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Navy SEAL to Kill Cliff COO, John Timar’s Transition Lessons Learned

Of all the military transition lessons learned interviews, John Timar’s is one not to miss. After transitioning out of Navy Special Warfare in 1999, John took a number of Jobs of increasing in responsibility before settling into a company designed specifically designed to give back both to the Navy SEAL Foundation and other veterans charities.

John’s passion in helping other veterans transition comes through loud and clear. From discussing his personal struggles, to providing recommendations to other transitioning vets he clearly wants you to succeed. Toward the end of the interview John even pulls back the curtain and discusses what Kill Cliff looking in veteran hires. I hope you get massive value from this discussion with John.


What were you most afraid of during your transition out of NSW? And how did you work through those fears?

Easy. I didn’t know how my military experience would translate to the private sector or if a prospective employer would value my service.  I was worried about money. I was worried about my need to still do SEAL-like stuff to find personal satisfaction. I was worried about reinventing myself in the civilian world and how I would stack up against my peers who had more business experience and knowledge (I literally had zero).

Although somewhat unfounded, at the time most of this stuff was a real concern to me.  It didn’t keep me up at night, but these were the questions and uncertainties that I recall going through my mind the most.  I went to college and grad school immediately after military service. That process helped me ease into the world outside of the military.  I befriended some like minded Veterans that I met in school, and that really helped out. We had a common experience and were generally more highly motivated than the average college student.  I went all in on school, which gave me the confidence that, coupled with my military experience, I could light the world on fire.

It wasn’t that easy though. I struggled financially and had a really hard time getting my first opportunity.  I didn’t have the time or money to continue doing the extreme sports and activities that I loved so much. The reality is that I had to stay focused on my goals, hustle, and work harder than the people around me to ramp up a career outside of the military.   

 

What did you do well during your transition?

I was quick to figure out what I didn’t want to do and to stop wasting time on it.  I also learned the value of mentors early on as both a sounding board and way to navigate to new opportunities.  I gained tremendously by working for really smart people. Finally, I took on smart risks as a way to drive my professional growth. I was never worried about taking a position unfamiliar to me that tested me in new ways. I actively pursued opportunities that required me to learn new things and challenge myself.   

 

What did you do poorly during the transition and what did you learn from failure?

I failed to create balance in my life early on and to replace elements of the military experience that I took for granted while serving.  In the military, you have a greater purpose behind everything that you do. You also have a very strong team dynamic in pursuit of common goals.  During my transition, I doubled down on things that I thought would advance my career and didn’t invest in finding purpose and camaraderie outside of my job through hobbies, interests, and community.  Overtime, the wound will fester and you will grow unhappy, confused, or lose focus. In retrospect, I would have taken things a bit slower and enjoyed life more. I also would have taken bigger risks while I was younger.

I’ve learned a lot from failure.  The reality is every job that I thought I wanted early on I didn’t get. It wasn’t that I lost to another candidate through a competitive interview process.  I couldn’t even get an “at bat.” Literally, I left the SEAL Teams (still my favorite job ever) for a job that I thought I wanted most (obscure intelligence agency job) and didn’t even get an interview.  I applied numerous times over a multi-year period. That was a kick in the gut and a serious reality check.

A string of early failures lead to a lot of introspection.  You’ve got to grind it out and be true to yourself. You are responsible for creating your own opportunities.  You have to invest in the things that make you happy. It is up to you to make the most of the opportunities you get.  When you fail, examine the failure and get better. You should focus on competing against yourself and not really worry about others.  If you can beat yourself you can become who you want to become and do the things you want to do. You have to find new purpose. I personally live with a chip on my shoulder from some of the early rejection I experienced…”nobody puts baby in a corner.”  

I recently had a speaking engagement with a top tier management consulting company.  When I was in grad school at the University of Chicago, that company wouldn’t even give me an interview for an associate position.  Likewise, earlier in my career, I made the organization with “the job that I wanted most” my client. Both experiences were deeply satisfying because neither organization ever gave me a chance when I was cutting my teeth.

