Military Mantras for Success: ‘In the Midst of Challenge and Disruption, the Worst Thing You Can Do Is Stand Still’

Like many entrepreneurs this year, James McKinney has faced adversity in the time of COVID. The founder of The Startup Story podcast and newly launched coffee company Grindology draws on his military service to keep going. In honor of Veterans Day, the Marine Corps. veteran shares three key lessons.

To James McKinney, starting a business is easy. But when it comes to building a business—that’s of the hardest things anyone will ever attempt. As a Marine Corps. veteran, the entrepreneur says lessons from military service can be leveraged for success. 

McKinney is a serial entrepreneur who has what he calls a “cemetery” full of failed startups that he couldn’t build into what he had originally envisioned. And after his fourth failed attempt, McKinney decided to truly get to the bottom of what tools breed success. What resulted was The Startup Story, a weekly podcast that chronicles the entrepreneurial journeys of those behind some of the world’s most successful brands.

McKinney plays host to his guests as they “unpack the early beginnings” to uncover the initial leaps that led them to where they are today. Listeners are able to get a firsthand recount of how big names like Mailchimp and E! Entertainment came to be.

“With over 100 episodes and thousands of hours of interviews with massively successful founders, I started hearing tactics and strategies that weren’t commonly found by simply googling,” McKinney says on his website. “Apparently, the self-proclaimed ‘thought leaders’ that you find online weren’t actually the experts. It turns out that those who were executing and building real businesses are the experts.”

McKinney eventually went on to launch another venture after listening and learning from fellow founders who understood what it means to be in the trenches.

He now targets fellow business creators with newly launched Grindology, a quarterly shipment box that includes two bags of craft coffees, a quotable mug, and a copy of the accompanying Grindology magazine.

Grindology Subscription Box [Photo: Courtesy Grindology]

The coffee-plus-relevant reading combo aims to give budding entrepreneurs a “little extra boost” to fuel the startup process. McKinney says each issue is packed with “real tactics and strategies” directly from “highly successful entrepreneurs,” so readers are ensured the material is essentially coming straight from the horse’s mouth.

Today, McKinney is entirely committed to supporting founders like himself. He shares a few lessons drawn from his military service and hopes his story provides something entrepreneurs will take with them to deal with the tribulations of 2020 and beyond:

In the midst of challenge and disruption, the worst thing you can do is stand still.”

“We jumped into 2020 with excitement and ambition like most business owners did. In fact, due to the success of The Startup Story podcast, we had been planning a large-scale in-person event at the global headquarters of The Dallas Cowboys,” McKinney told Dallas Innovates. “We were bringing in three exceptional founders to speak to us as well as inviting 1,500 entrepreneurs to attend. It was really going to be a big deal.” Then came COVID.

“In February, we were about to sign a six-figure Title Sponsor contract for two live events that were to take place this year. That was until the pandemic hit and changed everything—for everyone,” he said.

“Within 30 days, we lost all in-show advertisers and, of course, live event sponsors. It only took 30 days to completely change the course of my business. Did I stand still and allow my thoughts to spiral out of control? No. Did I throw my hands up and call it quits because I could not find a solution to generate revenue? No. I just sought out ways to generate small victories to keep moving forward.”

As McKinney puts it, “small victory after small victory led me to the creation of Grindology.”

Entrepreneurship is supposed to be hard.

“There are so many easier ways to make a living; we chose this,” McKinney said. “We opted to forgo a stable 9-5 job that provides a paycheck and health insurance to try and create something ourselves. We willingly stepped onto this path knowing it was not the easiest option out there. In fact, if we are really honest, it is the unknown challenges that drew us to this journey. Everyone has a book full of dreams and ideas, but only the few are willing to put it all out there to try and execute on one of those ideas. If it was easy it wouldn’t be rewarding.”

The entrepreneur says this is “the same reason people choose the Marine Corps over any other branch. There are much more comfortable ways to serve our country than joining the Marine Corps. I chose the Marines because I wanted to be one of ‘The Few, the Proud.'”

At its core, it’s about service.

“I started The Startup Story podcast and Grindology to serve entrepreneurs everywhere by giving them tactics and access to founders of brands that they would, normally, not have access to. Through my failed business attempts I realized there were learnings out there beyond what is found in a Google search bar.,” McKinney said. “The founders I meet with (Ben Chestnut, Mailchimp; Christina Stemble, Farmgirl Flowers; Steve Jurvetson, Tesla & SpaceX) can’t be found in an online search because they are busy executing. I wanted to deliver real tactics from real business builders, not self-proclaimed thought leaders.”

He says the same is true for joining any branch of the military: “You don’t sign-up for fame or riches, and you certainly don’t sign up for the free meals. You join because you want to serve.”

Quincy Preston contributed to this report.

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