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We’re a tattoo booking platform and this is how we got our first paying customers

For the past few months, I’ve been working with three others on our new startup, http://outline.wtf. We are just at the start of our journey, but we managed to go from idea to paying customers, which we’re super proud of. Here’s how we did it.

The problem

We are all tattoo lovers, but the process of getting a tattoo can be tedious. It usually involves reaching out to unknown artists on Instagram, having a back and forth, sending them a deposit either by bank transfer or on PayPal and then paying the rest of the cost at the shop, after the tattoo is done, with that archaic thing called “cash”. Alternatively, you can visit a tattoo shop to look through your artists’ designs, but it can be a bit awkward to sit in a small shop and look at designs, or even intimidating if you’re new to the scene.

Our value proposition

For customers

We will create a place for people to easily browse, book and pay for their tattoo.

For tattoo artists

We will get you more customers and give you an easier booking process.

Goal setting

We decided that we needed one very clear goal to work toward. I read somewhere that a good way to validate an idea is to get 5 paid customers. If people were willing to pay, that would be a great indicator that our idea was worth building. We decided that we would aim for 8 paying customers.

Our assumptions

With the goal set, we started thinking about the different elements at play. On the one side we have artists and our assumptions about them:

  • They must be very comfortable with using Instagram, so it’s probably going to be difficult to convince them to try a new platform
  • If they are very popular, they probably don’t need more customers

On the other side, we have people who want tattoos and our assumptions about them:

  • As tattoo lovers ourselves, we would love a service like this. We’ve also spoken to other tattoo lover friends who say the same. That makes us feel somewhat confident that this is something people want.
  • Tattoos can cost anywhere between £80 and £1000+, with the average tattoo being somewhere around £300. We thought that adding a small service fee on top of this cost would seem reasonable, given the already high cost.

Although these were some very basic thoughts, it gave us enough of a direction to proceed.

The marketplace

At this point in our planning, these were the condensed logical steps that we went through:

  • We wanted artists to sell their tattoos on our platform and we needed to direct customers to them.
  • We didn’t want to invest a large amount of money in advertising, so we needed a different way to get customers.
  • This gave us the idea of creating a physical event, where we’d have the opportunity to convince people to buy in person.
  • We wanted to make it really easy for people to buy tattoos at the event, so we decided that the artists should only offer pre-drawn designs (flash) rather than custom bookings.
  • We thought that by making the booking process quicker and easier, this would lead to both artists and customers trusting us more.
  • To ensure that the booking process was really seamless, we decided to build our own website which handled the whole purchasing process.

Our business model

We spoke to both artists and potential customers about whether they would be comfortable with paying a fee for our service. In general, artists responded negatively to this and potential customers seemed ok with it, as long as it wasn’t a really large fee.

Using this information, we decided that we would start by charging an 8% fee on top of the cost of the tattoo, which we’d make clear on our checkout page. Quite a lot of thought went into this, but I’ll leave that for another post :)

The product

At this point, we needed a website with the following fundamental functionality:

  • A customer can visit the website and view flash designs
  • A customer can see the cost of the designs, based on where they want it to be tattooed
  • A customer can pick a design and pay for it. They can then decide the booking time/date with the artist
  • An artist can accept payment from a customer (by connecting to stripe through our website)
  • An artist can see a booking time request and either accept it or suggest another time
  • An artist can confirm a booking

We kept the functionality to a bare minimum because we wanted to validate some of our assumptions without building too much. We spent an evening mocking the required flows up on pen and paper, and Jack, our designer, spent the rest of the week designing the whole flow.

A screenshot of our figma designs

Once the designs were done, we got to building the product. We all have full-time jobs, so this was done in the evening and on weekends. Our deadline was the day of the event, which gave us around 2 months to build the MVP.

Planning the event

Getting artists on board

  • We met one of the artists at a fruit market and sold the idea to him. He worked at a very successful tattoo studio and agreed to join us.
    We reached out to three other artists on Instagram and they all said they were interested.

  • We walked them through our onboarding process, which included them connecting their bank account to our system through stripe and signing paperwork. This was a key step because it meant that we entered a legal agreement with the artist.

  • We ended up with four really talented artists who were onboarded and ready to sell their tattoos at our event.

Our artists

Getting a venue

  • We started by looking at East London. It’s an area we all know well, and it’s one which has a lot of tattoo studios and a generally young crowd.
  • We were willing to spend up to £500 for a few hours.
  • We found out that our budget was way less than what venues in that area were asking, so we decided that we’d need to get creative.
  • We asked around in our networks. One of our founder’s gyms was owned by a friend and he offered to host us at a discount price. The space was perfect for what we wanted, and we managed to secure it for £350.

