn’t matter.
What happens is if people see you struggle – and this is the thing I think that’s important is if they don’t see you struggle, they’re never going to ask you for help and help you along the way. But if they see you struggle, then they’re willing to step out and help you. And so it’s perspective. So, for me, don’t put the artificial pressure on yourself, that gosh, you know, last time they saw me, I’m doing well, now I’m living dirt poor. Because they don’t care, right? At some point, they are going to step up and help you succeed just as much as you want to.
Wow. Yeah, no, I think that’s a brilliant point. You’d hit on a couple of other things. One, actually, I’m going to fast forward to one point because I’m just genuinely curious. And I think I remember this from your website because I checked out your website, but FrogFuel, so those are gels, right?
Yeah. It’s actually a liquid protein. What’s really interesting is, it’s a collagen protein to be specific. So we were one of the first collagen proteins on the market. It was a very difficult market to get into. And so I think one of the reasons why it was very difficult to raise capital for is people believe that the protein market was saturated, but they didn’t understand the difference between the different types of protein. So we realized that we had a lot working against us. And so we really had to think about, strategically, how do you launch something that’s a saturated market, that there’s a lot of brand loyalty and a lot of customers that aren’t willing to try new things?
And we took a very different approach. We said, “None of these other protein supplements out there are designed for human performance or used in the medical field.” So we did all the research on the treatment of different medical indications. We assisted with developing a lot of the treatment protocols for post-surgical wound healing. So number one use for products post-surgical wound healing. Wounds heal two times faster. And we started as a medical product. And then shortly after, the medical product launched. We rode on that coattail and launched the human performance, which is the exact same formulas that’s in our medical products.
The reason why we did that is because there are so many benefits to the protein that from a marketing perspective, we said, “Okay. Well, how do you market one label to medical professionals, on the other side of the spectrum, you’ve got those professional athletes and SEALs and Army Rangers, Special Forces, stuff like that.” Very different demographic, different messaging. And so that’s why we came up with the FrogFuel products.
That’s super cool. I was asking kind of out of just genuine curiosity because I love the sport of triathlon so I’m constantly trying out different products or just trying to understand the science behind endurance sports, but endurance nutrition. And so again, we could probably go off on another hour talking about nutrition strategies and all that related to that. But no, yeah, I was just genuinely curious.
You hit on a really big point, I’d written it down, when you’re speaking earlier about some of the things that you feel like hamstring a lot of companies and you mentioned two things specifically. You mentioned culture problems and you mentioned analysis paralysis. And I think those are two really, really major topics and major issues. And one thing I’ve enjoyed studying, or at least discussing with people, has been the concept of company culture. And yeah, I’d love to get your perspective on this. So, you know, you can have mid-level managers or even lower-level folks or even some senior-ish management really try to help revolutionize or reinvent a culture inside of a company, but unless you’ve got buy-in from the very, very top, you’re not going to see that go very far. Has that been your experience? Or would you agree with that or disagree with that? I’m happy to know.
I do. And I think some of what you’re saying too has everything to do with dilution of values. So when you dilute the values, those values become unimportant to people. And what I mean by that is, you know, when a title becomes synonymous with leadership, that’s a dilution of value, right? A title is not synonymous with leadership. I don’t care if you’re a CEO, COO CFO, senior vice president or manager, you’re an executive manager, you’re manager. The only thing that my title affords me is a set of responsibilities and things I’m accountable for on a daily basis, but it doesn’t make me a leader of the organization. It’s my actions that do, right?
And if the people, my team and my company, don’t see me as leading the company in a direction that they’re willing to follow, I’m not leading anything. And then we all have heard the word ‘situational leadership’. It essentially implies that you could be in a room full of people that are all different titles, but you have somebody who stands up and says, “I really understand this. I’m willing to take responsibility and accountability.” But that really goes down to your values. The values you have and whether or not you dilute those values. It’s the same principle behind giving everybody a finisher medal, right? If people don’t have anything to strive for, then why am I even there to begin with?
Culture is absolutely paramount. You’re right. It does start at the top. I think that, you know, I’ll share a little something that I really realized. When I left the military, there were certain aspects of the military that I didn’t have appreciation for because you kind of hear the term ‘bureaucratic’. But the one thing I do remember and I didn’t really give it any credence at the time is when I stepped out of the military, I was handed two books and one book was my professional history. Every school I’ve ever gone to, every performance review I’ve ever done, all my different ranks, the responsibilities I had and everything else. And the other book I was given was my medical history. And I thought back to every corporate culture I’ve ever worked at and the most I’ve ever gotten was a letter saying, “Thank you for coming here.”
