I am lucky.
Well, I dunno about lucky…How about grateful, maybe?
I mean, I pushed, screamed, stumbled, fought myself into a career in the aquatics industry. Like many of you, I had a dream of doing something I enjoyed, and wanted to make my passion my life’s work. So I just went for it…a combination of ambition, brashness, planning, passion, ignorance, timing, effort, and pure luck put me into the situation I am now. I am fortunate enough to have helped build a great company in Unique Corals, based on values and ideals that myself and my partner put first. UC has received worldwide acclaim in the reef keeping community, and has become a "thought leader" in the world of sustainable coral propagation. I'm very proud of that.
Ever the restless type, and always the freshwater lover at heart, I divested myself from my ownership interest in UC and recently launched Tannin Aquatics, with a completely different vibe, approach and aesthetic than has been seen in that realm before, and it’s off to a great start, thanks in large part to you!
Now, I’m not here to present my resume or talk about how great I am, FYI.
I present this very brief dossier as an example- a small and perhaps insignificant one- about how anyone with the passion, a dream, and the fortitude to build something in the aquatic world CAN do it. I’m a very ordinary guy…way more ordinary than many of you- with far less talent…But I went after my dreams. I’m not the pinnacle of aquatic industry success…there are many way more successful than I’ll ever be, but I think I know a thing or two about how to build and sustain a business in the category, and I’m willing to share my scant knowledge…And apparently, a bunch of you wanted my feedback..and, since no one else is talking about it, I might as well.
Yes, every time I write a piece like this, I’ll get a PM from someone in the industry somewhere telling me that I’m "sugar-coating" everything, lulling people into potentially disastrous circumstances, and somehow “diluting” the industry by inviting more people into the game, and that I’m no business guru and have no place telling people about this stuff, blah, blah, blah- whatever.…to which I reply, “Grow up. Up your game and stop worrying about potential newcomers!” New blood is great for everyone, and anyone who can’t figure that out should do something else, IMHO.
OK, fine- bring on the cheerleaders!
Yeah, it’s probably “Rah-Rah” time again, where I encourage everyone to go for it- and that’s okay. I’ve talked to a number of people in recent days looking to “break in” to this crazy industry, and it’s inspiring! It got me thinking about my experiences thus far. I hear a lot of different ideas from fellow reefers about businesses in this field. Many are really cool. A lot of reefers have what it takes. And many seem hesitant- as if they are lacking some skill or talent, which is typically absurd.
It must be the time of year or something…a time when people re-consider those little dreams about starting a business that they’ve tucked away in some far and dark portion of their mind. Yet they ask me about it…and I’m happy to share my meager knowledge and personal thoughts about this stuff. I love seeing excited, motivated, talented people going for it. Who wouldn’t?
GO FOR IT!
First off, let me tell you that, no matter what you might think, you’re not required to “break in” to this industry as if it’s Film, Music, or Television. There’s no “audition” or nepotism that prevent you from getting in. The “barrier to entry” is YOU. Anyone who is a serious fish geek with talent, ideas, motivation, and a work ethic can do this.
Of course, not everyone can succeed.
Like so many entrepreneurial endeavors, starting an aquatics business requires some degree of planning, business acumen, and financial resources. You can’t just blindly stumble and say, “I’m a business.” However, I’m not talking about having to go and do the Silicon Valley thing and pitch angel investors at an “incubator” for “series A” financing to start your venture, either. I’m talking about having a minimum viable plan and the means to sustain yourself while you get started. Let’s face it, most of us can’t ditch our 9 to 5 job and jump headlong into such a venture.
Can you cut and run from the traditional 9-5 grind? Yes!
And that’s okay. You can build it in your spare time. What’s that? Spare time? No spare time? Hey, if you want it bad enough, you’ll find the spare time. You’ll make . You have to make sacrifices if you want to succeed. That’s “Business Startup 101”, for ANY industry. That means giving up sleep, weekends, time off, etc.- to cut frags, upload products to your website, work on infrastructure, run to the post office, balance the books, write a blog, contact potential customers, etc.
You have to want it. Badly.
