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Peak startup culture is here—and it draws blood

Rowan wants to modernize the rite of passage of getting your ears (or belly button) pierced, by letting nurses moonlight as contractors who can pierce customers at home.

Peak startup culture is here—and it draws blood
[Photo: Rowan]

I was 9 when I had my ears pierced, and even though it has been three decades, I remember it like it was yesterday. My mother took me to a department store after school and held my hand as I sat next to the glass jewelry display case. As the sales assistant put the piercing gun through my ear lobe and I felt the sudden pinch, I remember watching the flurry of customers streaming into the store and announcements blaring from the intercom.

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[Photo: Rowan]
A startup called Rowan that just launched wants to make the ear-piercing milestone more special than my somewhat unromantic experience. The brand, which targets girls between the ages of 7 and 14 (and their parents), allows customers to book a licensed nurse who will come to their home to do the piercing. After that, customers can subscribe to a monthly “earring club” to receive a new pair of hypoallergenic studs, along with other products for tweens girls, including friendship bracelets and a journal.

[Photo: courtesy Rowan]
Louisa Schneider raised $4 million in seed funding to launch Rowan and hired the branding agency Red Antler, which has designed branding for many hip millennial startups including Allbirds, Casper, and Burrow. Indeed, Rowan brings all the hallmarks of startup culture to Gen-Z girls. The brand leverages the direct-to-consumer (à la Warby Parker), on-demand (à la Uber), and subscription (à la Birchbox) models all at once. These models—which once seemed novel and exciting to consumers—are becoming increasingly business-as-usual.

Around the world, children go through various rites of passage at puberty to mark their initiation into adulthood. For many young women, myself included, ear piercing is one such moment. And yet, the main venue that girls get their ears pierced is the mall, most commonly at Claire’s. Schneider spent a lot of time studying malls before she launched the business. She found that many parents and grandparents make a whole celebration around taking a daughter to get her ears pierced at a store—but retailers themselves aren’t really catering to these families. “It was clear to me that there was a lot of room for improvement to make this experience better,” she says.

Schneider wanted to find a way to make the experience more meaningful and memorable: She envisioned girls having a little piercing party at home with their friends or family members.

“It’s a rite of passage that transcends cultures and religion,” she says. “It’s one that typically brings multiple generations of women from a family together. But we have somehow relegated it to a mall.”

[Photo: courtesy Rowan]
Sometimes it can even be dangerous. Body piercings are not a well-regulated industry—which could up your risk of ending up in an unhygienic or unprofessional piercing facility. In 38 states, you need parental permission to get a piercing if you are under the age of 18, but in the others, teens can get pierced to their heart’s content without their parents’ knowledge. And since piercings are not considered a medical procedure, it does not need to be done by a medical professional or even a licensed one. (Oh, and the Association of Professional Piercers now says that piercing guns are terrible because they increase the risk of infection.)

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The company brought on Page Sargisson, a Brooklyn-based jeweler, to craft the earrings. She’s focused on making fun, quirky designs, like tiny llamas, unicorns, and lightening bolts. For now, the company just makes studs and customers can pick whether they want the design in sterling silver, gold plated, or 14 karat solid gold (starting at between $19.95 and $89.95 a month depending on the metal).

Right now, the at-home piercings are only available in New York and Connecticut, although Schneider hopes to quickly expand to cover the entire country. The company has a network of freelance registered nurses in its system who will show up at the client’s home decked out in a white Rowan coat along with all the equipment they need, including sterile starter studs. They also talk to the girl about how to take care of her newly pierced ears. Schneider says that Rowan is fairly selective when it comes to picking nurses: The company chooses people who have experience with ear piercings and also regularly go into homes as part of their job. New Rowan nurses will shadow an existing nurse within the system before she starts taking on clients on her own. “We found that nurses were very interested in an opportunity to earn another stream of income that did not involve things like end-of-life care or home care,” says Schneider. “This is typically a fun experience for them. It’s a celebration.”

Schneider says these nurses are critical to Rowan’s success because they serve as brand ambassadors. They can actively advertise their services to generate business, which also serves to promote the brand. For this reason, Schneider says that the nurses get to keep the entire profit from the ear piercing costs, while Rowan generates its revenue from the earring subscription boxes. Rowan charges $95, which goes down to $80 for any additional people, which is about double what a mall brand like Claire’s charges for ear piercings. The most active nurses can make more than $1,000 a month, Schneider says. The girl herself gets a Certificate of Bravery for making it through the experience.

For parents, Rowan is an appealing concept for several reasons. If you happen to be sentimental about milestones in your child’s life, this allows you to commemorate a special occasion. But there are also pragmatic reasons to go with a service like this. Part of Rowan’s promise is that the piercing will be done to the highest possible standards of safety and precision, and that is something that many parents will pay a premium for.

I remember my own ear-piercing experience with fondness, as a moment I got to share with my mother, albeit in the din of the mall. If my daughter decides to get her ears pierced, I hope I get to share it with her as well, preferably in the comfort of our own home, in our pajamas, and with no piercing guns in sight.

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About the author

Elizabeth Segran, Ph.D., is a staff writer at Fast Company. She lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts

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