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The following is an excerpt from Sean and Thora Dowdell’s Brand Renegages: Our Fearless Path From Startup to Global Brand, out now on Entrepreneur Press. Order it today via Amazon | Barnes & Noble | IndieBound | Bookshop. Find out more about Sean and Thora at ClubTattoo.com.
Let’s go back to 2007 for a moment. We were starting to get international attention with Club Tattoo through our collaborations with Etnies shoes and our business partnership with longtime friend Chester Bennington. It was time to bring our company to the next level, and we wanted to invest in our brand. We weren’t sure what this meant, however, so we began bouncing ideas off one another: everything from playing music in the studios to new furniture and jewelry displays.
Eventually, Sean got a phone call from a longtime acquaintance named Cristin Davis that changed our business model forever. Cristin had known Sean for several years during their time in the Phoenix music scene. Sean played drums in Grey Daze, and Cristin played guitar in local favorite band, Big Shot Allstar, and then in another band called Trik Turner, which had some national radio success as well. Cristin had left the music scene (although he eventually joined Chester, Sean and Mace in the reunited Grey Daze in 2016) and started a new career path in computers and software development.
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One day, Cristin called Sean, saying he wanted to meet to talk about an idea he had about the tattoo industry. We get many calls and emails like this, and 99 out of 100 times, the ideas are either awful, already exist or make no sense at all. However, we have a rule that we have lived by since the late 1990s, and it has served us well many times: Always take a meeting. Sean met Cristin in our office at Club Tattoo in Tempe, and he explained that he wanted to take the traditional approach toward tattoo designs “flash” as it is known in the tattoo industry and throw it out the window by creating a database that was accessible via touchscreen.
As we mentioned earlier, one of the first differentiating factors for Club Tattoo was that we took the “flash” off of the walls in our original concept and put the designs into organized books. This was to be the newest iteration of that original idea. Sean liked what he was saying but had a few ideas to add to this program himself. One of the problems we had had in our business was with the presentation of our artists’ portfolios. Some took enormous pride in their presentation and bought really nice photo albums to display their work in, but others didn’t care how they were presented, as long as they were making money.
This, of course, was a very shortsighted approach, but try arguing with a fool and see how far that gets you. With this in mind, he asked Cristin if we could also include a section where artists’ and piercers’ portfolios could be shown and easily updated. Cristin loved that idea and wrote it down on his notepad. He told Sean he thought he could create the program for about $20,000 to $30,000, and it would take about 120 days to complete the first prototype. After the meeting, the two of us sat down at home and went over everything: what the program could do and what it would cost.
Cristin’s touchscreen concept struck us as an instant game changer. It could separate our business model from every other tattoo and piercing shop in the world and add an immense amount of value to our aesthetic model as well. Even though the program itself didn’t generate revenue, it seemed like a worthwhile investment long-term because of the impact it would have on our customers’ experience.
We agreed to the investment and called Cristin back to get him started on creating what would become Interactive Tattoo. After about two months, Cristin called and told us he was ready to show the progress he had made on the Interactive Tattoo program. We met at our office again, and Cristin brought a touchscreen with a computer along to show us what it did and how it worked. We went through the program and took notes on the parts we loved as well as the ones we wanted to change. Both of us could see that this was going to be an incredible tool for our company and give our clients an experience in our stores that they had never had before. Within the 120-day deadline (or at least awfully close to it), Cristin had delivered our first two prototype Interactive Tattoo stations. We set them up in the lobby of our first location in Tempe after business hours.
Cristin, with some help from his father, got the first two touchscreens installed and started testing them. We probably stayed at the store until 3 a.m. testing and playing with the new system. We could not wait to unveil it to our staff the following day. From day one, we could see that this was, in fact, a game changer for our businesses and the Club Tattoo brand. It was apparent right away that the artists loved the system as much as the clients. Their portfolio pictures looked clean and bright and could not get stolen or destroyed. The screens could be disinfected and cleaned immediately after use unlike a physical portfolio, which might be handled hundreds of times a day by thousands of clients per month. That was a lot of unseen bacteria floating around the studio, and it was instantly gone with Interactive Tattoo. (This feature would eventually become yet another key differentiator for Club Tattoo in 2020 during the Covid-19 outbreak.) Furthermore, multiple clients could view each artist’s portfolio simultaneously. The artist could easily access a specific image by tapping on the predetermined categories we had created for them.
We had started the system with approximately 7,000 images and 390 categories, such as lions, flowers, birds, etc. Of course, we knew we needed to expand the offering almost immediately. People would ask, “Do you have any pictures of this or that?” and if we didn’t, we made a note to go back and add that category and art into the system the following day or week. The system was designed so that we could update and expand it very easily.
By 2020, it had expanded to more than 200,000 designs, with nearly 2,000 categories and subcategories. In addition, Cristin and Sean added a virtual text editor and instant translator that gave us multiple language options, such as German, Italian, French, Portuguese and Spanish. It was and still is something that separates Club Tattoo from every other business in our industry.
We have always wanted to mold great ideas into great things. We put the innovative possibilities first without thinking about how it will monetize for us. Whether it is a collaboration license or a ground-up software platform that takes years to develop, we always think of how we can add value, not only to our own businesses or clients but to everyone we do business with as well. Adding value in unique and unexpected ways for our industry is one of the most important chrematistics we hold dear. We cut the excuses that are common in our industry, got off our asses and did the damn thing — and so can you.
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