John Zinn: Visionary Navy SEAL and Entrepreneur
on January 28, 2021
John Zinn had an uncanny ability to make things happen, sometimes seemingly out of thin air. I’ll give you two of my favorite examples.
One day, when John was on a flight from DC to California, a child on his plane had a seizure. The boy had never had a seizure before and his mother had no idea what was happening. John, a trained EMT, immediately went into action. He laid the boy out on his side and made sure his airway was clear, got a cool washcloth on his neck, and completely handled the situation —including keeping the boy’s mother calm — until the boy was okay again.
Once everything had settled down, a man across the aisle leaned over and started talking with John. Clearly, he was quite impressed with how the young man handled himself. He handed over his business card and said, “If you ever need anything, don’t hesitate to call me.” Looking at the card, John realized the man was the majority owner of a southern California bank. He laughed. “Funny you should say that,” he replied. “There actually is something I need at the moment.” What he needed was about half a million dollars to finance a major expansion in his plant.
The following week John was sitting in the man’s bank, and a week after that he had secured a loan for half a million dollars. Michael said that in all his decades of practicing law, he’d never seen a business loan transacted from start to finish in so short a time, let alone one of that substantial an amount. John and the man from the plane ended up having a long and fruitful business relationship, with many millions more in financing along the way.
The second example is this:
At one point John was touring potential clients through his company’s production facility, showing their first-generation vehicle, which was a large sedan. He knew they needed to move into producing a next-generation run of smaller, Japanese-style vehicles, but they didn’t have the funding needed yet. In the middle of the place he had set up a black box, and as they toured the plant, everyone kept eyeing the thing and asking, “What’s in the black box?”
“We can’t really show you that,” John replied. “It’s our next-generation concept, and it’s amazing — but I’m afraid I can’t tell you what it is just yet.”
In fact, there was absolutely nothing in the box. It was empty. But that didn’t matter. John completely sold them on the concept. Before long they had their financing, and their gen-two line was a complete success.
Today John’s vehicles are used throughout the world. Indigen Armor can’t release sales figures, but John’s company has built a lot of vehicles — and saved a lot of lives. Over the years they have received a constant stream of e-mails and notes like this one:
“I just wanted to write to thank you guys at Indigen Armor. I was on a mission today in the streets of the city where I’m stationed, and our convoy was ambushed. The only reason I’m alive today is that I was driving one of your vehicles when it happened.”
By 2008, John and his partners realized they had outrun their capacity to generate the kind of capital it would take to tool up to the full scope of operations John had in mind. It was time to sell. They shopped around and found a New York private-equity firm with a strong background in military and aerospace. In 2009, they sold a majority interest in the business for a sizable sum, with John retained as president and CEO — by which time I was already hip-deep in my own entrepreneurial deployment and being shot at from all sides.
When I left the service in mid-2006, Indigen Armor was already in full production and doing well, and I was inspired by John’s example. But I didn’t want to build vehicles; I wanted to train the guys who drove them.
John had wanted to build something. Me, I’d always been into real estate, even had my real estate license. My idea was to create a training facility somewhere in southern California that would serve both military and law enforcement personnel. I called it Wind Zero, named after a precision shooting term.
I had been thinking about this idea for years. I’d been out to Blackwater and other dedicated training facilities on the East Coast, and I knew from experience that there was nothing comparable on the West Coast. In fact, southern California was desperate for a solid, reliable training facility. At the sniper course, we constantly had problems finding usable venues for our training. I would call units from other branches of the military and even local law enforcement units and ask, “Where are you guys going when you train?” Invariably the answer was, “We don’t really know. We’re doing our best to find whatever we can.” The problem was systemic, and we were constantly having to ship guys out to other locations to train, which was both expensive and time-consuming.
There was a human cost, too: Sending people out of state for weeks and even months at a time was tough on their families. I’d experienced this myself. The strain those long stretches of absence had put on my own marriage was one of the driving reasons I’d made the decision to leave the teams. If we could provide a place where these young men and women could train during the day and be back home with their families at night, we’d be doing them a huge service.
I started developing the idea along with a fellow former SEAL, a Team Five guy named Randy Kelley, who had gotten out a year before me and started his own business training people in advanced security and surveillance techniques and technologies. He was something like Q in the James Bond movies (only with a North Carolina accent). Randy gave me free use of his office space and helped me write a business plan.
And it was one hell of a plan. In addition to shooting ranges, tracks for driving instruction, and indoor classroom space, Wind Zero would feature lodging and dining facilities for up to 2oo people. We would be able to embed actual buildings and cities that we could dress up so we could run large-scale urban-environment exercises, such as riot situations and other high-threat scenarios. We could facade the area out as an Afghan village this week, an urban downtown next week. The plan also included two helo pads and an airstrip.
In many cases, we figured people, such as law enforcement groups, would show up with their own trainers. We knew there would also be customers who would want us to provide the training. No problem. In fact, even as we were continuing to work on the facility itself, we put a training staff in place and started taking on contracts even without having our own facility in place yet.
Then we had the idea of adding more racetrack. There are a lot of car clubs in southern California, and some of them were telling us there was a huge market for motorsports. Porsche and BMW clubs approached us and said, “Hey, if you build it, we’ll use it.” So we bolted on a separate business to the original concept: a track where we could hold private sponsored race car events. There would even be facilities where you could store your car in-between events. An expert from the U.K. helped us design a full Grand Prix–style double track.
Now all I had to do was find and buy the land, get the full financing, and build it. The thing would cost something like $100 million all told.
Like John Zinn when he was first out of the service, in my first year out I took work as a private-contract security agent to pay the bills, which meant being over in Iraq for months at a time. In between those stints overseas I started combing southern California, looking for land. By the end of 2006, I had found the property I wanted, a thousand acres of raw land in Imperial County, not far from Niland, my old stomping grounds.
I was able to put down some option money from my savings and private-contract earnings, but that wouldn’t hold the land for long. This was a two million-plus piece of real estate; the down payment alone would be north of 300,000 dollars. It was time to raise some serious investment.
At the same time, I set about the arduous process of securing entitlements.
In land-development terms, “entitlements” refer to the gamut of legal permissions and approvals you need in order to physically build the project. This can include zoning variances (or, in some cases, actual rezoning), land-use permits, approvals for roads, utilities, landscaping, construction, and more. The process is slow, complicated, and frustrating. For a project the size and scope of what we were planning, we figured it would probably take at least a year or two.
I had barely begun the process of developing Wind Zero when I found I had a serious competitor, the one private paramilitary training organization that everyone had heard of and had an opinion about: Blackwater.
When I was still on active duty I had bumped into some guys from Blackwater in Las Vegas at the annual SHOT (Shooting, Hunting, Outdoor Trade) Show, a major military/hunting industry trade event, and asked them why they hadn’t done a West Coast facility yet. “The hell with California,” they said. “It’s too much of a pain in the ass.” They must have since rethought this position, because, by the time I put a contract on my Imperial County land, Blackwater had just come on the scene and was aiming to do the same thing.
I was there when they first rolled into town in their stretch Hummers, meatheads piling out with their Under Armour shirts that were two sizes too small and showed off every muscle fiber. It was obnoxious. They brought out a guy from the East Coast with a pronounced Boston accent and put him in charge of their project. The first thing he told me when we met was how much he hated California.
I was determined to take the opposite approach.
As soon as I had our land picked out, I began building as much local support as possible. It took a year and a half to get to know the people there. I spent time talking with the guys in law enforcement, the fire departments, and the rest of the public safety community, building relationships with them, telling my story, and explaining the project. Once I had established a foundation of solid support, then I started going to the town’s and county’s political leadership and moving the entitlement process forward. I put 20 letters of endorsement from local community leaders — from the police chief to the community college president — in front of them and they said, “Holy shit, we had no idea we needed this kind of facility… but you know, it makes sense.”
“Winning hearts and minds” isn’t just a military strategy for working in foreign territory; it’s common sense and common decency — and it works.
Two years after they started, the Blackwater effort crumbled under an onslaught of local opposition. There were anti-Blackwater bumper stickers everywhere. I knew it was over when I stepped outside one day and saw a lady walking her dog wearing a T-shirt that said, “Stop Blackwater!”
Meanwhile, our effort kept going. The entitlement process was even more complex, more difficult, more frustrating, and more drawn-out than our most conservative estimates. But we got through it. In December 2010, after four years of hard work, with millions of dollars on the line, we made it over the finish line and received official approval from Imperial County to build our facility.
It had taken four long years. We’d raised nearly four million and done it the hard way, piece by piece from more than 40 different investors, with no angel investor forking over the lion’s share. So many people had told me we would never get the entitlements. But we did. Where Blackwater had failed, we had succeeded.
The victory tasted sweet indeed — but it lasted just 30 days. Because nothing ever goes according to plan. Ever.
First rule of combat, first rule of business.
While I had strong support and no real opposition from the local community, there were forces working against me from other directions the whole time.
First, there was Jack, a former SEAL I’d known from my deployment in Afghanistan. Jack had called me right at the start, before I even had my property, and tried to get me to back off. According to him, he was already planning to do something very similar himself. I suggested we both keep doing what we were doing and work together in a cooperative relationship. The demand was practically unlimited, I told him, and there was more than enough room for two training facilities in the marketplace. But Jack was one of those people who insist on trying to be the smartest guy in the room. (Me, I’d rather be the dumbest guy in the room. I have no problem working with people who are smarter than me — the more talented, the better.) He kept doing what he could to intimidate and discourage me and, when that didn’t work, to sabotage me.
