How Tattoo Artists Saved an Advisor’s Business

A lesson in marketing and building a new RIA.

Colton Etherton (Courtesy photo)

Colton Etherton

(Courtesy photo)

A year ago, Colton Etherton was down on his luck.

After he was laid off from his job as the managing principal of Johnstone Financial Advisors, a Beaverton, Oregon-based wealth management firm, Etherton had established his own RIA, Out of the Office Planning, and joined XY Planning Network. But he was unable to bring any former clients with him and he was struggling to find new ones.

Some members of his XY Planning cohort were focused on serving a niche clientele, like fitness entrepreneurs or traveling nurses. Etherton also had his own group of professionals in mind, but his wife was leery about focusing on a group it seemed no other financial advisors were covering. “You need people that will help us pay the bills at this point,” Etherton said his wife told him.

Etherton tried catering to millennials, an entire generation, without much success.

“I thought millennials was a niche in itself, but it’s really still too broad,” he said. “I kind of had trouble with marketing because I’m trying to speak to so many people, in so many different roles and positions.”

In October 2021, after nine months and with only five clients, Etherton and his wife revisited an old idea and started targeting professionals they had a special affinity for: tattoo artists.

Etherton has always been interested in tattoos and admired the tattoo industry. Ink covers Etherton’s back and one of his arms in their entirety, and he has a couple more additional tattoos. “I looked it up [and said] ‘No one’s doing that.’ [Tattoo artists] are all basically self-employed, and so there’s a lot of planning opportunity if I can just be something different.”

Tattoo artists also make more money than someone might guess. The price of tattooing varies, but artists usually charge between $100 to $200 an hour, and their average income ranges between $50,000 and $75,000 per year. Although, Etherton said he’s talked to tattoo artists who consistently make $10,000 to $15,000 each month.

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In less than a week, he overhauled his website, Twitter and Instagram accounts, marketing materials, and rebranded himself “The Tattoo Artist Advisor.” Etherton also started a weekly podcast with guests including tattoo artists, companies focused on the industry, and other financial planners.

Focusing on a certain professional group can be a good way to attract prospective clients and grow an RIA. Many wealth managers cater their services specifically to doctors, lawyers, or professional athletes. Other professions are less common. At least one advisor intentionally works with many employees of New York state’s court system. At another wealth manager, a disproportionate number of clients are McDonald’s franchisees. Rick Kent, CEO and founder of Merit Financial Advisors, grew his Alpharetta, Georgia-based RIA to more than $5 billion by focusing on employees of telecommunications companies.

Etherton said the rebranding completely changed his business. He’s already added four tattoo artists as clients and has helped a few others with one-time, project-based plans. He went from averaging less than one call a month from prospective clients to a couple of calls every week, he said. Word is slowly spreading, and his marketing efforts have been fruitful.

Much of what Etherton does for tattoo artists is what he would do for any client, but the profession comes with some unique financial challenges.

“The general planning principles apply,” Etherton said. “It’s really just kind of bringing it into their language.”

Etherton compares the composition of a financial plan to the composition of a tattoo to help artists better understand the financial planning process.

“I can maybe learn to draw this tiger that [a tattoo artist] put on my arm, right? Just like someone could maybe learn to manage one area of their financial life,” Etherton tells prospective clients.

“[But] how do you compose this whole piece and make it all work together?” he said. “How did the artists go and put this tiger on my arm, so it sits just right and then the flowers and the stones match up with the rest of it?”

Many tattoo artists are independent contractors and are paid in cash. “A lot of them can make really good income. But it kind of goes out as fast as it comes in,” he said.

Sometimes they aren’t paying what they should in taxes, Etherton said. So, he explains the consequences of underreporting income, like not being able to get approved for a home loan or not paying enough into social security.

Tattoo artists often don’t have disability insurance through their workplace and Etherton helps them find policies.

Tattoo artists, because of the behaviors and risks associated with their profession, tend to pay more for disability insurance. Lifestyle is one of the four pillars of insurance underwriting (along with financial, medical and profession) and the presumed lifestyle of a profession can cause someone’s initial insurance quote to go up, Nicholas Ross, chief distribution officer at Financial Independence Group (FIG), told RIA Intel. Still, RIAs should always negotiate with the underwriter using the details of a client’s situation, Ross said.

Etherton hopes his RIA can maintain its new momentum and that he’ll be able to give back to the community of tattoo artists.

To help new tattoo artists begin their careers on good financial footing, Etherton also started a quarterly pro-bono financial planning apprenticeship. Etherton’s program will include a couple of meetings to help artists establish financial goals and a path of actions they can take to achieve them.

Holly Deaton (@HollyLDeaton) is a staff writer at RIA Intel and based in New York City.

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