Entrepreneurship Conversation 2: The Tattoo Factory's Brenton Potter - Smart Money Seed


Entrepreneurship Conversation 2: The Tattoo Factory's Brenton Potter

Huge thanks to Brenton Potter for an awesome interview!

Take a moment and remember your first couple years after high school. Maybe you were just starting out with your first real world job, maybe you were furthering your education through college or trade school, or maybe you spent some time searching for a way to both pursue your passion and put food on your table.

In any case, those first few years can be spent with much soul searching, and the pressure both internally and externally to figure out what you want to do and how you want to live can be stressful.

Brenton Potter's timeline looked like this:
  • 2008 November - Started tattooing
  • 2009 May - Graduated high school
  • 2009 July - Finished apprenticeship
  • 2010 June - Purchased The Tattoo Factory
For those of you keeping score at home, that's only 19 MONTHS from tattooing his 1st client to owning a tattoo shop. What an absolute whirlwind!

From Art On Cars To Art On People

Brenton, squeamish as a child, spent much of his youth "turned off by the idea of the [tattooing] process." Becoming a tattoo artist wasn't exactly at the top of the list of his hopes and dreams his entire life. "I don't actually ever remember making the conscious decision to become a tattoo artist."

But the creative side of life always had a special appeal to Brenton, starting with pinstripers and sign painters.

"My dad's a big old school car guy, and he drug me around to a lot of car shows and stuff when I was younger. And I was always fascinated by the guys with the big handlebar mustache and the top hat, and. . . they'd have paint all over the front of their jeans and their overalls. I just liked the idea of how like rockabilly and kind of punk rock that was that these guys were just walking around with a hand full of cash and a wagon full of paint. So I kind of at that point thought it would be really cool to do something like that. . . So that's when I started taking art a little more seriously"

So how exactly does an affinity for art on cars become a passion for art on skin. . . permanently. . . using needles. . . for a squeamish kid?

"Around the time I started tattooing, tattooing was becoming a little bit more popular. . . I remember kids coming to school [who would] go out and get their own tattoos, and I remember seeing them and thinking 'Man, it'd be really cool to have one.' So I decided to get one. And when I went into the tattoo shop and got one, it was like this was what I was missing. The feeling, the smells, once again the punk rock-ness of just like not having a real solid structure. It was just a cool environment."

Brenton Potter: Tattoo Artist

As Brenton was reaching that oh so joyous (read: dreaded and stressful) time of deciding what to do with his life after school, tattooing began to have a growing appeal to him.

"My dad would always ask me throughout my teenage years 'Where do you want to go to school? What do you want to do?' And I never really had an an answer for him. So one day it just sparked. I thought 'man, maybe this was really a route I could take.' I always considered myself to be creative, so I thought I could apply that to maybe this avenue of work."

So Brenton took action. He started taking steps to pursue his relatively new dream of becoming a tattoo artist. "I was still in high school, I had just turned 18, and honestly I thought that [tattooing] was going to. . . make me cool. . . You know, something out of the ordinary that would make me stand out in the crowd a little bit."

But of course Brenton's journey was not exactly all sunshine and rainbows. 

"I actually got a lot of ridicule from classmates, colleagues, family, and people that now support me and take me seriously. But at the time, it was kind of a joke. But, I fell in love with it. So I got into it for seemingly the wrong reasons. And then very shortly I felt like it was . . . something I could dedicate a lot of my time and energy towards."

Learning The Tricks Of The Trade

Brenton's journey toward becoming a tattoo artist did not begin in a classroom with a formal application process or a certified trainer. Brenton explained, "Tattooing is really weird because it's one of the last remaining career paths that has a true apprenticeship. And it's. . . like a secret society almost or like a club."

Brenton understands that although he has worked incredibly hard to build what he's built, there was certainly a stroke of luck contributing to beginning his journey. "I honestly probably shouldn't have been given the opportunity. At the time I didn't know a lot about tattooing, the history of tattooing. I probably couldn't even name 5 famous tattoo artists. But the guys that took me in were looking for someone, and I just happened to be there in the right place at the right time. . . So I feel very blessed that I got in when I got in."

This apprenticeship process can be extremely stressful for someone not only learning a new skill but having to find a way to put food on the table. "I spent a year doing an apprenticeship which is 40 hours a week that you don't get paid for. Luckily at the time I lived with my mom. . . I did work 2 other jobs during my apprenticeship and went to school for the first half of the year." 

Talk about work ethic and dedication!

Brenton's not necessarily certain his path would've played out exactly how it did in today's environment, so he's offered some advice for aspiring tattoo artists. "Typically how you would get into something like this is being a well-rounded artist. . . having a portfolio of paintings, drawings, digital media. . . and then presenting that to a place that's either looking for an apprentice or a place that you're interested in the people who work there and apprenticing under."