 

Since leaving NSW you have made a number of career changes; are there some tools/techniques you have used to successfully make those changes?

Most of my career changes have come about through mentors, networking, and just from the evolving interests of life.  I personally reject the idea of path dependency; it’s just not how I am going to live my life. I am always seeking to grow as a person and take on new challenges.  I tend to invest time and energy in ideas that interest me well before I end up in them. For example, I am currently fascinated in sports/human performance technology and wearables.  I did a software start up before Kill Cliff, so I am kind of making my way into this field through a variety of relevant experiences.

I’ve built a skill set focused on creating successful outcomes in small, privately funded companies. Unlike the unicorn stories that make the WSJ, most venture-backed companies fail. Thus, my competency is something relevant to companies in almost any industry.  The consequences of poor management and decisions in small companies is immediate and devastating. I’ve built a competency and body of work desired by small companies trying to find success in the marketplace. There are lots of them and not a lot of people like me.  It’s a supply vs demand thing, I guess, which really opens up the doors. Note, doing what I do now, is entirely a function of replacing elements from my life as a SEAL. Working in small companies can provide a sort of impact, immediacy, and brotherhood that mirrors the qualities of a Team and Platoon environment.

We are literally living in the renaissance for transitioning Veterans and Veteran entrepreneurs. We are in a very favorable environment where society embraces Veterans and is vested in their success.  There are so many tools out there to help you build a brand and network to the right people. Take advantage of social media. LinkedIn has been extremely valuable to me, as one example. It has literally been the engine behind so many professional opportunities for me.  

There are also a myriad of really cool non-profits seeking to help Veterans.  For NSW, The Honor Foundation and Elite Meet do amazing work. Bunker Labs is an incredible resource if you are seeking to start a business. Those guys are literally crushing it.  They have a cool partnership with WeWork that provides workspaces to Veteran entrepreneurs in over 30 cities in the US. Other community-oriented non-profits, like Team RWB, Irreverent Warriors, and Merging Vets and Players are doing great work as well and can help you find purpose in your transition.

One piece of advice is not to be afraid to ask.  You’ll be surprised how many people are looking to give back and would love the opportunity to help a transitioning service member.   

 

What do you miss most about the Military? And do you stay connected to the military brotherhood?

So much! Camaraderie, mission, the people, and the cool stuff I got to do everyday in my job.  

Yes. My core group of friends from service remain in touch. We do the occasional guys trip and trash talking text chains will emerge out of the blue in the middle of the night.  I also actively volunteer as a mentor for NSW people and seek to work with other veteran brands in partnership with Kill Cliff.

One thing that has really helped me over the years was getting involved in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu. It is purely an example, but it is what I do. I meet a lot of Veterans in the sport and there’s an accountability and camaraderie that helps me feel connected.  I like it and highly recommend that you find your outlet.

 

What are some of the things you are looking for in veteran applicants that want to work for KillCliff?

I value enthusiasm, creativity, and proven competency over anything else.  I also value honestly. I’d prefer an applicant to say “these are my skills and this is what I have to learn” rather than to pretend to fully understand an industry that they’ve not worked in yet.  I like to see someone come in prepared with great questions. Smart people ask great questions. I am looking for intellectual curiosity and the ability to execute. I am looking for clear thinking and a sense of urgency.  Also, I tend to like Veterans that have had a job or two outside of the military or had a cool hustle while in the military. This is only because I work in small companies and find Veterans with some experience to be less risky bets. They’ve already got out there and learned a little bit and are looking for that job to crush for a few years instead of a few months.  

That being said, I am in the business of disrupting industries.  I believe that most disruption comes from the outside, and evidence suggests this is right. Look no further than Waze, Uber, AirBNB, or…Kill Cliff to see it; so, for many positions I put a much lower premium on industry experience. That’s just me.

 

Anything else you would like to say to a soon-to-be transitioning military member?

You aren’t alone in your journey.  The military is 20% in and 20% out annually.  One day, you are going to be the old person hanging out with the obnoxious hat on.  There are over 20 million Veterans. If you are struggling, then don’t die alone in a foxhole.  Reach out to some of the many Veteran non-profits for help.

