By David Bruce
Turning a passion into a business is the formula for success for some veterans.
Fox Den Solutions, a military veteran-owned firearms training company will celebrate six years in business next month. Owners Steve Morrell and his wife Sarabeth Morrell believe that their approach to training is as important as the lessons they teach.
“We use a building block approach to our firearms training,” said Morrell. “We hammer down the fundamentals and then move to whatever specific skill sets our customers need,” he said.
Morrell said fundamentals are critical for new shooters. It’s the foundation that everything will be built on later. He is passionate about firearms training and pays homage to those he learned from in the Marine Corps.
“Those were some of the best instructors that I have ever trained under or with,” said Morrell. “Still to this day after all the training that I have attended, I still believe that to be true,” he said.
Massachusetts has been a good market for Morrell’s business because firearms owners are required to take a safety course to obtain a permit. This requirement drives the bulk of the training market in the state. Fox Den Solutions has sought to set itself apart from the competition through it’s approach and ability to work with shooters of all levels, particularly new shooters.
“We’re veteran-owned, but we’re also family-owned and a part female-owned business,” said Sarabeth Morrell. “I think that provides a level of comfort for people who are nervous about coming out to train,” she said.
Morrell has an extensive background in firearms and tactics from his service as a Force Recon Marine and a career as a law enforcement firearms and tactics instructor. Although his experience in the firearms world is impressive he needed to rapidly develop the skills necessary to run a business. Sarabeth Morrell joked that when the business first started she had to, “learn how to run a business out of a jeep while parked in a sand pit, because they didn’t have an office set up,” she said.
“It doesn’t start off as a well-oiled machine,” said Sarabeth Morrell. “I remember the first time someone asked me for a receipt. I was like oh man, he wants a receipt. Much of this is learned as you go,” she said.
While many of the lessons were learned as the business grew, Morrell participated in an intense program designed to help veterans succeed in business. Veteran Entrepreneur Jumpstart Program was a collaboration between the U.S. Small Business Administration and Saint Joseph’s University. From 2015 to 2018, the program trained more than 200 aspiring military veteran entrepreneurs.
“It was an intense program,” said Morrell. “There were days that we got on the bus at 8 a.m. to go to the venue and didn’t finish until 8 p.m. on some nights. But we wrote business plans and gained a lot of insights and learned how to navigate obstacles,” he said.
For Morrell, the program was critical when it came to dealing with road blocks that developed early in the process. Opening a firearms training facility in a sand lot located among the cranberry bogs of Rochester, Mass., presented existential challenges early in the process.
“There were environmental concerns, endangered turtles, wetlands, and right-of-way issues. This all happened right out of the gate,” said Morrell. To be honest, I wasn’t sure if it would actually happen. We had to go before the town, hire lawyers, and pay a bunch of experts to come in to get permission from the town,” he said.
Although the environmental concerns were mitigated my moving some of the operations to different areas of the facility, the right-of-way difficulties persisted. Morrell said, he realized that the issues were not going to be resolvable.
“In the end, we had to have customers enter the facility by way of a different road,” said Morrell. “I spent the money on an attorney for something that was never really even a possible option. But you pivot, you come up with a different way and you learn,” he said.
When it came to instructors, Morrell said he knew exactly who he needed – people he could depend on to deliver a top-notch product, so he hired a 100% veteran cadre of instructors that had served in elite military units and also worked in law enforcement.
“People respect what veterans have done,” said Morrell. “It’s just something that resonates with me and I wanted to do that. A lot of the guys that I have brought on are actually disabled veterans. I knew that this was something I wanted to do. It just makes sense to me,” said Morrell.
With the structure and team built and equipment purchased Fox Den only needed one more thing to succeed: customers. The Morrell’s set out to gain a deeper knowledge of marketing and social media to attract customers.
“Everyone was using that old saying, if you build it they will come,” said Sarabeth Morrell. “That’s not exactly true we found out. Marketing and advertisement plays a huge role in getting business. Still to this day, Steve is constantly posting on social media and we are paying for advertisement,” she said.
Through market analysis, Morrell learned that Rochester and the surrounding towns had some of the highest levels of firearms ownership in the state, so there was a good chance the business would do well. But it took time to reach their customer base.
“It was kind of a major gamble in the sense that we put all this time and money and effort into it and then weren’t even 100% sure that it would succeed,” said Morrell.
Nearly six years later the gamble has paid off. Fox Den Solutions has a steady stream of students arriving at their training facility to train. With a variety of classes designed for first-time shooters all the way to competitors and SWAT teams, the couple were able to capture a large demographic of enthusiasts from all walks of life.
Morrell said that creating things before shooter is a priority for Fox Den Solutions. It’s one thing to know how to use a firearm, but it’s another thing to understand the legalities and ways to deescalate situations, he said.
Student, Thomas White, said he received real life situational training for concealed carry. “They teach you how to avoid conflict,” he said. It is invaluable training that goes way beyond just the using a firearm.”
Many of the students that train at Fox Den are first time shooters having their first experience with firearms. The process for many can be intimidating. For Fox Den having qualified instructors that connect well with students is important.
Students are able to tap into the real-world experience of the instructors at Fox Den. But you need more than qualified instructors to run a successful training facility, you need to connect with students and build a level of comfort first.
“I call it working on your range side manner,” said Sarabeth Morrell. Adding that many of their students are civilians, new shooters and females. “It’s important that our clients are not only safe, but that they feel comfortable while they’re with us. We pride ourselves in that,” she said.
As Morrell prepares to retire from his career in law enforcement and expand his training from part time to full time, one of the lessons he learned at Veteran Entrepreneur Jumpstart still rings true today.
“They kept telling us down there that no one will love your business the way that you love it,” said Morrell. “It’s true – It’s like a relationship. It requires devotion, attention and understanding.”