Running the show. Being your own boss. Sounds pretty good, right? The reality of small business ownership is about more than making your own hours and signing your own paychecks. From tattoo experts to sandwich artistes, these local entrepreneurs have figured out a way to make it work—by aiming high and taking risks.
Josephine Skaught Hairdressing
If you could rewind the clock some 30 years, it might seem obvious that Skaught Gibson would end up a hairdresser and salon owner. There he was in elementary school, helping his mother put rollers in his little sisters’ hair. In junior high he started giving friends haircuts, and soon he was coloring and experimenting on himself, too: “I’ve had dreadlocks. I’ve had blue hair. Everything.”
Still, it took until last September for the 38-year-old Gibson to open his first salon, the chic Josephine Skaught at Art Square Downtown.
After studying photography and art at UNLV, the Vegas native found his way to hair school, which he calls the best decision he ever made. Following graduation, Gibson worked in various places: local salons; Seattle and LA; even the pantry in his parents’ home, where he worked for a year, building a clientele that braved the unconventional digs for time in Gibson’s hands. When he decided to open his own spot after 10 years at Henderson’s Circa salon, Art Square was just a cement shell—a blank canvas that Gibson molded into the business that has become his beloved baby and a constant source of stress.
Today, the place is buzzing, with a handful of clients in the chairs and the hum of blow-dryers and conversation drifting upward from custom furniture to an abstract mural of hair by a local artist. Gibson fingers his fine, curled mustache and laughs at the nightmare of construction and the times he wanted to quit. “I would wake up some days and think, ‘Why am I doing this? Is it too late to back out?’”
A neon sign in the salon window borrows the Morrissey song title: “Hairdresser on fire.” Leaning on the photo-collaged table he built himself in the salon he calls his own, Gibson certainly seems to be heating up. –Sarah Feldberg
For nearly two years, Dirk Vermin has kept a big secret from the world. His University-District shop, Pussykat Tattoo, was being filmed for a reality TV show, and if he let it slip it could kill the deal. “We weren’t able to talk about this until two weeks ago, but people would hear rumors and see things and knew something was going on,” says the longtime Vegas punk rocker and tattoo artist. “It was tough having to shoot in secret all over the city and not be able to say anything, so it’s been nice to be able to walk down the street and finally say it out loud.”
“It” is Bad Ink, the A&E series that debuts August 11 at 10 p.m., in the slot directly after the popular Duck Dynasty. The show stars Vermin, his longtime friend and bandmate Rob Ruckus and, Vermin explains, the city itself. “We use every inch of Vegas as a character.” But Bad Ink won’t be like any other reality tattoo show, Vermin insists. Otherwise he never would have let the cameras in. “When the production company first contacted me, I said, ‘... no. I despise reality TV.’” But this is more like a buddy comedy than another tattoo show. This is us shaking up the formula.”
As its name suggests, Bad Ink will focus on folks hoping Pussykat Tattoo—the popular custom shop Vermin has owned and operated since 1999—can turn regrettable tattoos into something … else. “The casting the network has done is really smart,” Vermin says. “If a housewife made a bad decision 10 years ago and now has kids, the stakes are so much higher than for someone like me. I could have 10 tattoos I don’t like, and no one gives a sh*t. For me it’s like, just bury it under another one.”
After ordering and viewing a pilot, A&E quickly signed on for a full, 13-episode season. And, Vermin says, the way things have been going, “They’re jumping in like there will be multiple seasons.”
Tune in Sunday, and get to know Dirk Vermin—even if you thought you already did. “If you don’t know me or only know me from the band, a lot of people are intimidated, but I’m a pretty ... sweet guy, goddamn it,” Vermin laughs. “And when you see my guard come down, when you see me at my kid’s birthday party or at dance class, just being a dad, that’s a side of me that I’ve never shown the world before." –Spencer Patterson
Juanny Romero and Joshua Walter
A small organic coffeehouse sits among a hodgepodge of empty businesses, startups and a tattoo parlors at 3130 East Sunset Road. It’s a strange location for Sunrise Coffee, but it hasn’t stopped the independent shop from becoming one of the most popular places to get a good buzz and some vegetarian food in Las Vegas.
Inspired by the community-driven businesses of coffee-saturated San Francisco, partners Juanny Romero and Joshua Walter opened Sunrise in 2008. “I remember asking questions and no one having any answers,” Walter says. “They were telling me things like espresso was a different kind of bean,” a common misconception. Now, after years of research and learning the trade, Walter and Romero aren’t concerned with trendy coffee lingo but the craft and ethics behind it. They built almost everything from the ground up—including the furniture. Espresso machines are bought second hand and fixed. Only organic, fair-trade beans are purchased from small co-ops and roasted in-house.
“It’s not healthier to buy organic coffee, but we’re not deforesting an area [or] polluting a water supply,” Walter says. “The soil is going to be usable for many generations,” an important notion for the java gurus.
