Several entrepreneurs gathered at Raleigh’s WeWork location last night to pitch their businesses as part of Bunker Labs’ national showcase. The event took place simultaneously in 23 cities in one night and saw 400 entrepreneurs share their stories with their communities nationally.
In Raleigh, these included startups like Durham-based authenticity platform Rownd and Raleigh’s on-demand delivery service Lavi, as well as multiple growing businesses in the motorcycle apparel, drone, restaurant and health industries.
It’s the second showcase Bunker Labs has held as part of their mission to grow the business networks of veteran and military spouse entrepreneurs nationwide.
Todd Connor originally created Bunker Labs in 2014 when he realized, upon coming back from the Navy and starting a consulting company with the help of his network in Chicago, that he indeed was an anomaly in the military community.
Most service members were coming back home to limited connections and uncertainty around how to start a business. This was the case for Bunker Labs CEO Blake Hogan, who joked that if he had gone back to his hometown of Blaine, Minn., his professional network would have only included his single mom, a kindergarten teacher.
To date, Bunker Labs is active in 40 cities across the country as a way to connect veterans and their families with resources and to business and civic leaders in their communities.
Hogan said the goal for Wednesday night’s national showcase was very clear: help military entrepreneurs get the support they need from the outside community to make their businesses successful.
“We’re not here to shake hands and talk about the weather,” Hogan said. “We’re not here to have a bunch of hype. They will get up onstage, and they will say, ‘This is who I am. This is what I’m trying to do, and this is what I need.’”
Hogan said he hoped that in all of the cities that host showcases, they will become a massive convening of leaders, VCs, technologists and entrepreneurs as a way to rally around veterans and military spouses and give them “the keys to the city.”
“So many times, it’s just overwhelming to figure out, how do I get involved, how do I become a part of the solution?” Hogan said. “This is a really simple way to be like, hey, I’m a business leader. I’m a civic leader. I care about my city. I care about entrepreneurs. And I can show up for two hours twice a year and connect with some incredible human beings that are launching really cool companies.”
One local veteran entrepreneur, Rob Thelen, the CEO and Founder of Rownd, said his company would not exist today if not for Bunker Labs.
He was initially working at IBM when he started going to Bunker Labs meetups. Thelen had served in the Air Force, and he said Bunker Labs gave him the courage to do something else. Looking around the room at Bunker meetups, the excuses he made for being too old or too different than other entrepreneurs no longer made sense.
His “something else” was Rownd, an instant authentication software platform that recently made its way through the prestigious YCombinator accelerator and raised a seed round of an undisclosed amount. (We wrote about the startup’s acceptance to YCombinator in February, and first profiled Rownd in November, 2020.)
Thelen said Bunker Labs opened his eyes to the fact that veteran entrepreneurs exist. By holding showcases like this, Bunker Labs is working to reduce the stigma that veterans can face when interacting with investors, who often look to invest in the same types over and over again.
“I definitely don’t think that we would be here without Bunker Labs,” Thelen said. “There’s little doubt in my mind because entrepreneurship is lonely, sad and has a lot of rejection. The only way to get through it is to find your flock, to find the people that go through the same stuff every single day.”
At some points, Thelen compares being an entrepreneur to basic training in the military. It’s horrible most days, but when you look back after it’s over, you realize it wasn’t that bad. Maybe it was even kind of fun, he said. But without the support of fellow Bunker Labs entrepreneurs slogging through it with you, it’s easy to feel alone.
“There’s this imagery that being an entrepreneur is like a cool video game or something,” Thelen said. “All these movies portray this journey as something that’s easy, but it’s not. It’s very hard, and you just have to be with other people who understand that.”
Covid forced adjustments for the better
This is only the second time Bunker Labs has been able to hold an event of this magnitude after Covid. The pandemic shifted Bunker Labs’ entire model, Hogan said, adding it was 100 percent for the better.
In 2019, Bunker Labs held 200 live events with more than 20,000 people across the country. While these events did drive connections, it was hard to measure the impact with 12 different regional leaders with different interpretations of what a Veterans in Residence program should look like. Now Bunker Labs runs three cohort-based programs—one for early-stage entrepreneurs, one for growth-stage entrepreneurs and one for “ecosystem builders” or ambassadors.
“Prior to Covid, we had a goal to grow to all 50 states and I said, ‘Look, what’s a lot more important is, are we making an impact where we are?’” Hogan said. “In doing that, and in focusing on that, we’ve improved, and there’s a lot we can still do better.”
They are still getting inbound leads from people who want to bring Bunker Labs to their own cities, Hogan said. The focus now is to make it easy for top organizations like YCombinator or Techstars to partner with them and directly connect with entrepreneurs.
“We want Bunker Labs to be the number one powerhouse network for entrepreneurs, period, not necessarily veteran or military spouses,” Hogan said. “We want people to be like, ‘Wow, this is an incredible group of entrepreneurs.’”