It's funny how some things make you reflect on your life; the decisions you've made- the changes...or worse, the regrets. I decided a number of years ago not to have any more regrets about my career. What should have been scary as hell was actually one of the easiest decisions I've ever made.
A few days ago, I received a call from a fellow fish geek who was just burned out on his "unfulfilling" career. He was wondering just how you get into the aquatics industry; just what it is like to do what you love every day. We talked, shared war stories about career changes, satisfaction, and the challenges of balancing life and work. It’s not the first time I’ve spoken with someone who wanted to get the hell out of what they felt was a soul-sucking career and desired to play with fish for a living.
I’m certainly no career counselor. I'm not a guru. But I have been there. It's sad to be in an unfulfilling career. I know. And, apparently, some of you are in that place from time to time. Today’s little rant is dedicated to you.
The conversation made me think a lot about my own journey.
It wasn’t all that many years ago that I was comfortably rat-holed in my souless, financial-sector job, mid-career-using every spare second to play with, or plot about my aquariums, writing my weekly rants on all things saltwater on forums and in online and print magazines. I would do a lot of traveling to speaking gigs and conferences.
However, my “second career” as a part-time fish geek just wasn’t enough. I had to shake the rusty chains of my dull, but necessary full-time job. It was sucking the life out of me.
I was deep into the typical “caught-in-the-rat-race- of- life” bullshit…
Of course, when you’re a fish person, you have one thing that the masses don’t always have: PASSION! Unbridled passion for all things aquatic. It permeates your existence, your every move, like wet floors, and your smelly fish towels. Like many of you, I longed to be playing with fishes full time- and I wanted to get paid to do it, too! Audacious? Hell yes!
However, I couldn't handle the unfulfilling career life I was in anymore. I didn't want to leave this earth knowing that I never even tried to do what I love. Regret is poison so I put out some feelers, and as luck would have it, opportunity found me. I ran out the door into a totally new career: Full time professional Fish Geek! I found a pretty killer gig: My employer actually PAID me to think of crazy aquarium-keeping ideas all day, to solve people’s fish problems, and to spread the insanity that is our beloved hobby.
The only catch was that the job was on the East Coast. A life-changing move to a totally different world, really. But I needed to try this. My personal journey towards career enlightenment would compel me leave my beloved sun-splashed beaches, laid-back attitudes, and healthy lifestyle of Los Angeles and venture all the way across the continent, to one of the nation’s premiere fish businesses in the New York area, where I got to be the Fish Geek that the universe intended me to be.
Yeah, what a switch! It was pretty crazy. On every level. But I did it.
I cannot believe I did it, myself, when I look back. Toughest decision of my life. So, for the better part of a year and a half, I helped design custom aquariums for insanely wealthy New York people, acquire uber rare livestock, and help people discover the joy and sheer craziness that aquarium keeping is. It was a great experience for a while.
I loved New York. I was welcomed and it's everything people say that it is.
However, I was desperately home sick for L.A….Like, I was completely messed up about it. But I wanted to stay in this industry.
Good fortune and timing at a reef conference (back in Southern California no less!) led me back to my native L.A. when the opportunity came to partner up with Joseph Caparata, ironically a New Yorker with a very successful fish store, who was moving to SoCal to re-launch, re-brand, and re-imagine the dormant “Version 1.0” of an online coral vendor company called Unique Corals. Super-telented and driven guy. After a lot of back-and-forth plane trips, tons of planning sessions, lots of all-nighters, hard work, and serious dollars, we successfully “rebooted” UC, and opened up a large facility dedicated to the importation, propagation, and distribution of corals!
We created a pretty cool thing there. It gave me great courage and comfort, not to mention satisfaction! And clarity: This was it for me…aquatics is my life gig, baby. I love this stuff, and like many of you, I also love working where I live. Don’t discount that. Work where you want to live. That's another lesson to learn, trust me: Like, bash my city all you want, but I love L.A.! It's where I want to be. They’ll have to pry my cold, dead body out of Los Angeles…I'm never, ever buying a one-way ticket outta this town again! When you have that kind of certainty in life about something- that's huge.
