Born on a military base in the U.S., but raised in England, Elisha Belden, Owner of Twistid Ink, moved at a young age with her family to Inverness to be closer to her grandparents. She started college as a Theater major, but halfway through realized that a Theater degree wouldn’t produce the results she wanted. Instead, she opted for actual work experience and spent several years in New York and Connecticut doing stage management and back-end technical theater work. She returned to Florida in 2005 and ended up in retail management. She spent close to 10 years as an Area Manager with Famous Footwear before finding a love and a gift for writing – a discovery that would open many new doors.
“The whole writing thing kind of fell into my lap,” Belden said. “I did transcriptions to start and was able to get into a few different companies by taking grammar tests. This was around 2016. I eventually started writing for a few different online magazines and newspapers, including Tattoo.com. I’d write about the history and many uses of tattoos.”
Belden continued, “That same year, I rekindled a relationship with Danny, my high school boyfriend – who happened to be working as a tattoo artist. He was at a local shop and one day we started talking about how we should open our own tattoo shop. It was one of those things where we knew we could do it better, so we went for it.”
According to Belden, the search for the right location took a few weeks of looking at spaces on a daily basis. The space they discovered was nearly move-in ready. The landlord was familiar with the tattoo businesses – and their specific needs – so the renovation was geared towards that. By June 2016, Twistid Ink was open for business.
“We actually opened two weeks early because we were so booked out,” Belden said. “We didn’t even have a sign, but people heard what we were doing and they wanted to come check us out. Things got crazy fast.”
For Belden, the entire experience of launching her own business was, as she put it, “interesting”. As an Area Manager with Famous Footwear, she had corporate backing and funds to grow her stores. As an entrepreneur with a small business, however, she had to rely on personal savings and was required to wear many hats.
“I had the confidence and the ability to do it, but I’ve never done something like this without corporate backing,” she said. “It was definitely nerve racking.”
Belden added, “We also had to work through several challenges. Between the two of us, we have four kids and, in the early stages of growing the business, I was still writing to earn a living. We didn’t have a budget for marketing, so we had to rely on word-of-mouth, grassroots marketing and handing out business cards.”
Belden shared that, for most customers, trust is a huge factor when considering which tattoo parlor to patronize. Many also prefer a private room when getting tattooed. These factors were taken into consideration when Belden and Danny designed the space and they continue to be a key differentiator as they work to set themselves apart from other tattoo shops.
“In addition to the private room, which is pretty unique in our industry, we also work by appointment only,” Belden said. “By eliminating walk-ins, we’ve changed the clientele drastically. We get a lot of older clients getting their first tattoo. We also get mastectomy cover-ups and do cover-ups for women that were once forced into sex trafficking. In fact, we work with a non-profit called Survivors Inc., who funds the cover-ups for these girls and women. Often times they’re marked with symbols or barcodes. As an approved shop, we’re able to help these girls cover up the horrible reminders.”
Aside from the obvious joys of providing a safe and enjoyable experience for tattoo lovers – as well as those getting their first ink – to add to their collections, Belden enjoys interacting with her customers and building a community.
“It’s more of a lifestyle brand than a service,” she said. “Our customers consider themselves family. They also follow us on social media and get involved in our lives. They buy our apparel and wear our stuff. We have a branded hashtag sticker we use for marketing and have found them all over the place.”
Belden added, “When we got shutdown by the state of Florida because of COVID, I was involved with the governor’s office trying to get us back open. Our customers saw articles about how I was having meetings with the governor’s office and they got involved and sent out emails on our behalf. It’s so cool to see our clients get that involved. It feels like one big family.”
Looking ahead, Belden and Danny, now married, are focused on continuing to work towards their five-year plan. This includes introducing apparel, adding additional locations – first in Florida and then throughout the U.S. – and eventually expanding to Europe. They continue to reach new and existing clients through live feeds on their Facebook page and are focused on a goal of acquiring 1,000 true fans – a number Belden shared is key to traction and stability.
What advice does Belden have for aspiring entrepreneurs? “The biggest thing for someone with no background in entrepreneurship is to start your new business as a side project,” she said. “You need to be able to fund your life without the stress of having to rely on your new business to pay your bills. Also, branding is so important. Develop a mission statement and stick with it.”