From the other side of the keyboard: A story from a day in the life of an aquatics vendor...

You know that this blog is like my personal "therapy" of sorts, right? I think I told you that before, right?

Yeah, I like to think that I’m generally well-adjusted, a bit cranky, sometimes a diva, and often a pain in the rear. And I’m lucky. I get to talk to a lot of cool aquarists all day-every day. Cool.

So, once in a while, I get a call form someone that, for no reason, just - I don't know- ANNOYS the hell out of me. Two phone calls recently got to me..One in particular, annoyed me enough to want to share it with you- my friends.


I received a phone call from someone the other day who I guess you’d call a “hardcore hobbyist” (I suppose..), and the guy just got my blood pressure up right from the start..And I feel bad about it, because the annoyance was purely on my end…and based on my prejudices arising from this kind of crap, which I had seen in the reef-keeping world over the past few years. 

Here’s how the call went down:

The guy identified himself as “ _______ from the forums.”  Okay, I don’t typically call my friends by their forum names or avatars, or whatever..So already, I was like, “Oh boy- here we go..” 

Terribly judgemental of me, I know…But as a business person- and human being- I like to know the real name of the person I’m talking to. Just a quirk of mine, I suppose.

The conversation deteriorated from there…He told me (literally) that he was a “big player” in “high end plants”- I’m not exactly sure what he meant, but I think he meant “overpriced”, hyped plants that are today’s “flavor of the week…” Okay, you know that I have some feelings about the absurdity of the whole “high end” thing from my coral vending days, so he got off to a bad start. He went on to describe how he had all of the “designer”  plants  (he called 'em "stems") from “ ________” (insert name of "well-known" plant hobbyists/propagators here)…and was “done with them” and looking to obtain “high end blackwater stuff” from us.  What the hell does THAT mean?

Uh-oh. Yeah…

"Red alert...all decks, man your battle stations!"

And, of course, he dropped name after name of various competitive aquascapers who incorporate his plants in their tanks. And the names of the plants were sort of “common” or “varietal” names of things like Bucephalandra, Eriocaulon, and Fissidens, few of which meant much to me, as these"varietal" names are so transient and varied…He then went on to tell me that various botanicals that I had could be sold for much more to “high end” aquascapers and companies, who would happily pay "2-4 times as much" as I charge for them on my website. (Which, by the way, he called "high end" Probably the only time during our conversation that the term didn't turn my stomach...SO, at least the guy has some taste, lol)

“High end…” I hate that term….WTF does it mean, anyways…especially in the aquatics world?

"Hyped?"  "Over-inflated?" "Deceptive?" 

Urghh..those were just a few of the things going through my head…

I know, I was probably being waaaay to judgemental, but...


I mean, the guy was genuinely trying to "help me"- in his mind, I think..But it was weird when he was telling me that this-or-that botanical could be sold to go with such and such plant or wood in such-and-such a country at some breathtakingly high price…I mean- how did HE know this? I tried to explain to him that most of the ideas he was pointing out to me involved simply coming up with new names for the stuff I already offer, calling them "rare", then twisting the price way up…He countered that I was "blowing an opportunity.."

Look, I’m not trying to be a buzzkill, destroy someone’s dream of a business model, or call B.S. on anyone….

It’s just that this poor, misguided hobbyist had been so caught up in this world of hyper-inflated “high end plant” gobbledygook (he called them “stems”, which gave me a frightening coral “micro-frag” flashback…) that he just couldn’t grasp the fact that there are plenty of vendors out in the market that offer the same plants he and his buddies have been stumbling over themselves to acquire (at insane prices, I might add) for modest, fair pricing, and high quality. His idea of a good business model was simply to take whatever seemed to be gaining traction in the market, “re-branding” it, and charging a stupidly high price for it or no apparent reason (at least from the consumer’s perspective) to an audience as ignorant as he was...

And to think, people think I charge too much already for "twigs and nuts..."

And, despite my trying to tell him that we don’t want to sell our botanicals at “Tiffany’s” prices- he just couldn’t put his head around it. He felt as though we were somehow missing out on this vast market segment by not charging more and properly identifying our botanicals as the “limited edition” specimens that they were.

