Cigars, Bourbon, And Business: This Marine Corps Veteran Is Now Popping Smoke And Bottles To Business Success
Brandon Harris, Marine Corps Veteran & Founder of Smoke N Memories
Tell us about you and your military background:
My name is Brandon Harris, and my roots are firmly planted just north of Houston, Texas, where I grew up in a close-knit family with one younger brother. Our family ethos was deeply entangled with the world of sports, which I suppose, primed me for the rigorous discipline and teamwork of my ensuing military career. I enlisted in the Marine Corps in 2009, dedicating nine years to active duty and another year to the reserves, ascending to the rank of E-6.
During this transformative period, I was stationed in contrasting geographic theaters—Camp Lejeune on the East Coast and Pendleton on the West. The Corps offered me a global vantage point, with deployments that spanned from an 11-month sojourn with the 24th MEU to a half-year engagement in Okinawa, Japan. However, the crescendo of my military experience was a 9-month deployment to Iraq with Task Force Lion. In this multi-faceted role, I wore many hats: Radio Chief, Cryptographic Manager, personal Radio Operator for our Colonel, and Gunner for our PSD team. Collaborating with Coalition SOF teams from countries like Norway, Denmark, and Switzerland, we trained Iraqi security forces and spearheaded operations that successfully liberated areas from ISIS control.
Tell us about your business:
In January 2023, I birthed Smoke N Memories — a Houston-based, veteran-owned mobile cigar lounge that has been rapidly gaining traction. Our service portfolio is diverse, spanning from private events like weddings and bachelor parties to corporate functions and golf tournaments. The target demographic is rather expansive, ranging from 23 to 65 years of age. At Smoke N Memories, our ethos transcends commercial endeavors. We've instituted a 10% discount for military personnel and first responders, and we allocate a fraction of our profits to local veteran-centric nonprofits. The enterprise emanates from a deeply personal space; it encapsulates my love for fine cigars and bourbon. These aren't mere products; they are conduits for social bonding, creating moments in time that are both unique and unforgettable.
Describe how you got the business started:
The metamorphosis of Smoke N Memories from a conceptual embryo to a living entity took approximately six months. Notably, I shunned the conventional route of external funding, opting instead to reinvest surplus income in a disciplined, incremental fashion. Prior to launch, I fortified my expertise in the domain, achieving certifications as a tobacconist and whiskey ambassador. Thereafter, I vigorously built an operational network, forging alliances with wedding venues, event planners, and golf courses. My maiden sale, a testament to the magnetic pull of my venture, came just a month post-launch from a veteran friend affiliated with a local nonprofit.
Tell us why you wanted to become an entrepreneur:
My journey into the arcane world of entrepreneurship was sparked by a seminal book: "Rich Dad Poor Dad" by Robert Kiyosaki. This literary encounter was nothing short of an intellectual awakening, igniting an insatiable thirst for self-development, business acumen, and sophisticated financial strategies. Networking became my modus operandi, a tool not just for business, but for personal growth. The importance of surrounding oneself with accomplished individuals cannot be overstated—it’s akin to an informal apprenticeship, a conduit for osmotic learning.
Since departing from the military five years ago, my vocational path has been anything but linear. I've immersed myself in six different roles across five distinct industries. It's clear to me now that the traditional 9-5 employment model was an ill-fitting garment on my entrepreneurial frame.
Describe how your military background prepared you for entrepreneurship:
My military experience was an inadvertent training ground for entrepreneurial pursuits. The Marine Corps endowed me with a medley of soft skills: emotional intelligence, communication acumen, problem-solving capabilities, leadership dynamics, and adaptability. This was complemented by a suite of hard skills ranging from technical prowess in radio communications to project and business management. As a Radio Chief, I found myself deeply involved in training initiatives and personnel development—assets that have proven invaluable in my current roles.
Tell us about some of your obstacles and challenges, and how you overcame them:
I grappled with doubts surrounding public speaking, wrestling with a pervasive imposter syndrome that often paralyzed me. During my early years in the military, I squandered both time and financial resources, hampering my initial strides into entrepreneurship. Transitioning to civilian life was akin to crossing a psychological chasm; the loss of an institutionalized identity and camaraderie was disorienting. However, the axiom "Your network is your net worth" served as my compass. Overcoming societal skepticism and familial misunderstandings about my entrepreneurial path was yet another challenge, underscoring the importance of forging one’s own path.
Describe how you’re doing today and what the future looks like:
Today, I find myself at a fascinating juncture. A lot of my energy is channeled towards strategic networking, brand amplification, and revenue diversification. In the realm of private equity, I am guided by value propositions and tangible outcomes. As for Smoke N Memories, the roadmap is replete with new products and services that will soon see the light of day.
Share some advice with your fellow veteran entrepreneurs:
Leverage Social Media Judiciously: In an age where digital footprints carry substantial influence, optimizing your social media platforms is non-negotiable. It's not merely about frequency but the quality of interaction. Consistently disseminate value-driven content that addresses the pain points of your target audience. Be it industry insights, business hacks, or motivational stories—each post should serve a purpose and build your brand equity.
Aim for Targeted, Value-Based Networking: Networking isn't about casting a wide net; it's about casting the right net. Identify the types of professionals and organizations that align with your objectives. Remember, relationships are reciprocal, so bring something to the table. It could be your expertise, connections, or even your time—whatever creates a synergistic partnership.
Pay Attention to Available Resources: The entrepreneurial landscape is fraught with opportunities disguised as challenges. Be it grants, low-interest loans, or specialized courses designed for veterans, these resources are instrumental for scaling. Conduct exhaustive research, tap into veterans' networks, and never hesitate to avail yourself of what's accessible.
Don't Underestimate Mental and Physical Health: Entrepreneurship is a grueling endeavor that demands an optimum state of mind and body. Mental resilience can be fortified through mindfulness techniques and possibly consulting with professionals. Physical health is equally pivotal; consider regular exercise not as an option but as a business requirement. These aspects feed into your overall productivity and decision-making acumen.
Utilize the GI Bill: The Post-9/11 GI Bill isn't just a ticket to a traditional degree. It can also cover vocational training, certifications, and apprenticeships that are directly applicable to your business endeavors. Leverage this asset to fill any skills gaps you or your team might have.
Arm Yourself with Knowledge: Never underestimate the transformative power of a well-curated reading list. Books on psychology can help you decode consumer behavior, texts on personal development can shape your leadership style, industry-specific literature can offer you a competitive edge, and mastering sales tactics can become your enterprise's lifeblood.
Credit and Cash Flow Management: Establish a robust credit profile and understand your cash flow like the back of your hand. These are not just financial metrics but indicators of your business health and predictors of your scalability and investment-worthiness.
Real Estate Leverage: If you're contemplating long-term wealth creation, real estate could offer a stable investment vehicle. Consider utilizing your VA loan to buy property. Whether you decide to house hack or rent out, it serves as a tangible asset, ensuring another income stream.
Take Calculated Risks: The military instills a certain risk-assessment ability in you—utilize it. Assess the upside and the downside of every business decision, ensuring the former significantly outweighs the latter before diving in.
Prioritize Skill Over Talent: Talent may be innate, but skill is honed. Invest in yourself and your team's skill development. Whether it’s courses, workshops, or seminars—never stop learning.
Where can we go to learn more: