I was chatting with a customer yesterday about his purchase, and he started going on about how much he liked my company, and how professional we are, etc. (ok, flattery will get you somewhere, I think…LOL). Further, he asserted that he purchased something from a “garage vendor” and that the quality of the experience was nothing like what he received from us, and that the garage people are "not worth supporting, etc."
On initial thought, you’d think I’d be like, “Yeah, those guys give us a bad name…blah, blah, blah…”
My response startled him a bit: “Why would categorically dismiss hobbyists that are trying to turn their love of tropical fish into a business? Some of these guys really know their stuff!”
What great propagator lurks behind the door?
I mean, let’s think about it in context.
Just because a guy is working out of his garage, closet, or wherever, part time, doesn't even register to me as a reason why you shouldn’t support his attempt at launching an aquarium-related business. Look, not every skilled hobbyist with a dream has the capital available to launch a full-scale fish or coral propagation facility in a commercial space right off the bat. In fact, some never aspire to do that. They just want to make a little cash back on the fish, plants, and corals they’ve been growing for years to cover expenses of their hobby. Some even have to be coerced into selling their highly sought after fish, plants, and coral frags. Others, are starting to make a big name for themselves as dedicated aquatics experts, expanding into something a bit more serious. These are true hobbyists, and the love that they show in every fish, plant, or frag is what it’s all about.
And what’s more, just because someone has invested lots of money and has a splashy web site does not make him/her a “better” vendor. There are plenty of crappy vendors out there with relatively high visibility and hubris, trust me. And I didn’t even mention the awful subculture of coral “chop shops”, which simply have access to some imported corals, a camera, and a Facebook page from which to “market” their garbage to the unwary public. Losers. They deserve special mention as the true “Avoid at all cost” sector of the “coral economy.”
As a full time e-commerce “professional’ aquatics vendor, I am no more qualified to call what I do “superior” to a “garage-based” aquatics vendor than any hobbyist who keeps fish can call him/herself an “expert." However, I do feel that, because I’m doing it for a living, I can at least make some observations that are based on MY experiences and opinions (my stock disclaimer, huh?).
Getting back to the small time “garage vendors”, I have nothing but respect for most of them. In terms of quality, you can scarcely do better. Part of it is the fact that a small operation with a limited inventory can monitor and control very tightly, keeping quality and consistency extremely high. It’s a lot tougher for us at Unique Corals to do this with thousands of corals and hundreds of species. That’s why we have a full-time team. The small guy can obsess even more on more arcane details when he or she has 6-10 varieties of coral, trust me! And of course, this goes for fish and plants as well.
You CAN be nimble when you're large, but even more so when you're smaller!
Another advantage of dealing with a small-scale breeder is that they often have very intimate knowledge of the care requirements of every fish in their inventory, and can often tell you things like the “lineage” of their variety, it’s specific temperament, tolerances, and maybe a thing or two about how it looks long-term in their display tank.
Even though I have been playing with fishes, plants, and corals my entire life, and have seen and played with thousands of specimens, I haven’t kept every single variety of fish or coral that we offer in our facility in my own reef systems. It would be almost impossible. While that doesn’t give a big company handicap, it certainly shows one area in which a small, home-based fish breeder or coral propagator can excel. First-hand knowledge of an aquatic animal cannot be discounted, trust me.
And, with a much lower overhead, a small home-based propagator can (hopefully) keep costs down, providing a competitive price for his/her locally-bred fishes. On the other hand, as a large-scale coral propagator, my company was also able to keep costs down because of the sheer numbers we could inexpensively grow out. The difference in the coral industry is that many “larger” propagators/vendors DON’T do this, and continue to market chopped up wild stuff that has not been propagated. It’s not a sustainable long-term practice, IMHO.
Speaking of sustainability, most of the “garage gang” who work with a limited number of fish or plant species have been growing them for years and still have the original mother colonies of many of their varieties somewhere in their home tanks. This is the "crown jewel" of a sustainable aquatics hobby/industry- maintaining an inventory of frags or cuttings (in the case of aquatic plants) while actively maintaining one or more of the original mother colonies for an indefinite period.
With that in mind, can you imagine if every fish breeder or coral propagator- either home-based or commercial, committed themselves to permanently maintaining and propagating just a few varieties of fish or coral? In theory, the need for importing massive numbers of wild specimens (or at least, the DEMAND) could diminish significantly. This looms larger than you think when you hear talk of proposed government restrictions on the trade and propagation of fishes and corals.
When coupled with the fantastic coral mariculture efforts going on in some parts of Indonesia, Fiji, and elsewhere, and the amazing fish breeding operations in Florida, there could be a day when a very high percentage of the hobby’s demand for fishes and corals will be met by “farmed” specimens. And the garage-based guy or gal has just as much skin in the game as us “full-timers” do- and we all will benefit from a more sustainable hobby/industry. In fact, they can and should be one of the key players in such a vision.
The one caveat I have for the “garage crew”: You have as much, if not a larger- obligation than anyone else in the “industry” to share your knowledge with fellow hobbyists. Secretive operations don’t help the hobby as a whole, IMHO. The hobbyist-level business is in even better touch with the pulse of the hobby, the clubs, and the humanistic drivers that move this whole thing, and should, and could have tremendous visibility in the community. Take out your computer and tap out something once in a while, for goodness sake!
Size of an operation is not a measure for judging the quality of an aquatics vendor. When we use that as our sole criteria for deciding on wether or not we should do business with a vendor, we’re potentially missing the point.
Please don’t be like some of the egotistical, self-appointed “Internet Marketing Consultants” that spam me with email each day spouting how they can improve my company with garbage like “metrics” and “likes” and stuff, and tout that as the measure of “success.” These morons (yes- morons!) who never actually studied real marketing, have forgotten that it’s all about conveying your message to the right audience and moving them to purchase your product. It’s not about how many people visit your website and “like” your Instagram pics and Facebook page. Marketing is about creating sales. Duh.
You don’t have to be huge to be a success growing fishes and corals. You have to be good.
And finally, a direct word to the smaller guys and the up-and-comers out there: Big, small, or in between, the one common truth is that service is important. Take care of people. Listen to them. The extra mile, be it taking the time to answer a question about a coral, or throwing in a bonus piece, or whatever- will cement relationships, build loyalty, and create real lasting “buzz” about your company. Gimmicks, hype, and stupidity won’t work in this or any business or at any size. Having a fancy web page (be it one that you designed, or if it’s someone else’s aesthetic you copied - yeah that’s a shout out to some of our competitors who constantly try to mimick our website’s look...grow your own!) is not going to do it either. Think differently. Be original. Be yourself. Do unto others. Even if you're just selling a few fish or coral frags once in a while and want to make a few bucks on the side, follow basic principles and they won’t steer you wrong.
It simply starts with the desire and commitment to do a good job. Which brings me back to the original point of this whole thing: Don’t judge every book by it’s cover. Just like in my sector, the real gems rise to the surface and are clearly evident when compared to the masses.
Long live the garage vendors!
Keep it real, keep it going…
And Stay Wet.