As if I am some sort of mystic sage, and as if Tannin Aquatics is the "bee's knees", as they say- fellow hobbyists seem to love to approach me about my thoughts of them starting an online aquatic-based business of late..I get questions on this almost daily! Really. Crazy, right? Like I'm some great repository of knowledge? And, didn't I put up a blog post not all that long ago warning you about "experts?"
Well, I've received enough requests lately asking me to write a piece on this topic that I figured I'd give it a go...
I'll be clear about one thing: My company, as good as WE feel it is, hasn't even come close to all of our intended goals yet. Mistakes happen, perfection is elusive. It's nowhere near the colossal success we intend it to ultimately be. We're still on the steep upward climb, IMHO. Happily, thanks in a large part to you guys and girls, we've gained a significant foothold in the market, seem to have occupied a nice little niche, and are blessed with loyal following of fans and customers, and we've moved towards our goals with great rapidity. Things are awesome. It's been pretty satisfying, but there is so much more to do. We'd like to think that our initial success is the result of doing stuff right. The result of honesty, integrity, some failure, and plain old hard work.
And I think it's pretty cool, because we're only 2 years old in August, and, according to some pundits, are in that rare air of "successful" online aquatic vendors. Okay, whatever...We don't let this go to our heads. We can't. Besides, some people despise us, and me in particular because I won't shut up about...well, everything. Oh well. However, when I'm asked about how we got "here" (Wherever "here" is), I don't mind sharing my ideas. It helps ground me, and if it helps someone with ambition and the right attitude, cool. Mind you, there are many owners of businesses in the aquatics sector with long-duration track records, who are probably way more qualified than I to speak of how to create a successful aquarium-related business. Nonetheless, they don't seem to feel compelled to share their thoughts right now, and I don't speak for them. I can't.
I guess people approach me about their business ideas 'cause they know that I'll give you total honesty on this stuff. I'm not a grizzled old industry veteran, but I am a lifelong hobbyist, hold a marketing degree, and come with at least a fair share of industry experience. At the very least, I'll give you my two cents worth about the gig. It will be based on my experiences and ideas. I warn you in advance that I may refer to things we've done here at Tannin- NOT to beat our chests or brag that we're the shining example, but to illustrate the points I'm trying to make with "real-world" examples from my experiences. I can only speak of my own experience. As you expect, it will be filled with MY feelings on the subject...Some of it will confuse you. Some of it will be in line with your expectations. Some will probably tick you off.
Hey, you asked, right?
Here's the deal: Lots of fish geeks entertain the idea of starting an online business with dreams of making "a few bucks" to help offset hobby cost, and with hope against hope that they can parlay it into a full-time career. And you know what I say to that? YES! Go for it! You CAN do it!
However, you need to be realistic about some stuff.
First off, I can hear every aquarium-related vendor who's reading this groaning, "Seriously, Fellman? You're encouraging ANOTHER person to jump into this game?" To which I reply, "Sure. Why not?"
There has never been a better time to get into business...if you're ready, committed to the process, and give it your all.
If you're good, and execute well, this industry, the hobby, the trade- can benefit. It forces us all to be better; to not be complacent. On the other hand, if you suck, well, you'll get chewed up and spit faster than a snail on a pricy Bucephalandra.
Obviously, you need to have some experience, financial resources, and at least a rudimentary "business plan" before you get wet. This is not rocket science- it's "Business 101." You need to be realistic. We used to see this in the coral business all the time: Despite the seemingly easy proposition of buying a box of corals from a collector or farm in the South Pacific, slicing the corals up and growing them into little colonies in your basement for a sweet profit, it's not that easy. There's all sorts of stuff that comes into play before you can park your car on "Easy Street."
Oh, and as for the people who say "You can't make a lot of money doing this..." I say, N0, YOU can't make a lot of money at this with your bad attitude. Rule one- Don't ever, ever, ever believe ANYBODY when they tall you that, or anything else about what you CAN'T do. Because, if you do it right- if you figure out the way to make it happen- you CAN and WILL be able to make as much money as your talents, ambitions, and resources can allow you to. There is always, always, always a way to do something better, differently, or more profitably than has been done in the past.
Now, for purposes of this piece, I'm not gonna go into every detail of how to open and run an aquarium-related business at a profit, what the best market segments are, etc. You need to figure some of this stuff out for your self. One thing you MUST have is passion. Whatever you choose to do in this industry, you MUST have a level of passion or you're just "going through the motions", IMHO. That being said, what I WILL touch on is the other side of the equation: The mindset, philosophy, marketing concepts, and psychology that you would want for this business. It's not much different from other businesses..well, yeah it is, actually...but...
