Lessons learned on the road to global domination...And more...

Okay, that title sounds a bit ambitious; arrogant, even. I mean, "global domination" - seriously?

Well, look, when I started Tannin, the idea of "global domination" of this unique market segment- sort of an inside joke at first- was actually pretty easy to accomplish- 'cause there wasn't such a market segment to dominate! .So, yeah, here we are!

I think a lot of hobbyists give thought to the idea of starting their own business... And that's exciting to me! And, because we receive so many questions on the business side of Tannin, the topic today is sort of a review of where I've been as a business person and hobbyist, and lessons learned while I was making the transition from one area to the hobby to another- another thing that many of you have asked me to talk about. As you suspected, you can't really talk about the business without talking about the hobby it serves, so we may bounce in and out of the two areas during the course of this piece. Yeah, this thing's gonna go all over the place!

About 6 years ago, I made a little “pivot” away from the business end of the reef hobby world, to focus on my other aquatic obsession, natural, botanical-style/blackwater aquariums. I was a co-owner of an industry leading coral propagation and importation business. It was a lot of work, but a hell of a lot of fun. And it was getting to be a pretty big operation, too. But something told me that it was time to move on.

A lot of my reef-keeping friends were in total disbelief when the news broke. I left the business at sort of the "top of my game", as it was really breaking out. From a business standpoint, I could understand why people might have been a bit surprised. Yet, oddly, as much as I enjoyed it, there was this other "itch" that I had to scratch...something completely different and very original- in the freshwater world.

Yeah, my friends freaked the fuck out. I can see why that raised a few eyebrows among industry observers.

However, from a hobby standpoint, the response seemed a bit weird.

I mean, just because I focused my business efforts on the botanical-style aquairum world didn't mean that  I abandoned reefkeeping. Nope. Just put my business focus on a different challlenge. When I announced that I sold my interest in the coral biz and started Tannin, some of my daily blog readers (yeah, I wrote a daily reef blog, too) were literally thinking that I Lost it."Fellman's lost it and gone off the deep end!" Which, of course, I found amusing, because I'd likely "gone off the deep end" long before that, lol!

On the surface, this transition was a bit crazy, right?

Going from "A- Lister" in one world to complete obscurity in another was something a lot of people who knew me just couldn't believe I'd be okay with. It was awful comfy being invited to speak at conferences and clubs all over the world. If there was a "glamorous" part of the hobby, the "reef hobby speaking circuit" was it. Lots of travel, invites, and virtual "rock star" status!

No one really knew me in the freshwater world, so to me, it was totally cool being this opinionated "nobody", writing insane rants about weird topics, talking about "crossover hobby skills", and selling dried "twigs and nuts" intended to be placed in your aquarium to make the water brown and decompose. Yeah, wasn't an easy sell at first.

That took a while to sort of seep into the freshwater world! 

And, damn- it did!

We've helped to create a global movement in the aquarium hobby. And that's not some brag...It's a fact. It was my stated goal in 2015 when we started to do just that. It wasn't just to sell twigs and stuff. It was about creating something bigger. To sell the idea of a different approach to ecologically diverse, truly natural aquariums.

We had to start 100% from scratch to do it, though.

Just look for the terms "botanicals" or "botanical-style aquarium" anywhere in the aquarium world prior to 2015...They're just not there. You won't find them. There was no real "market" for botanicals in the aquarium hobby. Now sure, people added leaves and twigs and stuff to aquariums for generations before we arrived- but there was no resource; no specific methodology ascribed to the practice. No place you could turn for this stuff. It wasn't looked at as a way to create function-forward aquariums.

We didn't just launch a brand that sold stuff, we pushed our philosophy and idea and had to educate and create a "methodological infrastructure" along the way. Crazy shit!  And it was hard! Yet, totally fun! Now, sure, it took a few years to get our ideas out in a more concise, systematic manner. We spent a lot of time just talking about our vision of the concept of botanical-style aquariums and how they represent a functional version of Nature. Reassuring people (and ourselves) that the approach wouldn't kill every fucking fish you put in your tank was a big thing. 

