When Navy veteran Thomas H. Douglas transitioned from the military, he did what many service members do — he started a job.
Douglas began a civilian career as an entry-level engineer with JMARK Business Solutions.
Four years later, he purchased the company, then leading JMARK to many successes, including its place on Inc. Magazine’s 5000 Fastest-Growing Private Companies in America list. JMARK has made the list not just once but nine times.
With 25 years of business experience to share, Douglas released his debut manual “Adapt or Die: How to Create Innovation, Solve People Puzzles, and Win in Business” in May 2022. “Adapt or Die” aims to be more than a typical business book, exploring what Douglas calls the Algorithm of Success business system and sharing real-world insights, strategies, and solutions for succeeding in businesses of all sizes. Douglas will also host an Adapt or Die Masterclass in August 2022.
We asked Douglas about his book and requested advice for those considering business ownership after military service.
Q: Why did you write “Adapt or Die?”
A: When we are provided special things, I believe we have a responsibility to do something to pay that forward and help others. My life has been full of special people. It started at a young age with my family and amazing friends living in an amazing community. In college, I was fortunate to meet more exceptional people who showed me way too many ways to have fun but also taught me how to enjoy life. In the Navy, I again met exceptional people and was able to learn the impact of good (and bad) leadership. I was able to see transformation, suppression, anger, joy, and mostly, people rising to new levels and capabilities.
Since my time in the Navy, I’ve continued to be exposed to exceptional people within our organization, meeting my wife, and with our clients, and through some awesome board members. In addition to all of these amazing people, I have focused on staying a student in all things. This passion to learn, combined with the teachings of others, has helped me achieve some pretty special things with some very special people.
Maybe it is because my Mom was a teacher that helped people realize potential they didn’t know they had, or maybe it is because my Dad always focused on serving and making a difference in people’s lives, or maybe it is because in my heart I love to see people rise to new levels. Whatever the reasons, I decided to share as much as I can through this book and courses.
Q: Are people and relationships a major focus of your book?
A: The data tells us that most people are underutilized and underappreciated--so much so that most people just tolerate a job instead of enjoying a fulfilling career. Sure, culture and people are more of a focus now than in previous years, but focus doesn’t solve the problem. You must put a real system in place to maximize the outcomes for everyone involved. When alignment occurs between the customers of a business, the team within the business, and the business leaders/owners, awesome things occur.
“Adapt or Die” outlines a system that puts people at the center of the business through a set of principles I describe as the Algorithm of Success. The algorithm starts with leadership and then extends through product, strategy, growth, financial modeling, people, operations, and processes. These principles are the things that we have learned over 20+ years of failures and successes. I’m thrilled to share in hopes that others can accelerate through the challenges that we’ve been able to work through.
Q: What advice can you offer transitioning military service members interested in business ownership?
A: First, have a plan to do something you are passionate about. When we are in the military, we have responsibilities, objectives, standards, orders, and a strong sense of team to ensure we stay focused on the right things. As you transition, that will not exist initially, so it is important that you spend your time on work that is meaningful and keep you coming back for more. Before you transition, do your best to have skills that are valuable in the civilian space. Leadership is valuable for sure, and compassionate leadership even more so. However, having a trade, specific ability, skillset, or talent is necessary so that you can add to the value of a business or organization. Use the skills plus the leadership capabilities to maximize your impact.
If you are acquiring a business, have a team around you. There are many things that you’ll need to know to ensure you are set up for success. Certainly lawyers, banks, accountants, IT partners, insurance, etc. Those are a given in today’s world. Make sure you establish those relationships (be picky). Ask lots of questions and don’t be timid about it. Most business problems have already been solved by someone else, so don’t think you have to be the superhero. You also want to make sure you have a team around you day to day. Building a business is very hard. Surround yourself with people you enjoy being with, you can trust, and who are aligned to the outcomes you are focused on.
Q: You worked as an employee before becoming a business owner. Do you recommend transitioning from the military directly to business ownership?
A: I would say this depends on the experiences that you have had prior to a transition. There is so much to know about business to do it right. If you have been exposed to these things, then it might be right for you. If not, it is probably valuable to work in a business for a while to learn some of the foundations that you’ll need to build upon. Not to sound self-promoting, but this is why I wrote “Adapt or Die.” It has the Algorithm of Success, which shares what we had to figure out along the way. If you have a good appreciation for these things in your world, then you are ready. If you don’t, I’d spend the time to establish them.
Q: What traits developed in the military lend themselves to business ownership?
A: The first thing that I think of is discipline, which is important for a business owner in their own life. I would say another positive trait you gain in the military is persistence. Training and drilling and practicing until you get something right. They don’t just let you give up and move on if it’s hard.
The accompanying pitfall is thinking that either your business needs to be run in that manner or that every employee must have that same type of discipline or they cannot be successful or as effective.
Q: What are some other potential pitfalls?
A: The next pitfall would be a reliance on top-down leadership. That is necessary for the military, for soldiers (or sailors, in the Navy) to be trained and drilled and accustomed to following orders without question. In a combat zone, in the midst of battle, things have to be that way. But civilian life is not that. And effective business leadership needs to be collaborative and happen at every level. That is why I’ve worked to integrate a leader-leader philosophy into my company so that anyone on any level of the company has the authority and permission to speak to issues they see throughout any other level of the company.
Q: Besides your book, are there any resources you can recommend for those who want to start a business after the military?
A: Many! I would say “Abundance” by Peter Diamandis. It helped me to have the right mindset to stay optimistic. I would also say “7 Habits of Highly Effective People,” “Turn the Ship Around,” “Predictable Success,” “Scaling Up,” and “Traction” … But there are literally dozens.
Here’s a story: Probably one of the best lessons I learned was how to have a good leadership meeting. We were getting together once per week but not really making the progress that we needed to. The meetings were not organized, not focused on the right things. We would come and go and not feel energized or excited about what was next and what we had achieved.
We started with Verne Harnish’s “Scaling Up” (it was Rockefeller Habits) method for running the meetings, then migrated to the “Traction” methodology. Both are amazing and critical for bringing a good team together to focus on the right things at the right times. Having an agenda that time boxes the right items for the right times was a game-changer for us and keeping us focused. They both help you to identify the key numbers, key issues and strategic priorities that you need to have in alignment. Getting the team on the same page was the gift.
I would also say that understanding where we were as an organization by learning from Les McKeown in “Predictable Success” helped us to know where we were in our maturity so we could focus on the right things.
Q: What is the number one thing a person needs to know about starting a business after transitioning from military service?
A: I would go back to your team. Don’t go alone. The problems have already been solved. This includes those I spoke about before, but it also includes your family. Don’t try to protect them from the challenges in business. You need an ecosystem around you so that you can win. Starting a business is a family commitment. Share the challenges, the successes, the cash flow issues, the people issues. Don’t be lonely at the top. I have received more good advice from my wife than I can count.