Entrepreneur Series: Former Navy Seal Eli Crane Turns Simple Idea into a Multi-Million Dollar Business
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By Wes O’Donnell
U.S. Army & U.S. Air Force Veteran. Managing Editor, InMilitary.com & InCyberDefense.com. Speaker, filmmaker and veteran advocate.
Sometimes, the simplest ideas have the biggest impact.
Take Southwest Airlines as an example. In 1971, this startup airline was losing money. It became so bad that at one point, the airline had to sell one of its four aircraft just to make payroll.
A man named Bill Franklin, Southwest’s vice president of ground operations, came up with a little idea that would have a huge impact. Franklin proposed that each plane get back in the air within 10 minutes of landing.
Now known as the 10-minute turn, this allowed Southwest Airlines to operate more flights and make more money with fewer planes. Today, Southwest Airlines is a $21 billion company.
Countless times while serving in the military, I would discard my spent brass bullet casings after a day at the shooting range. Where did they go after I cleaned my area? I’ll admit I never gave it a thought.
Today, a company called Bottle Breacher uses authentic decommissioned .50 caliber casings to craft some of the most unique groomsman gifts and corporate promotional products on the market.
Simple idea. Big impact.
I sat down with Bottle Breacher’s co-founder, former Navy SEAL and Shark Tank survivor Eli Crane for a chat about post-military success.
Wes O’Donnell: Eli, thanks for your time today. You have an amazing story that I think our readers will love to hear. Can you start by telling me a little about your military background?
Eli Crane: Thanks, Wes, happy to be here. I joined the Navy about a week after September 11, 2001. I had my
sights set on becoming a SEAL and earning a spot in BUD/S (Basic Underwater Demolition/SEAL) class 242. However, I suffered a well-deserved performance drop after Week 2 and was soon stationed aboard the USS Gettysburg for the next two and a half years.
Not giving up on my goal of becoming a SEAL, I later attended BUD/S class 256, graduated and joined SEAL Team 3. I was then deployed to Iraq three times. Afterward, I went into recruiting, which really improved my public speaking skills as I was required to speak frequently to athletes around the country.
Wes: So why bottle openers? What was the path that led you to that product?
Eli: My little brother was a Super Cobra helicopter pilot and while stationed in the Philippines, he saw a street vendor selling these little vintage 50-cent bottle openers. He sent a few home and I thought the idea was amazing. My wife Jen and I started manufacturing our own product line in our garage while we were still on active duty. At one point, we were making over $22,000 a month before we even left the military.
Wes: I know a lot of active-duty men and women serving right now will be reading this, but I don’t think a lot of them are well prepared for their transition. Tell me about that transition for you. How hard was it?
Eli: Actually, for me, I think it was easier than most. Because we started the business while on active duty, we entered the civilian world with a company that was already profitable. I left the Navy in October 2014, and our Shark Tank episode aired in November.
Wes: Good segue. Let’s talk about Shark Tank. How was that experience?
Eli: The Shark Tank effect is the real deal. We made over a million dollars in sales in just the week after Shark Tank aired.
In fact, I think ramping up our production after Shark Tank was the hardest thing I have ever done. But we did it and that’s why I think veterans are so good at entrepreneurship. When those monumental challenges hit entrepreneurs, I think veterans are much better at either pivoting quickly or dealing with the impact quickly and effectively.
Wes: There are a lot of veterans who are hesitant to make that jump into entrepreneurship because some may have a full-time job that pays well and a family to support. I’ve had some successful entrepreneurs tell me to make the jump head-first into your new business and give it everything you’ve got. Others have said, “Do your startup as a side hustle until you are making enough money to jump ship.” What’s your advice?
Eli: Short answer? Side hustle. Especially if you have mouths to feed. I think anyone that leaves a good job to do a startup, with a family to provide for…well, it’s just selfish and ridiculous. If you are single, you can get away with living on ramen and living in a car, but it is absurd to do that with a family. There is no reason why you can’t build a business on the side.
When I was in the SEALs, one of the most crucial things I learned was that often a “plan” is a list of things that don’t happen, so you better be up to speed on your contingency plans. You had better be good at flexing and pivoting when the primary plan for your business falls through.
Wes: This next question is perhaps the single most-asked question I get from aspiring veteran entrepreneurs. How do you build a successful customer base in the early days? Can you tell us how you did it?
Eli: You know, we live in this absolutely amazing time period that I think a lot of people take for granted. Everyone has access to this vast ocean called the Internet that anyone can fish in. Where we really got proof of concept for our product in the early days was on Etsy online.
Wes: Clearly, a recurring theme. Almost every entrepreneur that I have met has leveraged the power of social networking to some degree.
Eli: Correct. You can really build a large network very quickly if your product is legit.
Wes: How do you find good people to bring into your organization? Some veteran-owned companies only hire other veterans.
Eli: I have to admit that we haven’t really figured that one out yet. Interviewing is so hard. It doesn’t help that we are set up in Tucson, Arizona, and it’s hard to get top talent to move to the area. We do have some great local talent.
Wes: I think there is an Air Force Base close by, Davis-Monthan AFB?
Eli: We’ve had a couple of employees that later went to the Air Force and we’ve hired some Air Force folks that had recently separated. But still, hiring is one of the things I need to work on, to be honest.
Wes: So, I always ask this, and I think it is a tough question because it forces you to self-reflect, but if you had the chance to start your career over again, is there anything that you would do differently?
Eli: As I’ve said before in other interviews, I have a Ph.D. in mistakes. But here’s the thing: I wouldn’t change any of them because each mistake as a valuable lesson learned, earned at great expense. I definitely don’t spend time agonizing over business mistakes that I’ve made. I just file them away to use later if needed.
Every entrepreneur is going to make mistakes. The ones that don’t are paralyzed with the fear of making mistakes and their business doesn’t grow.
Wes: Last question: What book are you reading right now?
Eli: Death of a Nation- Plantation Politics and the Making of the Democratic Party by Dinesh D’Souza.
Wes: Eli, thanks again for your time. I know where I’ll be doing my Christmas shopping this year.
Eli: My pleasure, Wes.
Take a look at Bottle Breacher products
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