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🎢 #63 - 🖌 Inkbox: Temporary Bad Decisions
+ how Tyler and his brother Braden built one of the most popular tattoo brands
Hii 👋 Welcome back!
First, I wanted to apologize for the sporadic posting schedule in the past few weeks. I just started my new startup gig so it’s been quite an adjustment.. but I will keep it up. I promise!!
As I alluded to at the end of my last newsletter, this week’s story is about Inkbox, a semi-permanent tattoo company. The story is quite unconventional because Inkbox has roots in one of the most dangerous jungles.
Darién Gap is a remote swath of jungle in one of the least visited places in the world on the border of Colombia and Panama. It is a land full of exotic plants and wildlife, dangerous paramilitary groups, and indigenous people that consider the jungle their home.
It is also the place where Tyler Handley and his brother Braden Handley learned about the secret ingredient that would eventually evolve into the ink formula behind Inkbox. Before we get to this part of the story, let’s rewind the tape and look back at what led to this moment 📼.
💡 Tyler’s upbringing and early entrepreneurial learnings
From an early age, Tyler had always been quite creative. He loved playing video games that involved building such as Civilization. He would also spend most of his free time working on Lego sets and refurbishing furniture.
After being introduced to the startup world while working on the marketing team at a BBC incubator, Tyler caught that startup bug 🐞 and decided to channel his creative energy towards his own startup - Blurbi.
Blurbi was a content marketing marketplace. It matched custom content from its network of marketing professionals with businesses seeking help with their social media campaigns. Despite achieving some traction (~100k in revenue), Blurbi did not survive the startup abyss.
Nevertheless, Tyler gained two key learnings from this first startup rodeo:
1. Solve a real pain point
“It is important to immerse yourself in the industry and learn the actual pain points rather than imagining what they are. I had an idea, but I didn't know the specifics so I was not targeting the right people for the product.” - Tyler
2. Pick the right co-founder
“I learned that, for me, a good co-founder needs to be as committed as I am and has to have breadth. I’ve seen a lot of co-founding teams that have one co-founder who is very good at one thing but would end up leading a division of the company instead of being a good executive. When choosing co-founders, you have to be cognizant of what these people can grow into.” - Tyler
🌱 The early days of Inkbox
The idea for Inkbox arose before Blurbi. Tyler and Braden wanted to get tattoos but they were afraid that these tattoo designs would eventually age them. They wished there was a tattoo that could change with them.
“I didn’t want to be that guy that had that tribal tattoo or something… that was cool back then but maybe not so much now.” - Tyler
The idea had been lingering in the back of Tyler’s mind even during the Blurbi days. Eventually, as the conviction for the content marketplace idea died down, Tyler decided to take the plunge with his brother to work on this semi-permanent tattoo idea.
📖 Research, research, and research
Neither Tyler nor Braden had any tattoo industry expertise, but their outsider perspective gave them a unique and fresh angle to solving this problem. They started looking for an alternative ingredient for tattoo ink, one that was more realistic than any solutions in the market but would also fade away in just weeks.
Step 1 - Henna Tattoos 🖌
They researched anything related to temporary tattoos. They started by studying Henna Tattoos, trying to understand its ingredients and how it works. The finding was helpful, but it was still not quite there.
Step 2 - Google Scholar 🕵️♂️
They started researching on Google Scholar, attempting to see if there was anything out there in nature that might be relevant.
“I would throw different skin related terms into Google Scholar, and that’s how I came across a paper that talked about this interesting ingredient that was used in horse skin grafting or something obscure.” - Tyler
Step 3 - Mythical fruit of the Darién Gap 🍈
It was hard to find much information on that ingredient, but they uncovered that it was a part of an extract from the genipap fruit, which can be found in the jungles of Darién Gap, Panama.
Indigenous groups in Darién Gap have long used an extract of the genipap fruit for body painting, a centuries-old tradition.
