THE BLOG
11/06/2014 09:37 am ET Updated Jan 06, 2015

Women in Business: Shannon Van Buskirk, Co-Founder of GovX.com

Shannon Van Buskirk got her professional start in retail, working as an associate at Nordstrom. From there, she became a highly successful residential real estate expert of more than 18 years with the largest independently owned and operated real estate company in Southern California. Leveraging her sales and customer service expertise, Mrs. Van Buskirk and her husband, Marc, then founded Pacifica Sales Corporation, owners and operators of USStandardIssue.com, an innovative e-commerce site offering Oakley tactical eyewear, boots, gloves for military personnel and related government agencies. They enjoyed the success of growing the site to more than 750,000 members and $30 million in sales in just four years, Luxottica/Oakley acquired the Van Buskirk's business in 2009 and they turned their focus to establishing GovX.com with friend and partner, Tony Farwell.

Bringing her career full circle, Mrs. Van Buskirk is now vice chair and co-founder of GovX.com, the leading online destination and e-commerce site exclusively for military and government personnel and their spouses to connect, learn and shop for premium lifestyle products, on-duty tactical gear, and tickets and entertainment, all at exceptional discounts. With a breadth of experience in retail, sales, e-commerce and selling direct to military, Mrs. Van Buskirk oversees nearly all aspects of the GovX business, from customer acquisition and customer service delivery, to marketing and content development, to brand and product selection, to design and oversight of the website. Alongside her partners and co-founders, Mrs. Van Buskirk has been instrumental in changing the e-commerce experience to combine content, community, commerce and customer service.

How has your life experience made you the leader you are today?
I don't view myself as a leader but more as someone who feels comfortable taking on new challenges and not being afraid to switch gears and work in several different areas of a business. Being very inquisitive and resourceful has been very helpful in my professional and personal life. I was raised in a family of retailers where my dad had a very successful career with Macy's in the days when the big department stores were really great. This provided me the incredibly rich opportunity to see two sides, the vendor and the retailer side. Retail in the late 70s and early 80s was exciting because many of the larger retailers were traveling out of the country to source unique home furnishings and tabletop decor. Concept stores were popping up and they were very creatively merchandised. During this time it was clear that the leaders in the industry were very innovative and creative. It was only natural that my first job out of college was at a big department store in Southern California. My love of retail combined with an interest in architecture and design led me to selling high-end residential real estate. I had the good fortune to work with some spectacular properties and meet several very talented designers and architects. I saw firsthand that, again, creativity and innovation produced some amazing new ideas that inspired us all. Whether it was merchandising a store or designing and decorating a home, it was all about creating an "experience" for the buyer or shopper that was fun and exciting. These experiences fueled me to push forward and not settle for the way things are usually done but to create something special and give someone a new way to look at things.

How has your previous employment experience aided your position at GovX.com?
Selling high end residential real estate in Southern California and building an e-commerce business from scratch taught me to negotiate sales and gave me the opportunity to work with some very smart and successful people. You learn how to be a very effective listener and how important it is to make everyone feel that they have "won" when they get up from the negotiating table. Everyone needs to walk away feeling good. I had the privilege of meeting many successful entrepreneurs throughout my 17 year real estate career and in my early e-commerce days. That inspired me to want to help create a business where everyone wins. At GovX we have created a win- win for everyone involved. The vendors win by reaching an audience they didn't know how to reach, the customer wins as they are receiving benefits they greatly deserve and we win by bringing this all together. It is a big win for everyone since ultimately everyone involved is showing their support and thanks for those who serve our country and communities.

What have the highlights and challenges been during your tenure at GovX.com?
Starting a new business is exciting as there is so much you want to do however you have to be extremely focused and strategic about the choices you make. The reality is you start out with NO customers and you have to build a store that makes people want to come back and see the value. So we had to bring in popular brands, unique finds and also carefully tell our story. We began with eight brands; some of them were very small. One was a sunscreen company out of Honolulu where the founder was packing and mailing the product out of his garage! Meeting the many entrepreneurs that we did in that first year was incredibly interesting as we learned how they got started and saw their growth and success. Remember, we began in 2011 and this was after the recession so many vendors were very scaled down and had little inventory. Our business model requires our vendors to drop ship the product which means they needed sitting inventory available and if you had a lot of sitting inventory during the recession you weren't likely to make it through that time. Fast forward three years and we now have over 300 brands and many customers who write us emails everyday thanking us for supporting them. Can you imagine a more satisfying experience than spending your day with entrepreneurs, our vendors and our customers, the heroes who protect us each day? I am very grateful to have the opportunity to meet the people we do in our business, it is always different and the stories are incredible. A very humbling experience for sure.