Today, the couple is expanding—with the birth of their child and the distribution of their own beans under the name Mothership Coffee Roasters to local coffeehouses around the Valley. Look for it, and caffeinate locally. –Leslie Ventura
Viva Las Arepas
A veteran chef leaves his job on the Strip to open his own tiny Downtown food stand and serve his native cuisine, which most Las Vegans have never tasted. Sound like a gamble? Consider that Felix Arellano opened his first restaurant, a small hamburger stand in Venezuela, at the age of 14. “I saved my money, and when I was 16 I opened a bigger one, maybe 50 seats.”
Suddenly, launching Downtown Vegas restaurant Viva Las Arepas in 2011 from a metal kiosk in front of Dino’s dive bar doesn’t seem so risky. And Arellano’s bet was proven a year later, when he expanded Arepas into a brick-and-mortar restaurant at the corner of Las Vegas and Oakey boulevards.
Arellano helped open Valentino at the Venetian, manning the stoves for seven years—“Now I cook Italian better than Venezuelan,” he jokes. In 2006, he rolled the dice on his own American café that closed after a year, costing him thousands. So, Arellano went back to work, this time for Mario Batali’s restaurants, until he could save up enough to open Viva Las Arepas and serve the scrumptious, inexpensive corn-cake sandwiches that his business is built on. Now he’s turning that kiosk into an authentic taco joint and opening a gelato shop next door to his restaurant with business partner Desyree Alberganti. “We would like to open a couple more locations, maybe one in Henderson, but everything takes time,” he says. Just don’t expect him to return to fine dining. “This is the food I want to do. If things are good, why change?” –Brock Radke
Alissa Kelly and Laura Herlovich
Seven years ago, Laura Herlovich and Alissa Kelly were in a small crowd of 20 or so, singing Stevie Wonder’s “I Just Called to Say I Love You.” Strange enough, but this particular sing-along took place in a waterside plantation house owned by the prime minister of Trinidad and Tobago. And the man leading the chorus of voices was Stevie Wonder himself.
“So surreal,” Kelly says thinking back on it, but for the two women who operate public relations firm PR Plus, at the forefront of Las Vegas entertainment for more than 22 years, extraordinary interactions are hardly out of the ordinary. In a single day in 2006, for example, PR Plus signed three clients: Prince, for his 3121 Rio residency, the Palms and the 2007 NBA All-Star Game. “That was a cool day,” Herlovich says.
The business began, oddly enough, with a layoff—Herlovich’s, from a marketing position at Bally’s. Four days later she’d launched her own firm with one client, the Hard Rock Cafe, which later paved a path to the Hard Rock Hotel. These days PR Plus’ client list includes casinos (the Palms, Station, the Silverton), Vegas celebrities (George Wallace, Terry Fator, History Channel’s Pawn Stars), restaurants (Hash House A Go Go, Honey Salt) and First Friday. “If it’s cool and fun, we do it,” Herlovich says. “If not, we refer it elsewhere.”
Kelly came on as an intern, worked her way up the ranks and left for a position at Hard Rock Hotel before returning as a full-fledged partner seven years ago. “Alissa is very strategic and forward thinking; I’m more free-spirited, seat of my pants, ‘let’s go to a boy-band concert instead of doing that work we need to do,’” Herlovich says. “So it’s good yin and yang. I joke with my husband that some days my marriage with Alissa is better than my marriage with him.
“I don’t have children—I never wanted children—so PR Plus is my legacy, and I’m excited to see what Alissa will do with that. I think she’ll really be able to expand it, keep it true to its roots but make it even better.” –Spencer Patterson
Alios Entertainment and Architectural Lighting
Be it spectacle, illusion or elegance, Las Vegas would not be Las Vegas without lighting to complete its story, making it an ideal environment for lighting consultant Todd VonBastiaans.
The art collector with a background in theatrical design moved here in 1996 from LA, where he’d worked in film, television and concert production. Five years later he formed Alios Entertainment and Architectural Lighting.
The company represents 12 top lighting manufacturers, so VonBastiaans is often on the ground working with design teams from the start, relighting the Forum Shops at Caesars Palace and working on various projects at Cosmopolitan, CityCenter and Wynn Resorts. Off-Strip, his company has worked with the Smith Center, Mob Museum, Springs Preserve and Neon Museum.
Additionally, you’ll find VonBastiaans and his team doing pro bono work for nonprofits and other community efforts. Recently, they lit the Huntridge Theatre’s exterior for a celebration of its revival.
“Our ability to understand lighting equipment in the strangest locations and most difficult, rigorous environments is what we excel at,” VonBastiaans says, sitting in his Arts District office. “We’re in a hospitality industry. We make the city more welcoming through light.”