MINDSET¦ The "big idea", revisited:
1) Try to be different. Do SOMETHING differently, or better, than every other guy in the market...You can- and it's not just coming up with a better name, logo, cooler website, or catchy slogan...Create value, market separation, or, some uniqueness for your customers that sets you apart from the rest of the many aquarium-related businesses out there. What makes your aquatics company better than mine? Why should hobbyists do business with YOU?
2 ) Believe in what you do. Believe in your mission, your purpose for existence, and the fact that you CAN and WILL achieve your goals. If that means taking out a few competitors along the climb up- so be it. Sorry. No "Kumbaya" here. Success comes at a cost. People are different when it comes to business...Even little old me. Like, I love you and want you to succeed, but if you come into my market sector and try to beat me, I'll want to rip your head off and destroy you!. It's that real, lol. You have to have that attitude. This is business-not a fish auction, frag swap, or an excuse to have lots of cool tanks. And don't get all caught up in trying to "beat" everyone else...Sure, you can have respect and be buddies with other vendors, but at the end of the day, you need to be more concerned about YOUR mission, your business, what you're offering- than you do about theirs. Share some ideas, experiences, etc., but why "give away the farm", literally? Some stuff is proprietary, and needs to stay that way..a bit different than the hobby approach, I know, but essential for survival in business.
3) Don't waste time worrying about failing. Success favors the brave. Worry will simply do you in, help you buy into the naysayers, fall into the comfortable lap of mediocrity. Instead, worry about how you're going to bring your best to the table, every day. Don't accept "average", 'cause your not. Create, innovate, move; put distance between yourself and the masses -quickly. If you're going to worry about something, worry about not being like everyone else. In fact, here's great advice on the subject: If you see all the other vendors doing something a certain way- take it as a message that you should do something else. Quickly.
4 ) Let the world know who you are and what your mission is, and execute. We shot out of the box with our "Leaves, Wood, Water, Life" philosophy from day one, and it left little doubt what we're about...Everything we do is based on that.
When we started Unique Corals, we barked a "Conscientious. Sustainable. Responsible" manifesto right from day one. It ruffled some feathers, ticked off the establishment in our industry; caught a few people off guard, because they felt that we weren't the only ones who felt that way...Well, we were the only ones who came out and said it.. We weren't being arrogant. We were simply adopting a philosophy and sharing it with the world. Because no one had ever spoken up in the coral sector about what they were all about in such a public way before, it gave us an aura of "hubris", according to some. Oh well, at least people knew what we stood for right away! And we walked the walk and built a huge market share because we did just that. Leave people with no doubt about what you're all about, and be courageous.
Let there be no doubt what you stand for.
5) Walk the walk. As alluded to above- If you are going to publicly state that you're different because your company does _____________, then do it, man! Nothing is more ridiculous than saying things like, "We only offer fully mature, colorful completely healthy fish that are at least 1.5" in size when delivered" and then delivering tiny, stressed-out, drab, questionably-conditioned fish to your customers... "Hello, mediocrity!" Don't be mediocre. Be true to yourself and to your customers. Internal consistency is huge. Apologize when you screw up. And oh my God- OBSESS over customer service. Treat them like the VIP's that they are. It's the only way to succeed in this game. I'm shocked by how little regard some companies have for the customer...you're literally an "order number"...unbelievable...and those companies, thankfully, usually don't last to long in today's market! The good ones understand what it means to take the time to care for their customers.
6) Have vision and patience. That means not just knowing what you're gonna do..Rather, it means projecting your goals and holding yourself responsible for getting there. Accept the fact that you're going to fail once in a while..No- a LOT. You will- It's part of the game. We've screwed up so much you can't believe it. We still screw up- a lot less than we used to, but we still screw up. Everyone in this biz does. We're human. "We" (and that's everyone whose still in existence in this market) all kept at it. Too many people failed in this business at something and then simply stopped. Quit. Got out of the game..Done! No one remembers these people, right? Don't be one of them. Brush yourself off, own your mistakes, fix the problems, and get back in the game. You're better than that.
Oh, and patience? Super important. NEWS FLASH: You won't make a killing right out of the starting blocks...or even a year later...maybe not even two or three years later. Developing a brand, a following..a market- takes time. When we first started Tannin, no one ever heard of us. I would get 12-15 people on my site every day, even less stayed to read the blogs. It took time and a lot of writing and patine to get the hundreds of people on the site daily that we now enjoy. It's a process. Understand that. There are no good shortcuts. Want a front-row seat for an example of this process? Just watch "Estuary." You won't see/hear much about it in the aquarium "ecosystem" for quite a while as it catches on and grows; more people will come to the table slowly. They want to see others creating aquariums with this stuff first....and that takes time. Then it takes off...But you have to stay at it. Kind of like starting a fire. We did this with Tannin, and it worked great...If you don't have the discipline and patience, you will fail. Period. End of story. To many people get out too quickly and leave when it gets tough, IMHO. Don't.
