REV23 X: A Decade of Tattoo Studio Software Pt. 2 - Beginnings
Part 2 of a blog post series chronicling ten years of REV23's tattoo studio software. Here's what the early years looked like.
In our last episode Nate had hastily quit his day job to pursue the release of the tattoo studio management software he had been building for the previous three-years, and on March 1st, 2010, he launched Tattoo Management Studio Express v1.0. Let’s find out how that turned out for our intrepid developer.
I had pulled the trigger on leaving my day job a bit prematurely, that was not part of the plan. Things were almost ready but not quite and I had to just roll with it. I uploaded the software and launched a minimal website which hadn’t had any actual content on it since it was used for the band years before. I had an office phone line installed and waited for the calls to come pouring in…
The calls didn’t pour in. First, it takes a while for a new website to be indexed by search engines. Second, there wasn’t a great online platform for me to go promote REV23 other than the TattooNOW boards, but I felt weird as an industry outsider trying to promote it there, so I didn't, and as I recall you needed to be approved by a moderator anyways. Facebook was mostly used by college students only and Instagram didn’t exist yet. There weren't many options for me online at the time.
My first attempt at promoting the software was direct mail. I wrote an app that would search and “scrape” Bing for tattoo studios in different cities. Scraping is a term for downloading the source code of a webpage or other document, then extracting the data from it. It’s not particularly easy to do and can be extremely unpredictable. So, city by city I would type “tattoo studios in …” into the app, and it would search shop names and addresses, retrieving about 25-50 hits for me per major city and dump them into an Excel spreadsheet that I could then print mailing labels with.
I designed a flyer and printed it on some real high quality, glossy, overly expensive paper with my overly expensive inkjet ink. I also wrote a letter explaining what the software was and how it could help save time, money and energy, and hand signed it. Everything was stuffed into a large 8.5” x 11” white envelope so it would stand out and put them in the mail. Postage was not cheap for these either costing over $1.50/envelope. And again, I waited…
Luckily a buddy of mine that I did some random development for on various projects had some work for me, so I had some money coming in and family helped with groceries and some cash where they could. But things were certainly scary for a new family that just gave up a regular paycheck and employer-provided health insurance.
Thirty days after starting the journey, on March 31st, 2010 at 3:36 PM MST, the phone rang. I looked at the caller ID and about fell out of my chair. Of all the first calls to get, having it come from High Voltage Tattoo (Kat Von D’s shop) was a real rush. I did a demo with Kat’s sister, Karoline, who was also her assistant. One week later, REV23 had its first sale! At the time there was no subscription, it was just a flat fee for the license at $700.00. Unfortunately, they didn’t end up using it more than a couple of weeks, which bummed me out and shook my confidence. They liked the software but were having to bounce back and forth between QuickBooks, which they for credit card processing, and REV23 for everything else which was slowing them down. I promised to integrate the QuickBooks credit card processing, which didn’t take terribly long, but by the time it was ready, Karoline had left her position, and my direct line of contact into HVT was no more. So, while it was never successful in the implementation, they hold the honor of the first REV23 customer. Not long after, Trinity Tattoo Co. in Virginia Beach, VA, became my second customer, this time from a search engine, who I’m happy to report are still a happy REV23 user and still great friends of mine, and who I consider the true honorary first user of REV23.
The flyers did ok, but for the money I was spending on the paper and postage, their performance left a lot to be desired. Out of desperation for a short period I eventually resorted to cold calls which is just the worst, it was a move I really wanted to avoid, but I did what I had to do. Calling a tattoo shop and asking to speak with the owner or manager often immediately resulted in a hang-up.
It’s important to note, I am a software developer. Not a salesman, not a graphics designer, not a marketer, but I did the best I could. Though REV23 has forced me to wear many hats out of necessity, including, but not limited to code, design, project planning, project manager, mascot, evangelist, interface, media, graphics, lead, tech writer, trainer, booth babe, conference goer and other miscellaneous jobs. Some I became better at than others, and some I still don’t like doing, but do them anyways.