The venue

Getting people to come to the event

  • Again, we didn’t want to spend money on advertising, so we attacked this in different ways.
  • We had around 1.3k followers on Instagram at the time. We DMed a large number of our followers in London and invited them to the event.
  • We reached out to our immediate network and we asked them to attend and help spread the word.
  • We designed and printed flyers which we handed out to local businesses.
  • Regular posts and stories on Instagram inviting people to come to the event
  • We managed to get 178 people signed up to attend

Tickets

The day

Setting up

  • We brought tables and chairs to act as stations for artists, which included custom posters behind each station. These described how customers could buy that artist’s tattoos.
  • We brought printed books with the artist’s designs so that customers could browse them on the day
  • We set up a projector which projected a video of how the booking flow works
  • We set up a drinks station which we supplied with our own soft and alcoholic drinks
  • We set up speakers and a music playlist

The event begins

  • Customers started entering and we encouraged them to mingle with our artists and each other
  • We moved around the space, making sure that we could answer any questions that anyone had
  • It was extremely tiring to speak to so many people and ensure that things were going smoothly, both at the event and also with the website
  • It was also one of the most fun moments of our lives. We had a lot of family and friends there, which made it extra special.

The event 1
The event 2

The results

  • 10 bookings 🙏 🙏
  • £1,280 in revenue for our artists 💃 💃

The results

Going forward

We learned a lot from the event, and we’re still learning every day. The event was held just before Covid-19 hit the world, so we’ve been slowed down a lot by that. During this time, we’ve been ramping up our brand marketing and trying to grow our following on Instagram. Our future goal is to establish a more sustainable marketing loop. Watch this space.

If you’ve made it this far, thank you! You can visit us at http://outline.wtf or follow us on http://instagram.com/outline.wtf to stay up to date.

  1. 1

    This was a great read!

  2. 1

    Great write up. I hope you don’t mind if I copy some of these ideas

    1. 2

      Of course, please do. We can all grow together :)

  3. 1

    Great writeup! I think this is a really tough niche to market to, so I'm excited to see how you continue to reach and onboard artists. I really like the in-person event. One question - were the bookings made during the live event or did they come after? I'm wondering how important the live event is to onboarding potential customers into the app.

    1. 1

      Thank you Jack! Appreciate you reading through it.

      All of the bookings were made during the live event i.e. people paid the full price of the tattoo at the event. I think that it was super important that we (both us founders and the tattoo artists) were there to answer their questions and give them confidence. Almost all of the people who booked started off hesitant, so I don't think those particular people would have booked online. One person came in and was ready to book straight away, with no convincing, so that was interesting to see too.

      At the moment we're doing a lot of research to figure out the different types of users who interact with our instagram page and their booking habits. Running the event made it obvious to us that different people want very different things from an "online tattoo booking" service, and so we're trying to paint a clearer picture of what exactly each type of person wants, and whether it's worth prioritising those wants. I'll write a post on our user research process soon, as it's been really eye-opening for us :)

  4. 1

    So well written, thanks for this. I am surprised tattoo artists don't want to pay a finders fee for the business you bring to them. Especially when they are ready to pay 5% odd to Stripe for the payment processing.

    Perhaps you should revisit this once you have a sizeable audience. I have no data to back this up, but feel business owners are more likely to pay for the service than the customer.

    I also think this is important to you as a business. As a customer, I can see the portfolio and also the artists on your page - if I have to pay 8% service charge over your platform, then perhaps, I would search for the artist on Instagram and message them directly to save money.

    1. 1

      Thank you Anand, appreciate your thoughts on this.

      It's been an interesting journey for us because we had exactly the same assumptions that you have here, and it was surprising to hear otherwise. The first few artists that we approached just outright rejected us because we mentioned a fee. There's a history of antiestablishment within tattooing, and I think tattoo artists are very wary of people trying to take advantage of their work, so in many ways it makes sense that they would reject a product which proposes to take a cut from their earnings. We just didn't anticipate that at first.

      The point about people going directly to the artist is also an interesting one, and we had that exact same assumption. From speaking to potential customers, and especially the ones that ended up purchasing with us, it seems like the pain of organising/booking a tattoo is enough to justify the fee. This isn't intuitive, but again I think it's something that is unique to this industry. The industry is extremely behind in terms of technology, so I can see why this sort of service would be such a relief that it'd justify paying more for.

      With all that said, I think we're just going to have to keep an open mind and be flexible going forward. When we get a large enough audience, we may well have a shift of opinion from both artists and customers, and so that could completely flip our business model.

