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Find Entrepreneur In You

Published 10/09/2011
The News & Observer in Raleigh, NC

Editor's note: Bridgette A. Lacy, a former News & Observer reporter and a laid-off state worker, writes about managing your life and your job hunt after a layoff. Her column appears twice a month.

Raleigh resident James "J" Nolfo has been laid off twice in the past three years. He spent most of his career as a strategic marketing manager for homebuilding companies, but when the housing industry dried up, so did Nolfo's job opportunities.

The layoffs were getting longer each time. So the 36-year-old Nolfo is working on starting his own business. "I want to plot my own destiny," he says.

As the unemployment rate remains high, and it becomes apparent that not everyone will be able to go back to working for a company, more people are getting the same itch.

"If no job exists, create your own," says Jim Joyce, who teaches a class for budding entrepreneurs at Wake Technical Community College. The course, "Entrepreneurship and You: The Entrepreneurial Mindset," examines the motivation and planning it takes to start a business.

Joyce, who has 30 years' experience as a sales trainer, charms and delights the class with real-life examples of business practices that have succeeded and others that have flopped.

He explains that "people buy benefits. Will it help me sleep better at night? Identify something they need and fulfill that need."

One of the success stories he likes to share is that of Chris Angel, the managing partner at Sparians Bowling Boutique & Bistro in North Raleigh.

Sparians is the largest and most popular venture, so far, to come out of Wake Tech's Small Business Center.

But in 2009, it was one of just 15 ideas that Angel had affixed to his refrigerator door. He was working as a sales representative at a software firm in Atlanta, living in Raleigh, and traveling all of the time. When he was home, he'd talk about starting his own company and getting off the road.

One day, his wife told him, "Stop talking and start doing."

He narrowed the ideas down to two, and that spring, he signed up for the "Planning the Entrepreneurial Venture" course offered by Wake Tech. Faced with writing a business plan, he opted for opening an upscale bowling alley with leather couches, a banquet room, fireplaces and steak and salmon entrees. The idea, while new to Raleigh, had proved successful in large metro areas.

Angel credits the course will helping him plan his business. Every Saturday for six weeks, he attended the class, which gave him a template for a business plan. He worked on the plan for six months, and then presented it to North Hills developer John Kane, who became one of the biggest supporters. With Kane's support, Angel then went in search of investors for the $4 million project.

Since it opened, Sparians has hosted wedding receptions, fashion shows and elaborate parties in its suites, which have private bowling lanes and private bars. It also has become a popular place for area companies to hold meetings and retreats. They meet in the banquet room for presentations, then have a catered lunch and then do team-building exercises on the lanes.

Angel describes it as "four businesses under one roof": a bowling alley with 12 public lanes and six private ones; an upscale restaurant; a lounge with live music five days a week; and a meeting place for businesses.

Unlike some of the small businesses that come out of the program and employ one person, Sparians has created a hundred jobs. "We've created something unique and different," says Angel.

Some not cut out for it

But not everyone has what it takes to own a business.

Fred W. Gebarowski, director of the Small Business Center at Wake Tech, recommends that people take the "Entrepreneurship and You" class first to determine if they are cut out to be an entrepreneur and come up with a good business concept.

He said that some 600 students have been through the class but that many drop out after discovering they weren't cut out to be an entrepreneur. Most were people who came in without a business idea or one that was not well-considered.

"On the surface, this looks like a negative, but the reality is that taking the course saved a lot of time and investment," he said.

The majority of those who do start their own business are solo entrepreneurs, "basically creating their own jobs," he said. But the center also has helped others launch retail stores, service businesses and even manufacturing with startup costs ranging from a few hundred dollars to millions.

Gebarowski points out that many great companies were founded during an economic upheaval, including Walt Disney, Microsoft and Hewlett-Packard. And one of the fastest-growing groups of entrepreneurs are those who are between the ages 55 to 64.

While many people come to Wake Tech knowing what they want to do, Gebarowski says the center offers classes that will help students think about their skills and figure out what they can turn into a business.

"We can help you uncover the things you are good at and help you see your weaknesses," he says.

That's what Nolfo is counting on as he executes his business plan. Wake Tech provides him a way of figuring it out at an affordable rate. "I can do that without it being so costly to me. I had an idea of what I wanted to do, but now I have a clearer picture."