It’s not that unusual, as a serious aquarist, to think about turning our hobby into a business especially as we consider the hours spent doing water changes, acclimating fish and perched outside our tanks with camera in hand waiting for that perfect shot. Certainly, if you’ve calculated the dollars spent on equipment and fish, the thought of using the hobby to counter some of that expense is appealing. Many of us rush home after a long day at work to spend several more hours working in our fish rooms. While it’s no doubt mentally rewarding it can be pretty costly financially. Occasionally, it crosses our mind how nice it would be to make a career out of it and surround ourselves with fish all day. Carl Strohmeyer, owner of American Aquarium Products has taken the plunge into an aquarium career and has agreed to share with us his story of how he broke into the industry and how his businesses have changed over the last 30 years.
Carl Strohmeyer lives in Southern Oregon and has been in the aquarium and pet related business since 1977. He owned a pet store and aquarium maintenance and design business in the LA area from 1978 until 2002 before relocating to Oregon. He has designed some of his own equipment such as the 15 watt UV Sterilizer and Medicated Wonder Shells.
He now has an internet based business allowing him to spend more time with his special needs children and to deal with some personal health issues of this own. The products he carries are based on his real world experience in aquarium maintenance. His ocean dÃ©cor items are from contacts he has made over the years with importers from Asia.
Carl, Tell us a little about how you became involved in the aquarium hobby. What was your first aquarium like?
I became involved in the hobby in 1968 at the age of nine. My first aquarium was a five gallon Metaframe, more common then for starters instead of 10 gallons. The LFS, I still remember the name, Aquarist Pet Store, gave me a certificate for free fish with the purchase after set up. They determined the fish, which were White Clouds, Zebra Danios and Guppies.
At what point did you decide to turn your hobby into a business?
I started thinking about it in High School, it was either Cal Poly University or the Air Force Academy. I went with Cal Poly as a pre vet major and later switched to Business Mgmt.
What concerns did you have during the earliest days of your business? Were you able to overcome those obstacles, if so, how?
I started the business in 1978 as a service business, then a small aquarium store in late 1979. The service business really took off, more than expected, partly due to landing a contract for a high profile Polynesian restaurant after word of my handling of some customers sick fish spread to the owners.
The store had more obstacles, attracting customers in our less than perfect location was one. Patience, word of mouth, Yellow Page ads, and flyers eventually over came this obstacle. We also started the business on savings (no borrowed money to repay) and already had a fast growing service business. These factors helped over come these lean first six months.
How did you find customers and clients?
Our Service business spread only by word of mouth. Our store used several marketing strategies; Yellow Pages, flyers and mailing lists, bus bench ads, posters, school promotions, and even cable TV ads, although this came later.
What has been your greatest resource as a business owner for the aquarium hobby?
My maintenance business has probably help me understand, learn and grow in the hobby. I say this as we had several locations that we had total control of several aquariums (outside of day to day feeding), where we monitored identical aquariums, fish, & foods but would change foods filters or what ever to take notes of improvements or un-improvements. This worked well with fish food, medications, and especially UV sterilization experiments. This service business also gave us a chance to test different new products, even ones we did not carry, in real world environments.
You have designed some of your own equipment including a 15 watt UV sterilizer. How did this idea come to fruition?
In the late 80′s I was not totally happy with the price,serviceabilityy, ballast used, and water contact time of current UV sterilizers. So I started working on my own. I came up with the 15 watt, a 25 watt (this one did not pass my standards in testingafters two years, so I dropped it), and a very long 36 watt, which I only made custom for certain service and store customers. Another driving force was [that] my studies had begun with UV sterilization and what it could and could not do, and how much the unit itself had to do with this, as there was so much contradictory information then. Also a person who worked at a major fish importer in LA had told me about some information he had read about Redox Potential and its relation to UVC. The information was very vague then.
What is one mistake you won’t make twice?
There have been more than one, but [one] does stand above the rest and [is] probably a strange answer. I sold my first store (kept the service), on the advice of my Church to prove to my wife she was more important than my “dream”. [I] sold the store, she presented me with divorce papers a few months later on Christmas Eve. The second reason is similar. I will give you one more even though you only asked for one, since my first reasons are more of a personal nature. I would have looked around more and paid more rent for a better more visible location.
Many of us in the hobby have spouses and family members who don’t quite share our enthusiasm for fish. What does your family think about your hobby turned business?
My family is very supportive, not so with my father initially. My children love the aquariums and each has their own betta bowls too.
You’ve been in business for almost 30 years now. What’s your secret to making it work?
Initially, hard work, honesty, reliability (to service customers), & customer service. But to be honest, this has not transferred to my internet business. This business has been much more difficult (I am lucky to clear $900 a month), honesty and customer service does not count as much here, and word of mouth advertising, which is what really made me before is basically non existent here.
It sounds like an aquaria related internet business poses some unique challenges. What steps did you take before opening your business online to prepare for these challenges?
Not enough to be perfectly honest, I made way to many assumptions. First I originally planned to sell mostly wholesale in this area, as my research showed most stores in Southern Oregon were carrying 1980s tech products at 2020 prices. My poor assumption was that even though I was wellrecognizedd for my experience, prices, and not to sound modest, but honesty in telling customers the truth, including “I don’t know”, this did NOT carry over here. Secondly, really bad assumption about the internet itself. Although I had some good help from a friend, who later left the area, with Photo Shop and html, I poorly assumed that my unique items would be found on the internet. I new very little about SEO, and what little I new was from very bad sources. I have learned a lot here from reading article and from joining SEO groups, but this has had some bad sides too, as lot of people there will pose as experts and tell a newbie like myself all sorts of misinformation, which happens on the internet in aquarium sites too. I have moved up well in the search engines, but if it had been done right initially, this part of the business would not have been so hard. On the positive side, I am 100% self capitalized, which I have always strived to be in business, and have grown inventory as demand and capital allows.
I amcontinuingg to do research, mostly through my brother in law who owns my old service business in LA, and through reading research papers provided on the internet and through the many contacts I still have in LA and Asia.
If you could give one piece of advice to someone thinking of turning their aquarium hobby into a business, what would it be?
Find a niche. Find a good location. Customer service. Work hard. Start a business in community that is truly supportive of a new business and needs what you have to offer.
What’s next for you?
I will keep working at this business via writing articles and publishing them. I have many blogs (some unrelated to fish keeping, but still hopefully they will bring credibility). I also [have] been adding a lot to an extensive information section on my website and even added a fish related “funny” videos section. I am active on several forums and have been asked to moderate a couple. I may re-open another LFS, but probably not here in Grants Pass, Oregon. This town does not have any decent ones, only two with poor products and fish, and high prices, but this town has quite the ole boy network and unlike the community support I received in LA, it is non existent here.
Do you have any article links you’d like to provide to our readers for additional reading?
Some articles are on ezine articles, but most can be linked to through these to sites (each has a little different information links):
This one has 98% of my articles: AAP Aquarium Information
This one has less of my articles (about 70%), but more links to others articles such as Cichlid Research and NetMax: Blogger Aquarium Information
Thanks so much to Carl for taking the time to tell us about his work in the aquaria industry. If you’d like to purchase aquarium supplies directly from American Aquarium Products, please visit their website at www.americanaquariumproducts.com.
If you have made your aquarium hobby into a business, please tell us about it in our comments section. As always, general comments are welcome too.