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Entrepreneurship Series: Inside Pop Smoke Media’s Dark Humor with CEO Dan Sharp

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By Wes O’Donnell
Managing Editor, and Veteran, U.S. Army and U.S. Air Force

Editor’s note: This is the second in a series of interviews with veteran entrepreneurs, military spouse entrepreneurs, and businesses that engage with the military community. You can catch our first interview with George Fox of NFW Watches here.

There is a dark comedy that pervades front-line combat troops. It is a humor that very few American civilians understand and that many of them — apart from perhaps first responders and ER doctors — would find offensive.

However, there is a very real psychological mechanism at work; dark humor is the duct tape that keeps a soldier sane in times of extreme emotional and mental pressure. When every day is filled with hard, often deadly work, your three options are shut down, go into a state of perpetual rage or laugh.

Laughing, especially at things that most others would find unfunny at best and reprehensible at worst, is truly the best medicine for young front-line fighters. And that comedy follows you for the rest of your life.

Britain’s Prince Harry has stated that a “dark sense of humor helps soldiers get through combat service.”

As a post 9/11 veteran and a consumer of all forms of comedy, I was fortunate to speak with Dan Sharp, a veteran, entrepreneur, and mastermind behind Pop Smoke Media, a website and social media presence full of videos, playlists and discussions designed to give current and former service personnel a few laughs. Dan is also a journalist for American Military News and has turned his brand into a major influencer in the military and veteran community.

Pop Smoke
Picture courtesy Pop Smoke Media

Wes: Dan, thanks for speaking with me. Can you tell me a little more about Pop Smoke?

Dan: Thanks for having me on the series, Wes. Pop Smoke started as an entertainment Facebook page four years ago with a focus on humor and satire. In 2015 we hit the huge milestone of 150 followers. Today, our Facebook page has over 500,000 [followers] and we have over two million supporters across all our social media pages. It’s important to note that our ongoing mission is to do good for the community, in the form of fundraising, advocacy, education and mental health. Having these many supporters has really enabled us to think about how we can grow to accomplish that mission. Right now, we’re doing that with video and an upcoming gear store.

Wes: So, I have to ask, why a media company?

Dan: I served in the Marine Corps for 12 years and during that time I saw a lot of Marines do their four-year enlistments and get out. As a result, I was able to see their struggles as they attempted to adjust to civilian life. Difficulties that I’m sure you’re aware of, like the loss of camaraderie or that sense of being ripped away from a team. But I also witnessed some of the problems that some veterans were having engaging with civilians.

(Editor’s Note: I talk about the military-civilian divide in Veterans’ New Mission — Close the Military/Civilian Divide)

So, a military-focused media company would enable me to continue to engage with the military community, continuing that sense of fellowship.

Dan Sharp
Pictured: Dan Sharp of Pop Smoke Media

Wes: You mentioned advocacy. Can you tell me a little about what you’re working on?

Dan: My main concern is the underemployment of veterans. For instance, a corpsman [field medic] can spend years attaining medical certifications and rack up years of valuable medical experience, only to have that experience minimized in the civilian world. In addition, not all military medical certifications translate to civilian life. Throw in the fact that a veteran’s home of record may be different than the state that their military certifications are in, and it starts to get complicated. My focus is on screening and preparing that veteran for the mental stress, providing tools to manage that mental stress and to develop solutions to deal with the veteran underemployment issue.

Over Veterans Day, I had lunch with Virginia Senator Tim Kaine and spoke with him on the matter of underemployment. We also advocate for better resolutions to sexual harassment and assault problems in the military as well as form call to actions to inform veterans about measures and laws that are on the table that would be beneficial for them.

Wes: While writing for American Military News, you recently broke a story about Marines forced to drink mysterious brown water in their barracks at Quantico. Has there been any resolution since the story broke?

Dan: Within days of contacting Quantico’s public affairs office (now known as the Communication Strategy and Operations) our source at Quantico reported that maintenance trucks had been working daily to fix the problem. Stories about the contamination of military bases’ water supplies around the country have been in the news a lot lately. It feels good to be a part of the solution when young soldiers’ and Marines’ health is on the line.

Wes: We have a lot of transitioning servicemembers who are considering entrepreneurship. In fact, according to Bunker Labs fully 25% of veterans are interested in starting a business. That’s a huge number. What advice would you give to that young Marine wanting to start a business?

pop smoke
Picture Courtesy Pop Smoke Media

Dan: Simple. Victory loves preparation. If you come out of the military expecting to walk right into a startup [job] and experience instant success, it’s not going to happen. By law, servicemembers are given 12 months to prepare for the transition. They should be using every second of that time preparing for their civilian life, whether that’s going to college, starting a business or the entering the workforce.

Wes: I know exactly what you mean. I left the Air Force in 2007 with absolutely no plan and a family to support. It was pure, blind Irish luck that a corporate recruiter stumbled across my resume on a job board. I had the opportunity to prepare leading up to my separation but squandered it. Last question: What book are you reading right now?

Dan: I just finished Ready Player One by Ernest Cline.

Wes: Dan, thanks for your time and Semper Fi

Wes O’Donnell is an Army and Air Force veteran and writer covering military and tech topics. As a sought-after professional speaker, Wes has presented at U.S. Air Force Academy, Fortune 500 companies, and TEDx, covering trending topics from data visualization to leadership and veterans’ advocacy. As a filmmaker, he directed the award-winning short film, “Memorial Day.”

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