I Left My 100 Hour Week Job To Start A $120K/Month Aquarium Ecommerce

Mark Valderrama
$10K
revenue/mo
1
Founders
1
Employees
AquariumStoreDepot
from Austin, TX, USA
started October 2015
$10,000
revenue/mo
1
Founders
1
Employees
322K
alexa rank
42
followers
388
subs
market size
$8.6B
avg revenue (monthly)
$10K
starting costs
$14.9K
gross margin
40%
time to build
210 days
growth channels
Brand Authenticity
best tools
Instagram, Pinterest, Asana
time investment
Side project
pros & cons
35 Pros & Cons
tips
2 Tips
Discover what tools Mark reccommends to grow your business!
social media
productivity
seo
Discover what books Mark reccommends to grow your business!
Start A Water Aquarium Business

Hello! Who are you and what business did you start?

My name is Mark and I run AquariumStoreDepot, a hybrid e-commerce and information website all about aquatic animal keeping. Before COVID, my flagship products were an algae turf scrubber and reef LED lights. My primary customers are in the US and tend to range from the ages of 36-48.

The highest revenue month I've had since starting this business was $13,000 in a single month. The business is highly profitable due to the shift from dropshipping to partnership agreements over time. I generally average $8-$10K per month with a high season during tax time and Christmas

i-left-my-soul-sucking-corporate-job-to-start-a-120k-month-aquarium-ecommerce

What's your backstory and how did you come up with the idea?

I’ve been in the aquatics hobby since I was 11 when my brother and I had this bright idea to keep a clownfish tank with anemones. My Godfather at the time gave us a 55-gallon acrylic tank and my brother and I figured it out from there. We made so many mistakes and this was before the internet existed so I went off whatever the local fish stores told me.

I worked in Corporate America and I had grueling jobs working as much as 100 hours in a week. It was soul-sucking. I did a lot of reading of books like The 4 Hour Work Week and End of Jobs. There had to be something I could do to work my way out of the grindy jobs I had.

Start with something you are passionate about and have a drive for. Don’t just do something because you think it will make a lot of money.

I finally ran into a course by Noah Kagan from AppSumo. He had mentioned in the course to start with something that you loved. I remembered I had kept aquariums for a long time. I was taking a break from tank life as I had moved to Texas. I decided to jump into it finally. I started in late 2015 with a Shopify site. I had no idea what I was doing. I figured I could just open a shop and people would just buy from me. I didn’t know anything about reputation management or paid ads. I wasted a lot of money hiring the wrong people to do SEO and PPC for me and at multiple points in my journey felt like quitting.

I jumped into other things like consulting on the side and started to do some agency work. None of it appealed to me. Yes, I liked the PR aspect of it, but what I was doing didn’t feel like it was mine.

I then heard about this thing called affiliate/referral marketing. I started to get mentored by a few folks in the space then I just tried it with a test amazon affiliate account. It did pretty well then blew up during COVID. I knew I had something so I started to use my own connections in the industry to work through private partnerships with brands I loved. I started to get referral agreements, sponsorships, and wholesale accounts with exclusive pricing. I felt I had finally figured it out.

I’ve only just started to really ramp up here. I started being active in trade shows again and I continue to do interviews and talks with industry publications. My hope is I can use the business and the site to build up the community. The industry is still fragmented and there is a big divide between the saltwater and freshwater side of the hobby. I want to bridge the gap and build a community similar to those in Europe in Japan.

Take us through the process of designing, prototyping, and manufacturing your first product.

I designed the website originally with a Shopify-approved website designer who help me customize the site similar to a top competitor in my niche. I made it very shopper-friendly with categories, videos, and pictures for all the products in the store. It roughly cost me $3000 to start up the website and another $200 to get the LLC filed for the business. The right was cold calling manufacturers to open up wholesale accounts with.

I used to manufacture my own product when I sold algae turf scrubbers. I worked with a contract manufacturer who made them out of acrylic. I didn’t want to invest in equipment until I ramped up sales. We did some promotions with influencers and podcasts that helped. I did pretty well for a time. It was one of the first scrubbers on the market at the time. Every solution was DIY before I got this design created. There was a gap for a ready-made solution and given the niche, many were willing to pay a lot for one.

I actually did invest in laser cutting when we started to ramp up. My manufacturer actually shut down at that time and I was left with the laser cutter bill. I couldn’t even get it back. Since then I’ve just been working through private partnerships. As I grow I may look into private labeling products, but right now I’m happy with a more off-hand approach.

Describe the process of launching the business.

Oh, this was a circus for me lol. I just signed up for a Shopify account, cut and pasted a few product descriptions, and launched. I told friends and family (none who had any interest in aquatic animals by the way) and started posting on my FB page thinking I would get sales.

I did this for about 45 days --- I had $0 in sales. I was trying to figure out what went wrong, someone told me to do $5 a day FB ads. So I tried that. That didn’t work either. I tried to google product ads, no sales either.

I didn’t make any sales until I had a manufactured product that Amazon or a big online retailer did not sell. I also didn’t get reliable traffic until I started to blog. My biggest mistake I would say was not working on reputation management and collecting reviews for the purchases that were made.

If you are starting with an e-com site --- get some reviews! Even if it makes you take a loss on the product by giving it away - do it anyway. You have to invest in your business to grow it!

I’ve funded the business completely bootstrapped. I did go into credit card debt for a time and as the business became profitable I started to pay down all the debt.

