Five-Time Founder & Special Forces Veteran Leverages Military Skills For Entrepreneurial Success In Helping Small Businesses
Kirk Burton. Army Officer & Founder of Tight Loop Solutions
Tell us about who you are and your background in the military:
Hi I’m Kirk Burton. I never really planned to make the Army a career. I enjoyed ROTC and even joined the Army National Guard under a simultaneous membership program. As college graduation neared my plan was to stay in the Guard and join one of the big accounting firms to get some experience before heading to New York to work as a trader on the NYSE. As I gathered details to put my plan in place I discovered that the starting salary at a large accounting firm was $14-$15k per year while an Army 2LT made just over $18k. As an accounting/finance major, it didn’t take me long to execute my first pivot. I decided to spend 3 years on active duty and get some leadership experience before executing my original plan. So in July of 1982, I found myself standing in formation at Fort Benning, Georgia to begin the Infantry Officer Basic Course.
My first assignment was in Germany with the 3rd Armored Division and I found that I really enjoyed the Army life. There were plenty of challenges, the Army was still recovering from Vietnam. Drugs were a problem and morale among those with experience in Vietnam as well as younger soldiers suffered. Through it all I kept my head down, learned all I could, and excelled. A little over three years later I returned to the U.S. as a new Captain with experience as a platoon leader, company XO, battalion motor officer, and Aide de Camp. During my advanced course, I found out that the Army was sending me to Fort Riley Kansas to be a company commander. I however had other plans. During my time in Germany, I had a chance to meet and talk with several officers from my battalion with Special Forces experience. After much internal back and forth I decided that I wanted to become a green beret and let the Infantry Branch know of my desires. I didn’t get the reaction I expected. I was called in to see the infantry branch representative at Fort Benning. He firmly told me that Special Forces (SF) would ruin my career and I would be lucky to make Major and certainly would never be promoted beyond that. He asked me to think about it over the weekend and let him know my decision. After PT on Monday, I quickly showered and was outside his door when he arrived for the day. I told him that I definitely wanted to go to the SF course…and I never looked back.
I probably wasn’t the typical SF candidate. I never played sports, had never maxed the PT test, and typically came in near the last group to pass any ruck march requirements (air assault school, SF qual, etc). But, I was determined and in 1987 I was on my way back to Germany as an ODA Commander in C Company, 1st Battalion, 10th Special Group. My Team Sergeant was incredibly talented with experience in the fabled Detachment A in Berlin (look it up). In addition to leading my detachment, I focused on learning as much as I could so I would be better prepared for what I now knew would be a career.
As most veterans do I have good memories and bad memories. The Army gave me a chance to see the world. With six years in Germany, I was able to visit much of Europe during leave and I enjoyed that tremendously. I also had the opportunity to work with leaders in Albania, Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, and Kyrgyzstan during deployments to teach peacekeeping, the Army’ Professional Military Education, and small unit tactics. Other missions provided unique challenges that we always seemed to meet and opportunities to be part of History. I took command of a Special Forces Company while deployed to Turkey during Operation Provide Comfort II. I was in Italy as the Army SOF Component Commander Special Operations Task Force, providing Combat Search and Rescue when Scott O’Grady was shot down over Bosnia in June 1995. I spent almost six months aboard the USS Mount Whitney as the Deputy J3 for Combined Joint Task Force Horn of Africa. As the Deputy Commander for the Special Operations Task Force in Baghdad, I work with Special Operators from all services who executed complex high-risk missions night after night. Things were not always rosy, I lost friends and Soldiers, I presented flags to the loved ones of fallen Soldiers, and I witnessed the personal toll that service to the country takes from Soldiers and families. Still, I would not trade my 23 years of service for anything. As I retired in September 2005 I was a little apprehensive because the Army was basically all I knew, but I also knew that I was prepared to face anything that came my way.
Tell us about your business:
I started my current business Tight Loop Solutions (TLS) in March of 2020. It is the fifth business I have founded or co-founded. I was in my 4th year working for a startup in the Washington DC area but my home and family were in Chattanooga, TN. As the Covid pandemic began to take hold of the U.S. I decided it was time to leave the big city and return to Chattanooga. TLS is my second consulting business so the actual startup process was not as scary as it was the first time. Still, making sure that I completed all of the steps at the federal, state, and local level to be a legal entity with the proper licenses, tax ID, etc., took a good bit of time. My mission is to support small businesses by providing advice, mentorship, connections, and hands on management of key tasks as needed. My passion is small technology businesses but I will help any business that displays passion, commitment, and the ability to listen.