Another lesson:  Spread your ideas relentlessly and continuously. As you know, we utilized this blog and the podcast to help disseminate our message virtually every day, where I give the usual "Fellman-fluff" to a whole new audience! I've been told (and I am starting to agree) that "The Tint" is literally the living work- the "bible" of the botanical-style aquarium approach. Six years of near-daily writing will do that.

Other brands have since launched in this space, which I've always seen as a sort of "proof of concept" that this botanical-style aquarium thing is a viable idea! We get a TON of questions asking me if I feel somehow "threatened" when a new vendor happens on the scene. And the reality is that I never saw the appearance of a new brand in this "sector" as some looming "threat"- which is an important lesson for many erstwhile hobby business owners to learn.

Yeah, it simply never bothers me. I'm too busy doing my own thing to worry too much about someone else's. It's not an issue.


Because we were founded on the very idea of going into new and obscure hobby niches and areas of interest that we love- ones which few, if any people are working; and certainly not trying to build businesses around. This approach of "scratching your own itch" gives you a lot of freedom to be creative, and if it excites others, they come along for the ride. You build your tribe. Create a brand, and build a foundation. Simple-and difficult- as that!

What makes one source for botanicals better than the others? I mean, a leaf is a leaf, right? (Well, not necessarily- quality is apparent...but there's more to it, of course)

It's the information. The ideas. The philosophy. How the idea is presented. That's hard. 

Here is the "meat" of my answer for those who worry about it:

Yeah- with more interest, more vendors, and more hype about botanical-style aquariums in general, there is a lot more "noise." Meaning, of course, a lot more B.S. to filter through...a consistent lack of information (with a few exceptions), and not a huge body of recent firsthand experience with botanical-style tanks for newbies to draw upon.

Tannin just keeps evolving and pushing out new ideas to the hobby- something I just love doing. We keep moving daily. We have literally dozens of ideas going right now related to the botanical-style aquarium world, which are like nothing you've seen before in the hobby- we'll be launching into new and exciting tangential directions for years!

Things never get stale, and would-be imitators become pretty obvious to the market. When you're there first and really crushing it, people who come into the space later have little that's unique to offer- and everyone knows it. Most don't take any time to educate the consumer on the idea behind the products they sell- cause that's all they want to do- sell shit. Let Tannin do the heavy lifting, right? Just regurgitate what we've done, without bringing anything new to the table. 

A "followers" mentality. And that's really sad. It's unnecessary. 

That's why most of them, ahem- suck. They take the easy way out. Replication has always been easier to accomplish than innovation.Look, I'm not simply trashing brands which want to do the same thing that we do. I'm trashing brands in my sector-or any hobby sector-which bring nothing newts the table. That simply sucks. Now, being first on the scene isn't a guarantee that you'll be the dominant brand. Or, even that you're the best. And, as the incumbant,  you can't get complacent, especially with innovation. You have keep going or you'll die. 

Lesson: Expressing yourself and your ideas via your business, and working in areas that you love will always differentiate you from the rest of the market.Take the time to buildout the "infrastructure" of your idea. It is not an "immediate results" sort of thing. It takes time.  It's a continuous process. Innovation never stops. Most brands get comfortable simply existing. It's not enough. You need to keep building upon what made you start the thing in the first place. The passion and energy you bring to the table will continue to make you unstoppable! Do the hard work- the stuff that no one else wants to do.

Always move forward. Think differently, and try to act upon your ideas as fast and frequently as possible.

For some reason, I am always drawn back to the reef world. Tannin is just six years old, yet headed into some very interesting things in the freshwater (and brackish) world. Our version of aquariums and aquatic displays is not the sterile green and white world you've come accustomed to in FW. It's not the overly-artistic "conceptual art" approach.

Rather, it's about living, breathing, earthy habitats, with tinted water, decomposing botanicals...in many ways, "reef like." Oh, and don't rule out a "niche saltwater re-entry" by Tannin at some point...All sorts of ideas here. Okay, enough about me and my company and business lessons for a bit.

What about lessons we can learn from thinking differently about other parts of the hobby?Let’s focus on our aquarium hobby world...The freshwater one...for minute. Yeah, the freshwater world...from a slightly different perspective, as we say.

