This article originally published on April 18, 2016.
Brian Steorts is no ordinary individual or entrepreneur. He began his service in the U.S. in the Army as a paratrooper in the 82nd Airborne. He had briefly left active duty to attend the University of Alabama, when he witnessed the attacks of 9/11 and felt a calling to return to active service.
After joining the Air Force Special Operations Command (AFSOC) and eight consecutive combat deployments to the Middle East, Afghanistan and the Horn of Africa, Steorts found himself rehabbing a service-related injury. He said that he needed a new way to focus his mind while he rebuilt his body.
Throughout his military journey, he was constantly surrounded with symbols -- flags, coins, patches, people, efforts -- all reminders of the motivation to serve. During rehabilitation, though, he didn’t wear a uniform or his flag.
His lingering question, “Where’s my flag?” That simple question led him to create Flags Of Valor, a veteran-owned, veteran-operated, veteran-made company that crafts beautiful works of American art.
Now Maj. Air Force Retired, Brian Steorts talks about how his dream became a reality -- employing veterans, raising money for veteran and first responder charities and providing Americans with an exceptional product -- and what you can learn from his journey.
Q: Tell us about the inspiration behind Flags of Valor.
Steorts: I was inspired by my personal journey as a combat veteran, coupled with the belief in two distinct principals: 1) that “Made in America” still means something, and 2) that if given the right opportunity, our veterans are capable of anything.
Running your own company is an honor. Getting to work with America’s best is a privilege.
Q: You say that you started out woodworking as a hobby, but failed to produce a product that you were proud of. What inspired you to keep going?
Steorts: I began woodworking, devoting myself to build a handcrafted custom piece of pure Americana. Many attempts failed to result in a product I was proud of. My woodworking went from a hobby to an obsession. My abilities transformed from novice to craftsman, and my focus became a passion. I began producing world-class works of art.
The military life teaches you many things. One of the greatest lessons is that small failures shouldn’t prevent you from achieving the overall objective. In this case, I looked at each step as a learning process and wasn’t satisfied until I’d produced a product I would be willing to share with someone else.
Q: You took your hobby and transformed your skills to craftsman-level. How long did that take to do? Do you think it's important that entrepreneurs have some sort of mastery of skills (business or otherwise) before moving into the entrepreneur role?
Steorts: It took me a year of concerted effort to have enough confidence in what I created. I am careful to call myself a master craftsman, because anyone who loves woodworking as much as I do knows that you are never done improving. I don’t think mastering a skill set is essential. I think passion is essential. Then, surround yourself with people who are excellent. It becomes a circular endeavor, each person improving the other, all for a shared vision.
Q: You are sponsored by DeWALT tools; how did that sponsorship come about?
Steorts: DeWALT is a great company, and we were already using many of their products. We found that a few of our workshop tools were not made domestically, so I wrote DeWALT a letter regarding their “Made in the USA” product line. The next thing I knew, I was speaking directly to a VP of Marketing, and DeWALT met all of our workshop needs. They’ve been incredible to us, and this is a great example of putting yourself out there and telling your story. We believe in the same things they do, and it became a win-win.
Q: What advice would you give to other entrepreneurs seeking sponsorships? How do they connect with companies and go from ask to deal?
Steorts: Don’t give up or overly rely on a single contact. We’ve been fortunate to have a very strong network. It’s easy to think that a single person can be the link that gets the big deal done. In reality, it’s impossible to tell as opportunities come and go. You have to pursue every reasonable lead and be grateful for everyone that contributes along the way. We’ve worked with many people who didn’t get us the “deal," but we learned something from each of them, and that makes us a stronger organization.
Q: You hire mostly combat veterans. Why do you do that, and how does that add to your purpose and mission as a business?
Steorts: From the beginning, we aimed to create a company with a philanthropic foundation. Our founders are combat veterans, and we know firsthand the challenges that face people like us as they transition. We relied on a belief that we could create an environment where they can thrive. Our people are our story and our story is our business. We couldn’t do any of this without the team. It comes back to the shared vision. Everyone on our team buys into the shared vision. We pride ourselves on taking care of our people, and we’ve had zero turnover since we launched.
Q: How did your time in the service prepare you for entrepreneurship?
Steorts: One word -- perseverance. I don’t think it takes military service to learn that lesson, but I do believe you’d be hard pressed to find many quitters in a group of combat veterans.
Q: What skills did you wish you had more of when you started?
Steorts: A deeper understanding of finance and the various statutory issues associated with starting a business. Fortunately, I was able to build a strong team of partners from the beginning that enabled us to focus on each of our strengths. If it weren’t for that, a lot of efficiency and capital would have been lost on non-revenue producing activities.
Q: Talk about the charity component of what you do and why that's important to your business.
Steorts: Our entire team built their life on the idea of service. Participating with great charities is an extension of that. We donate constantly to various organizations and directly to first responders, veterans, Special Operations Warrior Foundation, Navy Seal Foundation, Officer Down Memorial Page, Lift Me Up and Luke’s Wings.
Q: What are the top lessons that you have learned as an entrepreneur that you would want to share with other entrepreneurs?
Steorts: Your passion for the journey must exceed your desire to make money. Obstacles aren’t dead-ends -- there is always another option. And never forget that you will have failures with your successes.