Thomas Bernard is taking the skills that made him a successful soldier and applying them to his construction business — and wants to share what he’s doing with other veterans turned entrepreneurs. After serving two tours in Iraq, Bernard started ProCraft Interiors in 2010 with as he puts it, “$600 and a dream.”

He also has 15 years of construction and renovation experience that helped him grow his business into a successful company in lower Manhattan. A willingness to roll up his sleeves and get to work is one of the traits he developed in the Army, and is first on Bernard’s list of 11 tips for building a successful business:

1. Don’t be afraid of where the rubber meets the road: You may need to work harder than those around you, but it pays off in the long run—even if you wind up paying yourself less in the beginning. You may even have some employees that make more than you pay yourself.

2. Customer satisfaction and quality before profits: When the quality of your work or your product creates satisfied customers, profits follow — it doesn’t work the other way around.

3. Embrace the school of hard knocks: Don’t be afraid to take calculated risks or make mistakes. Small business is about learning — not a focus on successes or failures. Understand the risks, make bold decisions, embrace what happens, and then learn from it.

4. Your employees are your most important assets: Pick the right people for the job and get out of their way. Learn how to delegate and don’t micromanage.

5. Keep your eye on the ball: Building a successful business is a marathon, not a sprint. Don’t get bogged down with the struggles and challenges of the first few years—the first three to five years will be tough. You need short-term and long-term goals to measure success.

6. Don’t short-change yourself: Don’t forget to pay yourself. If your personal life is and personal finances are a mess, it will distract you from what you need to do to help your business grow.

7. Go into business for the right reasons: Starting a business is not a get-rich-quick scheme. It takes hard work, dedication, sacrifice and self-motivation — but it’s worth it.

8. Integrity matters: Taking ethical shortcuts will always cost you in the long run. Sometimes even in the short-term. Integrity matters.

9. Show up: There may be days when you just don’t feel like going to work. No one is going to make you go either. Don’t let the temptation to slack off a little ruin your business — because it will, if you let it. Your business output is the direct result of your input.

10. It starts with you: Lead by example. Your employees will do as you do. It all starts at the top — hold yourself to a high standard your employees can proudly emulate.

11. It takes money to make money: Make sure you have a good lending partner. Like other small business owners, sometimes you have to start with bootstrapped capital. When I needed extra money to expand and smooth out my cash flow, the bank wasn’t very helpful. I learned about OnDeck from a social media ad and six days later I had the cash I needed to hire a full-time project manager and purchase some new equipment. It allows me to go after bigger (and more profitable) projects. You need to make sure you have the right financial partner too—I like these guys.

As small business owners battle for success, doesn’t it make sense to listen to someone who has spent time in the trenches? What tips can you share to help other comrades-in-arms build a successful business?

Editor’s note: If you are a Veteran considering starting a business or expanding your current business into federal contracting, visit VA’s entrepreneur portal at

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Published on Nov. 26, 2014

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