Matthew Ames’ awesome adventure
Paintball-business owner named Young Entrepreneur of the Year
Matthew D. Ames reached $1 million in sales last year with MN Pro Paintball, the Burnsville-based company he founded and owns.
That’s a sum dismissed as “not cool” in the Hollywood screen version of the rise of Facebook and its founder, Mark Zuckerberg.
But $1 million was cool enough for the U.S. Small Business Administration, which this month announced Ames as its Minnesota Young Entrepreneur of the Year.
And it was a milestone for Ames, who cobbled together his business with bank loans and had to virtually start over after a robbery wiped him out in July 2004.
But $1 million isn’t where he wants to stay. The 28-year-old exudes a Zuckerberg-like vibe as he discusses the prospects for MN Pro Paintball, which he runs from a small Burnsville office with an energy-drink cooler next to his desk.
“Seriously, we’re just getting started,” said the 2002 graduate of Lakeville High School.
“There’s a ton of potential there. Competition is getting fierce in this market, which is good. … That’s what they tell you in entrepreneurial school — If you’re the only person trying to do something, it’s probably not that awesome.”
Ames spent several of his formative years in the business — a 188-acre paintball park in Lakeville and retail stores in Burnsville and Minnetonka — also attending Minnesota State University, Mankato, and later finishing his degree at the University of St. Thomas’ Schulze School of Entrepreneurship.
MN Pro Paintball’s key demographic is males ages 14 to 32, said Ames, who was right in that wheelhouse when he fell in love with the game — a fantasy survival contest in which the vanquished are marked by splotches of water-soluble dye fired from enemy guns.
“I was born with all these heart defects,” explained Ames, who owns a home in Bloomington. “I essentially am missing a chamber. There’s one major artery that takes blood away from your heart, and there’s one that brings blood back to it. Mine are flipped around. And the heart has four chambers. I’m missing one.”
Ames played hockey as a kid, but by the time he’d reached bantams, his doctor would no longer sign off on his physicals.
He tried motocross, which led to a couple of concussions that scared his mom, and paintball.
“So paintball stuck it out,” said Ames, who was fitted with a pacemaker at 18 after suffering a heart flutter in math class. “For a couple of years there I really got into it. I started a team, started doing tournaments and traveling. Paintball was my life.”
Ames comes from an entrepreneurial family. His grandfather, Richard Ames of Jordan, founded Ames Construction in Burnsville in 1960. It’s now one of the leading civil and industrial contractors in America, with offices in several Western and Midwestern States.
Matthew’s father, Al, also had the entrepreneurial itch. Instead of continuing to work for his father, Al started Eureka Construction in Lakeville 15 years ago.
The progression was similar for the next generation, as Matthew left his father’s employ and decided to make his way in paintball.
In 2001, while still in high school, he set his sights on six vacant acres along Cedar Avenue owned by a family near his family’s home in Lakeville. Ames and an adult partner, Randy Roggee, who owned a retail paintball website called Jammin’ Trade Zone, rented the land for $500 and opened Jammin’ Trade Zone Field, where paintballers would pay to play.
The partnership lasted only long enough to repay a small business loan to Roggee’s uncle.
However, “I saw potential that this could work,” Ames said.
He renewed the six-acre lease for another season, took $2,000 he’d made working for his dad and joined a Lakeville friend, Jeff Moench, in launching MN Pro Paintball. The partners brought $4,000 to the table.
“With that money, we essentially bought 10 paintball guns and some paintballs,” Ames said. “The business model was we were running a paintball field.”
With no money for advertising, the pair turned to “guerilla marketing,” posting flyers at beaches and other hangouts. Ames claims to have been permanently banned from the Fleet Farm in Lakeville after he was caught stuffing MN Pro Paintball flyers into boxes of paintballs on store shelves.
Ames bought out his partner and reopened the following season, a year after taking in gross revenue of nearly $50,000. He came home from college on the weekends to run the park, aided by a group of friends whose compensation was free play time.
“We had ‘board meetings,’ ” Ames recalled. “It was hilarious, a bunch of 18-year-olds at a board meeting.”
Business was taking off. By 2004, the warm-weather business had already notched revenue of $120,000 just through July, Ames said.
But MN Pro Paintball, which had expanded its gun inventory from 10 to 60, proved robbery-prone. It was hit three times, the worst in July 2004.
“We got cleaned out,” Ames said. “They took all 60 of our guns.”
He shut down the park for the remainder of the season, and it remained shuttered for most of 2005 while Ames went back to working for his father.
He saved some money and returned to Castle Rock Bank, a previous source of seed money, for a $15,000 loan to relaunch the business. It reopened in August — not on six acres but on 188 leased acres at 22554 Texas Ave. in Lakeville, near Heritage Links Golf Club.
“It was pretty brutal,” Ames said of the robbery and its aftermath. “But honestly, I wasn’t deterred at all.”
Ames began his studies in entrepreneurship at St. Thomas in 2005. Before graduating in 2007, he’d already written a business plan for expanding his paintball business into retail.
The plan, written for a school competition, didn’t win the $10,000 first prize. But when Ames took it to Castle Rock Bank, it won him a $75,000 loan to open the first of two retail stores, at 14001 Grand Ave. in Burnsville.
Ames used part of the loan to build a permanent building at his paintball park. He hired his first park manager, Austin Mihm, so he could concentrate on building the 2,000-square-foot store. He gave customers free passes for the park, which helped boost business there.
The store struggled at first to stock all the products customers wanted, but it could always get them in a few days, Ames said.
“ ’09 was really kind of a turning point there,” he said. “We ramped up. We were doing awesome.”
Paintball isn’t an inexpensive pursuit, Ames noted.
“Every person that comes through that door, essentially we’re either giving them a reason to do business with us or we’re giving them them a reason to go elsewhere,” he said.
Ames’ paintball empire has grown from a one-man operation to a business with eight full-time employees and a work force of up to 60 during peak season.
Business teachers at Ames’ alma mater are impressed. Michael Ryan, director of the Twin Cities Small Development Center at the university, nominated Ames for the Small Business Administration award.
Marketing professor Rich Rexelsen, Ames’ academic advisor, praised the 15 percent growth in sales MN Pro Paintball has averaged over the last three years.
“Matt has shown remarkable tenacity for his willingness to meet people and do the market development that is necessary for this business,” Rexelsen said.
And Ames did it without financial backstopping from his family. The only contribution from his tycoon grandfather, Ames said, was the hiring of a private investigator to help finger the perpetrators of the July 2004 robbery. Ames said he won a small civil settlement from the crooks.
“It’s definitely been on my own,” he said. “I wouldn’t want it any other way.”
John Gessner is at firstname.lastname@example.org.