The other day, I got a PM from a fellow hobbyist who was just burned out on his 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 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", 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 column 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 marketing job, using every spare second to play with, or plot about my aquariums, writing my weekly rants on all things aquatics, or traveling to speaking gigs and conferences. 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” career…Of course, when you’re a hardcore fish geek- 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 hands, 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? I couldn't handle the unfulfilling career life I was in anymore. 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! 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.
My personal journey towards career enlightenment made me leave my beloved So Cal and venture all the way across the continent, to one of the nation’s premiere fish businesses, where I got to be the Fish Geek that the universe intended me to be. Yeah, what a switch! I cannot believe it myself that I did it. Toughest decision of my life. So for the better part of a year and a half, I helped design custom aquariums, acquire uber rare livestock, and help people discover the joy and sheer craziness that reef keeping is. It was a great experience. Very different. However, I was desperately home sick for L.A….
Good fortune and timing led me back to my native L.A. when the opportunity came to partner up with an incredibly talented and successful fellow entrepreneur, Joseph Caparattta, who was moving to L.A. from New York to re-launch, re-brand, and re-imagine the dormant “Version 1.0” of Unique Corals. 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 created an amazing business.
The dream became a reality.
We created a pretty cool thing there. This was it for me… I decided that the fish world is my life gig, baby. And I'm staying put in Los Angeles. I love this stuff, and like many of you, I 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…never buying a one-way ticket outta this town again!
And man, I totally loved my gig.
I mean, I got to see some of the coolest corals and fishes in the world, and deal with some of the most awesome aquarium people around. My speed dial was/is filled with amazing people with more talent than I’ll ever have- Tony Vargas, Justin Credabel, Jake Adams, Julian Sprung, Matt Pedersen, the crew at ReefGen, ORA, etc. And 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 reef geeks every day! Yeah, it was my dream career (especially since the pro surfer gig just never worked out for me, LOL).
And I still wanted to do more...
The passion and restlessness drove me to follow up on a long-time plan and elevate my beloved sector of blackwater aquariums. I had worked for years with them, and felt that there needed to be a place that curated all of the cool stuff that fish geeks needed to create amazing, unique blackwater aquariums...And Tannin Aquatics was born.
It was the complete opposite of what I did at Unique. A completely undeveloped, under-served, relatively obscure niche...Different aesthetic, technique, idea. In fact, there was very little cohesive "stuff" to go by...we had to create it, which was really fun! But it's something I am- insanely passionate about. SO much so that I decided it was time to sell my ownership interest in Unique Corals and delve full time into this "blackwater thing."
Everyone thought I was nuts for leaving the juggernaut that UC had become; especially when we were really near the top of a very crowded pyramid in the coral sector. But you know what? I had to. I knew I wanted to...It was time. I loved it...but not as much as what would be coming next. Time to move forward. It was scary, but I knew it was what I wanted to do.
Flash forward a couple of years, and I think we've got something pretty special here at Tannin. We're at the forefront of a global hobby movement, with an engaged, diverse, amazing global community of incredibly talented hobbyists. Friends, videos, speaking engagements, magazine articles, all of the stuff that seems to happen when you do what you love and give it 110%.
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 was 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 world. It’s been pretty rewarding.
In my relatively brief professional aquatics career, I’ve done stuff like had high-level creative meetings 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.
One of the coolest aquarium projects I ever worked on: "Land Mind" in NYC.
At Unique, I played with corals and fish all day and kept fellow reefers stoked (okay, that’s a waaay oversimplified description of what I did…but you get what I mean)! At Tannin, it's sort of the same thing, except the cast of "players" and the material we work with are different. And I work with some talented, amazing people-a different "cast of characters" and a different "medium", but the same idea. I even get to support my friends’ aquatic businesses by purchasing from them for my business. It’s rewarding. It’s fun. It’s unreal.
If you're contemplating doing something...You need to do this.
It’s not all fun and games, mind you. In the aquatics industry, we have the same struggles as any 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 livestock, 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. It’s sheer craziness.
But I do it for a living! And..I love it.
I never got to see stuff like this when I was in the "rat race."
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…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. There will always be a place in the aquatic world for passionate 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. I’ve even developed humility! There's a lot to learn about this industry! Of course, it’s still fun to poke the bee hive now and again; to tick off the industry a bit…
I’ve gotten to see corals, fishes, and other aquatic stuff that only a few people in the world outside of the collectors 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. Botanical items from all over the world...pieces of wood that you'd kill to have in your own aquarium...gadgets, equipment, and accessories...yeah, sweet! I still get goose bumps when I think about what it is like to open shipping boxes when they come in! We get really geeked-out!
And now we're adding a line of stuff for that other obscure "geek-out sector" of min, brackish water. It's going to be fun...And the 2018-2019-2020 "pivots" should be cool, too...
It’s very fun...
My point here is not to brag about how awesome my career is…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. 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!
Nothing ventured- nothing gained...
You’ll sweat. You’ll cry. You’ll doubt yourself a lot. But, 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 (if you're in that sector) 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. 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 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. Please.
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. Take it with a grain of salt, but I hope it moves you just a bit if you're feeling stuck.
Stay focused. Stay the course. Stay happy. But most of all…
Glad to hear you’re living the dream, Kurt. Life is just too short otherwise!
Very well put. I own my own business. It is an auto body shop, but I love what I do. I am a fish geek and have 4 aquariums at the shop. And more at home. What you wrote rings true. Enjoy what you do. Cheers from one fish geek to another.