Strange Success

The Tale of Tattly: Temporary tats have staying power

The Tattly tale: Temporary tats have staying power
The Tattly tale: Temporary tats have staying power

Tina Roth-Eisenberg calls herself "an accidental entrepreneur." She's unintentionally created at least three businesses after being forced to invoke her own personal rule: "If I keep complaining about something repeatedly, I have to either do something about it or let it go."

Many things have bothered the Brooklyn-based graphic artist, an affliction she blames on being born and raised in Switzerland. "The Swiss tend to complain a lot."

Things she decided to "do something about" include a co-working space called Friends Work Here, where creative people rent desks to be surrounded by like-minded artists to "raise the bar." She helped develop a to-do list app called Teux Deux because she couldn't find an organizing tool she liked ("It never occurred to me until that moment that I actually could design my own app!").

Erika Santoro | CNBC

And then she went after temporary tattoos, forming a company called Tattly, which sells them at prices that start around $5.

"My daughter came home from a birthday party and asked me to apply these really incredibly hideous temporary tattoos to her arm that were in her goodie bag," she said. "They were such an insult to my Swiss aesthetic that I said I need to stop complaining about this, and I just need to change this."

Her outrage has led to a multimillion dollar business.

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Tattly sells temporary tattoos that are applied with water and last a few days. They come in dozens of designs, though favorites include a watch with the word "LATE" on it, as well as metallic tattoos that look like jewelry. For the last two years the company has provided temporary tattoos for the White House Easter egg roll.

When she started thinking about creating the company in 2011, Roth-Eisenberg reached out to artists she knew through her popular design blog, SwissMiss, asking them to create temporary tattoos. She used her own experience to make a slick Tattly website, and she quickly learned about manufacturing and packaging. All of this cost Roth-Eisenberg $15,000 of her own money, "and then I remembered we had to order the tattoos, and I was out of money."

Source: Tattly

To solve that problem, she came up with another idea. Roth-Eisenberg reached out to a contact at email service Mail Chimp and asked if the company would like to fund the first "bonus" Tattly, a temporary free tattoo that would ship with every sale. "He said, 'Absolutely, let's do it.'" That advance paid for the first run of product.

Two months later, Tattly launched with 16 designs. "The second day we were in business, the Tate Modern (museum) buyer from London called me and asked me for a wholesale catalog," Roth-Eisenberg recalled. "I hung up, I got up, I screamed, and I looked at my studio mates and I said, 'OK guys, what exactly is a wholesale catalog?'" No one really knew, so she Googled the phrase, "and then I got to work."

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That first year, Roth-Eisenberg estimates Tattly did between $300,000 and $500,000 in sales, though she admits, "I actually don't know." She is more familiar with recent revenues, and while she won't reveal the dollar figure, Tattly shipped 2.6 million tattoos in 2015 averaging $5 to $15. You do the math, that's a lot of money. The company now has 13 full-time employees and six part-timers and is debt free.

Sales may be well over $10 million, but profits are another story. While the company is profitable, Tina Roth-Eisenberg insists it's not all about the money. She pays a higher wage, sources as much product as she can in the U.S., and Tattly pays artists a royalty. "I believe a company is not just about the bottom line," she said. "I personally define my measure of success by the happiness and the growth I see around me, and that means the people that work for me enjoy their job, that there's a healthy work-life balance."

Tina Roth Eisenberg, Tattly founder
Erika Santoro | CNBC

Employees do seem to have fun. Roth-Eisenberg's favorite Tattly story involves a fake tattoo parlor they opened downstairs as a four-month experiment — "a temporary temporary tattoo parlor." One day, a man walked in. "He said, 'I need to look badass, I need to tat up,' and we're like, 'OK, you're in the right place,'" she said. "And he goes, 'Do you want to know why?' He was a bit mysterious, and he pulls his shirt back and we see his detective badge, and he says, 'I'm an undercover cop, and I'm gonna be in a lineup in two hours.'" The funniest part? "He picked really silly tattoos," she laughed. "He picked one with a spaceship and it was hilarious."

Her advice to other would-be entrepreneurs is that you're more likely to succeed when you're so passionate about a business that you're not really thinking about getting rich.

"I never intended any of these things to be a company," Roth-Eisenberg said of her growing empire, "and I sometimes wonder if there is a certain innocence and authenticity that comes with that because money has never been my driver. It is really the solving of a problem." Also, "you've got to ignore the haters. There will be haters. They deserve none of your time."

Hard to believe anyone would hate a temporary tattoo start-up, especially when the founder's goal is — no kidding — to make the world a better place. "Granted I'm not going to save the world with temporary tattoos, but what I do is I support artists that try to make a living with their craft."

Altruism aside, Roth-Eisenberg still wants to succeed in a big way. Her goal is for "Tattly" to become the word people use when describing a temporary tattoo, like Xerox or Kleenex or Band-Aid. New products are coming out, like scented floral tattoos. A reporter asked about their price. "Hey, Jake, how much are the perennials?" she called out to a co-worker. He reminds her they're $18 for a set of eight. "So now I know," Roth-Eisenberg laughs, reminding you that she's an entrepreneur quite by chance. "I actually don't understand how I got here, but I'm really loving it."