🚗 Working with tribes & product iterations
To learn more about this mysterious ingredient and the body painting tradition, Tyler and Braden started to look for people selling these fruit extracts.
“We searched all over the internet and found Darién Initiative, an organization that worked with the indigenous people of Panama’s Darién Gap. They were selling the fruit extract called Jagua Gel to help the indigenous people financially and preserve the indigenous tradition.” -Tyler
With the help of this initiative and the incredible tribes within the region, the Handley brothers started testing the fruit-derived ink.
The initial product iteration would take about six months. During that period, the duo worked from two tables in a little corner of the Fashion Zone, an incubator out of Canada’s Ryerson University.
Since they were not scientists themselves, they also hired a post-doc as a contractor to help them with product development. It was an iterative process, featuring constant experimentation with complex ink formulas.
🚀 How Inkbox acquired their initial customers
Getting funding is extremely hard, especially for consumer products. Similar to many founders I have interviewed in the past, the Handley brothers decided to turn to Kickstarter to fund their initial product development effort - this platform turned out to be a 🔥fire customer acquisition channel.
They launched their Kickstarter campaign on July 14th, 2015. Within two weeks they reached their goal of $40K, and by August 14th, 2015, they had already reached their stretch goal of $180K. This campaign would eventually help them fundraise close to $300K from 7500+ individual backers.
Furthermore, due to the virality of the campaign, they also picked up over 100 press mentions and over 100K shares on Facebook. This Kickstarter campaign alone contributed the majority of the first 50K orders. Absolutely wild 🤯.
Diversified acquisition channels
Inkbox experimented with different acquisition channels early on.
The first channel that worked really well for Inkbox in the early days was Instagram (currently @1.5M+ followers). They would post cool tattoos and tag different influencers in posts. Due to the strong value proposition, many people followed and shared with friends. After the success of Instagram, the team also played around with other social media channels from Youtube to Twitter, achieving different levels of success.
One of the most profitable paid acquisition strategies for Inkbox is email marketing 📧. They have calculated the value of an individual email, which has formed the foundation of their focus on email capture. Email marketing is both an art and a science. There are a lot of factors that go into a successful email strategy, from the top of funnel email capturing through the entire email flow. It has served as an efficient channel for both increasing new customer conversions and rekindling purchase behavior from returning customers.
An example of how Inkbox captures email using pop-ups:
Inkbox is currently shipping over 200K units a month - another reason for this level of breakaway success can be attributed to the team’s impressive partnerships strategy.
“Some partnerships work and some don’t but what they all do is help us to build brand equity through brand association. We can do that easily because we are a new creative canvas.” - Tyler
One of the recent partnerships is a collaboration with BTS. For people that might not be familiar, BTS is one of the most popular boy bands in the history of boy bands - they’ve sold more albums than Taylor Swift and drew over a million fans to an online concert last year.
🚀 Future of Inkbox
The vision of Inkbox is to build the next great self-expression brand, enabling consumers all over the world to unlock and unleash the body as a creative canvas. Besides just the physical tattoo product, Inkbox also has a software product that helps customers design and customize their tattoo, kind of like Canva for tattoos. Furthermore, Tyler and Braden also aspire to build a more expansive retail presence to increase local awareness, much of which has been hindered by the Pandemic.
Inkbox has grown a lot since the Kickstarter days - it is projected to hit $25-40M in revenue by the end of this year. Nevertheless, as the firm looks to get to the next level, there are a lot of challenges ahead. On the macro level, the rising cost of advertising and the privacy mandate will impact many D2C e-commerce businesses, Inkbox included. Another challenge lies in scaling. Inkbox has multiple growth channels, but choosing which ones to prioritize will be one of the most important and challenging strategic decisions for Tyler and Braden.
That’s it for today. Thank you, Tyler, for sharing your story!
See you all soon 🔥,
🎁 For those of you who are interested in trying out Inkbox, feel free to DM me for a discount code