It took three years of careful planning, but judging by the number of area folks excited about Bellevue's newest sporting attraction, it's a small business which looks to be an overnight success, thanks in part to some SBA help.
Take Aim is a new, clean and well-lit indoor range offering 10 shooting lanes that can be rented in 30-minute or hour increments with an inviting, small bistro-like waiting area with snacks, drinks and free Wi-Fi. Need a refresher on gun safety or have a first-timer needing to learn how to use a weapon? There's a well-lit and comfortable 25-seat classroom space and patient experts ready to teach.
"I guarantee on weekends you’ll see whole families here,” said Mary Whaling, a four-year veteran of the Air Force, who started the business along with her husband, Bob, a 20-year Air Force law enforcement supervisor with experience as a self-employed federal investigator doing background checks for security clearances.
Take Aim, Bob said, won’t be “the typical testosterone-filled firing range.”
While they’ll allow the public to train shooting from the holster, offering practice to those with concealed-carry permits, customers shouldn’t expect any lack of range safety rules.
If anything, safety was the most important lesson on running this type of business these two veterans learned during their time in uniform. But that’s not just the goal of Take Aim, that’s also part of their marketing appeal. There are no images of weapons or bullets on their business cards; on the flip side is a list of gun safety tips. Even when you walk into the place for the first time, you’d be hard-pressed to know it’s a range.
And, as it turns out, safety is good business.
"As we did our research into what customers liked and didn't like in a range, the biggest dislike we kept finding was problems they saw with safety and monitoring," Mary said.
While they’ll have a small inventory of ammo for sale, don't expect to be able to stock up on tactical gear, or rent or buy a gun here. The margin on those types of sales, Bob said, didn’t make business sense for them.
The new range, Bob explained, is designed to meet the need of people who want to keep their dollars in the city where they live. "We found doing our research that there are tens of thousands of gun owners within a 25 mile radius of Bellevue."
Area law enforcement and military personnel have been supportive of the business idea, he explained, as many government agencies could easily use space for tactical training and weapons qualifications. Mary has been attending Omaha's monthly Veterans in Business Forum to network with other small business owners to learn how best to apply for federal contracting opportunities.
The couple also expect to be active in the community, offering weapons safety and skill training for scout groups and clubs.
"I'd spent the last 15 years thinking about starting a small business," Bob said, "and the wheels were always turning. I would love to give you a good story about where the idea of a range came from, but it literally just hit me out of the blue. I don't know, maybe I went shooting with a friend somewhere and I realized the market could support more than one range. I asked my wife about the idea, and said, hey, let's give it a shot."
Soon enough, Bob was off to Reno and a convention of prospective range owners to learn how to develop a firing range business, devouring every word from the experts there. He even reached out to other range owners across the country, and even small business owners not in the field for pieces of advice.
"We kept the idea for an indoor range close to the vest," Mary said. "Before we moved forward, we consulted with our close friends to see what they thought, and met with the Bellevue Chamber to see if they would support the plan. We just didn’t do this on a whim. You know, we had some doubters, we saw other people rushing into this business just because they wanted to open a range."
Mary met with Omaha SCORE chapter chair Gordon Yager to go over the couple's business plan, and sat down with an economic development specialist from the Nebraska District Office for a quick brief on the SBA guaranteed loan programs and application process. They looked all over for a suitable location, leaping at the chance to lease a soon to be relocating flooring retail outlet near the bustling Twin Creek shopping center.
Still, despite all their preparation, there were a few snags with financing.
"We put our plan in front of them, spent a year perfecting it, researching what other ranges were doing wrong, what we could do different," Mary explained. "But what hit us was the amount of money down we’d have to pay. One bank said this amount, another said another amount--we went to three banks before we did the deal."
The effort paid off as Take Aim was approved for a 7(a) guaranteed loan in March 2013.
"My advice for another small business, maybe make a brief visit to the bank and ask them for an opinion before you move ahead," Mary added. "Be prepared to go to two or three different banks, and you better be able to take your lumps."
The proceeds from the SBA loan were used for working capital and leaseholder improvements, transforming the remnants of the former 9,600-square foot retail outlet into a modern firing range. The walls are cinder block reinforced by several inches of concrete.
"Nobody will carry anything in here that will go through that,” Bob explained. “We have installed a total containment trap capable of taking a 50-caliber impact. With a state-of-the-art ventilation system installed, we will eliminate any risk of lead exposure to our customers, employees and to the environment.”
To help build anticipation for their grand opening, the couple have posted photos on heir web site of the construction work inside the range, and leveraged social media to reach out to potential customers; women outnumber men among the 4,500 fans on their Facebook page. There already are plenty of teenagers visiting the site seeking a place to improve their skeet shooting skills, and soon enough, Take Aim also plans to offer instant specials through Twitter.
"We're going to break the mold," Bob said, "on what people expect from a gun range."