by Sheila Cain
Army veteran and entrepreneur Arron Barnes knows a few things about turning adversity into opportunity.
Barnes, who spent nine years in the military (including 15 months in active duty in Korea during Desert Storm), had long struggled with stomach issues. The Army veteran, 46, began making his own fruit and vegetable juices in an attempt to alleviate symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome, using apples, oranges, carrots, ginger and a bevy of other fresh produce depending on the season.
His freshly pressed juices made him feel better, and they tasted great, too. The popularity of his products at farmers’ markets in and around his hometown of Vancouver, Wash., prompted him to start deliveries to homes and businesses, which still continue today.
After diagnosing himself with candida, a type of yeast infection in the gut that thrives on sugar, Barnes turned to raw almond butter to help curb his cravings for sweets — and that, too, turned into a business. In June 2016, his company “Life Butta” was born.
He now makes three flavors — original, matcha green tea, and turmeric and black pepper — that include healthy doses of superfoods such as chia, flax and pumpkin seeds, along with a touch of coconut sugar and sea salt.
Barnes’s product has found modest success. Life Butta is now sold in four retail locations: two Chuck’s Produce shops in Vancouver and two New Seasons Market locations (one in Vancouver and one in Portland).
But doors started opening even wider when Barnes connected with a nonprofit newly arrived in Seattle called Bunker Labs.
Bunker Labs was created by veterans to help other veterans and their spouses start their own companies. Founded in 2014 in Chicago, Bunker Labs opened a Seattle chapter in Condon Hall just off the University of Washington campus in January. It is one of 15 chapters across the country.
Bunker Labs brings together experienced entrepreneurs with veterans new to business ownership who can benefit from the advice of a trusted mentor.
“When you transition out of the military, you reset from zero, just as if you are graduating from college,” explains Johannes Schonberg, executive director of Seattle’s Bunker Labs office. “We provide a leg up, connecting them with a prearranged network of mentors and peers.”
The organization’s success hinges on the tight connections veterans have with other veterans, something that can often be hard for civilians to fully understand.
“Within the private sector, there are sometimes stigmas and stereotypes surrounding the veteran experience,” says Schonberg, himself a Navy veteran with 11 years of active duty (and still serving in the Navy reserves). “Veterans are sometimes seen as rigid and inflexible. That couldn’t be further from the truth.”
Soldiers learn extreme teamwork skills and how to work effectively in resource-constrained environments, explains Schonberg. They are expected to complete their missions at all costs, and usually do so in unfamiliar parts of the world. They’ve learned to place their trust in one another, which translates well to a business environment in which communication and teamwork are vital.
“In the private sector, you might start out a little wary,” explains Schonberg. “With veterans, we understand each other’s backgrounds. We automatically trust one another.”
And Bunker Labs offers training that most other organizations don’t. “Most services are centered around the basics of business,” says Schonberg. “They don’t typically help with marketing, social media and networking.”
A little help from friends
As a nonprofit, Bunker Labs relies on corporate sponsorships to ensure that their services are free for all veterans. As a founding sponsor, Comcast has pledged a total of $100,000 to Bunker Labs: $50,000 for build-out of the physical space in UW’s Condon Hall and $50,000 for seed funding so Bunker Labs’ programs can launch in Washington State. The amount is unprecedented for Comcast to give to a regional partner to fully launch their nonprofit operations.
“We stand side by side with organizations like Bunker Labs because at Comcast NBC Universal, we believe service matters,” says Diem Ly, community investment and external affairs director for Comcast. “Together, our work will remove barriers and build opportunities for veterans, empowering them to realize their own entrepreneurial dreams.”
It seems to be paying off for Arron Barnes and his Life Butta project.
Since Barnes discovered Bunker Labs, he has made a number of shifts in his business plan. He decided to add single-serve portions of his nut butter to his existing eight-ounce jars, for example.
But it’s the connections that matter the most. He says he has received interest in carrying the product from companies such as Nike’s world headquarters in Beaverton, Oregon. And during a Bunker Labs mixer at Sea-Tac, he visited with veterans who connected him with producers of the TV show Shark Tank. The program has expressed an interest in Life Butta and Barnes is waiting to see what comes next.
He has high hopes. “I can very easily see this as a national brand in five years,” Barnes says.