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Tyler Handley's company markets almost entirely through influencers.kayla rocca/The Globe and Mail

Inkbox’s headquarters, spread out across a second floor former gym in Toronto’s King West neighbourhood, looks a lot like Inkbox’s Instagram feed. Both are busy and highlighter bright, populated by a diverse cast of intimidatingly cool 20-somethings, all with tattoos displayed prominently on their forearms or etched onto ankles and upper thighs. Some of these tattoos are the genuine article; others are temporary, fading in a week or two. It’s impossible to tell them apart—which is entirely the point.

Before the company hit 112 employees (this year), before it raised US$13-million in Series A funding (last year) and before it began moving 60,000 units (each month) to people in 100 countries around the world, Inkbox was the brainchild of two brothers with serious social media savvy and some commitment issues. “We’re millennials: We’re part of a generation that’s fluid and changing rapidly, and we wanted tattoos without the permanence,” says Tyler Handley, who founded Inkbox with his younger sibling, Braden. “We could not believe there wasn’t an option that sat between the cheap temporary tattoos we had as kids that flaked away and something that’s forever.”

They caught wind of a natural formula derived from genipa americana, a fruit found in Central and South America that, like henna, temporarily stains skin. Unlike henna, though, this dye is a deep navy blue—a much better ringer for actual ink. With no capital and student loans still to pay, the brothers threw together a Kickstarter page in 2015 for what they called “the world’s first two-week tattoo.” While companies like Tattly and Inkwear sell water transfers that rub off in a few days, Inkbox backers could enjoy tattoos for as long as it took their skin to regenerate. Now they could also choose from among hundreds of available designs applied by peeling and applying pressure. The Handleys thought raising $20,000 would be sufficient to prove a market. Instead, they collected more than $275,000 in six weeks.

The pair set up an Instagram account three months before Inkbox even had its website sorted. It was a happy marriage of product and platform: The photogenic semi-permanent tattoos complemented the highly visual app, and the brothers flooded their feed with images of Inkbox-adorned family and friends. By the time the online store launched, thousands of followers were already weighing in on tattoo artists to collaborate with, designs to consider and cost. “Instagram is validation, simple as that,” Handley says. “But it also builds a community with our audience.” The company, which has since amassed 1.2 million followers, responds to every direct message, and employees are encouraged to wade into the comments, whether that’s by making jokes, sharing experiences or confronting trolls—like the ones who objected to the “I Believe Her” tattoo, released after the Brett Kavanaugh confirmation hearings on sexual assault allegations, with proceeds donated to the Time’s Up movement.

Authenticity is a tricky quality for any company to consciously generate, much less one that trades in fake tattoos. But Inkbox’s “brand authenticity” is about being progressive and inclusive, Handley says, and Instagram gives the company a megaphone for championing the social causes that affect team members and resonate strongly with a young audience. Mental health, the #MeToo movement and trans rights all feature prominently in the company’s feed. Last February, Inkbox’s head of creator marketing, a young Caribbean-Canadian woman named Danielle Harvey, decided to only post Instagram content from black creators and customers; since then, the feed is at least 15% black users and artists, who are under-represented in the tattoo world. “The position we took is that we would actually make positive change,” Handley says. “We’ve even spent money on influencers of colour to promote them on our site and attract a more inclusive audience.”

Inkbox now has a three-person team dedicated to finding influencers with high engagement in the company’s top markets—especially in the U.S., which accounts for 60% of sales. But increasingly, the influencers are in-house. Inkbox’s receptionist, for example, has nearly 107,000 followers on her personal Instagram account, and Handley suspects his employees have more combined followers than most companies in Canada. However, recent changes to Instagram—hiding likes and switching its algorithm to prioritize paid advertising over organic engagement—has prompted Inkbox to investigate other methods for reaching new customers.

There are more social media platforms to mine, for starters. The company is growing its YouTube presence and sees 10 million visits on Pinterest every month. Then there is TikTok, the short-form video sharing app that in early 2019 hit one billion downloads, two-thirds of them by users under 30. So far, TikTok hasn’t received much attention from companies, but when Inkbox created an account this summer, Handley discovered its hashtag had already been shared five million times. (Inkbox’s fluorescent-yellow wrapping lends itself particularly well to “unboxing videos,” in which users film themselves opening packages.) “TikTok is a lot more spontaneous than Instagram,” he says. “We’re thinking about how we can replicate that spontaneity as a brand.”

But the company also has something far more conventional in mind: launching several bricks-and-mortar stores. It's a smart strategy to draw in Gen Z customers, 95% of whom visited a physical retail store last year (as opposed to 75% of millennials). “Social media is perfect for brand storytelling, but in order for shoppers to engage, they need to be active, and I think a physical store is the best way to do that,” says Christian Bourque, a partner at Léger Marketing, a Montreal-based research firm. “Gen Z still has a preference for being where people gather.”

So Inkbox is eyeing locations in Brooklyn and Los Angeles. There's also been enthusiasm for the product in Salt Lake City—"Mormons really respond to us,” Handley says. And in late July, the company opened its first shop, on Toronto's Queen West strip. There, in addition to a backroom permanent tattoo studio, Inkbox introduced an upgraded version of its product, which allows for designs with shading, greater detail and small imperfections. They look exactly like Inkbox's original tattoos, just a little more… authentic.