      Again, thank you for the comment and for reading. Really appreciate your thoughts 🙏🏼

      1. 1

        Very interesting, Oz. Just goes to show how unique each industry is. I look forward to your next updates here.

    2. 1

      This comment was deleted 2 months ago.

  5. 1

    Thank you for writing this all up. I enjoyed reading it. I was hoping to get some insight into your mindset and tools used though.

    Could you spare a few words on what tools you used to build your MVP?
    Were you anxious at all to the point that it sabotaged your work?
    What did the designer use to draw the MVP? I think that's Figma.

    Stuff like that.

    1. 2

      Hey Rob, thank you for reading through it all 🙏🏼

      Could you spare a few words on what tools you used to build your MVP

      Backend:

      • Ruby on Rails for the API
      • Stripe to handle payments
      • AWS S3 to store uploaded images
      • https://postmarkapp.com/ to handle sending transactional emails

      Frontend:

      • React + some react libraries for things like carousels
      • Hosted on a static AWS S3 bucket

      We used these tools because it's what we use in our day jobs, so there wasn't much learning we had to do. It meant that we could build the MVP really quickly.

      What did the designer use to draw the MVP? I think that's Figma.

      The designer, Jack, did indeed use Figma. We first spent some time drawing out the whole user journey on pen and paper, and thought about the user experience considerations. We also tried our best to strip out any unnecessary features at that planning stage. Jack also uses Figma in his day job, so it was a tool that he could move really quickly with.

      Using react was helpful because we were able to define components upfront, and we reused as many of these components as we could. It also meant that we could stick to the designs without too much thought, since the designs followed the sizing that we defined in our components.

      Were you anxious at all to the point that it sabotaged your work?

      Not with this project, no. I think the key thing was that there were four us, and we made a big effort to support each other emotionally. We all have full time jobs, so a lot of the work was quite emotionally draining, especially if we were having a bad day/week at work. Having that support from the other three made it easier to push through some of the more difficult moments.

      I did have times when I was worried that nobody would show up to the event, but luckily it wasn't so bad that it sabotaged my work.

      Hope that answers your questions and thanks again for reading!

      1. 1

        Thanks a lot, mate.

        One more question. Does AWS S3 behave similarly to something like Cloudinary for images? Or is it just storage?

        I have looked at AWS before and their docs suck! It made me want to rip my hair out. Unlike Stripe. Stripe's docs are second to none <3

        1. 1

          No problem!

          S3 is just a storage solution, but we didn't actually have to interact with any of the S3 API. We used Rails's ActiveStorage library, and this just requires you to generate an API key on AWS and pass that key to the library. I think that if we tried to build all of that from scratch, it would have been a lot more pain! More on that here: https://guides.rubyonrails.org/active_storage_overview.html

          1. 1

            Oooh like magic!

            Maybe something like this exists in the NodeJS ecosystem as well. Imma look. Again, thanks so much for the insight.

    2. 1

      I can answer the design part! Yup, Figma is my UI design tool of choice these days. Early work on Outline in previous years (when we basically a totally different product), was Sketch based. It feels easier and faster to put UI and prototypes together these days now I'm comfortable with Figma. It's been way easier to share design system work with our devs too.

      1. 1

        Figma is love. Figma is life.

        Thanks for the insight, Jack.

      2. 1

        Oops, jumped the gun there. Definitely listen to Jack in regards to design :p

  6. 1

    This is really clever - well done.

    I'm almost glad how broken booking a tattoo is because otherwise, I'd have a lot more of them/a lot less money. But it really is a market that needs something like this. Good luck!

    1. 1

      Thank you Matt 🙏🏼

      I actually booked a tattoo through our platform recently and I did think to myself "oh shit, this is gonna be dangerous for my wallet..". I have over 25 tattoos, despite the broken booking process, so who knows how many I'll have in a couple more years!

  7. 1

    Congrats and thank you for the detailed and insightful story!
    It is also remarkable that you went through with the MVP and the event despite the initial feedback from both the artists and potential customers. What helped you not loose your motivation and keep going?

    1. 2

      Thank you!

      I think it was a couple of things. We had this goal of getting 8 sales, and all of us felt that we could really hustle to make those 8 sales if we were given the chance to convince people in person. That kept us motivated.

      The other thing is that there are 4 of us, so we were able to push and motivate each other. We each had weeks where we got overwhelmed with the amount that we had to do, and it worked out because the others in the team were able to pick up the slack, which kept momentum going. I don't think I would have been able to do it without partners.

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