Why start his own company? “Necessity. It’s the only way you can control your message. I don’t have to go to 10 people and ask. I can say, ‘Hey, I believe in this. Let’s go for it.’” –Kristen Peterson
Sonny Barton and Chris Hammond
Rock ’n Roll Wine
Jazz trios and uppity tasting notes are not in Rock ’n Roll Wine’s business model. “We throw parties. Kick. Ass. Parties. Whether you like wine or not, you’re gonna have fun,” says Chris Hammond, pulling up a video of Everclear playing for thousands of screaming tasters at Mandalay Bay Beach.
That first Wine Amplified Festival in 2006 was a crucial evolution for Rock ’n Roll Wine, which started with eight bottles and a dozen friends around Hammond’s kitchen table. A decade later, he and co-founder Sonny Barton (both refugees from the dot-com bubble) have parlayed their concept of good grapes/tunes/conversation into a multi-state events company and winery (and soon-to-be local wine bar!) that distributes two of its own California wines (white blend Rhapsody and red blend the Grotto) to restaurants on the Strip and liquor stores as far away as Rhode Island. Instead of food pairings, bottles suggest songs, a recent vintage of Rhapsody pairing with “It’s Time” by Imagine Dragons.
“We have people that don’t even drink wine that come because the vibe, the experience, is so amazing,” Barton says of Rock ’n Roll Wine’s big fests as well as a locals wine lounge showcasing sexy venues around town. The wine’s integrity is honored, but not at the cost of fun.
Hammond has always been an idea machine, Barton a realist. It’s a winning combination, as the company’s most memorable hitch is not the time they ran out of wine at an event—it’s an old label that turned the company figurehead into Hugh Hefner. “Taking our wine guy, putting pajamas on him and having him jump into a hot tub,” Barton says, laughing. “Good lord.” –Erin Ryan
With a background in accounting and finance, Winky Wu isn’t your typical fashion designer. But after launching Winky Designs in her Manhattan apartment with 1,000 slap-band watches, her company now sells its stylish products in bookstores, boutiques and museum gift shops in 25 countries around the world.
Wu started Winky a year and a half ago after returning from Hong Kong, where she worked in finance for Mattel and noticed a gap in the market for affordable, quality watches that made great fashion statements. With an MBA from prestigious international business school INSEAD and using her own startup money, she designed the minimalist, vibrantly colored slap watches that are now a signature item.
Now based in Las Vegas, the modish Winky headquarters are where five entrepreneurially minded women under 30 do everything in-house—photography, web management, modeling and design. Only the manufacturing is outsourced.
Along with the watches, Winky now also makes clutches, scarves, belts and an elegant line of bracelet watches with semi-precious stones woven into leather and themed after cocktails. All of the products are fun, stylish, easy to wear and named for food and beverages. “It’s all delicious,” Wu says. –Kristen Peterson
Jarrett Applewhite, Matt McClure and Lenny Hendricks
It sounds like the makings of a National Lampoon movie: Three fraternity brothers graduate college, quit their day jobs and join forces to form a company that throws some of the wildest parties in Las Vegas. That’s reality for Collective Zoo, a young, local nightlife events and marketing company established by UNLV alums Lenny Hendricks, Matt McClure and Jarrett Applewhite.
While the Zookeeper trio met during their Phi Delta Theta days, it was Hendricks and McClure who first ventured into business together, forming NoWorryNights.com, a nightlife services company that specialized in setting up clubbers with guest lists and bottle service at the Strip’s hottest clubs. McClure brought financial experience to the table, gained from employment at Merrill Lynch, while Hendricks supplied the nightlife know-how from working as a promoter and host with Pure Management Group.
Applewhite, meanwhile, was busy doing marketing for Light Group and working for himself at J&H Promotions, marketing 18-and-over parties around town. When the three got together, they saw an opportunity to serve locals with unique party concepts.
“There isn’t really a lot of stuff being advertised for just locals. Everything is Strip-related and tourist-driven,” Hendricks says. “We really wanted to bring a focus to some of the things that just locals can look forward to doing.”
If you’ve been to a CZ event, you already know the Zookeepers have been doing just that. Events are always low-key (no dress code, no cover), high-energy and held at locals-friendly venues (i.e., not the Strip). Past CZ happenings include the Love & Lust Sleepover at the Artisan, a Downtown St. Patrick’s Day bar crawl and their beloved traveling pool party series, Pool Party Safari.
Recently, the company has branched out to form CZ Marketing, which specializes in full-scale marketing endeavors and has worked on White Cross Market’s relaunch event and bringing the party to the recently reopened McFadden’s with a weekly event lineup and a grand opening for the Town Square pub. CZ’s next event is the August 17 anniversary party for Firkin on Paradise.
CZ also hopes to bring Collective Zoo’s Jack-N-Cake nightlife event out of market this year. Get ready to chase your Jack with cupcakes, Southern California. –Mark Adams