Starting an aquarium maintenance company?
Take these tips from the Pros!
by Aquariumpros.com staff
Reprinted with permission
You work in an aquarium store and/or own an aquarium, and you've heard
about aquarium maintenance companies that are charging $40.00 to $75.00 an hour, plus
materials. You think to yourself: "Hmmm . . . I could do that!" Maybe you
ordered and read one of those brochures that teach you how to start an aquarium service
business, and it sure sounds easy enough. You think you have what it takes to clean
aquariums, you have a little money saved, and you're ready to begin. All we ask is that
you know a little about the business end first.
Read this page. We're not going to teach you how, but we will describe
many of the pitfalls you probably haven't considered. You may change your mind, which just
might save you a lot of money and aggravation.
Don't believe the hype!
It's not all peaches and cream! Aquarium maintenance can seem like a gold mine, but it's
important to remember that all businesses face daily and on-going problems that cost time
and money to solve. An aquarium business can face the same problems, only worse, because
we deal with living aquatic animals that are easily damaged or killed. This is not a
business of cleaning aquariums but a business of managing aquariums. This means you need a
good working knowledge of everything there is to know about aquaria. To complicate
matters, you have to depend on the aquarium owner to not do anything wrong - and not to
blame you for something they did.
Think about the problems you've had with your aquarium. Now think about how you're
going to solve fifty other people's aquarium problems, usually at no charge. Yes, that's
right! We said "at no charge." Remember that as someone else's aquarium
caretaker, you will usually be held responsible if a problem occurs. No one's going to pay
you to solve a problem that they think you caused. Aquarium maintenance clients are not
fish hobbyists, and many are not willing to educate themselves. You have to know the
answers for them.
This is not easy work!
The hours are long. The work is difficult because each aquarium is equipped differently.
Water sources are often a long way away from the fish tank. Aquarium emergencies can
happen at any time of the day or night. If you have too many clients, the odds are that
sooner or later, two of them will make an immediate demand on you at the same time. Our
advice: Don't try it alone. Have a partner! Better to split profits than to have splitting
You have no choice but to operate legitimately.
If you start an aquarium maintenance business, the first thing you'll learn is that you'll
have little or no support from the aquarium industry. You'll be in a business that is not
truly recognized officially by the industry at large, unless you start out on a very large
scale from the beginning. Aquarium retail stores will resent you and may even try to
sabotage you or get you black-listed with suppliers. Aquarium supply and livestock
distributors will not want to sell to you, sometimes even if you have the proper licenses.
They risk alienating the retail stores that make up the bulk of their income.
Remember that you're small potatoes. The more legal you make your business, the more
respect you'll get, but you'll also face more problems. Starting a small business used to
be easy, but federal, state and local government have gone out of their way to make it
difficult. The laws governing business are complicated, and professional help is
expensive. Sales tax needs to be collected and paid. Business bank accounts require a
federal tax identification number. Incorporating may help protect you from lawsuits, but
this requires expensive legal help. The list goes on.
Don't rely on incorporation, get yourself some insurance!
This is the biggest mistake made by amateurs that start an aquarium maintenance business.
Remember that you'll be working with large volumes of water owned by people wealthy enough
to pay you for your services. All you need to do is make one mistake that floods someone's
expensive Parquet floor, and you'll get sued out of business so fast it'll make you dizzy!
If the damage is bad enough, you may wind up paying for the rest of your life. And now for
the kicker . . . good luck getting insurance!
Only a handful of carriers will cover aquarium maintenance companies, and they're going
to ask lots of questions about your level of experience and how you'll operate your
business. You can't blame them. Water damage is expensive to repair, and claims could be
enormous. New to the aquarium industry with only your hobby as experience? Expect
outrageously high premiums! Oh, and by the way, don't forget to tell your automobile
insurance company you'll be using your vehicle for a business which relies on
transportation. If you don't and they find out, they'll drop you like a stone. If you do,
they'll more than double your rates. Either way, you'll lose.
Make sure you have capital!
No matter what you've heard or read, you will need money to start up your business. Even
if you're working out of your home, you'll still have equipment and inventory to buy.
