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Small Business Center

At Just 10 Years Old, This Entrepreneur Wrote a Business Plan, Found a Space, Opened a Business and Expanded

January 20, 2023

Like many 10-year-old boys, Ameir Chaffin really, really likes Nerf guns. He loves the thrill of holding one in his hands, kneeling behind a door in his house and then surreptitiously shooting at his mom or dad or visiting family members. When he was younger, there was nothing more fun — or hysterical! — than when his grandmother, in a wheelchair, would spin around and shoot back at Chaffin with her own Nerf gun that had been tucked in her lap. “She had good aim. She got everyone she wanted,” Ameir recalled with a laugh. When his older cousins came over for Christmas or birthdays, the Nerf guns immediately would come out, the couches used as makeshift forts, the closets as bases. But the problem with Nerf wars in the house is that there were things that could break. “My mom was always shouting: ‘Look out for the lamp! Don’t break the TV,’” Chaffin said.

So when, in February 2021, Ameir attended a birthday party at an indoor Nerf arena near Pittsburgh, he was amazed to see kids duck behind inflatable barriers, not chairs, when dodging Nerf darts. He loved the flashing LED lights, the pulsing music and the adrenaline rush as he and the other kids dressed in protective goggles and ran around the arena, reloading their guns and shooting their foam-tipped darts at targets on the wall. He also — if he was honest — loved the fact that “I didn’t have to pick up all the Nerf bullets when the game ended,” he said. When the party ended, he really didn’t want to leave.

So, unlike many other 10-year-old boys, Chaffin decided not to complain endlessly to his parents about the lack of kid-friendly activities closer to home in Uniontown, a small city 39 miles southeast of Pittsburgh. Instead, he wrote a business plan for a Nerf facility, met with the leasing department at Uniontown Mall, convinced his mom to finance the operation and then led the construction of the facility. AC Battle Zone opened on Aug. 27, 2021. A second location opened in Monroeville Mall in November 2022. According to Chaffin’s mom, Anitra Dues-Chaffin, both stores already have exceeded expectations.

Chaffin, whose quiet demeanor belies a strong foundational confidence, has shown what kids can do if given the opportunity. “Sometimes when you talk to Ameir, you forget that he’s only 11,” said Uniontown Mall general manager LouAnn Hunchuck. “It’s just amazing his thought processes. AC Battle Zone is 100% Ameir’s vision come to life.”

At center is Ameir Chaffin just after receiving the keys to a former New York & Co. space at Uniontown Mall. At far left, he’s pictured with his mother, Anitra Dues-Chaffin, on the left, and her sister, Kalisha Taylor, on the right. And at right, he’s pictured at the opening of the Monroeville Mall location of AC Battle Zone with Pittsburgh Mayor Ed Gainey and Chaffin’s great-aunt, Carolyn Capozza.

First the Idea, Then Site Selection

Chaffin has always had an entrepreneurial spirit. In 2019, as an 8-year-old, he didn’t love the style and messaging of the Christian-inspired T-shirts on the market, so he designed and marketed his own with the wording “GIG,” which stands for God Is Good. He sold them for $12 a piece. Sales, Dues-Chaffin said, took off. The experience showed him that if you have a good idea and an audience that connects with the messaging, people will support you, even if you are just a kid. “It felt good to be successful,” Chaffin said.

After attending the Nerf party, Chaffin was convinced that opening a Nerf arena was the next big, right thing for Uniontown. “He would just not let the idea go,” Dues-Chaffin said. “He was like a dog on a bone.”

Dues-Chaffin is herself an entrepreneur. When her mom had a stroke, she saw firsthand the lack of home healthcare providers, so she opened Better in Home Care in 2019. “I believe in the power of dreaming and of encouraging your kids to think big,” she said. The headquarters of her agency also happens to be at Uniontown Mall. Chaffin, not old enough to be home alone, spent a lot of time at the mall, roaming the stores and hallways. He came to believe that Uniontown Mall was the best place for his Nerf arena, too. “There were a lot of spaces that were vacant,” he explained. The mall also had a “good central location” and “good access and parking for when we have birthday parties,” he said.

