Georgina Schiavelli, Owner of Black Diamond Body Piercing, didn’t set out to own the only shop in Connecticut completely dedicated to body piercing.
Schiavelli started piercing as an apprentice when she was 19. “At the time I thought: Isn’t this an amazingly cool job? Isn’t this a great thing to do while I figure out what I want to do with my life?” she remembers. “I really didn’t know it was going to turn into a forever job.”
While attending college at the University of Hartford, Schiavelli continued professional piercing and slowly began to realize—although she enjoys learning—she wasn’t interested in anything “school-wise.” During her second semester she decided to pierce full time at a tattoo shop where she became the sole piercer.
After about six or seven years of working at the tattoo shop, she began questioning herself. “I remember thinking: I love my job, but I don’t love it here. I couldn’t figure out the disconnect at first. Then I started realizing it was because piercing was not the focus of the place I worked,” she says.
“Piercing is kind of funny. It’s not a very old industry. Mainstream-wise, in America, it started to come around maybe in the 1980s,” Schiavelli notes. “Body piercing had always been lumped in with tattoo shops. Tattoos are an established industry, they are body modifications, so of course it makes sense to just extend that.”
While working at that shop, over time, she says, “I began wondering: What if I were to do something differently? What if I could change things?” She adds, “I didn’t connect the idea to opening my own place yet, but that’s when I started to think there could be so much more to offer my clients.”
SPARKING THE STARTUP
In 2008, on somewhat of a whim, she began exploring her “what if.” After a particularly challenging day at work, she went for a walk on Park Road in West Hartford when she saw a building for rent.
“I didn’t necessarily know this would be the spot where I was going to be,” she recalls. “I thought: Wouldn’t that be something if I opened a piercing shop?”
Schiavelli envisioned a shop that was centered on piercing, because she explained, “Piercing clientele is not really the same as tattoo clientele. They are not looking for the same qualities in a shop.”
Schiavelli wrote down the rental contact number and decided to investigate. She found out the rent was reasonable and continued her research by calling the zoning board.
“I needed to know what parts of West Hartford a piercing shop could be in. I found out, due to the zoning for personal services, I actually had to stay on Park Road, I didn’t have a choice if I wanted this business in this town,” she says.
Being a self-proclaimed optimist, she decided, “If I’m going to do this, I’m going to do it right. I’m going all in.”
FINDING HER HAPPY PLACE IN WEST HARTFORD
“The biggest motivator for me to stay in West Hartford was the fact that I had spent a decade building this clientele in this specific place,” Schiavelli says. “I felt like I earned my place in West Hartford.”
She adds, “But also, this is where I’ve lived since I was 18. I stayed in Connecticut because I love it here. West Hartford is my happy place. And, I as soon as I opened and started really getting into the growing of the business, it really felt right. I knew this was the place for Black Diamond. I think this area of West Hartford has come into its own the past few years, and I’m really glad that we are part of it.”
ENTREPRENEUR AT HEART
It turns out Schiavelli had always had an entrepreneurial drive—although she didn’t specifically intend to become a business owner.
“I have a very independent spirit, so I think I basically created a job for myself because I always knew I was going to have a really hard time finding a little corner for myself in the business world,” she says.
“Some people have very specific skills, for example my sister is a math geek, now she’s a research analyst,” she adds. “I never had an interest that could turn into a job, which—now that I look back—I definitely did. But “who knew piercing was going to be a viable option long term job.”
BECOMING A BUSINESS OWNER
When asked about developing her business concept, Schiavelli is quick to note that she wasn’t “super organized” at first. “Until I got to that real point of: This is the place I want, this is the rent, this is the everything, I had no plan. I had nothing written down. I had no budget in mind. I had nothing,” she says.
Fortunately for Schiavelli, she had the support of her long-time accountant, who encouraged her to open the business and loaned her money to get it off the ground. “He told me, ‘I’ve known you for 11 years, you are an amazing piercer, you’re smart girl, you can do this.’ And he wrote me a check.”
Schiavelli says she cashed out her IRA and worked with TD Bank, which matched the amount of money she had in her credit line. Her accountant matched the total. “That’s all I had,” she recalls. “I honestly didn’t know if it was enough.”
