NEW BUSINESS: Starting over in the Gem State

Cosmetic tattoo artist Laura Reed came to Idaho for the lifestyle, and she’s restarting her startup.

adutton@idahostatesman.comJune 20, 2012 

Laura Reed, a 51-year-old doctor of optometry, lives in Caldwell. She’d launched her business, Artistic Cosmetic Solutions, about six years ago in southern California. She relaunched it in the Treasure Valley four months ago.

Reed has been a doctor since 1985 and is licensed in Idaho and California, holding a current Drug Enforcement Administration registration that allows her to give drugs that are off-limits to other tattoo artists. Reed is now one of the state’s few tattoo artists specializing in permanent makeup tattoos (such as for permanent eyeliner or lip liner) including for medical issues (such as for missing eyebrows or eyelashes after chemotherapy or hair-loss disorders).

Q: How did you finance your business?

A: Initial startup money came from a home equity line of credit. I also continued working part time as an optometrist for additional income. Relocation and reopening costs were paid with personal credit lines and savings.

Q: When do you expect to turn a profit?

A: In California, it took about three years [to turn a profit], which was sooner than the average of four to seven years for this industry. That can be attributed to the unique marketing niche of being an artist and doctor plus quality of results. In Idaho, excluding reopening costs, it should be faster, since my business and reputation are already established and fixed overhead is significantly lower (e.g., I no longer pay $16,000 per year in rent alone). I draw patients from other states and countries, so I am not fully dependent on the local market.

Q: How did you set your fees?

A: My fees will never be the lowest due to procedure costs (my equipment and needles are the safest, hence most expensive), plus the amount of time, quality, safety and service that I provide each person. My fees were at least 10 percent higher in California, and I didn’t offer specials. Here in Idaho, my fees are less, and I’m offering discounts to make my services more affordable. With the specials, my pricing is less than the highest priced artists in the area, who do not have the same credentials.

Q: What led you to open this business?

A: Instead of opening my own optometry practice, I entered the contact lens and pharmaceutical industries, working for companies like Johnson & Johnson. During those years, I also earned an MBA. So my background is a mix of private practice, clinical research, marketing, sales training, technical writing and practice management consulting.

After 9-11, I didn’t want to travel and fly as much, so I returned to private practice as an associate. But I was still working for others and not myself, so I began looking for a career change that wouldn’t require going back to school for many years.

When I had my permanent makeup done for the first time, the artist, Heather, and I chatted about my desire for different work. ... She knew about my medical background [and artistic interests] and said, “You’ve GOT to do this — we need more people like you to raise the bar on this profession.” Heather recommended some top schools for training, and from there I took the baton and ran with it.

Q: What makes your business unique and sets it apart from your competition?

A: I am the only permanent makeup artist in Idaho who is board certified, plus I am a certified professional in the field. That means I passed nationally standardized written exams, an oral exam and a practical exam on all aspects of permanent cosmetics.

Starting my original practice in a highly populated area like Southern California allowed me to perform thousands of procedures in a few years, which really honed my skills. Also, the racial and ethnic diversity there increased my expertise of how pigments perform in different skin tones. I also gained a lot of experience correcting bad permanent makeup done by others.

I’m one of few health care professionals nationwide who practices cosmetic tattooing (10 percent are registered nurses, 2 percent are physicians). This is important since Idaho, like most states, has no health department regulations for this industry.

Q: Why does that matter?

A: Permanent makeup is an invasive procedure, so it is critical that an artist knows, understands and practices correct disease control standards consistently. As a medical professional, I do that on “auto-pilot,” which is why many medical doctors and RNs refer to me and are also my patients. Painful procedures are avoided because I can use topical anesthetics that are stronger than the over-the-counter products used by nonmedical artists.

Q: What challenges have you faced, and how have you met them?

A: Many schools and trainers offering permanent makeup courses portray this field as lucrative. But it’s not. The startup and operating costs are much higher than expected. A big challenge is the potential customer base — a tiny percentage of the population desires these services; plus they are not high-return services like haircuts or manicures.

Competition was higher in Orange County, but with a geographic draw [of] over 20 million, I was still able to carve out a niche. Marketing and time helped grow my business. ... The big challenge here is a much smaller customer base to draw from. I’m counting on that being supplemented with patients continuing to fly or drive long distances for procedures like they did before.

Since reopening, in addition to locals, I’ve seen patients who flew in from Sacramento and Memphis for their procedures. Several out-of-state “girlfriend groups” are now planning spring and summer road trips here, so I’ve been promoting the local wine country, and that’s been a great added-bonus incentive.

The last challenge will be learning the seasonal business fluctuations for this area. I knew which months were my busiest and slowest in California, but they will likely be different here due to climate and recreational activities. So I won’t know the pattern for at least a year.

Q: What do you hope to achieve in the next three to five years?

A: We moved here to slow down and enjoy a better quality of life, so continuing to work 14-hour days is out. But I love what I do and don’t want to quit. Although I don’t expect, or want to be, as busy as I was in California, I’d like my business here to grow to a steady yet comfortable pace. That way I’ll still be helping others but also have time for family, friends, community and myself.

Audrey Dutton: 377-6448

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