Chaffin admitted that he didn’t fully understand the finances involved in opening a business. “I thought we could use my savings and my sales from the T-shirts as a start,” he recounted. “Ameir,” his mom asked, “how much do you think these things cost to open?” So at dinner at the mall one night, he asked the restaurant manager: “How much is rent for this space?” The manager might have responded if Dues-Chaffin hadn’t needled Chaffin, saying: “You can’t ask him that.”

But Chaffin wouldn’t let the concept go. And so one day in May 2021, Dues-Chaffin told him he should talk to the leasing department. The two knocked on Hunchuck’s door. Wearing a white collared shirt and an earnest expression, Chaffin talked for five minutes with no notes about why Uniontown needed an indoor Nerf arena. He brought up market research. “There’s nothing else really fun to do in Uniontown,” he pointed out. He hit on the experiential aspect of a Nerf arena. “It’s guaranteed to bring foot traffic here,” he said. He spoke, too, about the benefits of a Nerf arena as a co-tenant. “Parents can drop their kids off and go shopping,” he said.

Hunchuck was impressed. The 700,000-square-foot Uniontown Mall “had lost quite a lot of stores in recent years,” she said, including Macy’s and the movie theater. “We were trying to rebuild with local businesses.” Hunchuck had been looking for experience-based concepts to fill vacancies. She’d explored concepts like indoor miniature golf, but this was the first time anyone had presented a Nerf arena. “I thought it was a great thing for the area,” she said. Plus, she had a special leasing program for new business owners, and there was the fact that Dues-Chaffin was already a trusted tenant. “Let’s have a look around at the different options,” she said.

The trio took a tour of all the mall’s vacant stores. But it was the 4,000-square-foot former New York & Co. space that Chaffin fell in love with. He proclaimed to his mom: “We could put a maze in the space of the former dressing room,” and, “This spot would be great for the party room.” Hunchuck smiled at his enthusiasm. “Young man, I believe in you,” she said and handed Dues-Chaffin an application for the space. Dues-Chaffin was shocked. “Honestly, I had already prepared the pep talk I was going to give Ameir afterwards,” she said. “I thought this was just going to be a really good learning lesson. I really did not think she would have the reaction she did.” Dues-Chaffin committed to running some numbers, but she also told her son he’d have to come up with a business plan and a construction plan.

The Business Plan

For two weeks, Chaffin, locked himself in his bedroom, plotting out details in a Roblox game that allows users to design their own buildings, structures and architecture. He figured out where the wall separating the party room from the battle zone would go, how thick the walls would be, where the doorways would be, whether to include knockerball, which is a soccer game in which giant inflatable bubbles surround the players’ torsos and heads. “I was drawing it based off of what I’d want and what I thought other kids my age and up would want,” he said. He wanted it to be affordable, too: “I wanted everyone to be able to play,” he said.

He made a list of the inventory he’d need and approximate costs. “Since I’ve been doing it since I was 2, I kind of learned, like, what guns are good and which ones are hard to shoot,” he explained. Chaffin knew he couldn’t finance the whole project, but in his plan, he offered to invest the sales from his T-shirts, to make more to sell and to refrain from holiday, Christmas and birthday presents for the next year. He’d work for free, and his mom could work in between her other responsibilities. Plus, his older cousin Michael was looking for work.

Dues-Chaffin was working out numbers, too. She figured out how much she could invest herself. So when Chaffin presented his plan to her, she took a deep breath — and dove in. She was an owner herself, after all. “A business is a business. How different could this be?” she thought. In May 2021, she signed a one-year lease for AC Battle Zone.

Project Management

Though Dues-Chaffin’s name was on the lease, Chaffin headed up construction. Dues-Chaffin hired construction workers, but the designs were based on Chaffin’s drawings and vision. Every day after school, he would run to the mall, drop his bag and see how the plans were progressing. “He critiqued every step,” Dues-Chaffin said. “He would walk around and he’d say: ‘You know, well, this doorway was supposed to be here.’ And I’m like: ‘OK, Ameir, it’s only two feet to the left.’ But he’s very specific.”

“I had my vision,” Chaffin said in his defense. 

Like her son, Dues-Chaffin had her own learning curve. She learned that “contractors weren’t always honest and weren’t always consistent,” she said. She found herself sitting in the construction zone with her laptop to “babysit.” When coordinating her own work with this project grew too challenging, she appealed to her brother, who owns a commercial construction business in Texas. “He put his whole life on hold to come help,” she said. It turns out, she said, that “being the project manager of a project that was basically created and developed and run by a 10-year-old is kind of hard.”

