From Soldier to Startup: How This SoFi Member and Army Veteran Transitioned Careers For Entrepreneurial Success
Five years ago, running a startup wasn’t even close to being on Michael Zanetti’s mind. But life is unpredictable—and that’s exactly how he likes it. As a veteran with combat experience in the Army, Michael thrives on unpredictability. After all, in the Army, every mission requires a contingency plan.
After serving in Iraq in 2004 and 2005, and receiving a Bronze Star, Michael went on to serve in the National Guard. He transitioned from the military into civilian life in 2011, and earned an MBA in 2014 from Thunderbird School of Global Management. A year later, he partnered with his friend Brady Bagwan—also a former army officer—to co-found TradesFactor, a professional network for people in the skilled trades.
In honor of Veteran’s Day, we spoke with Michael about moving from decorated soldier to startup entrepreneur, and how joining SoFi’s Entrepreneur Program has helped him turn a dream into reality.
You certainly took an unconventional career path. Was it hard transitioning from the Army to civilian life?
America’s all-volunteer force creates an environment so different from civilian life that attempting to integrate is no simple feat. The biggest challenge was finding the best way to translate my skills and experiences into something that resonates with civilians in the private sector. That wasn’t impossible, but I had to put a lot of time and energy into it.
That time and energy speaks to earning your MBA. Was getting that degree always in the cards for you?
Yes and no. I graduated from Virginia Military Institute (VMI) in 2002, and completed my master’s in HR from the University of Oklahoma in 2006, while stationed in Germany. Former classmates at VMI, who struggled when transitioning to the civilian world, suggested I get a civilian credential to make it a bit easier. Because I had a natural curiosity of business, and wanted to gain a formal foundation in understanding the role commerce plays in our country, it was pretty easy to see that an MBA was the right path for me. That degree has been invaluable at TradesFactor.
How did you join forces with the co-founder of TradesFactor, Brady Bagwan?
Brady and I were both Army officers. We’ve known each other for a very long time, and we’d always kept an eye out for entrepreneurial opportunities that interested us. When Brady left active duty, he went to work in industries that depend on skilled labor, in an HR/technology role. There, he had a lot of exposure to the hiring challenges in areas such as manufacturing and construction.
Brady’s job was to help fill roles for large-scale construction projects. Often, he placed hundreds—even thousands— of workers for specific projects. But the technology he was forced to use to find the right people with just the right type of skills for specific projects was not efficient. Essentially he would have to start from scratch and tweak the technology for each new project.
As a result, he knew he had to find better solution to that problem. He talked to some of his mentors, who told him that he should just build the fix he was looking for since he’d recognized the need and had implemented other technology solutions in the past. That need provided the TradesFactor opportunity.
Brady wanted to work with me on this venture because he knew we’d make a good team.
How does TradesFactor work?
TradesFactor is a professional network for skilled tradespeople—pipelayers, electricians, and welders, for example—and a workforce management solution for the companies that employ them. It gives workers a way to track licenses, certifications, experience, and new opportunities, while it provides employers with a digital footprint of a workforce that’s housed all in one place.
Think of it like this: Tradespeople work on a project out in the field for 10, 12 hours a day, and then, when the job is completed, essentially, they’re let go. At that point they need to find their next job. With TradesFactor, they can more easily find new projects, and employers can identify the right type of workers for their needs. It’s all extremely efficient, just like the military.
How did your military experience help you prepare to run your own business?
The military, like running a startup, is very hard work. But one of the special parts of being in the Army is that you find yourself with a group of people who are typically very motivated and fantastic at their jobs. In the military, you always put in the extra effort because you don’t want to let anyone down. In that respect, it’s very similar to becoming an entrepreneur. The people in startup environments have to be very driven, because others are depending on them and there’s no routine, 9-5 schedule —daily responsibilities don’t necessarily fit neatly into a particular box.
Beyond that, I had to do a little bit of everything in the Army, just like I do now. I don’t have the luxury of saying, ‘I’m going to delegate this to the marketing department and that to the finance department.’ I have to do all of it and understand all of it, even if what I’m doing isn’t one of my strengths.
That’s a lot of responsibility. Did you ever fear you wouldn’t be able to get TradesFactor off the ground?
There’s no blueprint for success—that’s especially true in the startup world. So not having a clearly defined roadmap was a bit scary. I think there’s always some type of apprehension when you go from something that’s known and comfortable to a system where you’re generating your own value.
Early on, I knew I had to surround myself with mentors and others who can help me along the way. My wife, in particular, was and is very supportive. From day one, she believed in my skills and vision, and trusted in my abilities, despite the uncertainty that entrepreneurship brings. It’s support from her, friends, and family that allows me to continue working hard at making TradesFactor a success. Of course, support from SoFi helped, too.
Specifically, how has consolidating and refinancing your loans through SoFi benefitted you?
By consolidating and refinancing my student loans, I’m now able to better handle my debt, and focus my time and energy on growing my business. That freedom is priceless. Beyond the nuts and bolts of now having a lower interest rate and saving around $500 a month on my student loans, I can better prioritize. My biggest priority is paying the bills I need to pay, including my mortgage, so that I can invest my time, energy, and money into my business.
Other benefits of SoFi are the great resources associated with being a member. I’m not just a transaction to them. I can go to SoFi with questions about my career and finance goals, and get feedback that’s actually helpful. Having that door open to me, and being treated as a valuable member—and not just a faceless customer—is very appealing.
You joined SoFi’s Entrepreneur program about a year after starting TradesFactor. How has the program helped you on your startup journey?
As a member of SoFi’s Entrepreneur Program, I was able to get support during the start-up phase of my business. From ground zero, SoFi gave me exposure to all of the nuances of the startup world. The mentorship sessions and having access to people with the experience of starting a business is invaluable. I believe that relationships—whether with clients, your own team, advisors, or investors—are everything. In fact, the biggest benefit of the program is the ability to expand my network and get valuable feedback. By learning from other people’s experiences, I save myself a lot of headaches. It’s really nice having that type of guidance.
What has been the most rewarding part about owning and running your own business?
TradesFactor is making a difference in the way that people work and live. It’s much like my rationale for joining the Army: I needed to do something that was bigger than me. And the same holds true now. By creating a company that’s helping so many workers find different opportunities, make more money, and alleviate some of the stress and pressure that comes from looking for a job, I feel like we’re adding value to people’s lives. TradesFactor isn’t just a convenience, it’s also really helpful.
What advice to you have for others contemplating a career change?
Live your life in a way that prevents you from ever saying, “I wish I had taken that risk.” Many things worth doing personally and professionally require some degree of risk. And since we all only get one shot at this thing called life, I suggest subscribing to the ‘school of push yourself,’ because that’s what has given me a sense of real purpose.
Feeling inspired by Michael’s story? Learn how SoFi’s career strategy team can help you when considering a career change or becoming an entrepreneur.