How One Military Veteran Learned to Code, Built his Startup, & Pitched Obama at the White House

Billy Griffin was on deployment on USS Peleliu (LHA 5) when he first heard about an exciting startup his friend Tony Hatala was working on. Hatala, a Marine pilot, was building Base Directory, an application that would help service members access vital information about their base.

While on active duty, service members and their families spend most of their lives stationed at military bases. The base is where, in addition to performing their regular duties, many service members eat, sleep, workout, access medical care, and spend much of their downtime. But it was difficult to find information about a particular base’s facilities and services, and when they were available—essentially, there was no ‘Yelp for military bases.’ Hatala wanted to build it, and Griffin wanted to help.

“People have a tremendously difficult time finding information while on bases,” Griffin said. “What time does the gym open? What time does the bank close? All that information was very difficult to find, and when it was available, it wasn’t standardized, and often out of date.”

While still serving in the military, Griffin and Hatala spent their off-duty time building the first version of the Base Directory iOS app. But neither had the know-how to actually build an app themselves, so they had to rely on freelancers for help. They soon realized that if they wanted to make Base Directory a full-fledged startup, one of them was going to have to level up their technical skills.

“Sure, you can get started on your own and go through online tutorials, but you’re not going to be capable of running technical aspects of a startup,” Griffin said. “People say all the time, ‘you need to be technical,’ but what does that even mean? There isn’t a clear path.”

Getting the Technical Skills

After his time in the Navy, Griffin spent some time at a banking internship, then decided to focus on building Base Directory full-time.

“When I decided to pursue the company full-time, Tony and I said to one another, ‘ok, we have no technical skills whatsoever, and the way we’ve been building our software isn’t sustainable,” Griffin said.

That summer, Griffin and Hatala attended Patriot Boot Camp, a program for veteran-led companies founded by Griffin’s mentor and friend Taylor McLemore. “Taylor and Patriot Boot Camp have done so much to develop a great pipeline of veteran entrepreneurs and provide companies with the support and mentorship they need to really get off the ground,” said Griffin.

It was at Patriot Boot Camp that Griffin and Hatala met Lawrence Mandes, one of the co-founders of Galvanize. Seeing an opportunity to build his technical skills, Griffin decided to move from the East Coast to Denver and enroll in the Galvanize Full Stack program.

Building a startup part time while also completing the program was extremely challenging—Griffin estimates he spent 20 to 40 hours a week on Base Directory, on top of the 50 or more taken up by classwork. But he feels like it definitely paid off.

“With a program like that, it can be extremely difficult, but you get out what you put in, and we needed the technical skill set to build our vision” said Griffin. “It helped knowing that the more I could bolster my skills, the more our team could positively impact the community we serve.”

What’s Next for BaseDirectory

Earlier this month, Griffin and Hatala were invited to the inaugural White House Demo Day, where they pitched their company to President Obama.

Griffin and Hatala now want to take their startup to the next level by offering even more services for people in the military. Importantly, each member of their team has first-hand experience with the pain points they’re trying to address—in addition to Hatala and Griffin, the Base Directory team features two military spouses, Leah McDonnell and Corrinne McKenna, who have contributed high quality information to the site.

Base Directory now lists more than 15,000 establishments on military bases all around the world. The team currently works out of the Galvanize Platte Campus and has nearly doubled BaseDirectory.com‘s site traffic in the first six months of 2015 alone.

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“Our vision for the future of the company,” Griffin said, “is that from the day you get a military ID card until the day you have no affiliation with the military, all the support and services you need are easily accessible through Base Directory. Service members and their families are used to difficult challenges; we want to ensure finding information isn’t one of them.”