One strategy I never tried was door-to-door sales in the Denver area. At the time, even downloadable software required sales tax if selling in Colorado (a law that was later changed). I didn’t want to deal with a sales tax license, and, there were privacy concerns for my family. So, if someone in Denver bought it, which they did, I would just roll with it.
It’s funny thinking back to it, but I thought it was important to seem like a larger company. I didn’t want people to think I was just a guy in the second bedroom of a townhome that was turned into a home office. Though I don’t think I fooled many people. In fact, one of my favorites moments is of one of the earliest REV23 users, Matt Allsman of Eternal Tattoo in Nebraska. Matt called sometime that summer wanting to compare REV23 to one of our top competitors that masquerades their salon software as tattoo software. We went through the demo and it went well. He said he’d give them a call next and would decide after a few days. It wasn’t but a minute later that he called back and said “Ok. I’m going with you.” I laughed and asked what happened. He explained that their first question to him when he asked about their tattoo software was “how many stylists do you have?” and hung up on them. I knew that catering exclusively to the tattoo industry was my differentiator, but I didn’t realize until that moment how important and sacred this would be. It wasn’t long after he started using the software that Matt called again for support. I answered with my typical, “REV23, this is Nate”, knowing full well it was him from Caller ID. Always quick to be a smartass and call someone out he said, “You’re the only one there, aren’t you?”. Since then, Matt has been one of my best friends and largest contributors to the software’s feature set and often tattoos in the REV23 booth at conventions.
I never wanted to be “the face” of REV23. In fact, the original plan was for the tattooer I was working on the original device with to sell and support the software and I would just write the code. But as I mentioned in the previous blog post, no one that wanted to be a part of it actually followed through, so to get it off the ground I was going to have do things myself, and that’s exactly what I did.
It was a constant grind. If I wasn’t trying to make a sale, I was coding. Adding features, improving what was there and fixing bugs, after all, it never had a proper beta test. Balancing home life and this new self-employment routine was difficult. Even though I was “at home” I was rarely present. If I wasn’t in my office, that meant I wasn’t doing everything I could to make this work. But I did the best I could. It’s taken me many years to learn this balance, and there is still room for improvement. Fortunately, my wife’s in-human patience with me and this dream made things a whole lot easier.
In July of 2010, I had a brilliant idea and released a new product: Tattoo Management Studio Appointment Book Edition. It was low hanging fruit and only took a few weeks to finalize. The idea was a lower cost version that, as the name suggests, was simply the scheduler and text message/email reminders. It was easier to use, easier to train, and more affordable. It would give users a taste for the full version and they could upgrade later—it was a sure-fire hit that will fly off the digital shelves! I miscalculated greatly. After a disappointing number of sales, it was eventually renamed to Tattoo Management Studio Lite and later discontinued completely by January 2012.
In October of 2010, I went to my first tattoo convention as REV23. Mario Barth’s Biggest Tattoo Show on Earth in Las Vegas! I’d never been to Las Vegas and brought the family along for a much-needed vacation from the stress of the last several months; they still sometimes come with me to conventions. The show was mostly a success, and I realized traveling was going to be a key to marketing REV23. I had a projector and fold out projection screen that displayed a slide show with way too much text for anyone to legibly read.
And this was life for the next two years. Tattoo conventions and direct mailings. Constant hustle, constant grind. A lot of fear. But I kept pushing and didn’t give up, and by 2012 I had reached some degree of success. REV23 was being well received, there were a couple of articles/reviews in some industry mags and I was getting word of mouth sales and things growing at a decent pace. The new users were great, but new users require more support. More support meant less time to focus on the software.
Meanwhile, with tattooing in pop-culture at an all-time high, new software products were popping up “for the tattoo industry.” Of course, most were still salon software that wanted to capitalize on the industry (a tactic they still use today) and the field became a bit crowded. New products were appearing and disappearing just as fast after they realized there wasn’t as much money to be made here as easily as they’d thought, turning off potential new users completely after being burned by these fly-by-night operations. I needed to combat these vultures with new features, new improvements, and more industry specific exclusives.
Money was finally flowing in and consistent, which I expected would solve all my problems, but somehow things were only getting harder. My back was to the wall with support and I was suffocating.
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