Since launching on the campus of Miami University in Oxford, Ohio, Mad Rabbit has changed the game in the tattoo aftercare market. They are doing so by bringing change to an industry that is thousands of years old but one that has been largely resistant to innovation until recently. I sat down with Oliver Zak, co-founder of Mad Rabbit, to talk about their journey, community-driven product development process and unique retail strategy that allows them to take a different approach to brand building.
Dave Knox: How did you come up with the idea for Mad Rabbit
Oliver Zak: My co-founder Selom and I got started in business during our sophomore year in college. Selom introduced me to the concept of e-commerce, and we spent the next six months exploring how to build a brand online. We began with dropshipping, which taught us valuable lessons about building a brand and differentiating ourselves through customer service and ambassador programs. We couldn’t compete on product differentiation, but we learned how to succeed in other ways. After a few months, we sold that business for $7,000, which was a big win for us as college students. It showed us that we had a potential interest in pursuing this type of business further.
During our senior year, we were between jobs and looking for a new opportunity. I had a tattoo appointment, and I was frustrated with the recommendations for healing tattoos. Most of them involved petroleum jelly, which I felt was outdated and unhealthy. I asked my tattoo artist if there were any natural alternatives, and there weren’t. That’s when Selom and I decided to create our own natural tattoo care products.
We ordered ingredients from Amazon and local apothecaries and began experimenting with different formulations. Our first product was an all-natural tattoo balm made with seven natural ingredients. We used it for aftercare, and it worked well. Through marketing these products with Facebook ads, and that summer alone, we were able to generate $300,000 in sales. We later in 2021, developed a soothing gel that was more specific for tattoo healing, which continued to skyrocket the brand. This success showed us that we had found a need in the industry and that we had a viable product-market fit.
Selom and I learned a lot about building a brand through our dropshipping business. This experience helped us develop the skills we needed to create and market our own natural tattoo care products. We are proud to offer a safer, healthier alternative to traditional tattoo aftercare, and we are excited to continue growing our business.
Knox: You launched both of those businesses while students at Miami University. What advantages did this give you to connect with your target audience?
Zak: Miami is not known for being a particularly tattooed school. However, it does have a strong entrepreneurial ecosystem that supports and champions startups. Selom and I were able to leverage this ecosystem to launch our natural tattoo care products business. Our recently launched college ambassador program focuses on metropolitan areas where tattoos are more prevalent. This has helped us reach a wider audience and build our brand.
One of the resources that helped us get started was a business fraternity that we joined freshman year. This speaks to the resources available on campus for those interested in entrepreneurship. Outside of my finance degree, which helped me learn the language of business, the biggest value add for Miami while I was there was definitely the entrepreneurial community of students, faculty, and alumni from the school of business. This vibrant entrepreneurial community that helped us launch our business. We are grateful for the resources and support we received from the Farmer School and the larger community, which helped us turn our idea into a successful business.
Knox: What has been the driving force behind the success of Mad Rabbit?
Zak: I never thought I’d be the tattoo guy, but I’ve always been good at identifying areas of opportunity. I noticed that tattoos were becoming more popular, even though they’ve been around for thousands of years. In 2012, only 20% of US adults had a tattoo, but now in 2023, it’s closer to 50%. That’s a lot of growth in a short period of time. This trend isn’t just in the US, it’s global. Japan and South Korea just legalized tattooing, and self-expression is being championed through tattoos.
The tattoo industry was ripe for disruption. It’s historically been a cash-only, under-the-table business. There was never any formal training for tattoo artists, so you had to convince a shop to take you under their wing. This made it a pretty slow-to-adopt and exclusive community. Nowadays, there are tons of resources available online, and Mad Rabbit is passionate about helping aspiring artists.
Our success at Mad Rabbit came from addressing a pain point in the industry. Tattoos don’t always heal well, and a big reason for that is the recommendation of using petroleum jelly. It’s great for scrapes and cuts because it helps build up a scab, which protects against bacteria and dirt. But it’s terrible for tattoos because the ink gets stuck in the scabs, and when they fall off, your tattoo can look awful in week two. That’s frustrating when you’ve spent thousands of dollars and hours of pain on your tattoo.
We saw an opportunity to innovate and offer a better solution for tattoo aftercare. People resonated with our clean and natural tattoo care products because they worked, and they addressed a real problem. We’re proud to offer a safer, healthier alternative to traditional tattoo aftercare, and we’re excited to continue growing our business.
Knox: Why did you decide go on Shark Tank and what’s been the impact on the business since then?