Why did you want to start GovX.com?
After building a successful e-commerce site for Oakley that was dedicated to military and government employees we saw what a difference we could make for those who serve. We saw our military and first responders go into harm's way; they needed the VERY best equipment and they often had to purchase this gear themselves. We made the best gear affordable so everyone could have the best protection possible. Who would have thought that the right pair of sunglasses could prevent you from a debilitating injury and having the right boots or gloves or eyewear could sometimes be the most important item you could have with you? It was extremely rewarding to receive photographs of some of our active duty customers after horrific days on the job and it was only because of the protective gear they were wearing that they had returned uninjured. We also saw how much the families of these servicemen sacrificed and we knew we had to do more. We wanted to make sure that those who served and their families felt honored every day, not just over a Veteran's Day or Memorial Day weekend, but EVERY DAY. We had a bigger vision to develop a place where everyone who had EVER served in the military, as a firefighter, police officer, first responder, or related government agency could receive preferential pricing on whatever they purchased. Whether it was in uniform tactical gear or what we call "life after work" gear to enjoy with their family, we felt they should never have to pay retail prices for anything. These are the benefits that we all feel they greatly deserve for taking on the tough job of protecting us all.

What advice can you offer women who are seeking to start their own business?
Surround yourself with great talent. It sounds easy but it is challenging to get the best talent when you are just starting. All it takes are one or two key people to really work alongside you to move things forward. Know that it is going to be very hard and you will wonder if you should have sunk your money, your friend's money, and your investor's money into your idea. It is a lot of pressure and that is why most people don't start businesses but, if you can hang in there and be laser focused, you will make it. You need to be willing to do everything you can to get your business off the ground and be willing to pivot quickly if necessary. It is very exciting, however at the same time every day is filled with opportunities and surprises and you have to get comfortable with the ups and downs. In the end you will have much more control over your own life and how you support yourself. It is very satisfying knowing that you have built something meaningful and from nothing. You will be glad you stepped up and took a shot.

How do you maintain a work/life balance?
I think the term "work/life balance" is confusing. Very few entrepreneurs can build a business with any balance. You need to be "ALL IN!" It takes so much attention and perseverance to really make a business work. It is understandable that you are thinking about it all the time and you will wear many hats while driving many initiatives. . You need to keep your head down in the beginning and know that it won't always be all-consuming and that this time spent will be worth it in the end. Nothing great ever comes together without a lot of time, attention and just hard work. For me, I don't think I could have started a business at the level we work now if I had young children at home. I waited until our boys were in high school before we built our first business. I admire those who say they can do both things well but that wasn't me. I couldn't do both at the high levels that I expected of myself so I made a personal choice to still work while raising children but not at doing the high level work I do now. Our children have now graduated from college and have jobs (yes, they actually got jobs).

What do you think is the biggest issue for women in the workplace?
It will always be the struggle of the demands of the workplace and family. Raising children goes by so quickly and it is a time in your life that you will never get back or get a "do over" on. You don't want that wonderful time in your life overshadowed by feeling bad that you can't make a deadline at work or find yourself working at home late at night to keep up and find that you are perpetually exhausted. Everyone who is faced with this decision works to find the right solution for them and it is different for each of us but you can find something that works. Also, as you move up the corporate ladder there are still many more men than women so you need to learn to get comfortable with that. At most companies now everyone, men or women, are so happy to work alongside anyone who is talented and they are grateful for that and very enjoyable to work with.

How has mentorship made a difference in your professional and personal life?
Having someone to bounce ideas off of is important. To find someone that you admire and respect that is a few years ahead of you is nice. We all hit some "speed bumps" along the way at work and discussing this with a mentor often widens your perspective and you can come away with a completely different thought process than you may have had. Mentors can also push or challenge you to really move forward and take a risk you may have hesitated about. I have tried to surround myself with people who are strong, focused and really love what they do; basically, smart and resourceful people. I tend to have friends that are great "fixers", people that are really good at finding solutions to problems. They are all the perfect 3 a.m. call if I need it; those are the friends and mentors you want.

What do you want GovX.com to accomplish in the next year?
I would like for everyone who has served to be aware of the program we have created for them and receive all of the many benefits they have earned. We want our military, first responders, law enforcement, and fire personnel to feel extremely valued and honored EVERY DAY by all of us. They should never have to ASK for a discount and that is what we are creating for this very deserving group. We hope every store or service provider provides exclusive pricing to thank these heroes for what they do. We have created a verification system to confirm each person's service to assure that only those who truly have served qualify for the many discounts and benefits we have gathered together on our website. This group of people is the backbone of this country and we have created a benefit that they greatly deserve and we are thrilled to deliver it. Our goal is to reach as many deserving people as we can to extend to them the benefits that they have earned while providing them with a fabulous customer experience with the best products, events, services, and discounted major league sports tickets.