It’s a radically different world than the reef world which I operated in for decades prior. It’s been established for more than century, and there are specialties for just about everything, making it unbelievably segmented (good and bad if you’re a marketer, of course- depends on how you look at it)! And the freshwater world, sophisticated as it may be, has some strong “cultural beliefs” which keep it hanging on to some, well… close-minded thinking, in my opinion. Oh, and many of them look at us reefers as trend-mongering hipsters. Now, some of that might be true, but the fact is that the reef keeping world can teach the old-school freshwater world a thing or two…

The majority of hobbyists tend to force our fishes to meet the environmental conditions that are easiest and most convenient for us to supply. We typically do without even thinking much about it.

I’m often surprised during conversations with some freshwater hobbyists who are thoroughly convinced that it’s important and beneficial to the aquarium hobby to have adapted fishes to our captive conditions, even to breed under them, rather than attempting to accommodate their needs by recreating the habitats from which they come. In other words, fishes which for eons have evolved to inhabit soft, acid waters are being “acclimated” to, and even bred under hard, alkaline tap water conditions. I mean, it works... But I wonder if there are any long-term impacts of this practice.

The idea of "repatriating" fishes which come from soft, acidic blackwater habitats from our "tap water" conditions back into the environmental conditions in which they have evolved, and learning how to manage the overall captive environment is by no means new or revolutionary. It's just that the hobby has sort of taken a mindset of "it's easier/quicker for US" to adapt them to the conditions we can most easily offer them.

Just because they can "acclimate" to wildly different conditions than they have evolved to live under doesn't mean that they should. I mean, it's not about us. Right? The consistently successful serious breeders have understood this for a long time, and we all should, IMHO. As we’ve demonstrated, it's not at all impossible to provide such conditions as a matter of practice…

Need an example of this concept? Well, look at what happened with the reef community! Once hobbyists devoted their energies to providing fishes/corals/inverts the conditions that these organisms required to thrive- conditions the organisms evolved in over eons- rather than the conditions that were "easiest" for the hobbyists to provide, the hobby exploded, with successes beyond our wildest dreams available to everyone who learned the rules of the game.

Vincent Thomas Tank.jpg

"The rules of the game..."

And yes, technology and products eventually showed up on the market to enable this process of more easily providing what corals need. NOT to adapt them to more easily/conveniently-provided low light, low flow, etc. conditions. Rather, it was to make it easier for the largest number of hobbyists to provide the natural conditions which make it possible for these organisms require to thrive. As much as we would have liked to be able to keep thriving reefs full of corals in table-salted tap water, nature won't let us play that way!

We have to play Nature's game.

To all my fellow reefers out there: Pat yourselves on the back. It’s a lesson learned early in the “modern era” of reefkeeping, some 30-odd years back, which has enabled landlocked hobbyists in frigid climates to be able to successfully keep delicate reef-building stony corals in their living room. It’s what has enabled an entire industry of dedicated professional coral propagators to grow enough coral to someday meet the demands of the entire market, making it unnecessary to harvest from wild reefs. It’s what’s enabled even the neophyte reef hobbyist to be able to enjoy the wonders of the tropical ocean in his/her very first aquarium.

Accommodating the organisms we want to keep based on THEIR needs. NOT the other way around. A valuable lesson that the entire aquarium community could learn from. And it’s just “the way we do stuff” around here as reefers. The cost of admission. No other way is considered.

That’s the kind of stubbornness I can get behind!

And relentlessness...A continuous push to improve and innovate. It never stops.

Constant, relentless effort to innovate, craft, work with what you've got, to improve and drive your business forward- regardless of what the competition is trying to do. Don't listen to the accolades, and don't get taken down by the criticisms. March to your own drummer. Work with what you've got. Move forward- in a manner that works for YOU. If you've got something people want, the market will decide, and you'll win. If youdon't...well, you still have options, right?

So, that's today's slightly long-winded answer to an oft-asked aquatics business question. Gotta run now..I have some new products to attend to! 

Don't stress out over this stuff. Enjoy the process.

Stay stubborn. Stay curious. Stay dedicated. Stay proud!

And Stay Wet.

Scott Fellman

Tannin Aquatics

Scott Fellman
Scott Fellman


Leave a comment