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September 12, 2008

I Am the Boss of Me

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The Bowling Queen
Sharon Joseph, 30-something, owner of Harlem Lanes, New York City

MY INSPIRATION: For years I carried around a little notebook of ideas - things I'd like to do, businesses I'd love to start. The problem: I was working on Wall Street and never had time to act on any of my big plans. Meanwhile, other people would come up with the same ideas — and actually execute them. (One of my schemes was to set up a job-hunting site like monster.com - imagine where I'd be today if I'd done it!) Then one day in 2002, my aunt, Gail Richards, and I were walking around Harlem, where I grew up, and I said, "You know, there aren't many family-friendly places here where people can socialize, like a great bowling alley." She said, "Well, let's open one up — before someone else gets the idea."

HOW I GOT STARTED: Gail and I did some research — visiting other bowling lanes around the city and state, and also standing on the corner of 125th Street in Harlem and asking people, "If we had a bowling alley here, would you come?" The answer was always yes. So we decided to partner up — we called ourselves Laverne and Shirley — and started looking into government loans and talking to investors who focused on urban-development projects. In the meantime, we found a giant old abandoned theater, filled with pigeons. We rented out the space and started revamping it in a big way.

THE PAYOFF: Now we have 24 bowling lanes, 21 plasma TVs, a cafe, karaoke, a sports bar, a lounge, the only draft beer in this part of town — and the sexiest bowling heels around. Yes, actual high-heel bowling shoes. We have nearly 50 employees, and we're almost profitable now; hopefully, we'll get there in a year.

THE BUMMER: Since I'm a single mom, giving up my cushy Wall Street job and 401K plan was a risk. And this project has been nonstop hard work, especially the construction; we created two floors in the building and needed to buy steel right at the time when steel prices were rising. I regularly send e-mails at 3 in the morning. I always tell people, if you're looking for freedom, entrepreneurship is not necessarily it.

BIGGEST TRIUMPH: We were determined to have President Clinton do our ribbon-cutting ceremony in 2006, but we weren't actually finished with construction at the time he was available. So we hired a production company to make the place look fabulous while he stood out front and snipped the ribbon - it was like a movie set. We opened later that year.

WORD TO THE WISE: Ask yourself, Will your business solve a problem for people? If so, you can nab customers. Also consider: Will the business make a profit for you and any investors? That's key, too. Then put together a five-minute summary of your idea that a child could understand — you need to be able to explain your plan to investors or banks quickly and simply. Also, have a 20-minute version and an hour-long one for people who want to know more. Be ready to recite the plan at any time — on airplanes, in elevators, on buses. You never know when you might need it.

>> NEXT PAGE: THE EXOTIC CANDY-MAKER


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