Describe how you got the business started:
Because this was not my first business, the journey from idea to conception was pretty quick. I also knew I wanted to start with me as the only employee. So for about 20 hours and less than $500, I secured my company name, registered with the state, city, and county, and was officially in business. The next thing I did was use UpWork to find someone to help develop a company logo. My first customer was the company I recently worked for in Washington DC before moving to TN. That gave me a little breathing room but new client acquisition was still a primary focus.
Tell us why you wanted to become an entrepreneur:
Having been an employee of a large defense contractor, a few small businesses, and an entrepreneur, I knew that I wanted to work for myself. I was driven by the feeling that I had a unique skill set that could really help small businesses. I had already co-founded two non-profit companies aimed at connecting small businesses with opportunities to solve really complex problems for the Department of Defense. I decided that my new venture would be a for-profit company that allowed me to work one on one with small business founders. That allows me to pick the companies that I feel I can really help based on my skills. I also decided to take a community approach referring companies to organizations better equipped to solve unique problems.
Describe how your military background prepared you for entrepreneurship:
My military background is key to making Tight Loop Solutions a success. Every Entrepreneur needs a commitment to what they do.
“You have to believe in yourself and be willing to go the extra mile to accomplish what is important to you and your business.”
During my career, I had to fight hard to accomplish the goals I set for myself. Whether it was completing a demanding course (SF Qualification, Jumpmaster, etc.) or fighting for my Soldiers and their families I learned that the journey is not always fun but if you keep pushing yourself forward you can accomplish anything.
Tell us about some of the obstacles and challenges you’ve had and how you overcame them:
Mindset is really important. It isn’t hard to be positive in the beginning as you embrace a new challenge. The hard part is to keep from getting discouraged when seemingly insurmountable challenges arise. I found two things that helped me when I began to have doubts 1. Include time in the day for a few deep breaths and some reflection and 2. Find a mentor to talk to.
One of my biggest challenges has been the desire for perfection in everything. The truth is there are certain aspects of running a business that doesn’t need to be perfect, especially in the beginning. Stay focused on perfecting what you deliver and how you deliver it and carefully manage all outward facing aspects of your company. It’s ok for what goes on “behind the curtain” to be messy and chaotic at times.
Initially, I wanted to save money and do everything myself. I figured I was smart enough to learn how to build a website, create marketing materials, etc. What I came to realize over time was that I was not actually saving money.
“I was spending time on activities that didn’t create customers when I should have been out talking with potential customers.”
I needed to spend my time scheduling speaking engagements, and creating a reputation as an expert in small business management. The solution is to use tools that are available. You can interview and hire professionals for any task using sites like upwork or fiverr. There are also tons of free resources available from the Small Business Administration (SBA) so you don’t have to learn lessons the hard way.
Describe how are you doing today and what the future looks like:
Today Tight Loop Solutions is accomplishing the goal I set to help small businesses move past obstacles and grow. I am nearing retirement and worry less about revenue numbers than work-life balance and providing a unique service to clients. I can generally handle 3-4 clients at a time without bringing in additional talent as 1099 employees. I like being able to surge when it makes sense and have relationships with many extremely talented business professionals who are also committed to supporting small businesses. My vision for the future is to continue what I am doing today for about three more years before working with clients only occasionally and perhaps contributing through writing articles or a blog.
Give us some advice you can share with your fellow veteran entrepreneurs:
If you are a transitioning veteran, here are a few lessons I learned during my entrepreneurial journey.
Don’t oversell yourself…not to yourself and not to others. Never assume that you can figure it out. If you have no experience in something, say so. By the same token don’t undersell yourself either. You have knowledge and skills that are unique to your military specialty, the units you served in, and the locations where you worked. You have also likely done what you do under pretty extreme conditions.
Decide what your company will do and focus on doing it better than anyone else. Become an expert in what you deliver. When someone asks what your company does, replying “What do you need” is the wrong answer.
People are the most important part of your business, whatever it is. Treat employees like you would want to be treated. In the beginning “under hire and overpay”, what I mean by this is to hire talent that is capable of performing more than one function and pay them well. It is better to hire one person who can function as chief engineer, bookkeeper, and operations director than to hire three people.
Invest in education and skill development for yourself and your employees. Stay current on methods, processes, and people management. Support certificate courses and professional certification (project management, IT, HR, PE).
Where can we go to learn more?