For several years since its formation, the Veterans Incubator for Better Entrepreneurship at University of Washington Tacoma campus has worked hard at being “the epicenter of business creation” in the South Sound, according to Thomas Kuljam, the program’s director.

VIBE has been a go-to center for business formation resources to military veterans striving to be entrepreneurs. It’s an important sector, too. In the U.S., there are approximately 2.4 million veteran-owned firms, which employ 5.8 million people, according to a study by U.S. Small Business Administration. And with nearby Joint Base Lewis McChord ensconced in the fabric of the region, potential for veteran entrepreneurs is exponentially greater locally.

“Compared to the U.S. population, veterans are more likely to be entrepreneurs,” says Michael Wark, assistant vice chancellor at UWT and supervisor for VIBE. “Veterans are committed to a higher mission. They’re good at managing teams.”

In order to forge a stronger ecosystem of veteran and non-vet entrepreneurs alike, Kuljam and VIBE’s board of advisors are excited to announce a new business plan competition that will kick off in February.

“We want to promote a mixture of ideas and minds,” Kuljam says. “Veterans can teach non-veterans something (and) non-veterans can teach veterans something.”

On Feb. 10, entrepreneurs identifying as veterans or non-veterans from area community and technical colleges will be invited to come before VIBE to pitch their new business idea. They will then be paired off with other entrepreneurs to form a team. The team will write an executive summary of their business and submit to the VIBE judges on March 24.

In order to qualify, leadership teams must be comprised of at least one veteran and at least one area college student. There is no limit to the number of people in a team. 

Teams will be notified when their executive summary passes to the second round on March 31. Those that pass to the next round will be paired with an experienced business mentor to help them write their business plan.

Leo Regala, a retired banker and Vietnam War veteran, is starting his second year as a VIBE mentor and will contribute his expertise during the course of the competition.

“They come in with an idea and they have a concept,” Regala says. “My job is to sit down with them and ask about it. I can relate to the veterans coming out of the military, and on financial management in starting a business.”

Regala, a University of Puget Sound graduate, worked in residential and commercial banking for 36 years managing branches in Washington and the western United States.

Another active volunteer mentor is Frank Matulis, a commercial banker at HomeStreet Bank for 25 years. Matulis was raised in a military family: His father retired as a command sergeant major in the U.S. Army after serving nearly 30 years.

As a mentor during the competition, Matulis plans to share his expertise on finance, banking, business formation, foreseeing obstacles, and product delivery.

“I have a real belief in the military folks,” Matulis says. “They have proven to be very good employees. They bring a maturity with them that most entry-level employees don’t.”

On April 14, leadership teams will enter the investment round where they will have the opportunity to pitch their business idea to judges and people invited to the event from the broader community. Judges and other community members will each be issued $5,000 in “VIBE Bucks” (not actual currency), which they can then divvy up among the top five teams they want to graduate to the final round on May 5.

“This is an opportunity for them to showcase who they are, and an opportunity for the judges to see what they’re all about,” Kuljam says. “It helps businesses practice their ‘elevator speech.’ ”

On May 5, the finalists will go through final judging and a grand-prize winner will be selected. The winner will receive up to $25,000 in cash and up to $25,000 in in-kind services from several agencies. The agencies providing in-kind services are Olive Group, a Tacoma firm that provides marketing strategy to business startups; Smith Alling, a Tacoma law group; and Ferguson Architecture in Tacoma.

Jake Nyman, owner of Olive Group, says his firm will help the business target to their specific audience and answer marketing-related questions. In business for 12 years, the firm moved from Seattle to the Stadium District in Tacoma four years ago.

“We do marketing strategy,” Nyman says. “We help small businesses know who their customers are. We show them how to create a story around their business that resonates with their audience. We also do social media management, graphic design, sales support, videography and photography.

“Our hope is that this competition really helps launch the VIBE program to the next level,” Nyman says. “It’s a great program for veterans coming out of the military who are trained and motivated, and who really want to do something on their own.”

Tyler Shillito, an attorney and partner at Smith Alling on Dock Street in Tacoma, plans to provide in-kind services to the winning team that includes contract reviews. He will help the winning team write up a comprehensive service contract that the business can then use in its relations with customers.

“You have to build up your contract so that it covers the scope of your services,” Shillito explained. “That takes time, because you’re creating something special for their needs.”

A business law attorney for 11 years, he sits on the board of William Factory Small Business Incubator. Late last year, he spoke about general legal principles for small businesses at VIBE’s weekly Brown Bag Series.

“My future involvement (with VIBE) will be providing legal services to some of the businesses for free, so they can get off the ground without much of a cost.”

Shillito says VIBE is an exceptional program and it should be encouraged.

“You can’t donate a bunch of time to make it happen,” he says. “You need to be there to provide services to help it happen.”

Meanwhile, Ben Ferguson, owner of Ferguson Architecture, says he feels a kinship with VIBE’s mission. It was only 20 months ago that he started his architectural design firm, located across from the UWT campus and VIBE office. Ferguson understands the value of making good connections to help your business thrive and that’s what VIBE provides.

The in-kind services Ferguson plans to provide will include helping the winning team apply for a building permit and, depending on the structure of their business, helping with the layout design of their space.

“We want to help their space not be one of the challenges that they have to overcome,” he says.

Ferguson appreciates the value that VIBE is bringing to the Tacoma business community.

“What VIBE is trying to do is what we’re trying to do from a different direction,” Ferguson says. “We’re helping Tacoma be a viable community. Part of that is helping businesses thrive. (VIBE) is providing guidance and insight to people doing that. And, if we can home-grow businesses in Tacoma, then Tacoma is a stronger place. It’s an exciting proposition to be in a town that’s growing.”

Brian Nelson, a retired military veteran and VIBE board member, says the rigors of going through the process and applying will be beneficial to all teams, regardless of whether they win the big money or not.

Wark says even the teams that don’t win the grand prize will still receive valuable expert advice. Kuljam, who has 25 years of business banking experience, says his main objective with VIBE is to help businesses be bankable.