Office of Veterans Business Development

Boots to Business Grad Salutes Fallen K9s with K9 Salute

Since its inception in 2013, the SBA’s Boots to Business (B2B) and Boots to Business Reboot program have served over 86,000 service members, veterans, and military spouses. From breweries and dog treat companies to software consulting and IT sales, these Boots to Business graduates have transitioned from service members to business owners.

Today, we’re highlighting the story of Jessica Harris, a retired Medic/Sergeant First Class (SFC), who served 20 years in the Washington Army National Guard. Not only is Harris the CEO of K9 Salute, but she’s also a proud Boots to Business graduate and one of SCORE’s 2018 American Small Business Champions. While she remains the only employee of K9 Salute to this day, Harris recognizes that business ownership is not necessarily a solo mission. Throughout her entrepreneurship journey, she’s capitalized on the plethora of resources available to the veteran business community.

FROM SERVICE MEMBER TO CIVILIAN

From 1995 to 2015, Jessica Harris served as a medic in the Washington Army National Guard. She served in a variety of capacities, including a tour in Iraq from 2008-2009.

“The first 10 years of my career were definitely characterized by the traditional ‘weekend warrior’ status, putting in one weekend per month,” says Harris. “For the last half of my career, I served in an active duty status with the National Guard – about eight of those years with our state’s Counterdrug Program. I also served as a senior medic in Iraq from 2008 to 2009 with 1/303rd Cavalry.”

Throughout her service, Harris toyed with a few business ideas. One idea stemmed in response to the damp weather inherent to the northwest region – an indoor dog park and beer garden. When the annual Veteran Women Igniting the Spirit of Entrepreneurship (V-WISE) conference fortuitously came to Seattle in 2013, she took it as an opportunity to introduce herself to the entrepreneurship world. She had learned about VWISE and its host organization, the Institute for Veterans and Military Families (IVMF), through the Department of Defense’s Transition Assistance Program (TAP). Attending VWISE enabled Harris to network with other powerful veteran women and military spouses at every stage of business ownership.

“Just seeing all the women who were already successful in business – or those who had an idea and were ready to start building – was so motivating. Considering I had no prior business experience, the VWISE workshops provided great background, especially on critical topics like finance and marketing,” says Harris.

Around the last six months of her military transition, Harris secured a job in North Carolina, prompting a move across the country. She put her business idea – the indoor dog park – on hold while she settled into her new life in NC.

FROM CIVILIAN TO ENTREPRENEUR

Once Harris completed her move, a series of events re-ignited her entrepreneurial fire. While her transition out of the military had been smooth, transitioning back into the workforce had proven to be more difficult than she had anticipated. Ten months after moving to North Carolina, Harris was laid off.

“The military really teaches you how to just constantly push forward. You will fail. But it’s how you learn and grow from that experience that matters more,” says Harris.  “I thought, ‘You know what? Maybe this is a sign I should be doing something else.’ My idea for the indoor dog park idea was still viable, considering how hot NC tends to get in the summer.”

Harris found a local veteran entrepreneurship network group that hosted meetings by her house, where she met people who inspired her to pursue something again. Around the same time, Harris enrolled in the Boots to Business (B2B) program. B2B taught her how to organize the business plan for her indoor dog park, taking every aspect of the entrepreneurial process into consideration. However, as she finished up the course, she wasn’t sure if having a brick and mortar business was the right move. Another turning point was on the horizon.

“I got cold feet,” says Harris. “I just wasn’t sure if I wanted to stay in North Carolina, and putting in all this work to start an indoor dog park was turning out to be a huge commitment – not just for my time, but for the foreseeable future. Boots to Business really made me look at my overall business plan, so when I shifted focus to K9 Salute, I was able to apply things I had already learned to a new business idea – which allowed me to work through the plan more efficiently.”

In January 2016, Harris learned a tragic statistic regarding several of the police K9 units she followed. In the course of one month, eight K9s had been killed in the line of duty – 35 over the entire year. As she flipped through a dog magazine with this statistic in mind, she noticed the pages were inundated with products that looked the same. Regardless of the category – treats, toys, food – Harris could not find an answer to her question, “What was unique about any of these dog businesses?”

“Something just sparked in my head,” says Harris. “I thought, ‘What can I do to honor these K9s, bring awareness to what these dogs do, and help give back to these units so they can get the supplies they need?’”

That’s when the idea for K9 Salute was born. Harris started researching how to start a dog food company, from existing regulations to actual recipes. To get a feel for what her competition looked like, she went to different pet stores and took pictures of products to examine existing packaging, ingredients, and overall marketing tactics. Once she had a good grasp on the starting pieces of K9 Salute, she stumbled upon a small business competition held by a local group. Teaming up with her mother, an experienced accountant, she compiled and submitted a business plan with only 30 minutes to spare before the competition deadline. After a cutthroat week of online public voting, Harris and K9 Salute pulled through as the competition winner!

FROM BUSINESS PLAN TO BUSINESS REALITY

Winning the Carolina Small Business Development Fund competition equipped Harris with a guaranteed loan and mentorship benefits from another local organization, similar to SCORE. SCORE, an SBA resource partner, is a nonprofit mentorship program that matches retired business executives with aspiring business owners. The organization Harris tapped in to was a partner with the newly established Bunker Labs Raleigh-Durham chapter, providing business mentorship through the launch and startup of K9 Salute.

“Two years later, I can confidently say that the network I built from the program is still so relevant today. I know I’ll always have my mentor in my back pocket,” says Harris. “The resources are there. People are here to help veteran entrepreneurs – so take advantage of it!”

Today, K9 Salute dog treats come in three different baked flavors. The process of developing the recipes is labor-intensive since Harris uses only quality, certified organic ingredients which need to be approved by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. She also sources ingredients from smaller farms where meat is traceable, working with veteran-owned farms wherever possible. Each bag of K9 Salute is carefully crafted and put together, and can be purchased online and in a handful of retail stores across the country. This year, K9 Salute was named a SCORE 2018 American Small Business Champion. Harris continues to work with her SCORE mentor through the local Raleigh chapter.

Looking to the future, Harris hopes to expand K9 Salute to feature additional flavors and a jerky line. Ultimately, she hopes people begin to recognize the brand and mission behind the company. As a small-but-mighty team of one, Harris attributes her success to the veteran business community, who prepared her to tackle business ownership head on.

“The military teaches you to depend on a team, and how to build a team of great people around you. You have to do that to be successful in business. You won’t be great at everything – so find people that are better than you in areas where you’re weak,” says Harris.

LESSONS LEARNED

Harris provides a few words of wisdom for other veteran and military business owners who seek to start, purchase, or grow a business.

On Business Plans –

“Through entrepreneurial training like Boots to Business, I learned how to write a business plan and have really come to understand that it’s a living object that changes from time to time,” says Harris. “I’ve used my foundational business plan to apply to many business competitions – all of which force me to evaluate my plan very closely. Thus far, I’ve won two!”

On Pursuing Veteran Business Programs –

“The programs offered to veterans are top-notch. They’ve given me the confidence to keep pushing forward to succeed,” says Harris. “Knowing there is support behind your endeavor, and staying involved in the veteran business community are keys to growing a successful business.”

On Leveraging Existing Resources –

“After we secured a business loan, we invested the money into commercial equipment. The original plan was to conquer the whole nine yards – own warehouse space, make all the products in-house, and create jobs,” says Harris. “About one year in, we realized there were already resources that do everything we sought to do. That’s when we decided it was more worth our time, money, and effort to get involved with a co-packer. Why recreate the wheel when you don’t have to?”

Biggest Takeaway –

“If it’s something you really want to do, there’s really no excuse not to do it. There are so many great resources – free or minimal of charge – available to veteran and military community members that didn’t exist 5-6 years ago,” says Harris. “You don’t need a business background to get started – just immerse yourself in these veteran entrepreneur groups and you’ll find an array of resources and people who want to help you succeed.”

If you’re a veteran, service member (including National Guard and Reserve), military spouse or caregiver looking to start, purchase or grow a business, visit sba.gov/veterans for more information.