One of the great things about running Tannin is that not only do I get to curate and create a pretty cool selection of botanical materials- I have had the great pleasure of helping create and refine the technique and processes that we apply to use them in our aquariums. I didn't invent the idea. However, I think that I helped advance and perfect the idea.
I find it both an honor and a responsibility to do this.
And I take the responsibility very seriously...Myself and my team have spent years (decades, in my case) personally experimenting with a huge amount of botanical materials to create all sorts of aquarium systems with them. And during that time, we've developed techniques, guidelines, and "best practices" for using botanicals in aquariums. We've made some errors, and lost some fishes along the way, unfortunately. Hopefully, our experiences and lessons learned save others from these bad outcomes.
And, most important of all, we've made a huge effort to share all of this experience-the good, bad, and ugly-with you- our community, and the hobby as a whole- on this website, in this blog, our podcast, social media posts, several print publications, clubs, and on other podcasts. As loyal readers of this blog and listeners to this podcast know by now, I like to share stuff that happens around Tannin- the good and the bad- things we do well, and shit we screw up-because it may well give you insight into "what makes us tick", so to speak.
So, imagine my surprise when, the other day, I received an email from a customer who was quite upset about his botanicals developing what he called a "white algae" on their surfaces, and that they were apparently "rotting..." He went on to lament that he may have "wasted money" on his purchase, and that he was "...an unsatisfied customer..."
Woah- "unsatisfied customer"- that's like the worst thing I could hear as a business person! A nightmare scenario in my world, where your happiness is everything! What could have happened to precipitate this feeling? I immediately began to investigate to see what I could have done wrong, and what I could do to correct the situation. I reviewed the customer's order, the botanicals that were used in his pack, and the shipping time, etc.- all of the things that you'd do as a business person. Nothing amiss there.
Yet still, the customer was unsatisfied. While I initially thought it was nothing we did "wrong", the reality was that the customer felt he was somehow "wronged." And believe me- everything that goes wrong with your order, I assume is 100% MY fault.
All of it.
Regardless...something seemed amiss. It was obvious from the customers observations and the terminology he used in his email that something didn't go as expected. Could I have done something- anything- to have helped him avoid being disappointed?
Well, yes- and no...
Now, on the surface, I empathize with anyone who is experiencing something that they may not have seen before, or something which is outside of their understanding. Yet, when it comes to stuff like our botanicals, in this instance, it made me wonder? Why was this customer surprised? What expectations did he have of the botanicals before he placed an order? How did he NOT know that they are subject to recruiting biofilms on their surfaces, softening and ultimately decomposing, and imparting a tint to the water? All of the things we consider fundamental and talk about obsessively in our world.
I mean, it's not like we don't discuss all of this stuff out there for all to see and learn about.
So, yeah, my very first instinct was almost defensive...
Fortunately, experience in this business and a little bit of instinct tells me never to just jump on someone when they complain. It's not just bad business- it's a stupid thing to do. I remember many times in the coral business, perusing online vendor forums on sites like Reef2Reef, and seeing how poorly some of our competitors handled customer complaints. Some were downright awful, publicly attacking the customer, etc., and I must admit, I sort of enjoyed the spectacle that usually arose when customers complained to certain vendors! It was often a real "train wreck."
Of course, when it happens to you, it's not all that funny. However, it IS a chance to make things right, perhaps win over a skeptic, and learn. IF you handle it right, and IF the customer can be "reached."
In this case, though, something told me that I was dealing with a customer who may have made one of the hobby's biggest and most common errors: "Leaping before looking." This was clearly someone who didn't have a clue what to expect. Just his terminology that he employed to describe what he was observing told me that. Where did the fault lie? Well, regardless, I can shoulder at least some of the blame. He somehow didn't see all of the information we put out.
What could I do about that?
Well, what I did in this instance was to explain to him that these occurrences are perfectly normal and part of what we expect in this game. I sent links to a bunch of blog posts on the relevant topics of concern. My first thought is that, even though I may feel the messages and information are out there- they may simply be difficult for some people to find. They might be lost in the constant drumbeat of customers' pics of their cool tanks, etc. Maybe we need to do a better job on making the information even more available.
In fact, it's obvious that we do. We have to keep improving. Make it even more visible. Communicate more about how botanical-style aquariums work. For someone to have found our site, got excited enough to buy the products we offer, and then to NOT understand that what he was observing is perfectly normal is a definite issue for us to correct.
On the other hand, after thinking it over for a while, the disappointment of this customer was rooted in what I feel is an increasingly common problem in the hobby: Getting caught up in the hype and superficial aspects of something, and then just jumping in without doing some homework.
In our world, that means people seeing the cool look and unique benefits of botanical-style aquariums, without making the effort to study the functions, occurrences, and processes which we need to expect and embrace when creating these aquariums.