And guess what? You need a plan. Maybe you want to sell frags from your reef tank; turn it into a business; sell cichlids. Maybe you’re a good person to go to for setting up planted tank tank automation systems…Cool niche. Maybe you’re really good at helping others creating stocking plans. Okay, cool. Maybe you want to be a personal shopper for other busy hobbyists, sourcing cool stuff. It’s possible. Gonna sell fish stuff. Awesome. But ask yourself: To WHOM? Hobbyists? Fish stores? Wholesalers? Fine, but there are dozens of businesses doing that. What makes yours different? Why should people do business with you? How will you serve them? Is there even a market willing to pay for your product/service?
Can you find customers?
Tough but real questions. Vital, actually. You need to be able to answer them immediately.
Make yourself different. And own it. Scream it from the highest perch. Maybe you only sell 3” frags of fully encrusted rare Millies. Maybe your business exists solely to provide companies like Unique Corals or Live Aquaria with access to the elusive “named, high-end corals” for their inventories. Maybe you want to specialize in aquatic mosses…all sorts of cool mosses. Do you want to sell direct to consumer, or to retail businesses? Are you a “hyper niche?” What kind of “pain point” are you solving for your target market. Are you even solving a “pain point” for your target market? Just being another company offering “great corals at a good price” or “excellent customer service” is really not enough any more. Be different. Act differently. Fill an empty market gap.
Disrupt the market. Do something way better than it’s been done before. Shake up the status quo. Create your own segment. OWN IT.
You can totally do this.
State your values. Create a unique position and make it part of your brand ethos. Don’t be normal. Don’t be meek, wishy-washy, or tentative. Shake up this business and make everyone look over their shoulders. Don’t be a jerk, either, but confidently assert yourself and your company’s right to a piece of the aquatic industry pie.
Sure, there is a great camaraderie in the aquatics game; everyone typically likes each other, and to a certain extent, even looks out for each other. It’s pretty cool- sort of like the microbrewery industry. But it IS a business, and that requires you to compete. Don’t like that notion? Maybe you don’t want it badly enough. Ask yourself this- if your business was failing, do you think any of the other coral vendors out there would offer you money to keep it afloat? Should they? Would YOU do that? Would that be true in any industry? Then let that fantasy go immediately, ok? Not everyone will like you. And who really cares? Believe me, it’s not that everyone in the industry is a bad guy- it’s just that it’s- well- business- and everyone needs be self reliant to a large extent. When the dollars start flowing, the “hobby” part of this game diminishes somewhat.
Oh, it probably sounds harsh…and that’s sort of an extreme example, but the point is, if you want to be in a competitive business, you have to think about it AS a business, and that means thinking about the potentially unpleasant stuff as well. It’s not just a hobby when you monetize it. And not everyone will welcome you with open arms, even though they should. I distinctly recall when we were setting up UC, of a well-known competitor stopping buy and literally telling us, “I’m going to kick your *****; you’re gonna fail.” Gee, friendly. But it lit a fire in me, and it’s alway in the back of my mind. I never fully let that go.
Make yourself look good. Act professionally; avoid “amateur hour” marketing and business tactics. Think big…LOOK big. But deliver. It doesn’t matter if your propagation system is a 40 gallon breeder hooked up to your reef tank- if you deliver the goods, and live up to your promises- it doesn’t really make a difference.
A startup is just that- a startup. A challenging, terrifying, invigorating- and hopefully, ultimately fulfilling proposition.
And I believe- no, I KNOW- that there are many of you out there who can not only do this- but do it well; do it better and differently than has been done before- in a way no one has yet done it; with a style, functionality, or method that sets you apart from everyone else that’s ever come before you.
Just go for it. The hobby, the industry- heck, the economy- all need you. Today is as good a time as any.
Yeah, it’s a perfect day to get the ball rolling on this.
Today is the day.
We can talk about this more if you want, or maybe I can just shut up about it…I don’t really mind. It was on my mind, and I’m happy I was able to offer my two cents worth, and I hope maybe it provided a tiny bit of motivation to someone out there.
Stay engaged. Stay on target. Stay committed.
And Stay Wet.