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Vets try their hand at entrepreneurship

Greg Call, like many business owners, is having a tough time attracting investors. Unlike many business owners, however, he's in an even more challenging position because he's a U.S. Marine Corps veteran.

Call, CEO and founder of PatriotMove Inc., said some 80 percent of veteran-owned startups are self-funded.

“That speaks to the struggles we run into when trying to start a business after spending years in the military,” he said.

More than three million veterans -- men and women -- have started their own small businesses after serving in the military, according to Vetrepreneur magazine.

Those endeavors range from opening the doors to a pizza shop, investing in a franchise, selling to large corporations or contracting with local, state or federal government agencies, notes the magazine.

Call and his partner John Mahony, also a former Marine Corps officer, have spent the last nine months developing an online relocation resource for military families.

Despite their strong technical skills that come with being trained to fight in Afghanistan, investors are worried about management and business experience.

“We spent the last five years in the military -- that’s a huge gap in our professional careers," he said. “Pitching to investors to raise capital has been extremely difficult. It’s an obstacle for a variety of reasons."

The Santa Ana-based company currently helps families relocating to Camp Pendleton, the largest Marine Corps base in California, and is trying to raise capital to launch a national website by August.

Call has a background that differs from most in the Marine Corps: The Detroit native had first worked for a few years in accounting, and then pursued a master’s degree from Michigan State University and became a Certified Public Accountant.

In 2008, he “took a right turn” and became an officer in the Marine Corps.

Mahony -- now president of PatriotMove -- went straight into the Marine Corps after graduating from Cornell University in 2007.

The two met at an infantry officer course and split up for several deployments. They kept in touch and got out of the service 18 months ago.

Call made his business concept a bona fide plan, and asked Mahony to pack his bags from his tech startup gig in Baltimore and come to Southern California a month ago.

Call knows there's a need for their service.

Military families move once every three years -- 10 times more often than civilian families.

“It’s quite a pain, because you have to still fulfill duties as a service member and your family’s trying to live their lives in the area you settle in,” he said. “Then you’re most likely uprooted and moved to the other coast.”

Long-distance moves can put a strain on families, which are mostly young; the average military person’s age is 28.

"The government does its best to facilitate, but we fill in the gaps and make a user-friendly platform for families to use to reduce uncertainty that goes with moving," he said.

PatriotMove hires local military spouses to build localized and personalized content.

"If you go to a website about San Clemente, which is a heavily populated military town, the general website is not military-focused -- it talks about the beach and the pier,” Call said.

Spouses build community pages within its website, including information about accessing gates, culture and military-friendly businesses and shops in the area. Its Camp Pendleton ambassador writes blogs about the area and helps with content.

The next step will be a regional growth phase, with services offered in Miramar, Naval Base San Diego, Recruit Depot San Diego, Coronado and Twentynine Palms.

The priority right now is to convince investors to bite.

"When they look at our backgrounds there is an obvious gap," Call said. "While we see value in our [military] service, they are hesitant to take meetings with us."

PatriotMove is part of the Digital Media Center in Santa Ana, a business incubator that tries to get early stage companies to grow.

“Right now, we are trying to push to get in front of investors and get that opportunity to pitch our business idea," Call said.

A new San Diego-based nonprofit called Vetstarter.org is helping veteran-owned companies like PatriotMove to get off the ground.

Its crowdfunding capability, which will launch soon, is like a Kickstarter for veteran-owned startups.

Entrepreneurs can post promotional videos and anyone can make a tax-deductable donation to help them raise money.

PatriotMove just shot a video and is awaiting the website to start taking funds.

Universities around the United States are also doing their part to help vets get their businesses going.

Call just graduated from an entrepreneurial bootcamp for vets in February at Louisiana State University, which was featured on "60 Minutes" this month.

“They provide small-level micro-funding and small funding opportunities through that program,” he said.

He completed the program alongside 18 others. One classmate was Michael Chan, a USC film school graduate who wrote and directed a short film about a 17-year-old Marine enlisting after 9/11.

“He’s interested in opening up a video production company,” he said.

Mission Valley-based Reboot Workshop, which helps vets transition into civilian life, is expanding like rapid fire and adding classes in Hampton Roads, Va.; Long Beach; and Paramount. A pilot will kick off in San Marcos this year.

“We have some people interested in Indiana and in Denver,” said Kelly Price Noble, director of business development for Reboot. “We are looking at Texas, as well.”

Since 2010, more than 800 students have graduated from Reboot. The three-week course includes behavioral training, how-tos on dressing for the business world and applying makeup, and tips on resume writing and interviewing.

There's also a focus on helping vets that want to start their own business, versus just getting hired by one.

"We can send students to a bank to learn how to get small business loans," she said.

Reboot doesn't receive government funding and instead relies on "generous individuals," she said.

Reboot is trying to get more local executives to sponsor students. It costs about $2,500 to put one vet through the three-week course.

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