Then there was Casey, one of our investors, who had gradually taken on a more and more direct role in the project. Casey had more business experience than I did and I looked up to him and tended, at times, to defer to him. My mistake. I gave him too much power in the company, and before long he was trying to edge me out altogether.
While I was battling these political and internal complications, the entitlement process had dragged on for what seemed like forever while the money we’d raised gradually dwindled to nothing. Eventually, I stopped taking a salary and started taking on consulting work here and there to keep the lights on.
At one point, just as I’d successfully fought off a mutinous takeover bid from Casey, we found ourselves battling a website that sprang up with the imposing name, “Imperial Valley Against Wind Zero.” Evidently, there was a bitter groundswell of opposition from the local community… at least, that was what it was designed to look like. The truth, as we soon learned, was that nobody in Imperial Valley had anything to do with the website or its mission. In fact, it was an elaborate scheme concocted by Jack, my jealous ex-SEAL rival.
On the heels of the Stop Wind Zero site, an anti-Brandon Webb video appeared online, pasting together sound bites from my various media appearances and taking them out of context to make them look like I was saying things I’d never even remotely said. It was like one of those tacky political smear commercials you see proliferating on TV during every election cycle. Jack’s handiwork again.
Still, we’d survived Casey, and survived Jack, and survived the exhaustion of our financial resources, and still managed to secure Imperial County’s approval for our project.
And 30 days later the county was sued by the Sierra Club, who claimed that the environmental impact study had not been sufficient. In fact, it was rock-solid, but that didn’t seem to matter.
When I say “Sierra Club” it makes it sound like a large national groundswell. Actually, it was a lone individual, a woman at the local Sierra Club chapter who was known for instigating frivolous lawsuits. The head of the planning commission had warned me about her. “Watch out for Edie,” he said. “She’s a pain in the ass and fights everything we do. She has wasted an easy million in taxpayer dollars with her zero-development philosophy.” He was right. Edie perfectly fit that great Winston Churchill definition of an extremist: someone who will never change their mind and cannot change the subject.
Unfortunately, there was nothing we could do about it. The county had to respond to the suit. And according to local statute, the developer — that is, us — had to pay the county’s legal costs for doing so.
What made the whole thing so painful was that I knew we would ultimately win the lawsuit. We’d done our homework and the plans were all unassailably solid. The county really wanted the project. And since it had already been approved, the judge couldn’t outright kill it. At the very worst, he could have made us go back and do our environmental impact reports over again. But the Sierra Club (that is, this one woman) wasn’t backing down. If they (she) lost this suit, they (she) would just appeal it, which would have dragged it out for yet another long stretch of legal battles. It was a war of attrition, and since we were obligated to pay the county’s legal bills, it was stacked in the plaintiff’s favor.
There was no money left in our coffers. We had coasted over the finish line on fumes. It would take at least another half million to fight this thing. And with the economy in the shitter, nobody was about to step forward with the capital it would take to see it through.
By mid-2011 I had to acquiesce to the reality of the situation and call it quits.
I called the shareholders and let them know it was over. I had beaten Blackwater at their own game — and in return been beaten myself by a lady from the Sierra Club. It would have been funny if it weren’t so crushing. I had dedicated five years of my life to this idea, bolstered with the majority of my modest net worth along with a ton of money from friends and family members —and it was all gone in the blink of a court filing.
Shortly after which, my wife asked me for a divorce.
As I said, life in the teams can be brutal on relationships. Despite my having left the service five years before specifically in order to be at home more and strengthen my family life, it had been too late. My marriage had become another casualty of war.
And I had to admit, it wasn’t just the life of a SEAL. The fact was, I didn’t know how to make a long-term relationship work. My own parents’ marriage had become irretrievably fractured by the time I had enlisted in the Navy. I thought I would be better at this than my dad, but now my own marriage hadn’t lasted even past my oldest son’s 10th birthday.
I had not succeeded in following in John’s footsteps or honoring his example, in more ways than one. As dedicated as he was to his work, John was never the classic workaholic, sacrificing his family on the altar of his entrepreneurial dreams. I’d seen others do that. Not John. His business was always his driving passion, yet what he was most proud of and most in love with was his family, and he never let business get in the way.
But me? Here I was: savings blown; business dream up in smoke; marriage irrevocably on the rocks. Yes, there were villains in the picture, and I could point and say my plans had been sabotaged, both from without and within. But denial and evasion of responsibility are not part of a SEAL’s makeup. I had to face the facts: I’d brought this all on myself.
It was the lowest point of my life.
And then there was John Zinn’s example to honor.
Yes, I’d just experienced a massive failure. But John had tried dozens of ideas before Indigen Armor took off. If he could keep going, so could I.
Within a few months of tossing in the Wind Zero towel, I took a position as director at L-3 Communications, a large defense company in San Diego, just so I’d have something that paid the bills. It was a solid job and excellent money, but it drove me stir-crazy. I felt like a rat in a cage. I had to do something.
Ironically, it was that smear campaign against me and Wind Zero from a few years before that ultimately provided the answer. When that anti-Brandon Webb video had appeared online, a friend told me that the only way to push it off the first page of search results was to get a lot more content about me onto the internet. So I started doing whatever I could to produce material. In the process, I discovered that I liked to write.
A few years before Wind Zero closed I was invited to blog for a large website that served the military community. I’d been doing that now for two years, and I enjoyed it. At the same time, I saw quite a few ways that the site itself could be improved. In fact, there was no single site that served the whole Special Operations community. So I decided to start my own. I invited a few friends from different branches of the service to write for the site as well. I scraped together about 10,000 dollars and launched SOFREP.com (for Special Operations Forces Situation Report) in January 2012.
By the end of the year, we had more than a million people per month hitting our site.
All the success that had failed to materialize with Wind Zero happened with SOFREP. Within a year after launch I found myself running the largest internet site in the world devoted to Special Operations. Our weekly SOFREP Radio podcast became the number one broadcast in its category (government) on iTunes, with more than half a million monthly visitors. The publishing division we launched had several New York Times bestsellers in its first year.
I suppose I never did get out of the real estate business. I just shifted from developing one kind of site to another.
Through SOFREP I’ve doubled the income I was earning at L-3 as a salaried employee, and done it working for myself, on my own terms. It’s a lot of work, and it keeps me extremely busy.
But not so busy that it runs my life or makes me miserable. Over the past few years, even with the craziness of SOFREP, I’ve also made it my business to take the time to build an excellent relationship with my ex-wife and her family, and to be there, consistently and in a big way, for our children.
That was another lesson I learned from John Zinn. Maybe the most important one of all.
After all the struggle and heartache of Wind Zero, the success of SOFREP Media has been a gratifying experience, to say the least. There is a bittersweet note to it, though. Because I would have so loved to share the story of it all with John. I owed him that. But he was no longer there to share it with.
In 2010, less than a year after selling his company, John was in Amman, Jordan, at a huge military equipment expo. He was out with a few SEAL buddies but decided to turn in early, as he had an appointment early the next day to demo his latest vehicle to the king of Jordan. On the way home, he had his cab-driver stop the car so he could get out and walk the rest of the way. He never made it back to his hotel.
Exactly what happened is shrouded in uncertainty. According to the cab driver’s testimony, John was agitated about something when he bolted from the cab and walked off on his own, headed for a rough section of town. It could just as well have been that the cab driver was heading to the wrong hotel and that John, realizing this, got out of the cab and in typical John fashion decided to forge his own path. According to official reports, he stumbled on his walk home and fell off a steep drop in the path. According to the SEAL who saw him off in the cab that night, he was sober and clear-headed, and “stumbled on his walk home” just doesn’t sound like John. One report ruled out foul play; another cited “suspicious circumstances.”
The chances are good we’ll never know every fact and detail about exactly what happened that night. What we do know is this: The world is not a safe place. And John died making it a lot safer.
John was not on active duty or in the thick of combat when he perished. But Glen Doherty was right, in his toast to Dave Scott in that little Filipino bar in October 2002, when he said, “We all signed up for this. It’s all part of the deal.” As we say when we join the Spec Ops world, we’re writing a check, payable to the U.S. government, and in the “amount” section it says “up to and including our lives.” John left behind two daughters, ages two and four, and Jackie was pregnant with their first son, Matthew, whom John was so looking forward to meeting. He was a good friend, one of the best, and was busy serving his country and his fellow warriors right to his last breath.
John was a visionary. He had the capacity to paint a picture that others found so compelling, so real, that they would follow and do whatever it took to support him and help bring that picture into reality. It’s an ability, I’ve come to see, that every leader needs to master, whether you’re leading a platoon of warriors in combat or a team of colleagues or employees in a business venture.
And he was a visionary in a larger sense, too, in that he saw the direction the world was headed and led the way. The wave of the future in our military presence is not in large masses of forces invading territories, but in small, highly adaptable units, like Spec Ops individuals. The ability to be discreet, to have a small footprint as you go into a country and quietly look around without being obvious, is pivotal to the tactical and strategic successes of the future. John’s idea was ahead of its time. It still is.
I hope you enjoyed reading about my friend John Zinn and will share his story with a friend who could use it.
This excerpt is from Brandon Webb & John Mann’s bestselling book, Among Heroes, available everywhere books are sold and on Amazon.