I am anything but some "business guru."
Yet, for some reason, a lot of people in the aquarium industry reach out to me with questions about how to start or innovate their aquatics businesses, online or brick-and-mortar. I find this very flattering, and humbly accept the accolades I receive. Happy to help others when I can.
That being said, I find it astounding that I- the guy who sells "twigs and nuts" for a living, is seen as some kind of source for aquatics business knowledge. And just recently, I received an email from a fellow aquatics industry vendor the other day (who operates in a completely different sector of the industry than I do), just worried sick about some newcomer to his niche.
He raised questions which I find to be surprisingly common in a lot of industries (yeah, not unique to our wet and stinky businesses!), but which I am asked a lot by aquatics industry peeps. Most of them concern what to do when other guys arrive on the scene.
I think we make waaaay to big a deal about this.
Nonetheless, it comes up often enough in inquiries that I should address it in a blog (Oh, lucky YOU!)...
As usual, this answer sort of requires me to look into my own attitudes and experiences, to give context to it.
It makes me think back to when I first started Tannin in 2015. A far cry from the cranking coral propagation business which I sold my share of when I pushed out to start Tannin.
That scene was jumpin!'
And, the botanical-style aquarium scene?
Well, there was no "scene."
It was a completely uncharted territory.
The word "botanical" ( now pretty much the accepted, standard descriptor for all of this stuff we toss in our tanks) simply didn't exist in this context at the time. So, we started by appropriating that term, to give context to the "lawn trash" that we worked with. That was a good start! The term sticks to this day, and is used widely in our little hobby niche.
Off we went.
We got really busy "scratching our own itch", creating a business around a problem that I had- not being able to find a reliable source for the leaves and twigs and such needed to create botanical-style blackwater aquariums!
What to do?
I turned to...bricolage!
“Bricolage” is a term used to describe the process of using whatever tools and processes are immediately available. The concept is most immediately familiar to fine artists, and implies a sort of combination of practicality and craftsmanship.
As botanical-style aquarium lovers, we've all learned to engage in this process almost from the get go. Yeah, we're "bricoleurs"- hobbyists who create using whatever is available to us. We're a lot luckier now- obtaining botanical materials is easier than ever, with multiple vendors and online resources that simply didn't exist all that long ago. For many years, there wasn't a consolidated source of botanical materials for use in aquariums. We, as creative hobbyists, had to research, procure, and test these things for ourselves.
It was a bit of a challenge. yet, I used my skills as a bricoleuer- someone who makes use of whatever is available- to get this thing off the ground.
As a startup business, Tannin was able to immediately address the problem. Having worked in the coral propagation and importation business for several years, I got pretty good at sourcing stuff from exotic places around the world. Although it took some time and travel, I was able to build upon a trusted supplier network of botanicals surprisingly quickly.
Of course, if I actually wanted to make a living at this, I also had to find all of the other crazy hobbyists who were into this sort of shit! And I had to educate those who weren't, dispel many myths, misunderstandings, and outright lies about these types of tanks in the process.
We had to procure stuff, test it, utilize it, share our experience, develop technique, refine it, and figure out a way to effectively market it and offer it to the hobby.
In short, we had to do everything from scratch!
That was not only rather difficult- it was also one of the most enjoyable things I've ever done in business! Yeah. And we have made a bit of a difference, and I'd like to think that we still are! At the very least, it's not as much of a challenge for hobbyists to get into these types of tanks, learn about the wild habitats, grab botanicals, and to find out more about them.
On the other hand, it's still a bit of a challenge for the consumer, when you think about it. Other vendors have arrived on the scene, offering more places for hobbyists to do business with. With more choices come more decisions, considerations- and friction- for hobbyists.
What makes one source 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)
Here is the "meat" of my answer for this guy and other vendors 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.
What's happened in our little sector is that people are seeing an easy way to make a few bucks, push out some stuff, and try to run a "business" - enterprising and admirable to some extent, but incredibly short-sided in other ways.
Now, lest you see this as a jealous rant by a vendor who doesn't want any competitors- you're missing the point.
My "business sense" always sees this as a sort of opportunity! Yeah, and opportunity to improve what I do, and to get better and further distinguish Tannin from any erstwhile "competitors" in the process- without stressing out about THEM.