What? You're gonna let a little adversity get you down? Really?
7) Be responsible. Pay your bills, and deliver on your promises. Yeah, that seems a bit obvious, but you'd be surprised just how many businesses in this trade are not responsible, financially and otherwise. It's a small world of aquarium vendors. If you fail at an obligation when doing business with one of them, word travels quickly. Money talks, responsibility, honesty, and integrity talk even louder...If you screw up, be honest, helpful, and apologetic. Humans understand other humans. Excuses suck. Arguments are lame. Just care and talk it out. Be real. Caring always works. Don't be an ass.
8) Be humble. Yes, I'm really saying this after all of this bold talk. Look, I'm a bit opinionated about some stuff, and perhaps a bit critical of my industry at times, but I do appreciate those who came before me, and those who "walk the walk" every day in this industry. That being said, I'm proud of what my company does, and I am proud that we rocked the status quo in our market sector (well, we might have actually helped create the sector, so I've been told! Cool.) when we started, and that we continue to differentiate ourselves. But you know what? I'm grateful to many people, especially those in our industry who had the courage to forge new paths to create markets that never existed before. This shit is hard! I'm grateful to the experienced people in the industry who took a few seconds and dispensed a few pearls of wisdom to me as I was getting started, seeing me as a "brother in arms", rather than an existential threat. And most important of all- I'm grateful to our customers and community, who took a chance and spent their hard-earned money- and even more important- their time and attention- with us. Without them we are just some fish geeks playing with "twigs and nuts." We all need to be humble, grateful, gracious, and understanding.
9) Talk WITH your customers. Huh? Yeah, the social media that you hear me chat up constantly allow you to easily hit and engage your target audience. The best marketing efforts are a conversation. Facebook, Instagram, and some of those other platforms allow you to find, target, and converse with your specific audience as never before- and inexpensively, too. It takes time and effort. And authenticity. The reality is that social media are great for having conversations, encouraging participation, etc. "One-way" dissemination of information and pics using one of these platforms (which is pretty much what many businesses sadly do with 'em) is simply a 21st century way of putting up a billboard or a TV commercial. No one really cares. You need to interact. People matter. Communities matter. And these platforms are actually useful for creating a dialogue with the people who matter in your world. Use them intelligently. Learn this. Use this. You'll understand why when you do.
10) Learn to take feedback from customers and the market in general, and evolve your company as necessary to serve your best customers. No barricades. Be cool. And don't try to be all things to all people. You can try offering every aquarium-related product at widely varying price ranges in an attempt to cover the whole market. Or, you can have just really cheap "knockoff" stuff, and deal with the type of clientele that the discount market attracts. Or, you can price stuff in the stratosphere and use clever hyperbole and persuasion to convince the well-heeled consumer that your Acropora coral (or whatever you sell) is THE absolute best one out there, totally worth $320 for a quarter inch fresh-cut nub. Or you can look at things differently and realize that what really separates you from the other guys is your ability to take care of your customers, communicate WITH them, offer unique, quality products, good value and fair prices, and realize that some people will love everything that you do, some will hate you no matter what, and some people have know idea who you are. Who would you focus on?
Okay, so that about covers the very basics of what I feel are the key points about the traits and philosophies that you should develop in order to achieve your goals in the online coral trade. None of this is rocket science. None of it has "never been discussed before." However, I would hazard a guess that no one in this market sector has given you this type of information before, for better or for worse..LOL
I believe very strongly in what I'm doing, as does everyone in this industry, IMHO. Our company works very hard, like so many other vendors here, to achieve its goals and take care of it's customers. There is no escape from that. No easy road to success in the aquatics business. Work hard and believe.
I'm not giving away any proprietary secrets...well- perhaps. And I'm not afraid tha someone is going to take the scant information in this little piece and use it to "steal" my market share. Pu-leeze. I believe that: A) this blog does not contain the key to the universe, b) that most readers will not embrace all of my ideas, c) any new company who comes in and pushes hard to do better is good for all of us already in the industry, and d) this is really hard work, and you need to be better and work harder than the other guys to get ahead.
So, to summarize: You CAN do this. The industry needs great new brands, new ideas, new philosophies, and new success stories. The industry needs YOU.
Be the success story, okay?
Stay committed. Stay hungry. Stay diligent...
And Stay Wet.