Former Military Special Operators Inspire American Patriots With Their Brand
Curtis Iovito, Marine Corps & Army Veteran, Founder of Spartan Blades
Tell us about you and your military background:
Hi, I’m Curtis Iovito. Initially, I was a U.S. Marine and was stationed at Marine Barracks Charleston as a nuclear security guard. I was stationed there for four years and was promoted to the rank of Corporal in year two. Shortly after leaving the Marines, I enlisted in the U.S. Army on an airborne contract. Because there was no requirement for Marines to go to basic training or AIT if in the same MOS, my first day in the Army was at Airborne School at Ft Benning. It was a bit of culture shock to be honest. I was basically a Marine in an Army uniform! After airborne school, I volunteered for The Ranger Indoctrination Program (RIP), even more culture shock! Eventually, I was stationed with the 2nd Ranger Bn. and participated in the Airborne assault of RIO Hato, Panama. After my time in the Rangers, I volunteered for and was selected for Special Forces and was both an 18B Weapons Sergeant and an Intel Sergeant.
During my time in Special Forces, I was stationed at both Ft Lewis, WA, and Okinawa, Japan. I deployed to several countries such as Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand, and the Philippines mostly teaching sniping and Counter Terrorism type classes. Much of my time there was spent training for our mission as an extremist force for the Pacific Theater.
Tell us about your business:
Pineland Cutlery, Inc dba Spartan Blades is located in Southern Pines, NC on the back side of Ft. Bragg. Spartan Blades was started in 2008 along with my Business Partner and Special Forces Teammate, Mark Carey, in a small pre-civil war mule barn in Aberdeen, NC. We make what are considered to be professional-grade knives/cutlery for the military, law enforcement, and collectors. As an outdoor cutlery brand, Spartan Blades aims to reinvigorate the sense of pride that comes from owning and carrying a well-designed, finely crafted knife. We hope to inspire unity and self-reliance among our fellow American patriots and like-minded people around the world with our brand. We serve a variety of customers from Green Berets and Navy SEALS to everyday collectors of high-end knives.
As a young soldier in the first Special Forces group,I made a knife for myself and eventually started making them for other unit members. These knives were all made custom one at a time. After retirement, both Mark Carey and I worked for a ballistic armor corporation and knew pretty quickly that we didn't want to work for someone else much longer. We did several business plans, one being a firearms company and the other making knives. After examining both industries it was clear that the initial cost would be much less making knives. Another driving factor was that the people in the Knife Industry were so eager to help us start the company.
Describe how you got the business started:
It only took about a month to get things rolling. My business partner had a small pre-civil war mule barn on his property that we used as an office upstairs and a shop downstairs. Our initial investment was about $11,000.00 each. This allowed for us to buy a small amount of knife-making and office equipment to get things rolling. We didn’t take a paycheck for the first few years investing everything back into the business. This allowed us to grow without ever taking a loan from our bank.
Before starting the business we did a fair amount of research, looking at the main players in our industry, and learning as much about the business environment we were about to enter. We were very surprised to learn that most knife companies didn't look at each other as opponents but more as friends in the same market. We found this very attractive and felt we could reach out to other companies for help and we did.
We were very fortunate in that when we reached out to another company, they were kind enough to mentor and help us avoid some of the pitfalls of starting a new company.
“We feel that it is very important to be honest with yourself about what you are good at and what you're not and reaching out to professionals if needed. Believing your own propaganda can be very expensive during the start-up phase of a company.”
We treated our start-up as a military mission, Collecting information on the market, learning who the players were, and putting our business together more as if it was a mission that needed to be executed properly. We feel that it is just as important to have a clear understanding of your operational environment in business as it is in the military.
Shortly after attending our first trade show, a former SGM of ours who wrote for a knife magazine placed us on the front cover and the sales poured in after that.