And man, I totally love what I do. I work in the aquarium industry. For myself.
It all started with passion.
I told myself that, if I ever worked in the industry, the last thing I would ever do is pander to the hapless, uninitated and misinformed…Or would I? I wanted to deal with more advanced hobbyists, like I fancied myself. Then I realized that I’m in a great postion to share my love with a whole new set of people…people who may not have previously known the joys of the aquarium keeping world. It’s been pretty rewarding. You should see the look on someone’s face when they get their first aquarium, or when you geek-out a fellow hobbyist when you throw an extra bunch of pods into their package!
Can’t explain the feeling!
In my relatively brief professional aquatics career, I’ve done stuff like had high-level creative meetings in New York and L.A. with all sorts of people who want the same experience- an awesome aquarium! I enjoyed helping design, build and stock the aquariums of my dreams- er, my client’s dreams! It’s a scary symbiotic relationship, actually: I got geeked out, they shared their dream, I shared my dream, and we made it their own. They got a cool tank, I got the joy of helping conceive it and overseeing its “birth” and development…all the joys and heartaches.
At Unique Corals I played with corals and fishing reef gear all day and keep fellow reefers stoked (okay, that’s a waaay oversimplified description of what I did…but you get what I mean)! And I worked with some talented, amazing people. I even got to support my friends’ aquatic businesses by purchasing from them for my business- something I love to do even now, by the way. It’s rewarding. It’s fun. It’s unreal.
My deep love of everything aquatic, particularly biotope aquariums and a certain aesthetic, made me get the crazy notion of starting my "solo gig"- Tannin Aquatics. I'd been playing with blackwater and brackish and all of this "brown" stuff for decades. I felt that there was something there...And my desire to build a brand and category, and to foster a community built around this stuff was just so alluring.
My reef friends thought I was nuts. I mean, no one turns their back on being one of the top dogs of the splashy coral world for..."granola and tea", as one friend put it. "There isn't even a market for that!" another warned me.
"Well, I'm gonna create it!", I exclaimed.
I figured that if I applied the same level of passion, commitment, and "geekiness" to Tannin as I did to Unique, it might just work...I had to follow my personal dream; I sold my share in Unique and jumped right in to "that Tannin thing."
I worked my ass off. Established vendor relations with suppliers worldwide. Chased a lot of bad leads. Found some cool connections. Spent hours and hours dealing with customs and U.S. Department of Agriculture- stuff like that. I figured that even if the business didn't work, I was getting a good education, right?
And you know what?
It IS working! Slowly but surely, Tannin is forging its own way in the freshwater world, carving out a tiny, but ever-expanding niche for itself. It's exposing me to a lot of new people and "players" on "the other side of the fence" from the "reef bubble" I was in for so long, and it's beyond cool!
I blog every day. Interact with our community every day. I've learned that business like Tannin is as much a "media production company" as it is a purveyor of natural aquascaping materials. It's not just about selling stuff. It's about contributing to the hobby and art of aquariums. About developing relationships and working with people.
It's really cool. And fun.
And f-ing hard. All at once. 😜
In my daily life as a "professional" aquatics geek, I get to see some of the coolest aquariums, materials, ideas, and fishes in the world, and deal with some of the most awesome aquarium people around. I get to support clubs and charities, contests and conferences. It's super cool! My phone contact list, filled with amazing reef aquarium people with more talent than I’ll ever have, is now expanding to amazing people in the FW world as well.
At Unique, we developed this "A list" following of reef geek "celebs" as customers..It was like a “who’s who” of reef “gliteratti”, as they say here in Hollywood- and, most important, I got to meet new "average aquarium geeks" every day!
And now, the same thing is happening with Tannin.
And even more, because I'm cultivating it...A really diverse "entourage" is forming: freshwater breeders and hobbyists, artists, photographers, surfers, baristas, fashion designers- an eclectic mix of cool people-are emailing and calling me every day...I've even been labeled a "thought leader" in the hobby by some. This world..It's like a party that everyone seems to want to go to..Crazy!
Yeah, it’s my dream career (especially since the pro surfer gig just never worked out for me, LOL). We're going to be evolving more and more, and doing stuff no aquarium related vendor ever has done before- likely because it's simply not a "category" in the hobby, or it's too risky or far out of the mainstream. (As if selling people on the idea of brown water and decomposing botanicals wasn't? LOL)
But I"m all in. 100% committed. Built a brand "ecosystem" for cool stuff to evolve from. Besides, if I don't...some other person might, right? F---- that. Not on my watch.
It’s not all fun and games, mind you.
In both ventures, I have had the same struggles as any other small business: You’ve got long hours, bills to pay, employees to manage, tough decisions to make, competition to hate, lost shipments to deal with, vendors to call, dead animals, equipment repairs, taxes, computer problems, mistakes to correct, a high learning curve to work with, lots of inventory to think about, customers to take care of, and a million other things- some in your control, and others totally random. And all of it is your problem. And with Tannin, we literally had to create the market category, along with preparation protocols, "best practices", etc. I don't fool myself. We're a tiny company in an obscure category in a relatively small industry.
It takes time.
It’s sheer craziness.
But I do it for a living! And..I love it.
And I’m not alone…Lots of hobbyists have transformed their love of the hobby into a full-time career. It takes desire, talent, drive, sacrifice, an insane amount of work…and some luck. However, a transition into your “dream career” is entirely possible.
If you have a passion for things aquatic, I encourage- no- I URGE- you to act on it. Make the sacrifices if you're put to it. Put in the work. There will always be a place in the aquatic world for passionate, talented, communicative people to share their love with others. It is one of the most amazing journeys I’ve ever taken…And what’s even more cool is that I get to experience the fish world from an entirely different perspective, not just my rather biased hobbyist-eye view.
Oh, I still have it, as you know- but I also have gained a great appreciation for the guys and girls on "the other side of the counter!" And I’ve developed new opinions, new ideas, and have experienced things that few hobbyists get the opportunity to do, especially while trying to crack into the vast freshwater world. I’ve even developed...humility! There's a lot to learn about this industry! Trust me, when you go from "A list" in one world to "Who the f---- is this Scott Fellman guy?', it wakes you up! Of course, it’s still fun to poke the bee hive now and again; to tick off the industry a bit…
At Unique, I saw corals that only a few people in the world outside of the collector ) get to see. I remember the first ecolabeled fishes from Papua New Guinea that we brought in, and the first insane Aussie corals we handled. I still get goose bumps when I think about what it is like to open the shipping boxes when they come in! We get really geeked-out! At Tannin, I have friends all over the world who supply me with unusual products and gear, and teach me stuff every day. I get to support seriously talented breeders and speciality hobbyists, like cichlid people, who blow my mind with their talent!
It’s very cool..
My point here is not to brag about how awesome my career is… It's to show you how awesome YOUR life could be when you go for it. It’s to inspire you- wherever you are and at whatever stage of your career you’re at- to take that risk- perhaps against all odds (and even your better judgement) and go for it. To get off of that rock you’re sitting on, the crevice you are stuck in. Change. It’s scary, sure. It was for me. You could go broke.
And it's sobering:
The market couldn't give two shits about you if you fail. It owes you nothing. Period. End of story. It gets to decide. You control some of the variables, but the market decides if you will win. You have to put out a good product that people want, support it like hell- take care of people- and never stop, or you'll simply fail, and deservedly so. And the fall will be hard, humiliating- maybe even financially devastating.
It's not for everyone. It's risky.
However, if you don’t take that risk, won’t you always wonder? The pain of wondering “what could have been” seems far greater than the pain of taking a chance…If you have a dream, skill, and passion for this aquatic world, and you’re longing for a change- GO FOR IT!