The beginning period of Brenton's apprenticeship was spent learning all the menial tasks that an aspiring tattoo artist isn't exactly dreaming of doing, including learning "how to clean up, setup, tear down for the artist that you're apprenticing under. You would learn how to interact with customers, all of the work that nobody wants to do -- answer emails, answer messages, mop floors, stay late."

Finally, this arduous and seemingly endless process of learning about the equipment mixed with grunt work leads to actually beginning to practice as a tattoo artist. "Once you get to a point where you're comfortable with your machines and your devices that you would use to tattoo, and you're well-rounded enough in the art that you do, that's when you start doing small tattoos."

Being the canvas for a new tattoo artist's first tattoo seems like a scary thought I would think most people would want to avoid. But Brenton is grateful for his friend group's confidence in him which allowed him to hit the ground running.

"Luckily for me, I had a lot of friends that were very confident in me -- probably a little more confident than they should've been in the beginning. . . Usually during an apprenticeship, every tattoo you do is overseen by your mentor. . . The ultimate goal is never to have somebody leave with a bad tattoo, obviously."

11 Months From Tattoo Artist To Business Owner

Brenton's apprenticeship ended in July of 2009, and he purchased The Tattoo Factory in June of
2010. Let's take a moment to reflect on what an amazing accomplishment that was especially considering that Brenton had just worked 40 hours a week unpaid for a full year!

Although Brenton explains that the industry is moving toward collective groups of tattoo artists gathering under one roof to provide a well-rounded set of styles and services for prospective customers, he did have aspirations of owning his own shop from the beginning.

"At the time, I would've said that [owning my own shop] was something that I wanted to do, but I think it happened a little bit sooner than I probably would've liked it to. I'm glad it did -- it worked out for me. But ideally that wasn't the way I would've liked it to go. . . But it's worked out. . . It's been a great 8 years."

Brenton's business acquisition and subsequent work as a business owner did not come with a handbook or any sort of formal business training. "I acquired the business in a really roundabout way. Some things happened between the old ownership that allowed me to come in and take over where they left off. . . Once I took it over, I vividly remember. . . coming in and hanging things up on the wall. . . and I remember looking at my mom and telling her 'I have no idea what I'm doing.' And she owned a business at the time, so that was a nice help. . . But she had never had any formal business training, and I hadn't either. So it was kind of the blind leading the blind."

Although that process must've been incredibly difficult and frustrating at times, Brenton speaks of it with a sense of calm perspective. "I think you just kind of grow and you learn as you go. Sometimes you have to fall flat on your face to stand back up and make something out of it. It was a very rough time. There were plenty of days where I was very discouraged, my pockets were empty, and I didn't know what my next move was gonna be."

How did Brenton overcome this turbulent period in his journey? Plain and simple: hard work. "The good thing about tattooing is it knows no boundaries. If you have to tattoo at 2 in the morning to make money, or if you have to tattoo at 9 in the morning to make money, it's normally there for you to do that. So it's all based on your own personal work ethic. I busted my ass. I still am probably now more than ever. But at the time, I did everything I did to keep things going."

Of course Brenton is extremely appreciative and complimentary of Tori Robinson, the only other artist on staff at the time who remains on Brenton's team to this day. "With the help of Tori. . . she was a huge help, we made it happen in some way, shape, or form."

Managing & Growing The Tattoo Factory

The Tattoo Factory pays homage to
 its Bucyrus roots
Brenton utilized some networking collaboration opportunities with a shop in Mansfield to help build
his out of town clientele which he estimates makes up about 60% of his business. He also utilized the power of social media. "Social networking has been huge for tattooing. . . Instagram and Facebook were really big. . . And that was huge because you could market to people who maybe didn't know we were here. . . So I spent a lot of my time on social media trying to market to the particular kind of clientele that I wanted to gain. And I did rely a lot on the repeat customers that we had."

As Brenton has worked to find that perfect formula to lead his business to success, his focus has shifted from learning how to manage and market a business to learning how to become a more well-rounded artist and provide an exceptional quality of work.

"I got tattooed by a tattooer that I've idolized for quite some time, and I talked to him about some things. And I realized that trying to gain followers on social media and trying to create this image for yourself on social media in order to get the people to walk in the door is not the way to go for tattooing. That may work for some other form of business, but with tattooing if you just. . . put the time and effort that you need into painting and drawing and producing good art and good tattoos, the money will come. . . So once I realized that just producing the best possible work that I could produce and not focusing so much on being online and creating this certain persona for myself wasn't the answer, that's when things started to get better for me."

The Tattoo Factory has really begin to pickup steam and gain some positive momentum, which Brenton estimates started to break through around 2 years ago. "I still sometimes look back and wonder, 'How did these these things happen? How did I get to this point, or how did something that I sat and drew in my bedroom become so popular?' It's still very surreal sometimes -- it's a very surreal feeling to know that people are coming in sometimes from as far away as Canada to get tattooed and to wear something that you created out of your brain and off your hands. It's sometimes unfathomable."

Brenton is still blown away by the level of outreach and recognition The Tattoo Factory has been able to achieve. "I was in Pittsburgh one time. . . and there was a guy at the bar that recognized me from Instagram, and it was like 'Man, this is insane.' You don't really realize how many people see the things that you put out there and appreciate them even from afar. So things like that are crazy sometimes."

The most frustrating part of Brenton's journey as a business owner? "I hate being a boss. That's really hard for me just because I like to treat people the way I would like to be treated. As tattooers, we all have this we're our own boss sort of complex. Not in an arrogant way, but in a we kind of stay in our own lane and do our own thing kind of way. . . So it's always been hard for me to say 'Hey, I need you guys to mop the floor. . . Do this. . . Don't do that.'"

Despite plenty of opportunities to make money doing something against Brenton's value system, he has remained focused on doing his due diligence and staying true to himself.

"Doing your research is a big thing because people will ask for certain symbolization that you may not know the meaning behind. Whether it's gang related or sacrilegious or whatever the case may be, it's important to know what those things are so that you can deny them accordingly or accept them accordingly. . . We try to keep an eye on those sort of things, and we try to be a moral compass for younger people that are maybe making some bad decisions. . . For whatever reason having crappy face tattoos has become a trend recently. . . But we try to be a moral compass for those people and try to talk them out of it. At the end of the day, if they want it tattooed, somebody will tattoo it on them. But I can go to sleep at night knowing that I didn't take their money and do a morally wrong tattoo on them."

If I walked into The Tattoo Factory drunk on a Friday night for a face tattoo, Brenton might not exactly take me to Tim Horton's for a coffee, but he will deny me a tattoo and send me on back to Baker's or Dillinger's for another drink.

The Future Of The Tattoo Factory & Brenton Potter

Although The Tattoo Factory has been gaining momentum, Brenton stays humble and true to his roots. Brenton speaks often of his humble beginnings which have led to his somewhat conservative nature. Candidly, I'm not certain Brenton fully realizes the level of success he's been able to attain and what doors that success may open to him in the future.

"This right now is the most I've ever had, and I know what it took to get here. So I'm constantly working to maintain that. . . This isn't something that I feel like I'm ever going to be rich from. I don't think tattooing will make me a millionaire. But it makes me happy. And I can make a comfortable enough living to run a business, have employees, and maintain a good life for me and my family. And I don't know really what can get better than that."

In 5 years, Brenton wants to focus on travel and outreach. "I work with a group called The Ink Fusion Empire. . . That opens a lot of opportunities to meet people. Last year, I worked 2 Ohio shows and a Florida show. This year, I'm going to work Cincinnati, the Florida show again, and then a Boston show. It's cool because each year you tattoo a handful of people there, and they maybe tell their friends about you. So you build a mini clientele in each city that you go to where you're either tattooing the same people or friends of theirs. . . And I can bring my family too, and they can kind of enjoy it."

Brenton's commitment when discussing future plans never wavers from his strong values. "If you just produce good things and you're good to your people, the money will come, and the money will grow. . . My eye is not always on the money. It's more on the experience for the person and the experience for myself. The money is just a bonus."

As Brenton contemplates his long-term future, again the themes of strong values and personal interaction remain prevalent. "I like to be alongside my people. I know a lot of business owners especially in tattooing come in, and they collect their money, and they bounce. They've got 10 guys working for them, and they work on a 50% cut. I've never been that kind of person. I kind of like to be the captain that's on the ship, driving the ship, right next to the people rowing the oars."

Advice & Reflection

Brenton encourages young people looking to pursue tattooing to work to understand the challenges that come with tattooing rather than just the positives. "Your whole life becomes tattooing. It's hard especially in a small town to go to the grocery store or to go to Baker's and have a drink without someone basically stripping down taking their shirt off and saying 'Hey man, what can you do with this?' I've actually had friends tell me they don't like going out with me because I get stopped constantly."

"It is a very fun thing for me now, and I enjoy it very much. But it took a long time to get that comfortable. There's a lot of hard work involved in getting to that point."

If given the opportunity to go back and change something or give a younger version of himself some advice, he would focus more on learning how to save money. "I've become more or less a money hoarder in order to make sure that everything is taken care of."

The single thing that Brenton attributes most to his success to this point? "I think just being a good, morally driven, well-accommodating person in general. . . I think just like being a part of the community, staying grounded here even when there's temptation to go maybe to a bigger city or to maybe have a full, yer-round travel schedule. I think people can appreciate that you're born and raised here, you grew your business here, and you're staying local and giving back to people."

Keep Up With Brenton & The Tattoo Factory!

If you want to keep in touch with Brenton and follow his journey, you can find him on Instagram where he has over 7k followers! You can also keep up with The Tattoo Factory on Facebook where they have over 3k followers.

We would appreciate it so much if you could let us all know what you thought of this interview! Have more questions for Brenton? I'm sure he'd be more than happy to answer them. If you enjoyed Brenton's story, give him a shout out and share this story with a friend! 


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