But to see Chaffin’s vision come to life was worth it. “There’s a couple of things for kids to do in Uniontown, but not much,” explained 10-year-old Donovan Ramsey, who begged his parents to host his birthday party at AC Battle Zone after attending his friend Judah’s party there. Playing Capture the Flag in the dark with the lights pulsing was “kind of thrilling,” Ramsey said, totally different than other things in Uniontown. “I’ve told people that if they like Nerf, this is the place to be.”

Since the opening, the business has been slammed, especially on winter weekends. “We have parties back to back to back,” Dues-Chaffin said, though she tries to schedule at least an hour between so “we have time to clean,” she laughed.

On a recent Sunday in December, Chaffin sat with a reporter for a Zoom interview in the party room of AC Battle Zone in Monroeville. He had just finished hosting the third party of the day. “We basically had to tell them three times it was time to go,” he said. Some of the kids cried when the lights in the arena were turned back on. Like Chaffin after attending his first Nerf arena birthday party, they didn’t want to leave.

The Uniontown location is open from Thursdays to Sundays, but Chaffin is there as often as he can be. Sometimes he’s at the front desk greeting people. Other times he works as a referee, making sure players stick to the rules and helping people who have trouble with their Nerf guns. “Sometimes they get stuck,” he said. Other times he’s taking pictures of — and with — the birthday VIPs. “I just want to make sure everyone’s OK and having fun,” he said.

Expansion — and Franchising?

The first store “definitely pays for itself and then some,” Dues-Chaffin said. With the store open and staffed, she figured that was that. And then one day over the summer of 2022, she got a note from CBL manager of local leasing for Westmoreland Mall Danielle Baloga about an expansion opportunity. Baloga had been canvassing Uniontown for ideas for vacancies for CBL’s Westmoreland and Monroeville malls and was impressed by the energy and excitement at AC Battle Zone. Though Dues-Chaffin had no interest in expanding, she took Baloga’s call.

At 985,073 square feet and anchored by stores like Barnes & Noble, Dick’s Sporting Goods and Cinemark, Monroeville Mall is a super-regional mall 15 miles east of Pittsburgh. More than 13 major colleges and universities sit within 20 miles. Monroeville Mall was like getting called up to the major leagues. “I couldn’t let the opportunity pass when they showed interest,” she said.

She traveled the two hours, promising to record all the vacant spaces on her phone so Chaffin could look through them after school, but when she walked into the 9,000-square-foot former Victoria’s Secret, it just felt right. Like Chaffin had for the Uniontown location, she could picture where the battle zone would go, where the party room could be. And just as Uniontown Mall does, CBL offers a specialty leasing program that made a one-year lease doable. So a few weeks later, in September, after consulting with Chaffin and with family in Monroeville, she signed a lease.

AC Battle Zone’s second location, in Monroeville Mall, opened in late 2022.

AC Battle Zone Monroeville opened to large crowds in November 2022. For the soft opening, Dues-Chaffin offered a $5 flat rate for people to check out the facilities and pick up a Nerf gun. Pittsburgh Mayor Ed Gainey stopped by with his son, who had so much fun that he called some of his friends. “I think they stayed for like three hours,” she said.

The location has been slammed with birthday party requests, and now, Chaffin is begging his mom for a third store at Westmoreland. “We can have a franchise,” he said. “People can license the concept from us!” Dues-Chaffin, who has invested about $70,000 into the Uniontown and Monroeville operations, looked heavenward at this but did not disagree. “We need to make sure we’re successful here first, that we’re bringing in enough foot traffic, that we’re staffed well enough, that this place could run on autopilot before we concentrate on another location,” she said.

In the meantime, for Ameir, who turns 12 in February, the two Nerf arenas have been everything he believed they would be. “It’s a blessing to be able to do this and have this opportunity at this early stage in my life,” he said.

He thinks AC Battle Zone’s success is a lesson that adults should listen to kids more. As he said simply: “We know what other kids like.”

By Rebecca Meiser

Contributor, Commerce + Communities Today

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