Part of our October series, “On Fear,” where we unpack fear in the startup world. 


After 11 years in the Air Force (four at the Air Force Academy, seven active duty), I left to join a startup. It was scary, but I made it. Other veterans can too.

My Story

I wasn’t scared when I put in my paperwork. I knew I wanted to build something important. I knew the Air Force wasn’t the place to do it. It was a great eleven years, but I could see where the path led and it wasn’t where I wanted to go. Ever since living in Palo Alto, I knew I wanted to “do startups” – and this was my chance. So, “go west, young man”…

Conspire military to startup Todd Branchflower

That’s me on the right.

I wasn’t scared after the first month of looking. It seemed like everyone needed technical people, so there was no shortage of companies to interview with. I had a small network that gave me a few leads. Sure, my experience didn’t match exactly what they were looking for. But I was smart and driven – and people value military service, right?

After the second month, I was a little scared. Web companies wanted people with X years Rails experience or Y years Node experience (wat?). Hardware companies wanted people with Z years in the Bluetooth stack. I’d been testing digital radios and teaching students about microcontrollers for the past 7 years – did none of that matter? I’d been tinkering with web programming for years – was professional experience all that counted?

After the third, I was terrified. Maybe I should’ve stayed in? The success I had in the military didn’t seem to carry weight on the outside. Maybe I should work for a defense contractor? Or use a recruiter that specializes in transitioning veterans? Sure, that’s not the work I left to do. But was it all I could get?

Then, another “no” was followed with “but you might be a fit over here”. More interviews. And, finally, an offer. It was less money than I’d been making in the Air Force. It wasn’t a startup. It was (*gasp!*) PHP. But it was an opportunity to learn, grow, and prove to myself that I belonged. It was the foothold I needed to begin the climb toward the work I wanted to do in leaving the Air Force.

Advice to Veterans

  • Be realistic. Companies aren’t going to throw $100K jobs at you because you were CGO of the Quarter. Be prepared to start from the bottom and work your way up. Don’t turn your nose up at any opportunity.
  • Have a plan. What type of work are you leaving the military to do? Who do you know in that industry? Before you get out, build your network. Once you’re out, use it. We can help with that.
  • No doesn’t mean no forever. If you really want to join a team and they tell you “no”, don’t quit. Ask what you need to do to make it a “yes”. Work on those skills and follow-up.

Advice to Startups

  • Be less rigid. If you’re recruiting engineers, you want great engineers. It shouldn’t matter what stack they’ve used. Requirements like X+ years professional Rails experience disqualifies a huge pool of talented people.
  • Value achievement over experience. Experience tells you very little about the quality of a prospective employee. If you want to recruit great people, look for achievement. Great people excel in any environment.

Thoughts? Tweet at me at @toddbranch.

Read more from our series “On Fear”: