Thanking Veterans Online
Blake Hall (MBA 2010) knows from personal experience that US military veterans can easily miss out on the benefits they have earned. A year before he entered Harvard Business School in the fall of 2008, he had been a US Army captain serving in Iraq, but it wasn't until his second year at HBS that a chance conversation directed him to a Veterans Administration program that ultimately paid for his MBA.
Motivated by his personal inability to navigate the bureaucracy of Veterans Affairs benefits, Hall and fellow Army Ranger Matthew Thompson (MBA 2010) sought to create a business that would help veterans receive the benefits they deserve. The result was TroopSwap, an online source for discounts and other goodies that companies extend exclusively to the military community to thank members for their service. Hall is the company's CEO, and Thompson the COO.
In the first year of operations, thousands of veterans and active-duty military registered with TroopSwap but fewer than 5 percent of them verified their military status to begin participating. Former service members were unwilling to find, and upload, their DD 214, the Department of Defense form that verifies military service, in order to prove their service. They were also reluctant to share their DD 214 because it includes their social security number, birthday, and blood type, yet every startup and government agency that delivered benefits to veterans through offline channels required a DD 214—and an in-person visit—in order to prove their status and to claim benefits.
"The current status quo is horribly unjust to veterans," said Hall. "Right now, veterans are either unable to access benefits because they don't live close to a physical distribution point or they are exposed to elevated risk of identity theft by carrying around a DD 214 when they do claim benefits. Correcting that injustice motivates me."
The two founders realized that a secure, digital authentication process was the key to creating a scalable business. According to Wired magazine, there are currently 2,500 Navy SEALs in the country but four million Americans who claim online to be a Navy SEAL. The challenge for TroopSwap was to create software that was secure enough for brands to protect their military discount programs from fraud, yet simple enough for users to validate their status in a matter of seconds. Hall and Thompson's solution to this problem is Troop ID, a digital ID card that links an email address and password to a person's military credentials the way PayPal connects securely to a bank account. The sign-up process is easy. Service members and veterans can validate their military service against a government database or a military financial institution catering to nine million military customers through a real-time process. (For contractual reasons, Hall cannot reveal the name of the bank.) Thereafter, the user's email and password identify him or her as a qualified veteran or active military member as they log in to participating partners' sites across the web.
Back in 2006, when Hall led 46 men under his command on patrols through the streets of Baghdad, business ideas were as remote as icebergs. After 15 months of combat in Iraq, Hall decided he could make a bigger impact out of uniform. He turned to Colonel Barry Huggins, his battalion commander and mentor, for advice on life after the military.
Hall describes Huggins as a rough-hewn soldier, an unlikely scholar with a master's degree in Russian literature from Harvard. The colonel offered to write a letter of recommendation for Hall, but only if it was addressed to Harvard Business School. "I told him I couldn't see myself at Harvard. I was in a war zone, and I hadn't used a three-syllable word in months. No one was more surprised than I was when I got in," Hall said.
HBS proved to be an ideal and welcoming setting for Hall as he dealt with the trauma of combat and began to decide what he would make of his life after the military. The demanding academic program and entrepreneurial nature of his classmates began to plant seeds that ultimately blossomed into his now rapidly growing young company.
At a business event in Washington, D.C., a Microsoft marketing manager buttonholed Hall about the electronic ID card. Microsoft had tried offering free online courses to veterans through its website, but verifying eligibility had proved daunting. To participate, a veteran had to take his DD 214 in person to a Veterans Administration office and pick up a voucher. The procedure, inconvenient for some veterans and impractical for others who lived in rural areas, stifled participation. "If we had your verification tool, the veteran could start the first lesson 30 seconds after they see the offer on our site—from their couch," the manager told Hall.
Soon thereafter, housewares retailer Bed Bath & Beyond and athletic clothing maker Under Armour approached Hall about using Troop ID on their websites. "That was our eureka moment: when we realized that the lack of digital identification has blocked innovation in the military community," Hall said. "Having to rely on face-to-face verification undermined the main benefits of online transactions: speed and accessibility."
Over the last 15 months, the founders made it possible for any reputable company to use Troop ID in the check-out section of their online store in order to offer exclusive military discounts. Under Armour was the first to roll it out on Veterans Day 2012. Troop ID now enables businesses say "thank you for your service" at no cost, inconvenience, or risk to the veteran.
And that is just the beginning. Hall is working with Veterans Affairs, which has integrated Troop ID to deliver benefits to veterans applying remotely and to reach out to the estimated 13 million veterans who are not enrolled with the VA.
As Troop ID begins to deliver commercial perks and government benefits to veterans, Hall feels gratified that his business venture is directly serving men and women who have served their country.
He thinks of a sniper who fought under his command. In Iraq, the soldier seemed to be made of steel, but back home, he struggled emotionally and felt isolated from the world. Talking to Hall helped him cope, not because of the words spoken but because of the contact itself.
"If you connect veterans with more people who honor their service and thank them for what they have done, then you do something wonderful for the veterans' psyches and for their souls," said Hall. "Troop ID provides companies with a means of giving vets that recognition in a systemic way. For the veteran, it's not about the discount; it's about the gesture American businesses make to show they care."