20 Lessons All Tattoo Shop Owners NEED To Learn:
When I first decided to open a shop in 2013, I went into it with naive and lofty ambitions, the same way I think almost every first-time owner heads into this journey. I came from a family of entrepreneurs and I had help on the business-planning side of things from two mentors, one a shop owner and the other a CEO of many successful businesses, so I had a solid plan. But let’s get real — once you start opening a shop, everything you carefully and meticulously planned goes up in a blaze of “Fuck!” and, just as frequently, “What the fuck?”
I have compiled a list of a few important lessons (both business and personal) I’ve learnt during my time owning a shop, and growing it from a shop with only two artists to a staff of 24. Grim City has earned the title of Canada’s largest tattoo shop.
1. Expect the worst, and plan for worse than that.
Literally, if it can go wrong, I promise you — it will. Inevitably, it will all go wrong at the same time, because where’s the fun in chaos being spread out?
Recently, we got hit with the following: a by-law on our current building for staircase infractions; the city trying to fuck us by purchasing another building we own (to demo it for a new transit system); and a court trial for renting one of our buildings to tenants operating an illegal business. Simultaneously, we needed to upgrade our iPads, chairs, beds and stools in the shop and purchase new blinds for all our second floor windows — not to mention, our basement flooded and our windows were leaking. Goodbye to literally TENS OF THOUSANDS of dollars!
The moral of the story? Always have a safety net for emergencies. Sure, buying new shit is fun and new cars are shiny, but if you don’t plan ahead — you aren’t keeping that shiny, new car for long.
2. Get rid of bad attitudes, no matter how talented they are.
I can’t stress this one enough. I learnt the hard way what keeping good artists with shit attitudes can do. In the past, I made excuse after excuse for artists, only to have them turn around and open a new shop; consequently, ALL the artists I had working for me at the time started a mutiny and began working at this new shop. They left us to die with no artists, taking everything they could from us. Luckily, I'm too fucking stubborn to go down without a fight, which leads me to my next point:
3. Never have an “exit” strategy.
We never had a “Well, if this doesn’t work, we can just walk away” plan. We have always had a back-up plan for our back-up plan, which backs up our other three back-up plans. It’s like, if we do something and it doesn’t work, we can do this, this, this or even this. We always think everything through and refuse to give up without a fight, but it’s also important to know WHEN to fight for something versus when to let something go.
4. Hire based on attitude and potential.
One of the best things we started doing after the mutiny in 2016 was hiring artists based on their potential and great attitude; that means being eager and excited and wanting to improve. We’ve found that the minute you put artists with the right attitude in the right environment where they are supported and encouraged to grow and be better, they will change overnight into amazing artists. Almost every one of our artists came to us as new tattooers or guys from other shops who barely tattooed. Within the first week of being in our shop, they all showed huge improvement. They wanted to perform at the same level as some of the other experienced artists in our shop and, most importantly, they wanted to be better for themselves. This leads me to my next lesson:
5. Foster an environment of improvement and creativity.
Encourage artists to do portfolio pieces, even if it they’re free or super-low priced. The money will come. Christian Buckingham of Ink Master told us during a guest spot, “You can’t do a $10,000 tattoo until you’ve DONE a $10,000 tattoo.” So, encourage your artists to try new things and provide your artists with as many opportunities to be creative. At Grim City, we’ve taken creative measures to make sure our artists are encouraged. For instance, we have built a gym in our basement for the guys to work out and remove frustrations. We also have a private art lounge complete with canvases, paint, markers, cameras, etc. This allows our artists to create any type of art they want, whenever they want. All our artists are given keys and access to the shop 24/7 to encourage them to come in and create whenever they feel the desire or need.
6. Don’t be afraid of change.
One of the fastest lessons I learnt was adapt or die. The industry is changing so rapidly that if you refuse to adapt and grow with what’s current (Pinterest trends, YAY), you’re going to fail. Whether the change is a style of tattoo or a new social media platform, make sure you know that everything will change many, many times and learn to embrace it.