Insurance, legal fees, accounting fees, advertising, phone book listings, and other
startup expenses all cost money. Remember that most new businesses don't make a profit for
the first four to five years, and you can't do aquarium maintenance for more than six
accounts on a part-time basis and work another job. The demand on you will be too great,
and what if you get a call for an aquarium emergency while you're at work? Clients won't
accept the excuse that you were working. Our recommendation: Don't even try it without at
least $10,000.00 to $20,000.00 in your bank account. Bank or small business loans? You can
try, but your ears will soon be ringing with the laughter you hear as they escort you out
Looked at your competition first?
If there are already plenty of aquarium stores and/or maintenance companies in your area,
can you compete? What can you offer that they don't? Do you know more than they do? As a
new business, you need to offer competitive rates and guarantees. If you offer guarantees,
can you back them up? If you offer the lowest prices, you'll only attract clients who
couldn't afford the service if they paid full price. They'll expect more for their money,
and if you don't charge enough, you won't make anything.
If you'll be the only game in town, find out why!
You've done some market research, and checked out your competition. There's obviously a
lot of wealth in the area, as many of the houses are worth millions. The area is
developing rapidly, with lots of new subdivisions filled with huge, expensive homes.
You've made a rough approximation of per-capita income, and have found a potentially large
market of high-end customers. All of the aquarium stores in your area are all smaller ma
& pa operations. Their fish and knowledge are average, or below average. They don't
sell state-of-the-art equipment or acrylic aquariums. None of them offer aquarium
maintenance services, or what they offer is limited. You've pumped them for information,
and to your surprise, you know far more than any of them. Wow! The future looks rosy. Or
If a city seems to have a fair population with a level of high income, and is rapidly
developing, why isn't there at least one quality aquarium business? Not necessarily a
large store, but at least one with a knowledgeable staff, saltwater livestock,
nice-looking tanks, and some newer protein skimmers and wet-dry filters in stock. FIND OUT
WHY! The reason may be as simple as no one's ever thought of it before, and in that case,
go for it! However, experience has taught us that there's usually a very good reason why
certain specialty businesses don't exist in a larger city.
Some areas may look like a gold mine, until you discover they really aren't. This must
be determined before opening a business, not after. Areas with high populations of wealthy
people who are very politically-conservative; or are deeply-religious; or are from certain
ethnic groups and backgrounds, may not prove to be that profitable for an aquarium
business. "Old money" by the way, got to be "old" through saving and
careful investment, not by spending left and right on what some people consider to be
How can you tell? Explore the types of specialty stores in the area. What kind of
furniture do the furniture stores carry. A lot of modern, vogue styles, or lots of
traditional pieces. What kind of car-dealerships do you see, and what are they selling?
How many new-age, or yuppified restaurants are there? Got sushi? Health-food stores? If
they exist, how successful are these businesses? By now, you should be getting the idea.
Think you'll make a lot of money?
Don't bank on it! As we said, most new businesses do not make a profit in their first four
to five years of business. You'll be shocked at how quickly the money you make disappears.
Most new aquarium clients won't pay you up front. The more business you have, the more
expenses you'll have and the more inventory you'll need. One good vehicle repair bill can
set you back for all the profit you've made in a month. Without the vehicle, you're out of
business. One mistake which forces you to replace a tank full of saltwater fish, and you
could get set back even further. Retail stores can make more profit on maintenance than a
maintenance company. Why? Because to them, it's gravy. Their entire overhead is paid for
by profit made from walk-in business, and the employees they use for aquarium service can
also work in the store.
Wait a minute - Aren't you an aquarium maintenance business? Why should we
believe you? Although our sister company, Aquarium Professionals Group is one of
the largest aquarium maintenance companies in the Chicago area, they are primarily a
dealer of new aquariums, specializing in very large custom aquarium systems which many
retail stores don't want to touch. They provide aquarium maintenance to the clients who
buy their aquariums, taking on other, carefully selected maintenance accounts to fill in
their routes. They also don't try to make a lot of money on aquarium maintenance. They
know better. They make the bulk of their money from designing and installing large custom
aquariums, using skills developed over many years of experience.