Yeah. I can't waste mental "capital" worrying about the latest leaf vendor. There were guys selling them before I arrived on the scene, and they'll be more of them after I retire.
To be perfectly honest, I really don't care about other businesses that sell botanicals. Seriously. None of them are a perceived threat to me. I'm too busy trying to be a threat to myself! I spend more time trying to put myself out of business than I do worrying about some e-Bay startup selling seed pods or leaves. I spend a lot of time looking at what I feel are weaknesses in our business...from a product, customer service, branding, and information distribution standpoint. I have enough to worry about without thinking about the latest "leaf vendor" out there.
This is something that those of you in the aquatic business need to think about more. If you're good enough, you'll get yours. If you suck, you'll lose. Period. Don't suck. I have friends in various segments of the aquarium industry who simply freak the fuck out every time a new guy comes into the game. This, in my opinion, is an absurd waste of time and energy.
Don't do that.
The reality is that: a) if you're good enough, you'll always find-and keep new customers, b) it's incumbent upon YOU to constantly tweak and improve your business to take care of them, and c) there is always stuff you can do to innovate, refresh, and maintain your market share.
Quite honestly, in my sector, I see the fact that new businesses are arriving as proof that we have a good market- with enough interest to sustain multiple businesses.A real validation! An opportunity to improve MY business- not as a response to a threat- but as an evolution necessitated by change in the market (ie; more homogenized vendors). And you do have plenty of options, even in a crowded market with "insurgent" newcomers, right?
Yeah, you can always do one of these seven things:
1) Go about making your business the best it can be, innovating and pushing forward, while building your community and brand. Keep your head down and push forward. Sure, have some awareness of what's going on, but don't drive yourself nuts.
2) You can reach out to the new guys and forge some sort of strategic partnership of some sort ("Hey, you are really good at selling _________, and I'm good at selling__________- let's see if we can work together...")
3) You can pivot to some new niche or speciality within the industry. Sometimes, this is a challenge- or a blessing.
4) You can vow to be the meanest guy around and simply figure out ways to destroy the competition via price cuts, better distribution, or whatever aggressive tactics soothe your ego.
5) You can simply buy out your emerging competitors. Yeah, just throw cash at them. Peace out, bitches!
6) You can welcome the new guys and challenge them to contribute to the community that you've helped build and serve. You'd be surprised how well this can work. The good guys will jump on this and you'll make terrific friends, working together to grow the sector that you operate in, resulting in better business for everyone- including the consumers. The losers will just continue to sell stuff and offer little more- ultimately "commoditizing" and devaluing their product- and self-limiting themselves from relevancy in the process.
7) You can get angry, grab your toys and leave the metaphorical sandbox. Pack it in. Fold, like a cheap chair...Just quit.
Obviously, these recommendations cover the gamut, and you're likely to do one of them- or some combination of them, in a manner which suits you. I personally hate recommendation number 7, but a lot of people do select that option.
The reality is that you simply need to worry about YOUR business, and obsess over what you do. Although I admit, I do occasionally glance over the shoulder to see what's up in my sector. I'd be foolish NOT to do that once in a while. You have to at least be aware of stuff. An ongoing sort of "rule of thumb" here at Tannin is that, if we see a "competitor" doing something similar to what we do, it's time to stop doing it. And funnily, often times we simply stop doing it for our own reasons, and coincidentally find that the competition just started doing it!
Remember we had like, 15 different "variety packs", each with different botanicals? It was maddening, developing "recipes" for each, maintain appropriate inventories of botanicals for them, and generally keeping up...Plus, we learned from market feedback that our customers preferred making up their own quantities of these things, preferring "recommendations" and the freedom to select from a whole range of stuff in quantities that THEY needed rather than set packs. What we call "curated themes" arose.
So we killed the "variety packs" in 2018. Good riddance, indeed.
And hilariously, almost every time a new competitor comes on the scene, they offer "variety packs" of botanicals, and I wonder, just a for a second- how long they'll be able to do that while growing their business and keeping their sanity! Maybe they can. I know that we can't..and our customers and my staff are delighted for that. Besides, we have the super popular "Enigma Pack" if people want us to curate for them!
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 you don'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 innovative. Stay unabashed. Stay unique. Stay diligent. Stay creative...
And Stay Wet.