7. Don’t EVER get comfortable.
This is a HUGE one for us. Many shops and artists rise quickly to the top of their market and then continue to do the same thing over and over, because it worked in the past. They think they’re the best, develop an ego, and then get comfortable, allowing new shops and artists to suddenly take over the market. I recommend being paranoid and obsessive over everything in your shop (I’m only half-joking).
8. Have a sense of humour.
As I mentioned earlier, shit will inevitably go wrong, so being able to at least laugh at your own mistakes or the pile of bad news that you just received keeps you from going insane.
9. Everything happens for a reason. Sometimes you just have to MAKE the reason.
This is a hugely personal one for me. I was always told, “Everything happens for a reason,” but this implies you are supposed to just wait for the reason to appear one day. If you wait for the “reason,” you’re wasting time and you’re waiting for someone or something else to fix the issue at hand. I’ve learnt you simply must take the bad and find a way to make it good. After the mutiny, we decided to rebrand the whole shop and not give up. We let the guys that left us “win” in hurting us, and this kicked our asses out of the comfortable spot we had gotten ourselves into and inspired us to work harder. If they hadn’t left us, we wouldn’t be the shop we are now. So, thanks for doing what we should have done a long time ago: kick your asses out.
10. Bring in guest artists whenever possible.
If your shop is large enough to support travelling artists for guest spots, I can’t recommend enough having artists come and work in your shop for a week or so. Having other talented artists around will inspire your own artists to try new things, especially when the travelling artist is keen to share their techniques and talk about their artwork.
11. Learn about your artists and do shop bonding activities.
This is one of the more fun lessons I’ve learnt over the years. As a business owner, you’re often told not to be friends with your “employees” and while it’s not always the best idea to get super close to your artists, it’s almost impossible not to. We swore after every bitter loss of an artist, we would keep our distance but inevitably, we end up being close with almost all of the guys again. Shop bonding is great because you get an idea of who your artists REALLY are, and any issues that may present themselves later on (family issues, drugs etc.). It also gives you a chance to have artists for many years, as they enjoy being with the shop and the shop ends up being a more positive space for everyone. Bonus: you don’t have to go through the process of hiring new artists as often, which, for me anyway, is an anxiety-ridden shit-show of paranoia.
12. Find a balance and learn to compromise.
You need to find and set your priorities without overextending yourself personally or as a business. Focus on your main priorities before you start new projects. While I personally struggle with this, I have learnt to put people in my shop that I trust to run things before I start new projects. I have seen many guys who can barely maintain artists in their shop due to poor management, business planning, and promotion, who then decide to take on other unrelated projects. This almost always ends in both things failing. The other side of this is learning to compromise with your artists and your personal life. One of the biggest lessons I learnt in my life was at the end of my first marriage at 18. Someone asked me, “Would you rather be right or be happy?” The question haunted me because up until that point, being right was how I thought I’d be happy and — surprise — that wasn’t working, so I quickly learnt to pick my battles and work with people around me on things that I didn’t need to have go my way. BUT, also...
13. Say “no” and stick to it.
We simply refuse to do certain tattoos and piercings, because we have had too many people have issues in the past. Oftentimes, this is because they don’t listen to simple instructions and then blame us for their mistakes. Your name is associated with all the work done at your shop. Regardless of your policies and how much you warn a client, if they are unhappy, they will blame you. Saying “no” pisses off SO MANY people, but I’d rather say “no” than do a bad tattoo or piercing and have the client blame us every time someone mentions it, forever.
14. You can’t afford NOT to have a shop manager.
No matter how small your shop is, one of the most important (in my opinion, the most important) positions is the manager: the person who makes orders and keeps the shop clean; the person who answers phone calls, emails, and messages promptly; the person who books and confirms the appointments; above all, the person who ensures the shop runs smoothly. You may think you can’t afford to hire someone to do this, but the amount of money they will bring you if they do their job well is well worth the hourly wage.
15. Moderation. Understand what’s important and when.
It can be hard as a shop owner to know what to spend money on and when: should you upgrade computers? What about new inks? How much do you spend on advertising? Should you do an upcoming tattoo convention? There are so many opportunities, but one thing I learnt very early on, through purchasing property, is that there is ALWAYS another opportunity. Sometimes, if that opportunity isn’t right for you at the present time, then it’s just not right at all. So, spend what you can afford to, spend what you have and make sure to keep a safety net of as much as possible — we try to keep over $20,000 at all times just in case (and trust me, there is ALWAYS a just-in-case scenario).
