Business Lessons from Iraq: Post-War Military Networking

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RallyPoint founders Yinon Weiss, left, and Aaron Kletzing are trying to create a "LinkedIn for the military."

While historians will be debating the effect of the counterinsurgency campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan for decades to come, the young officers and noncommissioned officers charged with carrying out those missions are returning home – and many are applying the business lessons learned overseas into entrepreneurial pursuits here.

Aaron Kletzing and Yinon Weiss are two such veterans. The two first met at a combat outpost northwest of Baghdad in 2008, when Kletzing served with the 25th Infantry Division as a fire support officer and Weiss served in Army Special Forces. They reconnected a few years later as students at Harvard Business School. A few fortuitous discussions and bar napkin doodles later, the idea for their new start-up, RallyPoint, was born.

Billed as “LinkedIn for the military,” RallyPoint is currently finishing up its beta testing and is on track for a full launch by the end of the year, and already counts retired General George Casey among its formal Board of Advisors. Kletzing, an old Army buddy of mine that cut his teeth with six-figure civic projects in Iraq, was kind enough to spend a rainy afternoon with me explaining the ins and outs of this potentially ground-breaking enterprise, complete with a virtual tour of the beta site.    

Matt: Pretend I’m a dumb writer that only uses the Internet to rant on Twitter. What is RallyPoint?

Aaron: In a nutshell, it’s LinkedIn for the military. We want to be the professional network for military personnel in the United States. All people in the military want is a fair chance at opportunity, be it for a promotion, a PCS (permanent change of station) or a position. But finding those things in the military is, at best, a complicated and confusing process. RallyPoint will allow individuals to explore potential openings that fit their experience and skill sets, and to connect with the commanders and influencers of those units.

Matt: So RallyPoint is different than other online professional networks because it’s specifically tailored for military users – makes sense. How does that work, in terms of user experience?

Aaron: We’ve built a visual network to include every unit in the Army, Navy, Marines, Air Force, Coast Guard and Joint forces, all the way down the company level. RallyPoint users won’t just be joining some generic “25th Infantry Division vets group.” They’ll be able to find specific positions in specific units in specific places, and find out around when that position may open up, and do so with an architecture that is incredibly user-friendly.

Matt: Since you all aren’t associated with the Department of Defense, how did you gather all of this?

Aaron: Mosaicing together a variety of different public resources, like unit’s web pages, for example. It’s all out there, it’s just never been presented in a user-friendly way before. All told, there’s nearly 20,000 units in RallyPoint.

Matt: What about military members looking to transition out and into the civilian sector?

Aaron: Over the past few years, many private companies, from Amazon to small, local companies, have shown they love hiring transitioning military talent – often before the individuals even take the uniform off. So we’re working with various private companies looking to do just that. Our employer-to-service member matching system is very efficient and cost-effective, creating tremendous value for corporations looking to hire the right military talent. That said, our military users are our number one priority…which is why RallyPoint is free for them, and why we’ve said ‘no’ to some companies that we’re uncertain about. We know our users will have the skill sets and experience companies are looking for … so we can afford to be selective with access.

Matt: How do you think your work in Iraq with various civic projects helped prepare you for business school, and for your venture into the start-up world with RallyPoint?

Aaron: Working with civic projects always seemed best with a very specific end state in mind. Maybe the end state wasn’t better electricity in a neighborhood; instead, maybe the end state had nothing to do with a light switch, and everything to do with creating a more comfortable relationship between our unit and the families in that neighborhood. If you aren’t perfectly clear on what success looks like – and I mean very clear – then you’re in real risk of failing. Not just in the military, but in everything I’ve done since then. I owe the Army – and the great people around me – for teaching me that lesson.

As far as RallyPoint now, you wake up every morning knowing that the company will only move forward if we (Yinon and myself) carry it forward. It’s a lot of stress but it’s also a thrill – that’s what Iraq really felt like with all those civic projects. What did I ever know about managing civic projects in Iraq? I studied Economics back at West Point, that was it at first. But all that grinding through the unknowns sets you up for success, and teaches you how to work ‘smarter’ – when you wake up and you’re now in business school. What did I know about financial models? What about operations management? Very little. So you just apply the same intense focus and adjust on your feet, something else the Army taught me how to do well.

Matt: With the unemployment rate amongst military veterans as consistently high as it is, do you all have any plans for expanding into that realm with RallyPoint?

Aaron: Right now, RallyPoint is focused on first building a strong network for those who are still in service. We’ve had preliminary discussions about including separated vets in the future, as we would love to serve them as well, but we want to ensure our focus is on the current service member and that we develop a platform that is perfectly suited for their needs. Every day, I wake up excited about the power this will put in the hands of our military members.