Brief description of the business: Tommy Ray Cornett has been an artist his entire life. Whether drawing temporary tattoos on children in elementary school or sketching while stationed in Germany during his U.S. Army career, he has always been passionate about art. Tommy began his professional tattooing career in his hometown of Cincinnati in 1998 while attending the University of Cincinnati, where he majored in Design. Eight years later, he opened Bleed Blue Tattoo & Piercing Inc. in Lexington, KY and home of the University of Kentucky (UK).
Bleed Blue, a name reflecting the passion for UK’s “Big Blue Nation,” is the premier professional studio in the Lexington area in central Kentucky. The business was established there in January 2008 by Mr. Cornett, another artist and partner at the time, and Cornett’s future spouse, Jessica. The company’s mission, in addition to providing superb tattoos and piercings, is to educate the public on the appropriate safety and technical standards that should be expected from the industry, perform at the highest professional level, and eliminate stereotypes surrounding the tattoo and body piercing professions. Bleed Blue has famous clientele, including former UK basketball players who now play in the NBA, Ultimate Fighting Championship® (UFC) fighters, and famous musicians.
Since 2008, Bleed Blue Tattoo & Piercing Inc. has been in the same location, near the UK campus and young urban professionals. The company has expanded as other tenants in the building, including a message therapist and college students who rented apartments in the building, vacated the premises. Cornett did most of the renovations himself, removing walls, exposing brick and adding an artistic flair to an otherwise unremarkable building. Personnel expanded, too, and the company has won numerous regional and national awards for its artistry.
SBA Assistance: Because area banks would not consider a commercial or SBA-guaranteed loan for a tattoo business, Mr. Cornett faced financial challenges for many years, even though revenues grew almost 700% since 2008. Cornett approached Mr. Fausto Sarmiento, Senior Management Consultant with the Bluegrass SBDC, who helped Cornett develop a professional business plan and financial projections over a five month period in 2013.
Afterwards, Tommy Ray was successful in finding a medical doctor who invested in the company to enable Cornett to buy out his partner and stabilize cash flow. In fact, the doctor/angel investor commented that Bleed Blue “rivals the outpatient surgery center and hospital” where he works. This investment has allowed Cornett, as sole owner, the freedom to implement a strategic plan focusing on great artwork, promoting a clean, sterile environment, improving the image of the industry and expanding the business size. Mr. Cornett recently paid his investor in full and expects to grow revenue to over $1 million soon while paying off another loan for $100,000.
Number of employees: 4 employees and 10 contract artists/piercers.
Staying power: Bleed Blue Tattoo & Piercing, Inc. has survived despite inadequate financing. Few independent small businesses survive without proper cash flow, particularly in an economy as challenging as the one from 2008 – 2011.
Response to adversity or problems: While living in Cincinnati in 2001, Cornett presented a business plan for his tattoo concept to the city’s economic development agency. A representative from the agency told Cornett that his business plan was so well written that 18 copies were made and distributed to lenders for an SBA 504 loan. However, none of the nine lenders funded the project. Shortly after that, Cornett’s business had to endure riots and unrest in the city, and he guarded his business 24-7 during curfew imposed by the civil disorder. As the unrest dissipated, his business was then severely impacted by the September 11 terror attacks, which threw the economy into disarray and forced him out of business, and he lost everything.
After struggling for a few more years, Tommy Ray got out of the industry. He later moved to Lexington, KY and reestablished his business on a part time basis. A friend invested in what ultimately became Bleed Blue, and Cornett bought out that partner in 2013 and has guided the business to record levels of sales and profit. In fact, Cornett won the SBA 2014 Small Business Person of the Year award from the Kentucky District Office.
Community Involvement: Bleed Blue is a professional business that is also serious about its community involvement. The company routinely provides complimentary gift certificates as fundraising opportunities to many charitable organizations and events. Bleed Blue also contributes to causes for area schools, the Humane Society, Shop with a Cop, Make a Wish Foundation and the Fraternal Order of Police. Working with the Kentucky Dermatology & Cosmetic Surgery Center, Cornett recently promoted a “Worst Tattoo” contest to show how a cosmetic surgery process could actually become a way to hide, cover and transform tattoos.