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Phoenix Forward

Education and military experiences foster entrepreneurship

Image of Maj. Matt Butler

It might be unusual to hear “active-duty military” and “entrepreneur” describe the same person, but they characterize Maj. Matt Butler of the U.S. Air Force. A 13-year veteran, his military career began while an undergraduate at Minnesota’s Augsburg College, where he had the opportunity to earn his physics degree thanks to generous scholarships from the USAF Reserve Officers’ Training Corps (ROTC).

Several years into his Air Force career, Butler had another great opportunity — to obtain his master’s degree. After considering several options, he chose to obtain his Master of Information Systems and Management from University of Phoenix. “Since I was stationed in Italy at the time, my options for pursuing an advanced degree accredited in the United States were limited. University of Phoenix was really a perfect fit for me that way. And it was also a great degree program.”

One of the reasons Butler chose University of Phoenix over other institutions was because his degree program included business courses. “That type of degree might seem only technical, but University of Phoenix’s program included a strong business component in the coursework,” he says. “I didn’t take any business courses when I was an undergraduate, and I’m really glad I got them later on.”

For people currently in the service as well as veterans, there's a lot of support out there when it comes to entrepreneurship.

Education is foundation for entrepreneurial spirit

Butler ended up using those business courses in an unexpected way. While doing a two-year stint supervising an airborne reconnaissance crew in the skies over Iraq and Afghanistan, he stumbled upon a business idea. “We were often up in the skies for 15-18 hours at a time, scanning a large radar screen on the floor of the plane for images and information,” he explains. “And since we were in the Middle East, the only thing on that radar screen was often just miles and miles of brown dust, sand and rocks. I found myself longing to be back in the Midwest where I grew up, spending time outdoors in the summer on the green grass, playing lawn games like croquet and bocce ball.”

Butler's homesickness led him to invent a lawn game called Rollors®. The game incorporates elements of lawn bowling and croquet with a unique set of rules and goals. Rollors is the only game of its kind, and has sold more than 35,000 units worldwide since Butler launched it in 2009.

Butler started out small. “I first hired some out-of-work veterans in my local area who were skilled woodworkers” he says. “First, I had them create a prototype. When that worked, I then hired them to make more. I designed all the game rules, instructions and basic game pieces myself. I first started selling them to people I knew and then set up a website that took and fulfilled online orders. Pretty soon demand started outpacing supply. I decided that if I was really going to do this, I was gonna go all out.”

Going “all out” involved striking a deal with a company that specializes in producing games and toys. “Basically, I licensed the Rollors game idea to that company and they take care of all the manufacturing and distribution into stores,” Butler explains. “They do all the heavy lifting. In return I get paid a royalty on every game sold.” Thanks to this partnership, Butler’s invention is available in major retailers across the country.

Support for service members to become entrepreneurs

Butler encourages his fellow military personnel to consider entrepreneurship as a career option. “For people currently in the service as well as veterans, there’s a lot of support out there when it comes to entrepreneurship, so definitely take advantage of that.”

Lastly, Butler encourages his fellow vets and military personnel to embrace the entrepreneurial spirit. “If now is a time in your life that you could start a business, by all means try it,” he says. “I started out small, selling only 2-3 games over a few months, but then it just snowballed. With a little bit of guidance, you, too, could be the next big thing.”