This founder spotlight is brought to you by our partners at the Association of Military Spouse Entrepreneurs (AMSE).
Amy Schweizer always knew she wanted to work in athletics. Before she founded Tiny Troops Soccer, a year-round, developmental soccer program targeted at military families, the former college soccer star racked up a master's degree in sports management, interned at the Philadelphia 76ers, and was planning to pursue a lifelong career in professional sports.
But all certainty went out the window when she met and married a United States Marine. Within a year, the newlyweds were shuffled to far-flung bases in California and later Japan. That's when Schweizer quickly learned the harsh realities of working as a military spouse — a demographic with one of the highest rates of unemployment in the country.
"When people say you know what you're getting into marrying into the service, well, you don’t know! You have no idea," Schweizer says. "I knew I would have to leave my job; I didn’t know I would have to give up my career."
Because of frequent moves that leave resume gaps and deprive them of local connections, milspouses such as Schweizer face unique challenges finding work that matches their skills. It's a dilemma that leads many military spouses down the path of entrepreneurship.
Schweizer's big idea came in 2015 not long after she had the first of her three children. The business problem? Military bases usually have sports leagues for children ages 5 and up. She created her business to fill the gap for younger kids looking to participate in organized sports.
But Tiny Troops isn't just another little league soccer program. Schweizer teamed up with another milspouse with a background in early childhood development to create a program tailored specifically to the needs of children ages 2–4. What does that look like? Instead of scrimmaging and competitive play, most of the sessions are focused on developing gross motor functions, learning teamwork, and practicing listening skills.
There's also an emphasis on socialization and community building. Tiny Troops might be the first activity a kid experiences outside the house and away from their parents, and the multiple locations mean that kids and their families can resume the program as they move from one military base to the next.
"It’s something that is familiar when everything else is changing," Schweizer explains. "Some people ask me 'what are you really doing with preschool soccer?' I tell them that we’re providing a physical outlet that also helps kids with their mental stability. We do program surveys that show their confidence has improved, they’re less anxious, and they’re reporting an increase in overall happiness. There’s a lot of stress that goes on in the military. Kids need this physical outlet."
Despite her own background in sports, Schweizer explains that nothing is simple about running a business from a base. "If you live on a military installation, there are a lot of restrictions," she says, including prohibitions on any activity that competes with something the base offers itself. Most bases offer sports leagues, which means Tiny Troops holds practice at nearby public parks. Schweizer has also found a surprising variation in how rules and regulations are enforced from base to base that makes a one-size-fits-all business strategy difficult to implement.
Even so, Tiny Troops has blossomed to 35 locations and become an economic engine for other milspouses looking for work as instructors. "To date, we’ve employed over 100 military spouses," Schweizer says. "That’s something I'm really proud of."
Tiny Troops hasn't escaped the shadow of the coronavirus, however. The business was one of the lucky ones able to secure a forgivable loan from the federal Paycheck Protection Program, which will help tide it over in the short term as all on-field sessions have been cancelled through June. Schweizer and her team have recently pivoted to a business model anchored by virtual training sessions for children up to 9 years old — a far cry from the growth strategy they originally anticipated.
"In six months, originally we should have expanded with 20 more locations," Schweizer says. "Since this has happened, I would be happy to have numbers back at what they were and be in at least five more locations by end of 2020. Now, in one more year, I would like to have those additional 20 locations, as well as virtual sessions that provide a reliable income stream."
The immediate future is all about staying connected with the community via social media and promoting Tiny Troops' virtual offerings. The fields might still be closed, but Schweizer hasn't lost sight of what her business provides to military families like her own.
"Our kiddos don't get to grow up like we did with the same teammates and classmates, but we've been able to be that team and community," Schweizer says. "I always tell my coaches, these kids may not remember you specifically, but they will remember Tiny Troops for the rest of their lives."
The Association of Military Spouse Entrepreneurs (AMSE) provides milspouse entrepreneurs with the tools and connections to help them succeed. Click here to learn more.