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Why military service leavers could be ideally suited to starting their own business

When Flight Lieutenant James Wilthew sat drinking tea with his RAF colleagues in a rug shop in Afghanistan in 2003, little did he realise that he was being inspired to start his own business.

He’d been serving in Mazar-e-Sharif, part of the old Silk Road that is renowned for its handmade Afghan rugs.

He regularly chatted to Rafi, the owner of the shop, and ended up buying a few of his rugs.

He later sold some of them when he was back in the UK to help pay for his wedding. 

Fast forward a few years, and James opened The Afghan Rug Shop in Hebden Bridge, West Yorkshire, which today is a thriving business.

James-Wilthew

“Having done a full-time military career I didn’t think about starting a business then,” says James (pictured), who initially became a civil servant after leaving the RAF. “But having worked part-time, it gave me time to think and start some research”.

James’s story is included in a new report from FSB, which says the entrepreneurial and workplace talent of Britain’s military veterans isn’t being fully realised.

The report, ‘A Force For Business’, published ahead of Armed Forces Day on Saturday (29 June), recommends an enhanced support package for those transitioning out of the armed forces, including a greater focus on the option of self-employment and the key skills needed to succeed in enterprise.

FSB’s research suggests there are around 340,000 small businesses in Britain owned by service leavers, nearly four-in-five of which have grown to take on employees.

Meanwhile, more than one-in-ten small businesses has hired a military service leaver in the last three years. Employers told FSB the benefits of doing so can include resolving skills shortages, improving team performance, and providing fresh perspectives and creative ideas.



“Many skills developed within the Armed Forces community are in high demand in the commercial world of employed work or self-employment,” says Lt. Col. Ren Kapur, Founder and CEO of X-Forces Enterprise, and FSB’s Armed Forces Champion for Small Business. “These can include cyber security, drone technology, telecommunications, logistics, prosthetics, and artificial intelligence, to name just a few.” 

That was certainly the case for former soldier PJ Farr, whose telecoms business was inspired by his experience of military communications.

It all started when he took a selfie with a penguin during a tour of duty in the Falklands.

He was impressed that even in such a remote location, he was easily able to email the picture to his father-in-law, a housing developer, whose own communication systems were rather less advanced.

“Being a developer, he would struggle to get effective, secure communications into a construction site,” explains PJ.

And so the idea was born. PJ’s business, UK Connect, now provides more than 1,000 construction sites across the country with a superfast broadband service.

“A lot of ex-forces guys are very entrepreneurial,” says PJ, “they maybe just don’t realise it.

“There’s a term used often which is: improvise, adapt, overcome. We used that daily in the forces to try to overcome adversity. And actually, running a business is very similar to being in the Army. You need a clear set of goals, you need to be clear on your plan. You need to rehearse your plan, practice it, then go out and do it.”

For former Flight Lieutenant Debbie Strang, leaving the RAF didn’t entirely mean leaving behind her military links. 

She took over a disused airforce base, RAF Saxa Vord on the island of Unst in the Shetlands, and turned it into the UK’s most northerly hospitality resort and award-winning gin distillery.


“The military gives you a ‘can do’ attitude,” says Debbie. “It teaches you to find a way through a problem and see a project through to completion in a timely manner, no matter how important or tedious the task is.” 

FSB’s report recommends more financial support for those service leavers in need of further training and qualifications to achieve their post-military ambitions.

And for small businesses which employ service leavers, it calls for a one-year holiday from Employer National Insurance Contributions. 

Debbie Strang’s business has ex-military personnel among its employees, including the manager of the Shetland Distillery part of the firm. She is “just the person for the job” of taking on the logistical challenges of making gin on the UK’s most northerly inhabited island, says Debbie. 

Her advice to today’s military service leavers thinking of starting their own business is to try to gain some business experience first – paid or voluntary.


“Listen to people. I have found business people will quite often talk openly and are willing to help new businesses as they get off the ground. Looking back, there are occasions when I didn’t listen and I regret it.”

To read more stories and A Force for Business report, please visit www.fsb.org.uk/forces