You’ll sweat. You’ll cry. You’ll doubt yourself- a lot. I remember days when I had 8 website visitors I remember cold-emailing fish clubs to offer leaves and such as give-away items for raffles and was turned down! Now, they send me requests! I remember sending out box after box of free stuff- blowing through inventory and money- to "influencers" and clubs and industry people- hoping- praying- to gain some traction. Just a mention. A pic somewhere. Maybe a video...For a long time, I Simply hemmoraged money, time, and energy. It was tough. Sad, even. I remember almost wanting to cry one day as a sent out yet another box of free stuff to a supposed "influencer", which yielded no "review"- no mention on anyone's blog...Nada.
But I kept at it.
I wrote a blog every single day on my website. I figured that 7 people reading it on my obscure site was better than zero! I had a platform to build my world and my brand, and I really couldn't care if I received criticism on it. I'd "find my tribe", so to speak. I did podcast interviews, Facebook "events", club appearances, guest authored blogs, shared stuff with clubs...I heard a lot of ideas, criticisms, "big shots" telling me that people could collect their own leaves, you'd nuke your tank, "I was gonna do that business 10 years ago..." Or, "You could get this stuff cheaper on e-bay", blah, blah, blah. I got real hardened/determined. I built a brand. I stopped listening to "them" and kept doing me. It got really silent in my head. And it was cool.
I stayed at it non-stop.
And it paid off.
Clubs and other aquatic businesses worldwide now want to share my blogs. Big-name aquarists want to try my stuff and make videos...People do cool "unboxing videos" on our stuff! We have re-invigorated burned-out hobbyists who were hungry for something different. Website traffic is huge. Ironically, I now have way more followers than most of the so-called "influencers" I pursued in the early days. I sometimes wonder what I've gotten myself into...It's totally crazy, yet I'm somehow feeling we're really just beginning...I have so much energy for this you can't believe it...and so many ideas!
We're evolving daily!
You'll know this too, when you go for it. If you stay at it. If you want it like I did.
And, there will come a day when you hop in the car one morning, and drive to “work”, realizing that you can’t wait to get there..and that it’s not really “work” that you’re going to. You will smile. Sure, you may walk in the door to the smell of dying corals, a message from DHL about an order held up at British Customs, Discus that end up devouring their whole clutch of eggs, a message from a ticked off customer, a lost shipment, some unexpected bills…but you won’t mind it so much, because you’re "living the dream."
I hope that my relaying of my struggles and triumphs is taken the right way. I'm not trying to say how cool I am. My story is not a one in a million thing. Lots of people do this way better than I do every day, succeeding beyond their wildest expectations. I'm not a motivational speaker or "biz-dev hacker-expert" guy with a Masterclass or e-book to sell. I'm simply trying to convey my story, so that anyone who has the idea, courage, commitment, skill, desire, fortitude and determination knows that he or she can succeed in this business- if they want it bad enough. Doesn't matter who you are or where you come from. Your ethnicity, religion, skin color, sexual orientation. None of that matters. Just do good stuff, work hard, and take care of people.
And don't give up.
It’s hard to explain, but I think you’re “picking up what I’m putting down” here. Going back to a career that is unfulfilling, working for someone else, seems like too banal a reality for me to even contemplate now, and I’m sure that you’ll feel the same way if you make the leap.
Follow your dream.
Here's a great quote often credited to Mark Twain (but apparently never authenticated as such). It works regardless, in our context:
"Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things you didn’t do than by the ones you did do. So throw off the bowlines. Sail away from the safe harbor. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover."
Today's little piece of inspiration from the guy who goes to work in shorts and flip flops every day, often heading down to the beach for a few quick waves before "work", and loves his brown water, brown fishes, and coffee.
Take my ramblings here with a grain of salt, but I hope it moves you just a bit if you're feeling "stuck."
Jump in the water. Wade out into the current and start swimming.
Stay focused. Stay the course. Stay happy. But most of all…