Tell us why you wanted to become an entrepreneur:
After retiring from the military both Mark Carey and I went to work for a ballistic armor corporation. We were told that we would be paid a base salary in addition to a percentage of all profits. After making millions for the company, we later found out that the profits were being mismanaged and that we wouldn't receive our promised bonuses, this is what drove us to start our business. We simply wanted to be in control of our own destiny and see how far we could go on our own. Of course, there were many opportunities open to us and I did work some government contracting off and on while we were growing the company. Again, the drive to be our own bosses and control our own destiny was always there. I think the thing that let us feel comfortable in starting our own business is that we often were required to do missions in Special Forces with very little guidance. We were often asked to do a lot with very little and to work in difficult circumstances, this in some ways gave us the confidence that we could be successful.
Describe how your military background prepared you for entrepreneurship:
As Green Berets, we were very accustomed to mission planning. Collecting intel, planning courses of action, understanding our operational environment, and reducing risk for example. This all played a role in our success. I also think that our confidence from working in a stressful environment for years helped. It is very rare that we make decisions based on fear. We tend to be more analytic about how we approach things.
In our role as Special Forces Soldiers, we were taught not to make things more difficult than they have to be. As a small force, you tend to focus on the mission and only those things that matter to get the mission done.
“I have heard so many people that don't accomplish their goals because they fear the negatives even when I know that they have all that is needed to be successful!”
Tell us about some of your obstacles and challenges, and how you overcame them:
I honestly don't feel that we had many obstacles other than the personal and mental ones that almost all business owners must face. Almost every successful business owner I know had to at some point roll the dice and risk everything to start a business. In my case, I had to quit contracting for the government which paid very well to do work that paid almost nothing. My partner, Mark, passed on several job offers while living off his investments to survive in the first few months of our business. All this was literally the same month as the 2008 financial crisis! Our business is called Spartan for a reason, we started with a small amount of money and a barn. We knew we had the intelligence and drive to be successful but it was still in the end a gamble on success even after eliminating all the risks we could. Of course, the support from our wives who had just as much to lose was a big help.
Describe how you're doing today and what the future looks like:
Today, Spartan Blades is an award-winning knife company with three lines of products manufactured in North Carolina, New York, and Taiwan. In 2019 we partnered with KA-BAR Knives of New York. KA-BAR is a 120-year-old company that is most famous for making the Marine Corps fighting knife. KA-BAR shared many of the same values as our company and made for the perfect fit. With this new partnership, we have expanded our product line and have enjoyed an additional manufacturing capacity. The personal satisfaction in knowing the Spartan Blades will live on as a brand after our time is over can't be overstated. We have seen almost double the annual growth over the last few years and have begun to expand our line of products. Our vision is to be competitive with other well-known companies in our industry.
Share some advice with your fellow veteran entrepreneurs:
We are often asked for advice from Soldiers retiring from the Army.
“The fear of giving up all you know and doing something new can be terrifying for some. It doesn't have to be, it can also be seen as a chance to do what you always dreamed of doing. It is a rare and great thing to choose what you want to do in life. You just can't let fear drive what you do.”
We often tell newly retired service members to try starting a business. It may be your only chance to do so and you may regret not doing it someday. Even if you fail, what you learn may be what helps you get through the rest of your life. Even a small home business or side hustle can give you the confidence you need to do something great.
I really feel it is important to “Join a Tribe”. If you have spent your life working on a team or with a trusted unit, you know the importance of being part of a team or network. This allows you to brief back ideas you have and to get help when needed. Additionally, it can be extremely helpful to reach out to experts in your field and ask for mentorship. This is a real head start in avoiding the pitfalls of starting a business. Mentors can assist in avoiding working with the wrong vendors, suppliers, etc. They can also assist in streamlining processes that can hurt your business through unnecessary expenditures.
Most business owners I talk to tell me that their business is the best investment they have ever made and that is the case in ours. We tell all new business owners to spend as little as possible during their first few years and if at all possible invest as much as they can back into their business. It just adds so much to your chances of surviving if you can flip that money in those early years. Too often we see companies spend money on equipment and capabilities that just aren't required to generate revenue.
Finally, people are more important than equipment. This is the case in the military and it's the same in business. Wait till you need two new people, then hire one great one and pay him a little more.
Where can we go to learn more: