Stephanie Montague is the founder of the military travel website Poppin' Smoke. She created Poppin' Smoke to encourage members of the military community, particularly retirees, to use the benefits they earned through their service to travel and explore new adventures post-retirement.
Stephanie and her husband have been traveling and living overseas since her husband retired from the Army in 2015. After flying military Space-A around the globe, they landed in Fukuoka, Japan, which has been their home since August 2016.
Stephanie Montague, founder of Poppin' Smoke
MOAA's Hananh Becker interviewed Stephanie about her business and her life as a military spouse:
1. What's your military story?
My husband and I met in a salsa dancing class in the Washington, D.C., area. We became friends right away but didn't start dating until later. Unfortunately, that was after he had PCS'd to Joint Base Lewis-McChord, Wash.
We made it through a long-distance relationship, his one-year deployment to Afghanistan, and his PCS back to the D.C. area (with a few break-ups thrown in for good measure) before getting married in 2011. He deployed to Iraq the following week, so it wasn't until about six months after we got married that we were finally together! He retired as an O-5 out of the Pentagon.
2. Tell us about your business!
At the moment, I have two separate and completely unrelated entrepreneurial ventures.
I first launched Poppin' Smoke about two years ago. Essentially, the idea was to share what my husband and I learned about taking advantage of military benefits, not only to travel, but to completely re-think our lifestyle.
I was amazed that so many military retirees we knew had no idea they could fly Space-A on military planes, stay on military bases around the world, and use the amazing MWR facilities (beach cottages, boat rentals, hiking trips, golf courses, etc.) throughout the U.S. and overseas. It became my mission to make retirees aware of these benefits and to inspire my readers to use them.
Poppin' Smoke is full of information about flying Space-A, using military recreation facilities, and accessing other benefits that facilitate travel. It also has general travel-related content, and I share a lot of stories and interviews from fellow retirees who travel or live abroad.
My other venture is here in Japan. I teach business English communication, mostly to private clients. My background is in business, not teaching, so my target clients are intermediate- or advanced-level, non-native English speakers who need to use English in a professional or academic setting.
I help them with e-mail and other business communication; creating and delivering presentations; understanding cultural differences; and simply conversing about topics related to their industry. I'm also branching out to provide support with job search skills, such as networking, resume writing, and interviewing.
I teach some students via Skype, and I believe I can replicate the model if we move to a new location. Much of what I teach could also be applicable to military veterans or recent college grads who are joining the workforce for the first time, so I may decide to branch out.
3. What inspired you to take the plunge and start your own business?
Mainly, I want to be location-independent. I love to travel, and I have really enjoyed living in Japan. I'd like to continue trying out new locations, and I don't want to be stuck living in a particular city due to a job.
4. How has the military community and experience influenced your entrepreneurial journey?
The military community is the inspiration and the target audience for my website. I want members of our community to recognize and take advantage of the great benefits they've earned.
5. What's been the hardest part of starting your own business?
I'm naturally a very detail- and process-oriented person. When I know the goal, it's easy for me to execute. But having my own business, I have to see the bigger picture and develop a strategic view of where I want my business to be in five or 10 years. It can be very challenging to break away from the day-to-day tasks and the things I'm comfortable doing to think longer-term. Honestly, that's still a work in progress, but I'm getting there!
6. What resources and programs have you found helpful in blazing your own trail?
I took a blogging course that was a great foundation to help me learn the basics of building and running my website. I still access the content, the tech support, and the Facebook community regularly.
I also attended the Military Influencer Conference last fall, and it opened so many doors to connect with other members of the military community. There are several Facebook groups for military entrepreneurs, but it's not the same as connecting in person. I'm looking forward to this year's conference in September!
Here in Fukuoka, I'm part of a large community of entrepreneurs. I know many people, both Japanese and expats, who are launching or running their own businesses. It's great to have a supportive network to share ideas, contacts, and advice.
7. Why do you think entrepreneurship is a good career opportunity for military spouses?
Entrepreneurship is a great solution for military spouses who want control over their own career and the ability to generate income wherever they are located. With all the PCS-ing and other unexpected changes that come with military life, we cannot rely on finding solid employment at each new duty station.
8. How has starting your business inspired growth in your professional life?
Entrepreneurship was completely new to me, and getting into the entrepreneurial mode of thinking was challenging. I've had to develop many new technical, business, and personal skills that I didn't have before. Working in a corporate job, I could often focus on what I was best at and leave other tasks to colleagues who could do them more easily. When you have your own business, you have to do everything yourself!
9. What advice would you give to other military spouses who want to start a business?
Surround yourself (physically and/or virtually) with a community of like-minded people, and try to find mentors. When the only people you know are either not working or working at “traditional” jobs, it's easy to second-guess your own plans. Connecting with other entrepreneurially-minded people gives you a new frame of reference and a support network of people facing the same challenges that you face.
10. How can our readers connect with you?