I've seen this in the coral world before, and look..if someone can pull it off- and manage to sleep at night- more power to them.

I couldn't do this.

I suppose that, in the plant world, like in the coral world, this “limited edition” nonesense probably works for some guys because the plants are typically gone from the specific vendor after they chop up the one plant that they have..on to the next. So it seems like it's an urgent need to grab it before it's gone... It’s a sleazy business model to me, but it hey, if it’s working for this vendor, who am I to judge?

Of course, I am going to judge. I’m human. And someone was on the other line telling me that I could play in that expensive sandbox, too. As a human, I was like, "Ohh, interesting.." FOR LIKE 5 SECONDS.

So, I was actually more amused than anything else. I mean, on one hand, there is a guy who, for all intents and purposes- is providing me with what he felt was useful market intelligence based on his “knowledge” of this “niche”…And on the other hand, proffering advice that I felt was completely off-message for our marketing strategy. Look, my company is not "Wal-Mart"- we don’t have the cheapest stuff on the block…Nor are we the most expensive. Rather, we try to price within reason on everything. Some stuff we offer is priced higher than other places who might carry similar items, and vice-versa. Quality and “value added” service have a price. And I suppose the argument could be made that we charge an obscene price for stuff...It goes on and on. 

Nevertheless, we are not going to participate in the “race to the bottom” to blow out everything at rock-bottom pricing…nor are we going to shoot for the incredibly tiny niche of (mentally ill) collectors who want only the most expensive stuff because it’s “cool.”

Everyone should enjoy the hobby the way they want…It’s just that I felt “dirty”, if you know what I mean; feeling for just a few seconds like maybe I should be somehow pandering to this small market segment with botanicals that are worth much less than what they feel they should be priced at. 

And of course, I was disgusted with myself for even entertaining this absurdity for a nano second.

Okay- then came the part that really got to me…

All of this “market intelligence” was being leveraged to use me and my company as a "source" for obtaining the "hot rare stuff" ( Really? I mean, I sell leaves and seed pods here...) before it comes to market, so he and his buddies could trade it and "hype" it for us…Ewwww...

And, of course, he wanted a “discount” on purchases from Tannin for this “service”, which elicited the rare double Ewww!” from me.


Okay, I’m sharing with you- for better or for worse- the stuff that happens in my day-to-day life... As well as the stuff that floats around in my head on a daily basis..the thoughts I process from discussions I participate in. You guys and gals help me grasp some of this stuff, which is why I share it with you. Besides, what other aquatics vendor writes about this kind of stuff, huh?

Just to clarify- There is no great "moral referee" passing judgement here. I’m not doing this to bash the industry, hobby, fellow vendors, or dictate the way I think things should be. I’m not trying to self-aggrandize, or beat my chest about Tannin. Plenty of good vendors in the aquatics business feel exactly like I do. (Some actually think I’m crazy and sleazy doing what I do…It’s the “cycle of life” in the business world, right?)  I suppose it can be viewed as me "getting up on a soapbox"...However, in my mind, I’m simply sharing how I felt. 

And I felt gross.

Some of you may be like, “So, this guy was trying to help you, dude. What’s your problem?”  

Others may be wanting to borrow the disinfectant spray after I’m done with it.

Ah, the life of an aquatics vendor. Thought I'd share this tale with you.

So, my advice, if you get into the aquatics game: Don’t be sleazy. Simple.

Stay nice, stay on track…Stay true to yourselves. Stay true to your hobby.

And stay wet.




Scott Fellman

Tannin Aquatics





Scott Fellman
Scott Fellman


4 Responses

Scott Fellman
Scott Fellman

October 30, 2016

Great question, Matt. And the answer is simple…The guy was trying to make a profit. Regardless of how low I feel my botanicals are priced at, he’s doing one thing right: Thinking like a business- trying to maximize profit. Of course, the things that you don’t see when looking for a discount are the other costs, like insurance, marketing, taxes, shipping,, etc. etc.


October 28, 2016

If your botanicals are so underpriced, why did he need a discount to rebrand and remarket them?

Scott Fellman
Scott Fellman

October 28, 2016

Can I get an “amen”, Kyle? :)

Kyle Holmes
Kyle Holmes

October 27, 2016

Integrity. It’s a thing.

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