I am super excited about what I do now, but literally nothing worked out for me as I expected early on. Define success for yourself. Realize there will be setbacks. Fight through them. Adapt. Overcome.  Like I said earlier, this is our era. Stay connected. If your friends are struggling, don’t let them die alone in a foxhole. Get out there and get after it. Persist and win. Measure your progress against your goals. Be true to yourself.  And, of course, refresh and recover with an ice cold Kill Cliff beverage!

 

What else can you tell us about Kill Cliff?

Kill Cliff at its heart is a disruptive idea. It was founded by SEAL veteran, Todd Ehrlich, to create a platform to raise money for the Navy SEAL Foundation and other Veteran charities.  We give a percentage of every sale to the Foundation. At its core, we are selling healthy performance beverages and creating a community of customers that desire a hardcore lifestyle and want to push themselves to be better.  They also want to support brands that support America. That’s us.

Kill Cliff’s March to $1m

Our drinks are available in three unique blends. Ignite is a clean caffeine drink with zero sugar that provides an instant energy boost extracted from all-natural ingredients. Endure offers sustained energy fueled by palatinose, a slow burning and low GI carbohydrate. Recover helps you get back to full energy with B-vitamins and electrolytes and contains absolutely no sugar. All three blends are available in a variety of delicious flavors like cherry limeade, lemon-lime and blood orange.

Amazing people from the NSW community have been a huge contributor to the company’s success.  Chris Irwin has been instrumental in getting the company to where it is today. We are fortunate to work closely with Veteran and Team USA athletes, such as Andy Stumpf, Josh Bridge, Wayne Dowd, and John Dudley among others.  Our partners at Elite Meet, lead by former SEAL John Allen, and The Honor Foundation have been super impactful for us as well. We work with folks like the team over at veterantv.tv and Merging Vets and Players who are creating a positive outlet for Veterans that are suffering.  

Shotcaller: Fmr Team USA archer ft Joe Rogan and fmr SEAL Andy Stumpf

We give a % of every sale directly to the Foundation. This year we are trying to surpass $1m mark in donations.  Our products are available in gyms and grocery stores across America; however, most relevant to this reader base, we are found in NEX, MCX, and AAFES locations.  In fact, every branch is starting to bring in our new Ignite product, which is a healthy energy drink. There’s been a lot of press in recent years about the impact of unhealthy energy drinks on our soldiers and sailors.  We’ve sought to address this by creating a drink better suited for the demands of the military lifestyle. We really care about the military and consider the Exchanges to be amazing placements for our product.

If you get a chance, please check out our American Spirit docu-series and our March to $1m videos. Also, check out our super cool website at www.killcliff.com. We appreciate your support!


John Working on Kill Cliff in his home Kitchen

John Timar is Chief Operating Officer for Kill Cliff, the category-leading clean energy and sports drink brand for Americans. Kill Cliff is focused on giving back to military service members, veterans, and their families, contributing a portion of every sale to the Navy SEAL Foundation and supporting other veteran brands and charities. #drinkamericans

Previously, John was an executive at TerraGo, a venture-backed software company specializing in SaaS and PaaS mobile applications.  He was also a business practice leader at Eurasia Group, a predictive analytics startup providing global risk information products to investors.

John was a founding member of Control Risks GS, Inc, a wholly-owned subsidiary of Control Risks and the fastest growing business unit worldwide. He managed crisis and security operations in Iraq and the broader Middle East, as well as Indonesia and parts of Africa.

He served as a U.S. Navy SEAL. He holds a Master of Public Policy from the University of Chicago and was a McCormick Tribune Fellow.  He received a Bachelor of Arts in Economics and International Affairs from the University of Colorado, where he graduated Magna Cum Laude.

John lives in Atlanta with his wife, daughter and labradoodle. He is an avid guitar player, loves hippie music and the outdoors, and is a brown belt at Alliance Jiu Jitsu HQ.

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