Armed with funds, she met with the landlord of the building she wanted to rent, who owns a plumbing business. He liked her business idea and was amenable to helping her build out her shop. Schiavelli says she spent 50% of her funds building the shop. She saved by doing a lot of the work herself, putting in long hours painting, installing floors, and hanging art and fixtures.
“Until I got the TD Bank loan I didn’t need to have anything in writing,” she says. “I wrote a business plan in about three hours. I got on my computer, looked up ‘what’s a business plan,’ and threw it all on paper.”
BUSINESS PLANNING SKILLS
That was in 2008. Since then, Black Diamond Body Piercing has evolved a lot and has been awarded the Hartford Advocate’s “Best Piercing Shop” from 2009 through 2015.
Most of the shop’s marketing is word-of-mouth, although Schiavelli notes social media did help a little.
Schiavelli says she worked alone the first two years doing all of the piercing, answering phones, and making appointments. In her third year of business, she took on an apprentice.
“Before I hit that third year mark, I had been putting in the time, I didn’t pay myself, I was bare-bones living off tips for years,” Schiavelli remembers. “As soon as I hit the end of that third year, that’s when everything started to snowball—in a good way.”
She continued by saying, “All those initial things I paid for were all the sudden paying for themselves. Instead of me constantly pulling money out of what would’ve been my paycheck to get more jewelry, the jewelry was moving enough that it was paying for the next order, which was paying for the next one, which meant there were profits and I could get my loans down.” But, Schiavelli emphasizes, “It was still rough.”
Schiavelli is proud to say she paid off her investor in three years, paid off her TD Bank loan the following year, and paid off her last credit card within a year of that.
“So, at five years I was 100% out of debt. That’s when I focused on building a staff because I could afford one. I could have a payroll and not be worrying about all that little stuff,” she says.
“I didn’t even realize that I was planning so well because I wasn’t planning. But I thought: The business has paid off its loans, let’s maybe get a receptionist. Then, once I was comfortable with the payroll, I thought: Let’s give her a raise and a little more responsibility,” Schiavelli remembers.
“It was just little baby steps. And just seeing what worked and what didn’t,” she says. “At first I thought I really needed a receptionist who answered phone. It became very clear very quickly I needed that person to do more than that if this was going to flow well because we suddenly got so busy. Then I realized I really need two managers who have their own list of responsibilities.”
Eventually, the Black Diamond staff grew to five employees, including Schiavelli. “When we got to the point of having a third piercer that’s when I really had this ‘I am the owner, this is my job’ kind of mentality,” she recalls.
“I still pierce when personal clients ask for me, but for the most part I am now just the hub that holds it all together, which weirdly wasn’t necessarily my dream,” Schiavelli notes. “I love piercing, but it’s a lot of work, and this is a lot of work. I can’t really do both anymore. I’m trying to accept the fact my new role is not the front and center part of it anymore. It is a little heartbreaking to go from being the entire shop to being the background.”
With regard to learning business management skills, Schiavelli says, “I never would’ve pegged myself as a fly-by-the-seat-of-my-pants kind of girl, but I clearly am one. I’ve accepted that over the last few years; it’s obviously my comfort zone.”
She adds, “Ever since I started making decisions without overthinking things everything in my life seems to be just better.”
LIFE AS AN ENTREPRENEUR
Schiavelli didn’t always view herself as entrepreneurial. “Now that I see what I’m capable of, I definitely see myself as an entrepreneur. It’s definitely part of who I am,” she says.
“I’ve always had a very hard time following the rules. As a kid I was told I was a rebel. And it wasn’t that I was very rebellious, I just had a hard time not being myself,” she adds. “So I guess, in a lot of ways, I’ve always been an entrepreneur and I just never knew that’s what it meant to be one. In hindsight it’s very obvious.”
Schiavelli recalls that her dad was very encouraging of that entrepreneurial spirit. “I think he recognized it in me,” she says. “When I was a teenager, he told me: Don’t worry so much about what you’re going to do. You’re going to love something, and when you find what it is, just do it. He told me: Don’t worry, you’re going to be fine.”
This advice has stayed with Schiavelli and she passes it along to other entrepreneurs, adding, “It is really scary to be an entrepreneur. You need to be one of those people who can embrace the rebellious spirit that everyone has. You need to be the kind of person who can trust your gut. If you really know yourself and you really think you can do it, you can probably do it.”