February 22, 2014 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Joe “Smitty” Smith runs a seemingly typical tattoo parlor Downtown, complete with 13 staff members and regular clients. But it’s what Big Brain Productions, located in the Old Market, also provides for employees (401(k) benefits, paid vacations, and a holiday trip to Costa Rica) that makes it stand out.

“I just try to do what’s right for people who take their careers as seriously as the people I have working for me. I try to live up to the standards that they set in their careers as a shop owner,” Smitty says.

As the company has grown over its last 14 years, so have its employee benefits. For example, Big Brain has been offering health insurance for eight years.

Smitty says he had many ideas about what he wanted his tattoo business to be when he was “young and hungry” but struggles to find new ideas moving forward. This drive has led to the parlor’s most recent changes.

“I don’t think you can stand still ever in business,” Smitty says. “I felt like I was at that point where I was kind of standing still, so I said we need to shake it up a little bit, and that’s why we’re doing that big remodel out there.”

Renovations include taking out a space-monopolizing desk and moving iPads that previously hung on a wall to a new area, where they showcase each of the artists’ portfolios.

One such artist, David Brown, has been piercing at Big Brain for five years. He says he joined the parlor because it was a “good fit.” Brown had worked in restaurant management and found the transition to be natural, thanks to a shared business mindset with Smitty.

“We’re both very customer oriented. The customer experience goes above our personal needs,” Brown says. “It’s taking care of the client, making sure that their experience here is the best one they can possibly have.”

Brown credits the large success of Big Brain to the little things that the company emphasizes.

“You don’t get Best of Omaha™ 10 years in a row without doing all the little things right,” he says. “It’s sanitation, it’s stock, it’s ordering; it’s the staff we surround ourselves with. Smitty has done an amazing job of finding nine like-minded tattoo artists who excel at nine different things.”

Despite a good business plan and staff, Big Brain has suffered its share of hardships in years past. In 2007, the company was selected for a tax audit after the IRS looked into how Big Brain’s accountant was amortizing a construction project. Thanks to incorrectly following an amortization schedule, Big Brain received a large audit bill, which triggered years of extra auditing and working closely with lawyers. “My lawyers said I was doing it right, their lawyers said I was doing it wrong, and, you know, you end up somewhere in the middle.”

But with that experience in the past, “I sleep well at night knowing I don’t have skeletons in my closet,” Smitty says. “To have them in your business, and deep in your business, what’s left? Now it’s like, come in any time. I push two buttons and make a phone call, and they have all my financial records. Nothing to hide.”

As a self-taught businessman, Smitty learned a lot from this experience and has put that knowledge toward running Big Brain. He handles payroll as well as tax deposits, and over the last few years, the company has grossed over $1 million per year. Despite running the business as well as piercing at the parlor, Smitty says he gets the most job satisfaction out of seeing his employees succeed.

“There comes a point where you’re more happy when your subordinates do something well than you ever were when you were,” he says. “When my kids do something good, it makes me feel way better than when I did it, and it’s the same thing with your employees. When you have somebody else accomplish what used to be your goal, you really take pride in that.”

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