Since launch, what has worked to attract and retain customers?

Information, lots of information. Visitors and readers love my in-depth articles and insights on the industry. Everything I have done so far has been organic. I tried Instagram and FB and frankly, none of that worked for me --- and I hated doing it.

Organic SEO and Pinterest work really well for me. With Pinterest, it’s all about getting various boards set up and doing some basic SEO for each post. It’s a bit of a grind as you want to post a Pin a day.

For organic SEO, I’m big on outreach to websites and PR. For PR, I established rapport with reporters over the years who will sometimes contact me for insights and stories. My favorite SEO tool is Ahrefs.

I’m looking into YT later this year as it blends very well with what I do now and I have the sponsorships now that want to support a channel. I have old YouTube videos I made that get a solid amount of views so I know this should be a natural flow for me. Viewers have commented to me that my style is very informative and easy to take in.

I’ve also started to work on e-mail marketing finally. The biggest challenge I’ve had is splitting my segments down since I have several for my website.

i-left-my-soul-sucking-corporate-job-to-start-a-120k-month-aquarium-ecommerce

I actually have a tiny amount of traffic compared to several of my competitors, so I know there is a lot of potential for me. I publish slower and I haven’t touched many topics.

How are you doing today and what does the future look like?

I’m mostly a content writer right now. I still feel that’s the way that works for me, I’m just shifting over to other avenues of content like video. I want to continue to work with brands I know in the industry with private deals and eventually get back to private label products.

I’m all for online sales. I have no brick and mortar and don’t really plan on doing that unless I get into custom aquarium installs and aquascape builder - both I used to do for friends in the hobby.

Right now, I’m working with one of my big connections in the industry on outreach. I want to invite keynote authors to my site and do podcasts, videos, etc. I learned that many of the big forums have these folks write for them and don’t even compensate them, which I feel is just wrong. While here I am training single mothers from Pakistan in the aquatics industries via zoom calls and making them into great writers and editors.

Through starting the business, have you learned anything particularly helpful or advantageous?

I’ve learned that competitors can be pretty cutthroat. I’ve been attacked with Negative SEO campaigns, had my site hacked, and even my Facebook account was nearly stolen. The Negative SEO was a competitor, the others are more like threats you face in the industry from hackers.

Being agile has been a big thing I have learned. I was a dropshipper, then a private manufacturer, now mostly affiliate and sponsorships. You figure out what works overtime and COVID changed everything for me. I lost several manufacturers that worked really well for me that went out of business during the pandemic.

Mergers and acquisitions are also another threat. Ever lost a partnership because a competitor buys them out? Yeah, I dealt with that too. You just have to work on your connections and have multiple touchpoints with players in your industry. I’ve been offered M&A deals before, even just straight-up threatened that they will either buy me or take me out. I don’t want to sell my site given the passion behind it.

What platform/tools do you use for your business?

AHREFS is probably my favorite tool. It’s been extremely helpful to figure out what to write about and what keywords to target. It has also been invaluable for identifying outreach targets as oftentimes I find new niche sites that relate to mine that I can talk to.

The next one is Asana. That tool is a lifesaver. It keeps me grounded with the million things I want to do. It helps me prioritize and put things on the back burner. It’s always on my Asana projects so I don’t forget about it and I can come back later. I can also assign tasks to my team members.

What have been the most influential books, podcasts, or other resources?

I’m a huge fan of Billy Jean Offends The Internet Podcast. He’s raw and real and his podcasts are short. They are really good energy shots for me in the mornings. They are also good for laughs.

The other has been a close group. If you are a woman, join a women’s leadership group. If you are a man, join a quality men’s group. That one I have worked with is Knowledge for Men. They really helped me connect and see what I value in life. Definitely seek out friends of the same gender and build a like-minded community. Digital life can be very lonely if you don’t get yourself out there.

The last takeaway is to share your knowledge with others. Mentor someone who is struggling. You don’t have to get paid for helping people out, learn to give and provide value without asking for anything in return. You reinforce a lot of what you have learned and struggled with when you share yourself and your journey with others.

Advice for other entrepreneurs who want to get started or are just starting out?

Start with something you are passionate about and have a drive for. Don’t just do something because you think it will make a lot of money. Your lack of passion will bite you later if you just chase the money. You can chase money when you have experience and the funds, but I don’t recommend it when starting.

This comes into play when you first start. You won’t have money, you will be the only worker in your business. Everything falls on you and you will likely be working an FT job as well chasing your dreams. If you don’t do something you are passionate about it’s easy to burn out when you spend 3-6 months writing, promoting, and making videos and your result is not a single dime of profit. Learn to grind and measure your progress in other ways like your traffic or product x number of videos or posts a month.

And if you are starting with an e-com site --- get some reviews! I feel like you need at least 50 reviews for your brand because you can establish any trust with visitors. Even if it makes you take a loss on the product by giving it away - do it anyway. You have to invest in your business to grow it!

Are you looking to hire for certain positions right now?

I’m looking for a project manager and expert writers. I feel like I may have the writers covered as I’m working with my own connections. A project manager would help me get my backlog of stuff done. I’m still figuring out what the position entails but should know in a few months. It would be a part-time position that will turn into a full-time position over time.

Where can we go to learn more?

If you have any questions or comments, drop a comment below!

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Mark Valderrama   Founder of AquariumStoreDepot
Pat Walls,  Founder of Starter Story

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