Hello! Who are you and what business did you start?
Hi! My name is Larry McGee, and I own a company called Aquatic Designs, Inc. I design, sell, install, and maintain fish aquariums in restaurants, hospitals, medical offices, and any other business imaginable. I service aquariums in the central Arkansas area and travel the state doing aquarium system repair at big box pet stores.
I've been doing aquarium maintenance professionally since 1995 and have 60+ aquariums that I maintain every month. I average around $100,000 per year in total sales.
What's your backstory and how did you come up with the idea?
I wish I could take credit for coming up with the idea, but I can't! I had a friend that started the business almost 30 years ago and to be honest, I don't even know where he came up with the idea.
We were both working at a Walmart store back in the mid-'90s and had each just ventured into the tropical fish hobby. He started the business in 1994 and I would help him out on occasion, cleaning aquariums during my lunch break.
After a year or so, he had to move out of town so I bought the fledgling business for $2500 and ran it in my spare time. We had around 5 small accounts back then and only made a couple of hundred dollars per month.
I had always wanted my own business but didn't know what that even looked like. I graduated college with a BS in Marketing but had no real entrepreneurial training.
I didn't even know the potential of this business back then. I just played around with it to fuel my tropical fish hobby. It took me EIGHT years before I realized that I could make a good living maintaining aquarium, professionally.
The internet was just a novelty back then so there was nowhere to learn how to grow this business properly. It took years of trial and error to finally get it figured out but I have now been doing it full time for the past 20 years.
Over the last ten years, I have been online studying business to help grow my maintenance company and see if there were other income streams I could add to it. As I read and listened to different business leaders, I would come across different traits of a desirable business. Each time I learned about them, I found that my business already had some of them, such as repeat customers, low stress, and charging on a project basis instead of trading a dollar per hour.
It has been a good business and pulled me out of a dead-end job, making around $12 per hour while raising a family. It also gave me a lot of time and freedom that I got to spend with my family, especially when my kids were growing up, plus it gave me the pride that comes with owning your own business.
Take us through the process of designing, prototyping, and manufacturing your first product.
The process of acquiring a customer usually starts with a phone call or email from a prospective client. I will go to their business to check out the area where they are looking to install an aquarium and will ask questions to get a feel of what they want. I will provide advice and will come up with a couple of designs that will complement their decor.
It will either be a smaller setup that I can purchase at a local pet store or a larger system that must be custom-made by an aquarium manufacturer. While most of the aquariums I install and maintain are in the 50-300 gallon range, I have had a few that were over one thousand gallons.
Find smart people to learn from, make a plan and do it. No one is going to do it for you.
I had a 4000-gallon tunnel aquarium that you walked underneath to view. It was in a catfish restaurant in Little Rock, AR, with over $250,000 worth of aquariums. I would have to put on a dive skin and snorkel to do maintenance. Unfortunately, the restaurant went out of business.
Since launch, what has worked to attract and retain customers?
This is a niche local service business. Most people aren't convinced they need an aquarium in their business. They usually have the idea on their own. I try to get my name out there and let them know I'm here to help whenever they're ready.
My main source of customers is now my website. It used to be the Yellow Pages which will tell you how long I have been around!
I use a lot of pictures on my website of my different aquarium accounts and try to keep the message personal. There's not a lot of competition in my niche so ranking is not a problem.
I occasionally mail letters to prospective clients whose genres are historically good customers, such as medical offices, retirement centers, and nursing homes. Again, I try to keep it on a personal level to let them know that I'm just a local, real person providing a service.
Don't get to the end of your life wondering "what if...". Just do it.
I've tried Facebook ads but it's really difficult to get in front of the people who make those decisions, such as business owners and managers. It's not cost-effective for me.
I may not get a lot of consistent new business, but what is golden about the customers I do get is that they tend to stick around for a long time. I have several customers who have been around for 15-20 years and one that is still a customer after 25 years. They were one of the first customers that I sent a letter to when I repurchased the business in 1995. That one customer has brought in over $50,000 and the cost of acquisition was paper, an envelope, and a stamp. My largest account, which is a Children’s Hospital, has brought in almost $300,000 over the past 20 years with close to a 90% profit margin. My customers pay me to clean their aquariums each month, so it is a steady, predictable income.
Business owners and managers are busy people, so I think they value excellent service over price. I try to provide that service, so they don't feel the need to shop around.
How are you doing today and what does the future look like?
As far as my business today, I'm just on autopilot with my maintenance business. I like my balance of income and time off. I don't actively seek out new customers but take them as they come from my website.
I am dabbling with online marketing and have created an online course on how to start your own Aquarium Maintenance Business. I have a few students and am currently working on marketing for that course.
I also wrote a book 20+ years ago on how to maintain your aquarium and have since turned it into a digital version. You can find it at the link above as well.
I also subcontract with a couple of national companies where I do retail aquarium system consulting and repair work for my state's big-box pet stores. That also provides a nice side income for my business.
Through starting the business, have you learned anything particularly helpful or advantageous?
Looking back at the past 25+ years, I realize just how lucky I was. I knew absolutely nothing about owning a business. I just happened to fall into one that was easy to operate, had repeat customers, high-profit margins, and I could operate myself.
I chose not to hire employees, but that is just my preference. One could probably scale the business more if they did, but I don't want to go that route.
I've also learned that it's ok to say 'No' to work that you don't want to do. Sometimes money is not worth the stress that it can bring. I choose to keep the customers who are willing to keep paying me month after month (without drama) while getting rid of those who don't. This business can be low stress if operated correctly.
What platform/tools do you use for your business?
The business tools I use are simple. I use QuickBooks for invoicing & accounting and WordPress for my website, which I manage myself.
I probably have less than $1000 in physical equipment and supplies. I also work out of my house and vehicle, which makes my overhead extremely low.
What have been the most influential books, podcasts, or other resources?
The business leaders that have been the most influential over the past few years include:
- Pat Flynn with Smart Passive Income
- Nick Loper with Side Hustle Nation
- Chris Guillebeau with Side Hustle School
- The $100 Startup & other writings
- Jacque Hopkins with the Online Course Guy
And countless other books, podcasts, and blogs dealing with an online business.
Advice for other entrepreneurs who want to get started or are just starting out?
Don't get to the end of your life wondering, "what if...".
Just do it.
Find smart people to learn from, make a plan and do it.
No one is going to do it for you.
Where can we go to learn more?
You can find my aquarium business blog and course.
My local aquarium maintenance business website.
Follow my day-to-day adventures as a fish guy on Instagram.
There might not have been a lot that you’ve learned from this business, such as snazzy online apps, creative financing, or slick marketing tactics, but that’s the beauty of this business.
Aquatic Designs, Inc.
Hey! 👋 I'm Pat Walls, the founder of Starter Story.
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