A lot of hobbyists (and I KNOW this, because I talk to a lot of them...) simply don't feel the need to learn all of the good, bad, and ugly of this stuff before jumping in. I mean, these aquariums LOOK so cool, and there are so many out there- they can't be that hard, right? Botanicals must stay pristine and clean and perfect forever, like an aquarium ornament or something...Because it's all about the LOOK, right? I mean, "..the guy's tank on Instagram looked so cool..."
That's the disconnect, IMHO. It's a real "pet peeve" of mine, too- as you probably know.
Botanical-style aquariums are not a "style of aquascaping."
They are a methodology- an approach- to keeping aquairums, and with the approach come unique functions AND aesthetics. The aesthetics being a small (but important and alluring) part of the whole thing, really.
And I think that it's a failing of me, the vendor and so-called "hobby authority"- because I need to find even better ways to get more of the information into the ultimate consumer's hands. Not just pretty pics and videos. My blogs, podcasts, and articles need to be MORE available. I'll work on it.
In general, it's also a failing of many vendors in the aquarium industry for trying to do all that they can to get people to simply purchase stuff without offering education in equal quantities. I say "many", because there are a lot of vendors that do a fantastic job of educating, too. Yet, there is ALWAYS room for improvement.
And finally- and perhaps most important- it's every bit as much about the individual hobbyist, who often jumps into something without making more than the most cursory, most superficial effort to learn more about what they are interested in doing in the hobby before jumping in. A lack of personal responsibility to educate oneself. This isn't a new phenomenon- it's been around for decades. I remember reading Tropical Fish Hobbyist when I was a kid, and a reader would write in about a tiny fish they purchased on impulse at the LFS, without knowing what it was, only to be just schooled by the magazine's editors because they bought a baby Gar, or something insane like that.
I understand that, sometimes, it's okay to "learn on the fly"- that's fun for a lot of people...I know quite a few hobbyists like that. The kind who throw away the instructions for the new gadget they just purchased and jump right in and start "flipping switches and pressing buttons." And that's okay...I suppose. However, if you're going to leap before you look, shouldn't you at least consider what is supposed to be occurring?
I think so.
So, yeah, I DO call BS on some of this.
I encourage every hobbyist to at least make SOME effort to understand what they're getting into before they go full speed ahead. In this age of Google and Facebook and tons of forums- there is simply no excuse for doing something in the hobby and being unpleasantly surprised when things go exactly as they're supposed to, because you didn't bother to do your homework. If you did, you'd know that what you're experiencing is, in our case- THE thing.
Yeah, I suppose I'm doing sort of the same thing that I used to laugh at in my coral days...sort of. Because the difference is that, although I put out what I felt is a ton of accessible information- I obviously didn't make enough of it -or make it more easily accessible-to reach this person on this occasion.
It's something I can work on. And I will.
And to my fellow hobbyists? Well he/she should get off his ass and read. That's my metaphorical "spanking." I mean, just because you might have to do a little search here to learn about something in the hobby that you're about to embark on, it doesn't mean that you're somehow a "victim" of marketing or something. There is no excuse for ignorance in today's world.
You need to educate yourself. You need to go beyond simply looking at pictures. You need to put in the work. And you need to know that- even if you study and go carefully- stuff can still go wrong.
We're dealing with Nature, and SHE controls the game. She dictates the process. She creates the aesthetics, and she determines the outcomes. Anyone who has kept aquariums for any length of time knows that you can do everything "by the book" and still fail. It's part of the wonder of Nature and the awesomeness of the Universe.
So what we can do- what we ALL can do- hobbyists, vendors, and lovers of aquariums- is to observe, learn, and SHARE our experiences. For the benefit of everyone.
Because nothing sucks more in the hobby than finding out after the fact that, if you knew all of the details, you may NOT have taken the leap quite so quickly.
And to my disgruntled customer? Well, I haven't heard back yet. I hope that he reads the links I sent. I hope he goes deeper. I hope that he makes the effort to understand what is supposed to happen in a botanical-style aquarium. I hope that he decides that this botanical-style aquarium thing, with all of it's unique function and unusual aesthetics- and benefits- is for him. I really hope that. Even if he gets his botanicals from someone else. It's bigger than just one company, one author, or one opinion on stuff.
It's an awesome hobby. A lifetime hobby. Please treat it as such, rather than a quick, easy thing to do on a weekend.
Educate yourself. Make use of the abundant resources out there. Even if you have to dig just a bit. Make Google your friend.Talk to fellow hobbyists. Reach out if you're not sure. Don't assume stuff. Don't let ignorance be your companion on the journey. Don't just rely on what you skimmed over or "heard..." Put in the work. You should want to- because just about anything that is cool and desirable requires some effort.
And yeah- we told ya' so.
Stay educated. Stay observant. Stay smart. Stay open-minded. Stay skeptical. Stay engaged...
And Stay Wet.