The 2015 edition of the pan-European startup contest Idea Challenge sees an increase in variety and internationality. The series of events re…
When Christine Zimmer quit her job to open a tattoo model agency in 2010, she had big goals in mind. Three years ago she met Mike Waldthaler and found someone she decided to live and work with. Now, after almost five years of bringing ink, fashion and art together, the Graz-based company not only grew their community but also developed their products and services further. While both admit that it is not always easy to share the office and their flat, which, on top of everything, is one and the same place, they seem to have found a balance that works for both of them.
Mike and Christine during the interview on their terrace; Photo credit: Martin Haburaj
When Christine and Mike talk business to their friends and close team members these days, they refer to themselves as “we are the BUNNY SKULL family.” With regional, high quality products the BUNNY SKULL label - the duo's second, high-end brand - combines tradition and luxury in a modern fashion. It is their current focus and, while TATTOOMODELS.AT is still their main gig, the luxury label, is the concept they identify with. “We spend a lot of time with our co-workers and it has become a kind of a family to us.”
TATTOOMODELS.AT is a model agency with an unusual concept – rather than searching for models that fit catalogue standards, their selection criterion is concerned with the quality and amount of colour and ink on one’s skin. Moreover, their online platform features merchandise articles as well as t-shirts and jewellery of the BUNNY SKULL brand. As a flagship product, their premium label also features organic and regionally produced Vodka with gold leaves that is available from 300 euros.
Emergence of the company
The business is Christine’s brainchild, so also the background of the company is closely entangled with her professional development (read more in our profile). Starting off as a graphic designer and tossing everything away to found her own company, creative work has been the recurring theme throughout her career. “We work a lot with semi-professional models, so we often have to play the role of a mentor and caregiver,” Christine describes her task next to being CEO of the company.
Since they are working together with many models (currently that’s about 150), photographers and exhibition staff, there is always some reason for laughter. “We have so many different personalities in our circles so running gags evolve constantly and might stick to a person for up to a year,” Christine explains with a smile. One of these causes for internal jokes is Mike’s tendency for double negatives. “If he is on a shooting set and says something like: ‘So, no one does nothing now, okay?’ People will stand there and look at each other with a quizzical look on their face, not knowing what to do now.” While everyone might get teased for his or her personal peculiarities, this is exactly what binds the team together. “Everyone teases everyone else but all of this happens in a loving environment. We talk to each other on equal footing.”
No one is like the other in our team and that’s how we like it.”
The BUNNY SKULL-label and its symbol can be found at many places in the company. Be it Christine’s ear-studs, or the screw caps of the Vodka bottles, the creepy-cute gnawer head is everywhere. “The people equipped with T-shirts, rings and necklaces are the core of our team. We hand out the BUNNY SKULL for outstanding performances, as a sign of appreciation and also as a motivational boost for others in the team. You have to consider that the rings start at 300 euros.” The fact that these tokens of gratitude have to be returned by the team members when they leave the company makes obvious the symbolic character of this gesture. “Just like at the military you have to return your insignia,” she adds.
The main office of the company is based in the founder’s flat. The loft over the roofs of Graz is not only home to Christine and Mike, but also to three white dogs, one of them still a puppy. While their desks are within an arm’s reach, a lot of work is done outside their four walls – they have close contacts with many hotels, restaurants and even brothels in the city where many of their photo shoots or events take place.
The TATTOOMODELS.AT and BUNNY SKULL Family are, literally, a motley crew and so have to be new employees if they want to join the team. But as diverse as this business family might be, some core values are vital. “Trust and honesty is a major issue for us. Sometimes we send people with jewellery collections worth 70,000 – 80,000 euros to Kitzbühel and if they are suddenly gone, we’ve got a problem.” If something is not working out the founder team reacts quickly and makes necessary decisions on a pragmatic level. “I once realised that something was wrong with the team and decided to let go almost 30 per cent of the models. Afterwards everything went back to normal and I knew it was a rough, but just the right decision.” For Christine, the team members are the heart of the company because they not only create the external image but also shape the inwards structure of the business. “No one is like the other in our team and that’s how we like it.”
There is no clear-cut line between private and business in the founders’ lifestyle. Mike is very active in the biker scene and when the two of them visit a bike event, often the whole core-team comes along. With Choppers, Harleys and off-road bikes, the “European Bike Week” at the Faaker See and also the Motor Bike Expo in Verona are a must for the BUNNY SKULL family. Moreover, the team is regularly present at exhibitions and tattoo-conventions throughout Austria.
Food in Daily Life
Since their office is also their flat, most often they eat at home where Mike is the one and only chef of the kitchen. For the coffee-connoisseur with Italian roots eating together is a ritual. They even have a ban on mobile phones at the table. “Meal time is private time. When the table is cleared the work continues,” Mike explains emphatically.
Food Customs at Ceremonial Occasions
New Year’s Eve is a cause to celebrate for the team and last year the whole business family was invited to party. “We work together with the ‘Clocktower’, the biggest steakhouse in Graz, so we like to go there to celebrate.” While Christine admits that they have neglected celebrating recent successes she is sure the five year celebration next year will make up for that.
There is no clear cut distinction between private life and business; one flows into the other.”
Symbols of Social Stratification
“For BUNNY SKULL you can’t go to business meetings with a crappy car and you can’t appear at a marketing appointment with a nokia 3310,” Mike says of his pragmatic view on status symbols. While within the team no one cares about the latest tech stuff, a stratification element takes on another aspect. “Status is rather demonstrated by who has got more tattoos. Who’s got a new one? Where is it? How big is it? Maybe I should get one more too! All in all there is a bit of a competition – but to be honest, that’s what keeps us going and motivates us to constantly develop further.”
Leadership and Officials
Despite an open and friendly atmosphere, everyone in the company is aware the Christine and Mike have the last word in decisions. “I worked very hard for what I have today – and if I give my responsibilities to someone else, they could ruin everything within a minimum of time.” There are months where the team has to work seven days a week because the exhibitions are on the weekends and the normal workflow during the week is still high. “If we are on the road we share our rooms in hotels and live together for some days. There is no clear cut distinction between private life and business; one flows into the other.”
Social Problems and Controls
“Ambition is something that can stand in your way. We expect a lot from the people we work with, especially me,” admits Christine and adds that sometimes this can be a source of discussions. “Moreover, sometimes our models or co-workers get on a roll and have to be brought back down to earth again. But most of the time everything is sorted quickly. I can’t even name five examples of serious conflicts in our team.”
The core team consists mostly of freelancers and for the founder this is also why there a good climate in the company. “It’s no must to work with us - but people who do, do it with much blood, sweat and tears and that’s probably why it works so smoothly.”
Division of Labour by Gender/Ethnicity
While there are more female models and more male photographers working with the company, the core-team, consisting of about 10 members, is balanced.
Christine refers motivational and inspirational literature to everyone, but the team literature mostly consists of professional journals and photo magazines. “When I hold a book or magazine in my hands, first of all I notice the picture, the layout and the content only comes second to me. Mike, on the other hand, is our walking Wikipedia – he reads a lot and knows just about everything.”
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