There are a lot of tattoo shops in Chicago—about 200 by Nick Colella’s count. However, his studio, Great Lakes Tattoo, stands out from the crowd. He, his co-owner and wife Sarah, and the rest of the tight-knit crew do more than just create tattoos—they’re building a community.
My Small Business Pro is proud to count Great Lakes Tattoo among its small business accounting clients. Read how the studio became a stand-out in a crowded field, and how MSBP has helped this unique business increase its financial power.
Please tell us a little bit about your company—what services you provide, and the talented people that make up the staff.
We’re just tattooing; that’s all we do. Great Lakes is a culmination of 25 years of work—I’d been at another shop for almost 20 years, so our shop is built on all the things I learned from being in the business since then. I’d been traveling the world, seeing people work at different shops, interacted with different artists. We have nine of us tattooing; seven of us have worked together for at least 10 years, and three of us have known each other at least 15 years. We all kind of jibe. This place has a very family feel, be that good or bad. We’re together at all the weddings, all the wakes, all the occasions for the last several years, and we all get on really well.
What do you enjoy most about what you do?
I was onto tattooing when I was 19. When I was young, tattooing was still the most amazing thing around—very underground. I liked the feel of the shop I was at, and I liked the people working there. It felt hectic, cloistered, closed off, a little scary—and I was way into all of those things. I just wanted to be there all the time, because it was a really magical thing. I never thought you could make a career out of it. There’s still a similar feel now, but with different customers and clientele. For me, the magic of the art of tattooing is still there, but it’s from a different view. I’m no longer an excited kid; I’m more of an old timer. I’ve been tattooing people longer than some of our customers have been alive. It’s still mysterious to me in ways, and I’m still learning, which keeps me interested.
What sets you apart from other companies doing the same thing—and what makes your studio so successful?
There’s so many tattoo artists and options and niches in the city. I feel that we’ve kept Great Lakes grounded. It’s a versatile shop—you can come in and get a little ‘souvenir’ tattoo, or a full Japanese body suit. Everyone here is doing solid work. You don’t have to wait months and months, like you might with other shops. Plus, we’re all working tattoo artists. If I have two appointments scheduled for a day, I’ll do tattoos in between those. There’s a lot of tattoo artists out there that like to take it easy. Their attitude is, “Tatooing is super chill—I get to do what I want, when I want to.” That’s great, but at the end of the day, it’s a service. Whether someone wants a star on their finger, or a back piece, you should be there to take care of it.
Also, when you open the door at Great Lakes, it looks like no other tattoo shop. I’ve been fortunate enough to with my wife work to make it really amazing; she’s the brains of the operation. We’ve set it up to be a place that everyone wants to be. There’s a lot of stuff on the wall reflecting the history of tattooing and the work. Everyone’s doing different things, and we all bring each other higher.
How is a tattoo studio different from other small businesses—and what might they have in common?
We struggle just like other small business. There are slow times, and busy times. We’re managing all different people, with different expectations. We’re all trying to make ends meet. Cash flow needs to stay on point. There’s a lot of similarities. What’s different from many is that there’s no inventory, per se—we’re not selling a thing, we’re selling an experience. When I started there were only seven shops in Chicago. Now there’s 200, and hundreds of tattoo artists working around the city. What we’re trying to do every day is get the point across that what we’re trying to do is true to us, but appealing to everyone else.
What were some of your biggest obstacles in getting your company off the ground?
The biggest obstacle was me breaking this marriage I had with Chicago tattoo. I grew up in that shop. I met my wife in that shop. It provided me with the resources I needed to build my career. I was super loyal to it, and I loved the people. Making the decision to finally leave was tough. It was weighing on my family and my marriage, but it was something I needed to do—that we needed to do. I had different visions for what I wanted to do as an artist. Financially, we had an angel investor that helped us out, and we had a great realtor helping us find a place, so we had lots of help getting off the ground. Really, it was making the decision that was the hardest.
Let’s talk about life before MSBP—what was your financial situation, and what were some of your finance-related challenges?
My wife is the brains of the operation. She handles the financial stuff, bills, marketing, shop management. All I want to do is tattoo. It’s a big shop—we’ve got a lot of expenses every month, and my wife has been trying to launch another venture as well. Between family and business, and the new business, time was thin. The candle was burning on both ends. We’d talked about getting a bookkeeper or accountant in house, but then we found Daliah through our accountant—he suggested her, and we said, “Let’s give it a shot.” We met with Daliah, and we hit it off. We liked her philosophy, and she’s not afraid to come out with the hard truth, to tell you things. It has been a big relief, especially for my wife, from the bookkeeping stuff. Now she can focus on running the shop and handling other general things.
How has MSBP helped you since you started working together?
She’s just gotten things in order and made sense of things, financially. It’s not uncommon in this industry to measure how busy you are by how many supplies you need to replenish at the end of the week. Daliah can look at the numbers and tell us if the business is profitable, and if we’re making money. She’s definitely given us a clearer picture of our financial situation.
What are your business’s goals for the future (both short- and long-term)?
My wife has an educational advocacy organization, Csquared, which helps families navigate schools for special-needs students, with things like individualized education programs (IEP)—she’s full-on into that now, and killing it. Long-term, I want Great Lakes Tattoo to live on for a long time. There are plenty of other shops doing good tattoos; I want to create an institution. As we grow, I want to focus more on tattoo history in the city, and tattoo history overall. I want to be able to take the burden of college away from my kids, take care of my mom as she gets older. I want security.
What would you say to a small business professional who hasn’t yet engaged with a financial services outfit like MSBP?
I would definitely suggest doing it. You have to play to your strengths. I know tattoos, I don’t know finances. It’s made a difference in our lives. It’s taken a lot off of our plate so we can focus on what we know.
If you’d like to join Great Lakes Tattoo in streamlining your small business finances, contact me at Daliah@MySmallBusinessPro.com.