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If you have any ties to the entrepreneur community in Nashville, you’ve likely already met Blake Hogan, one of the friendliest faces around. Within minutes of conversation, he’s likely to have asked you about what you do and then given you encouragement of some form. Maybe he’s even shared some lessons he learned from his past business failures. (which he did in front of a PreFlight class.) In all likelihood, he helped you understand more about yourself. But what do you know about Blake, apart of his somewhat recent change from the director of business partnerships at the Nashville Entrepreneur Center to the executive director of Bunker Labs Nashville? Did you know he’s also active as a public speaker?
We decided to take a moment to ask a few questions about him. While the original intention was to weave his answers into a story, his words alone tell a much better story:
Where did you spend your childhood? Do you have any entrepreneurial roots/inclinations? I was born in Blaine, Minnesota, and I lived up to the Minnesotan stereotypes growing up playing outdoor hockey. The only way I could play was as a goalie thanks to my older brother, who thought if they ripped slap shots at me I would run back home. He was wrong and I have the knocked-up tooth to prove it.
My family was fairly entrepreneurial as my dad had his own produce distribution company. The business didn’t last, but I admired his persistence and have learned a ton for him. I got my own start as an entrepreneur by “borrowing” bags of recycled cans from my neighbors on trash day and would turn them in for the deposit. My best friend Ryan and I also had a corner on the candy market at Roosevelt Middle School.
When did you know you wanted to join the Marine Corps? I told my mom I was going to be an Officer in the Marine Corps when I was 9 years old. She did not repeat that until I was commissioned on August 8, 2008, which ended up being my dad’s birthday. My dad was my first salute as he had served in the Corps during Vietnam. A first salute is steeped in tradition, and to do it with my dad was very meaningful. I was inspired to serve by my grandfather who served in WWII. He instilled in me a sense of duty and service to your neighbor and country. Finally, I came from very little but had every opportunity in the world because I was born on this piece of dirt. I felt that serving as a Marine was the least I could do.
Were you involved in any military programs while in college? I went to the Harvard of the Midwest, you guessed it, University of Minnesota. There, I audited a physical training class with the Army ROTC in order to train for the Marine Corps. Each year they would ask when I was going to join the program so I could get a scholarship, to which, I responded, “Never those uniforms are terrible, I am going to be a Marine.” I made the right call because I met my wife at a fellow Marine’s wedding while I was in uniform. I even had the sword on!
Even in the Marine Corps, you had developed programs to support veterans, but could you tell us a little about your first business after your military service and lessons from that? I have always sought out ways to serve. I was injured early on in training as a young Marine officer busting my hip and foot, and I do not even have a cool story. I really wish I did! I was given the opportunity to attend the entrepreneurial bootcamp for veterans at Syracuse University and that kicked started my desire to work with fellow military entrepreneurs. After being medically retired from the Corps, I went into the private world and realized the transition can be difficult if you do not have a strong network and cannot get facetime with employers. We started Vet Commander with fellow Marines to make it easier for businesses to hire veterans through video interviewing. The app got vets virtual facetime and personally connected employers to veterans.
It was a great business on paper but it was a big failure and I lost a good deal of cash, close to $100,000. We failed mostly from not asking enough questions of our customers and then implementing a solution they were willing to pay for. We tend to over complicate business and I sure did in that example. The most important thing is to solve a problem that is so urgent a customer is willing to happily for over their hard earned cash. If you have paying customers you have a business, and I learned that the hard way. But I am hungrier than ever and excited to share those lessons for others to learn from and succeed in their ventures.
Bunker Labs Nashville wasn’t your first experience with Bunker Labs. When did you first get involved? In 2014, Bunker Labs Austin became the second Bunker location, and now we are up 15. We launched this after a challenge from the founder Todd Connor who said, “We are launching the next greatest generation are you in or are you out?” There is one sure fire way to get an military member to say yes and it is to tell question if they are up for the task. We teamed up with West Point grad Joseph Kopser, at the time a new hot shot tech CEO in Austin as head of RideScout, an app similar to Kayak for ground transportation and sold it to Daimler / Mercedes Benz. Joseph leveraged his ‘15 minutes of fame’ as he called it, and together with fellow Marine Johnathan Wojtewicz and Sabrina Marshall-Wojtewicz, entrepreneur and his unstoppable wife, we kicked off Bunker Labs Austin.
In less than 60 days we successfully launched our first cohort with 12 veteran led companies like Alex Reckers, UnSweet Tea, Mario and Tina Barrett’s, SockWorks, and Marcus Carey’s V-threat. I am proud to say Bunker Labs Austin is still crushing it and is located at the Capital Factory. UnSweet Tea is in 15 locations, SockWorks was sold, and V-threat raised over $1M and was accepted into Techstars.
Why did you move to Nashville? My wife, Colbi Layne, was offered an opportunity to teach history at Franklin High School. We jumped at the chance as we have family here and Franklin is an amazing school. Nashville has rolled out the red carpet for Team Hogan and we love it here. I even have a hockey team now. Go Preds!
And what have you been up to since you moved to Nashville? Many of us likely first met you through the Nashville Entrepreneur Center (the EC). The EC was an amazing opportunity with wonderful people. I am thankful to Sam Lingo for giving me the ability to serve their team and for the EC’s incubation of Bunker Labs Nashville. The EC was instrumental in getting Bunker up and running.
Since the launch a little over a year ago, we have served 32 veteran companies in three cohorts, and the companies have raised over $1M in capital, and $5M+ in revenue. Over 500 people have attended Bunker events and we have set a goal to connecting 1,000 veteran entrepreneurs in the next year. We had a very successful inaugural Muster Across America event last year, and we hope others will join us on May 24th at the Wond’ry for the second annual Muster Across America – Nashville.
Where is it going? What do you want it to become this year? We are growing the Bunker Labs footprint across the state of Tennessee with our Bunker TN Tour. Via our partnership with Launch TN we are connecting veterans to the entrepreneur centers across the state as well to each other. We want to see Tennessee be the number one state in the Southeast for veteran and military family entrepreneurs and we are working to the end.
You also always seem to be on the hustle. What are you doing when you’re not working on Bunker Labs? The model of Bunker Labs is that the city leaders are also working on their own businesses so that they are in the trenches along with the cohort companies. I launched Blakehogan.com to teach young leaders how to build relationships and increase their opportunities by serving others first. When you serve others first and are pursuing something you are passionate about your network will grow exponentially along with opportunities. I am compiling lessons learned in the Marine Corps, corporate world, as an entrepreneur, and finally in the nonprofit sector to show people how to build a strategic People Plan so that they can live a life of rich relationships and purposeful work.
Also, I am pumped to say the newest Hogan will arrive in June. Our future country star, Lindsey Virginia Hogan, will surely help us grow deeper roots in Nashville. In fact, she told me yesterday that she was gunning for Mayor Barry’s job. What can I say we Hogan’s are driven.
Anything else? Ooh Rah!
Photo Credit: Nashville Entrepreneur Center