And what that demonstrated to me is that these catchwords like ‘succession planning’ and all this other stuff like ‘professional development’ don’t exist in corporate culture. It’s a namesake, it’s just a keyword. But that’s all part of the corporate culture, right? Many of these large copies, if you were to do a survey, the majority of people who work at that company are simply doing it for a paycheck. They could care less about the company name, right? And why is that? And that has everything to do with company culture.
There’s no pride. Because the guy stepping in for his first day of job, there isn’t a clear succession plan. There is no clear promotional path for him. He doesn’t know that he can go become the CEO. But in reality, if you look at the military, it’s very clear. You can start out as an easy E-1. But guess what, if you want to go all the way up there and become the admiral, you can get there. There’s a clear path on what you need to do, what training, what experience you need and what support you need to get there, but you can do it. Show me one corporation that can say to an admin, “Hey, you could be the CEO one day and here’s your career path.” It doesn’t exist, right?
So I think a lot of large companies struggle with that. I mean, I can get into it if you want, but we’ve actually built a whole program around employee incentive, succession planning and stuff like that, that we’re getting the launch that kind of mimics the military, which is really interesting.
Oh, that’s terrific. No, well, I mean, because you’re dead on. There’s so many roles that get hired in Corporate America and they’re dead ends or you’re going to max out at a certain point and then maybe there’s an opportunities to apply, you know, there’s an internal opening and you’re trying to make like a lat transfer from one department to another because you see it as an opportunity. And I’ve seen some companies do that actually pretty well and then I’ve seen other companies not do it that well at all. But yeah, I mean, I’ve got a few more questions, but yeah, I mean, I’d love to hear love what you’re working on. Sure.
Yeah. So the number one issue or one of the problems that many companies have to deal with is incentives, right? How do you keep your employees passionate about what they’re doing, have a sense of belonging, making them part of the company? And you know, I was originally a part of this group called EO (Entrepreneurs Only) and what it is, is your company has to be a certain size and they put you in these roundtable groups with other CEOs and you talk about the problems that you’re struggling with in your company. The most persistent issue I’ve heard with every company that I’ve met with, and there were nine other companies there, was employee incentives.
So incentives have gotten to the point where now in a company, if you give somebody a bonus, it becomes an expectation. So it’s not scalable, right? If you’ve been given somebody a bonus for four years, now you stop at the fifth year. More than likely, that employee is going to consider leaving because they felt that they should have gotten it, right? It’s not performance-based. They make it so much relying upon company performance and less about individual performance. So there’s no incentive.
So one of the things that I realized is that the first day I stepped into the military, I was just the peon and I had a single little ribbon on my chest, but I remember walking into my SEAL Team and you see some of these guys that came from Vietnam. And without even knowing the guy’s name or who he is or what his background is, I can look at his chest and tell a lot about that individual, right? And I would have it based on how many ribbons, there was a certain level of respect because you understand what those ribbons imply.
And so what I decided was I don’t want to do any monetary things. I want people to feel part of culture and things like the military design made me feel like part of the culture. And so what we’re actually designing right now is a program just like that, where we have different types of ribbons for different departments. And the idea is that as my company scales and I get bigger, now let’s say we have a meeting where there’s a hundred people sitting in the room. Many of these people don’t know each other because they work in different apartments. Without knowing who sitting across from me, I can look at their business card or their backpack that has all these ribbons on it and know something about that person and recognize them for their achievements, right?
Because some of those things will be tied into sales goals, whether or not you’re able to exceed your quotas, whether or not you’re attained a certain, you know, some of it will speak to how long you’ve been there, whether or not you’re prior service members. So there’s a level of respect that’s given there. And I think what it’s going to do, my personal opinion, is create a culture in which that’s incentivizing people to be like that, right?
You’ve got that first day employee who doesn’t even have any ribbons is going look across here, and go, “Oh, my gosh, you know, this guy’s experience is super, a lot of experience in marketing. That guy clearly looks like the top sales rep.” it gives that individual something, an incentive, to want to push harder, to learn more. And it creates a culture in which it’s less about opinion now because, you know, I can’t tell you how many companies I’ve gone into in the meeting room, it says everybody has a right to an opinion. It’s like, really? Well, that’s why nothing gets done. There are people who are knowledgeable about a subject and those who are not, right? I want to know the facts so I can make a reasonable decision.
And so, you know, having this type of platform, you have ten, 20 people in a room, and as I said, you could clearly look across and say, “Okay. Who may be knowledgeable on particular subject?” You talk about career paths. If I’m working in one department, but maybe I want to go to marketing, you could tell based on a ribbon who’s experienced in marketing, someone that could be your mentor and get you there, right? That’s something I want to apply at a larger level. We start rolling out some of those things already, a very small scale, because a lot of it’s kind of testing to see what’s working and what’s not working, but that’s our long-term vision.
Wow. Yeah, no, I mean, that’s terrific. Because no, you’re absolutely right. Because I mean, military, especially when you check in at a command or you’re at a ceremony or whatever, and you’re actually in service or dress uniform, yeah, I mean, you can see someone’s resume very, very quickly. You know service stripes, rank. You know exactly what ribbon means what. You know any distinguishing devices on those ribbons. I mean, it really does tell the story. And after a while, you get really good at reading it and you know a lot about that person. And because you also know the general career progression, in some cases, you can almost tell when in their career certain things happen. You’re like, “Oh, okay. This guy, he did special duty assignment as a drill instructor or as a recruiter or whatever.” And so you can kind of just weave that story. And so when you get to talking to that person, you’re already warmed up. There’s already a familiarity.
I’m curious. I’d love to I’d love to see where this goes with how you’re able to impact corporate culture. I think that’s pretty fascinating. Because I mean, you hit on the other thing, right? So, I mean, really, we’re talking about leadership versus management, right? So, management or that ‘leadership’ position as you’re talking about, you know, you have a certain amount of responsibilities and things that you are held accountable for and that’s really like a managerial function. But then leadership, like you’re saying, I mean, that is a whole different thing entirely and is not always synonymous with that job title, right? I mean, there’s been people that have been junior in a company but they were absolutely leaders. They’re making a huge impact.
Yeah. To be honest with you, I had a great mentor there. So, you know, in the SEAL Teams, of course you have great good leaders and you have bad leaders. Some of those individuals plus some, you know, I’ll say managers because that’s really what I believe and I don’t believe in the whole title thing. But those who are senior that are just aren’t good managers and those are the type that just write these policies for you to follow, but don’t ever really see what impact that policy has.
I remember it was my fourth year in the SEAL Teams. We had a CO that said, “Hey, I really want to test the feasibility of combat swimmers carrying communications gear and doing these advanced reconnaissance.” So you’re already diving with a lot of weight and he wants us to carry these big, huge, dry bags. We’re diving down potentially 40 feet and none of the electronics can get wet. And so, you know, of course, you’re like, “Oh, my God, we got to do this four-hour dive carrying hundreds of frigging pounds. It’s going to ruin our comp here.”
Well, the interesting thing is not only did he create the policies and the guidance for us to do that, but the first night that we actually went diving, he came out of locker room with his wetsuit on and said, “I’m not the CO today. I’m just one of your platoon mates. You guys tell me what to do. And who my swim buddy is?” And I had a lot of respect for that. And that changed my perspective. Because when I saw that, I didn’t care about the operation we were doing. I wanted to do it at that point. And that taught me a lot about what true leadership is.
And that’s what’s important to me. Leadership is about understanding your culture, understanding the decisions around the policies you’re making and how those policies affect individuals at the lowest levels. I’ve had examples of that where I’ve actually flown out. So I have a team that does these events and they go out to events, they set up tents, they sell products. Every now and then, I’ll fly out to myself when I have a time. And when I hit the ground, I simply look at my individuals and said, “I’m your employee. Tell me what to do.” Because I don’t want to direct that individual. I want to learn how they’re doing the job, right? I want to learn how what we’re developing as policies and guidance around how to hold an event, how it really works.
You know, simple things too. Occasionally, I’ll jump in our phone system or support calls to answer calls from customers to see how the interactions, look at a lot of the scripts and say these scripts make sense so the customer is being treated right. Are we addressing the right issues? Being a leader organization in my mind is knowing your business and you can’t know your business if you’re padded by 20 different layers of personnel without ever looking down at the bottom layers.
I love that. Thanks for sharing that. Just a couple of items left, but I would love to learn –
Sorry. I’ve got this electronic light that keeps turning on and off.
No, and it’ll just drive you nuts too. I’d love to just hear from you what advice would you have for those that are looking to get started in business, those that are wanting to start their own business or those that have recently started a business and they’re trying to grow it. What’s some words of wisdom from you?
Yeah. There’s a lot of things that I have seen and the advice that I give folks now, I mean, pride and ego was the number one problem I’ve seen with veterans getting out, right? It’s always trying to one up the next person rather than working together. I can’t tell you how many times I’ll see ten guys get out and start the exact same type of company. They’re not willing to work with one another. And then you look at their businesses, their regional are not scalable and I’m sitting there going, “Gosh, you guys are all in ten different states. If you just work with each other and now you have a national brand and potentially a global brand.”
So, you know, I think the important thing is set aside differences and perspectives and look at opportunities to work with each other rather than being that guy who owns a hundred percent of your company. I started OP2 Labs. I started as a majority owner of that company but I have a much smaller percentage over five years because I realized I can’t do it myself. I have to find my team, my A team. And what I did over time is gave up portions of my ownership. Because the age-old adage goes that you want a big piece of the small pie or small piece of the big pie, right? Because if you’re not willing to swallow that pride and ego, your company’s not going to scale, it’s not going to grow.
The other one I think is important, too, is if you have an idea and you have a thought, don’t be afraid of failure. Don’t be afraid of the fact that you have a family and kid you have to support. If you believe enough in that idea, much like you believed enough in going into the military, take that first step. Because at the end of the day, if you don’t take that step, you’re going to have more regrets about why you didn’t do something than why you did.
And you know, the other thing I really learned, too, in business is when your instinct’s telling you to get something done and you have to do it, you got to do it right there on the spot. There are so many times where I knew I had to do something but other things were distracting me and I just kind of set that thing aside. And then it turned out to be the important thing I should have taken care of. And definitely don’t use money as an excuse for not doing anything. I mean, I shared here that I bootstrapped the company with my co-founder. We started our company with a combined total of $50,000 and that was saved between us. And now we’re an Inc. 5000 company and that’s because we’re willing to take risks.
People’s perspective is I’m going to be at $20 million, $30 million company in five, six years. That’s very few and far between. I mean, the reality is it’s going to take you really four or five years to get everything situated. Your year one is really learning about what you don’t know, year two’s about taking what you don’t know and trying to build that company and fill in the gaps. And then, really, year three’s where that growth here occurs. So always plan on about a two-year period in which you’re not going to be kind of struggling. And once you hit year three, it’s all growth from there.
Wow. Well, that’s fantastic perspective and wisdom. And I just appreciate you sharing that. I would love to turn this last segment back over to you, but one, I would love to learn more about, – I mean, we’ve talked a little bit about what you’re doing, but share with us specifically how can people get in touch with you, with your product? And then, any final thoughts or comments?
Yeah. So you can get in touch with me at op2labs.com. So we do have a frontend system that routes everything. So that’s just firstname.lastname@example.org or (888) 448-8468. And you know, I think one last piece of advice is something that I’ve seen is that the veteran community is missing out and we’re really missing out. As a military unit active duty, we’re very good at collaborating and working together, but as civilians, we’ve been terrible. And I’ve seen too many instances where guys trying to spend a lot of money to sell a product or service to a set of customers that another veteran is already selling to.
So we have been doing a lot. So OP2 Labs is one thing. One of the things that we’ve got actually coming up next year is that myself and three or four other veteran companies are going to co-host a business conference just for veterans. So we’ll have breakout sessions on marketing, finance, various other things. It’ll be a conference with some very, very influential people coming in. And we want to actually take that to the point at which maybe the second day’s really going to be a pitch opportunity that a veteran will have the ability to tell us their idea about a company and then raise capital right on the spot.
So for us, don’t be afraid to reach out to folks just because you might be struggling now. The veterans is a very strong community, especially current veteran business owners. And you’ll find that many of them have a customer base that they’re willing to help you promote your products and your company. And I think that’s just very important. We’re just doing enough of it.
No, that’s a terrific advice. And really, I mean, Alexander, I just want to thank you for spending time with me today. Thanks for sharing a lot of your perspective and insight. I love to hear these stories and it’s fun to see how people, you know, where they’ve come, the different struggles and the journey that they’ve been on, and then, ultimately, where they are now. And obviously, the story is not even over yet. I mean, you’ve still got plenty more to go. And so no, I just want to thank you for spending some time with me today.
Aaron, I really appreciate that. Thank you for what you’re doing. Definitely appreciate the fact that you’re putting lots of time and attention into communicating the struggles of veterans and helping others.
Absolutely. Well, I really enjoyed time with Alexander. I loved his points and just his background, his story. It’s really, really insightful just some of the perspectives that he shared, specifically with leadership and management and the company culture. There’s so much there. And I would encourage you to go back. And I know I say this after every episode. But go back and relisten to some parts of the episodes. There’s really some really good nuggets there, especially there right at the end. There’s a lot here. And so I really appreciate hearing his story. I loved his honesty and just rawness when it came to getting the company started and when he was having to sell his house and really, I mean, living bare bones there for a while before it got going. So anyway, really grateful to him, really grateful to you for listening and for watching. It’s always a true pleasure. So can’t wait to deliver another one of these episodes to you. We’ll talk soon. See you.