16. Remember that it’s still a business.
One of the biggest mistakes I see in tattoo shops is that people don’t run the shop like it’s a business. They don’t pay taxes, they don’t keep records, and their artists aren’t contracted. When it comes to contracts, I don’t mean locking your artists into the shop for a specific period of time. However, I think a non-disclosure agreement is necessary at the very least and if you’re able to get them to sign a non-compete agreement, then even better. Make sure your shop is a large enough size that this doesn’t scare artists away.
I should also stress paying your taxes; if/when you get caught for tax evasion, you’re going to get fucked and more than likely loose the business. I also highly recommend getting a good accountant that specializes in small cash business to help you pay as little tax as possible. Looking into a corporation for your shop to protect yourself and your artists is another solid idea.
17. Go the extra mile for customer service and experience.
Tattooing is a customer service job. A happy customer may tell a few friends, but an unhappy customer will tell WAY MORE people, so spending extra time to make your clients feel heard and respected is crucial. You want to help build customer trust in your artists. Good reviews and social media help spread the word. Having happy customers means good reviews and good reviews mean more good customers. Never let clients know you’re having a bad day, be patient with them, listen to their concerns and fears, and then do what you can to help them. Going the extra mile makes such a difference. Trust me, being the shop that people love and trust is amazing for business. It costs way less to get return clients than it costs to make new ones.
18. Get political and be engaged in the community.
One thing I was always told by other business owners is to never voice political opinions on your business social media or publicly; I strongly disagree. One of the biggest reasons we grew as quickly as we did was the support we received from the community because we are political. Our LGBTQ+ clients make up a HUGE percentage of our client-base because we genuinely support them (many of our artists and staff are LGTBQ+). Many clients deal with mental health and illnesses. Many clients are also visible minorities like Islamic women, who can’t get pierced by males or undress their hijab; we specifically hire or train females to be able to serve these clients. We are vocal against racism, do not tolerate hate, and offer many services or promotions to help our community, such as free laser tattoo removal for victims of human trafficking, anyone with gang or prison tattoos, or anyone with racist symbols. We also make donations to animal rights groups, domestic violence support groups, and mental health charities. This constant voice shows that we aren’t just claiming to support these issues once a year but that we stand as a safe space year round. This inspires members of our community to support us in return. Personally, if you are against the things we support, I think you’re a shit human and don’t want you around anyway. So, yes, I do push clients away, but in doing so, I gain so many more.
19. Set goals for yourself and your shop.
Set goals for the day, the week, the month, the year and the business. I like actually writing them down (to me, it’s more of a to-do list than a list of goals, BUT I am typically overly ambitious to a fault). I rarely set personal goals for myself because I am about 99% convinced my identity is my business, so my business accomplishments are my personal accomplishments, if that makes sense. Again, probably not healthy and I would recommend a few degrees of separation to others. Here are some examples of goals to set:
Get 1000 followers on Instagram by March 1Have 10 tattoo artists by DecemberRenovate the shop in April (floors, paint, lights)Switch to digital waivers by JuneRedo the websiteDo a charity special in July, September, and DecemberHire a piercerMove to a larger locationBuy the buildingBe the largest tattoo shop in the worldHit $1,000,000 in gross revenue in 5 years
Some may seem like ridiculous goals to you now, but it’s amazing how having direction and working towards ambitious aspirations can make them more tangible and obtainable over time.
20. Don’t be afraid to do what you need to do.
The last and one of the hardest but most important lessons I learnt is not to be afraid to do what needs to be done. Whether it’s having a shitty talk with artists about their attitudes or their work or letting an employee go, making those hard choices and having difficult conversations have to happen no matter how much it sucks. Being afraid of burning bridges or losing money or friends or whatever... that fear is unfortunately how you end up sinking your business the fastest. People will take advantage of weakness and they will begin to abuse that if given the chance. Remember you’re still the boss. While you may enjoy your team, they have to respect you and be able to trust you. If you can’t do your job, why should they?