Zak: I wasn’t the one who applied to Shark Tank, it was actually my partner Selom. I grew up watching the show with my family every Friday since I was 13 years old. My dad is an entrepreneur, and I always knew that I wanted to do my own thing one day. So when we got the call that Shark Tank was interested, it was like a childhood dream come true.
Being on Shark Tank gave us access to a huge audience, even if they weren’t necessarily our target customer. The people who watch the show aren’t necessarily heavily tattooed, but they might have nieces, nephews, or grandkids who are interested in tattoos. That goes a long way for gifting during the holiday season and overall brand awareness.
It was an amazing experience, and we learned a lot from the sharks. We were able to secure a deal with Mark Cuban, who has been a great partner for us, and still is. He’s been very supportive and has helped us navigate the retail landscape. We’re grateful for the opportunity that Shark Tank gave us, and we’re excited to see where Mad Rabbit goes from here.
Knox: Since launching the original healing balm, you have expanded across multiple products. What drives that product innovation strategy in deciding something’s the right product to launch under Mad Rabbit?
Zak: At Mad Rabbit, we’re proud to say that a lot of our product ideas come from our community. We’ve become an umbrella for a bunch of different subcultures who are passionate about wearing their hearts on their sleeves. We have surfers, chefs, hairstylists, tattoo artists, and more. All of these people are brought under the Mad Rabbit umbrella, and they connect on things like sharing tattoos, best tips and tricks.
Most excitingly for us, we get to leverage conversations between the brand and our consumers. Most of our products have actually come from ideation within our online communities. They’ve asked for soaps, lotions, and other products, which is really exciting because it extends beyond the aftercare period. We’re able to focus on daily care and maintenance, which is really important for long-term care of tattooed skin.
A lot of the CPG giants out there are formulating for the mass consumer, and until the number of US adults with at least one tattoo passes 51%, they don’t see it as a market worth formulating for. But we’re small and nimble, and we listen to our customers. We can ideate and innovate accordingly.
Once we have those ideas, we move on to the prototyping and product development stage. We get samples from our chemist and our manufacturer. And then one of our final checks is with Dr. Elliot Love, who is on our advisory board. He’s a tattooed dermatologist and skin cancer surgeon. He’s a strong point of authority that we’re able to leverage from a scientific ingredient perspective to put the cherry on top, if you will.
Knox: Your retail strategy is also unique in that you sell not only through direct to consumer but also places like Urban Outfitters, GNC, and tattoo shops across the country. What led you to this strategy versus chasing a mass retailer initially?
Zak: We definitely want to be wherever our customers want to buy us, including mass retailers. But our initial strategy was direct-to-consumer online only, through Shopify, Facebook, and Amazon. That’s how we reached our million customers today.
Once we gained some brand awareness, we started launching in “brand accretive” retailers, like Urban Outfitters. Many of our customers are under 35 years old living in metropolitan areas are passionate young people, which is exactly Urban Outfitters’ customer base.
We also saw an opportunity in the health and wellness industry. Health fans care about what they put in and on their bodies, and they want their tattoos to look good too. That’s why GNC saw a great opportunity for us to expand beyond supplements and into skincare.
The tattoo parlor channel is really important for us. It’s point of care, billboard space. We sell aftercare products where they’re needed and when they’re needed, and most importantly, we get the artist’s recommendation on our side. The tattoo artist is the authority on how to heal a tattoo, so winning over their recommendation is crucial.
With the tattoo industry approaching 51% of US adults having at least one tattoo, the artist is really the bread and butter for us. We also have the opportunity to sell in other fragmented retailers like surfers, skateboarders, chefs, hair stylists, and barbers. Tattoos are the common link that can sell across various channels.
Knox: With your recent Series A funding from Lucas Brand Equity, what are the plans for the business as you bring in this funding?
Zak: Part of the funds we raised are for building out our boots-on-the-ground sales team. There are about ~30,000 tattoo parlors in the US, and it’s a really important space for us to win over. We’ve always been a strictly digital brand, so building a big sales team is a new venture for us.
We’re also looking to up our content production. We’re opening a headquarters in Los Angeles this spring/summer that will serve as a content-enabled tattoo studio. Our pro team artist will be tattooing there, capturing 360 content, and providing product testimonials. We’re also giving them a space to record and grow their own personal brand, which is an exciting opportunity for us to empower them and provide mutual value.
Lastly, we’re focusing on additional product development. Most of our products today are consumer-facing, but we’re working on innovations that will give the artist a better tattoo experience. This will go a long way in winning over their recommendation for aftercare and daily maintenance.