Transcript (more or less)
Wouldn’t it be great making money doing what you love? Have you ever wondered how to start a business in reptiles or chameleons? Today we talk about starting a business in the reptile community.
This podcast episode comes from questions I get from many people, but most lately, from Jordan on Instagram. She matches the profile of many of us. Deeply passionate about her reptiles and seeing doing anything else as, frankly, less fulfilling. I am suspecting many of you listening can relate 100%. So, what is the reptile job market like and how do we set up something where we can work with reptiles for a living?
That of course, is as huge question and we could put together a weekend seminar and just scratch the surface. You can become a veterinarian, vet tech, animal trainer, or go work at a pet store. So there is a broad discussion to be had. And I have had episodes talking to a veterinarian, vet tech, and a pet store owner for you to reference. But today I am going to focus on what it takes to start a small business catering to the reptile industry.
As with every episode, this episode is going to come from my personal perspective. I currently am the owner of the Dragon Strand caging company. This is a company I created to make cages for chameleon people. Before that I did large scale breeding, small scale breeding, and wholescale breeding. So I have experience across much of what we in the community think of when we are envisioning starting a reptile business. But this has not been my sole source of income. In real life, (or, some might say, my cover story) I do product marketing in the consumer electronics industry. This is particularly relevant to this conversation because the job of a product marketer is to create products that meet the needs or wants of a specific, reachable demographic in order to further the company goals. Each product I make is a little business that has a lifecycle and must be maintained as a business in itself, but also as part of the whole. The bottom line is that developing business concepts is what I do. So we will jump in and discuss creating a small business concept that achieves your goals. I will be your product marketing manager for an episode.
First of all, we need to evaluate your goals and determine if the reptile community can fulfill those goals. If your goal is to get rich then this will be a very difficult way to do it. The community is small and disjointed. To accumulate wealth you need a large base of customers from which to sell your product or services. There definitely are people in the reptile industry that I would consider wealthy, but, as with any job that is also a hobby, there is an enormous amount of competition. And if people love doing it they often consider enjoyment as part of their payment and are willing to give up on money to do it. This means that there is a strong price competition and a race to the bottom to where prices hover where no one can make a living.
Most of us, though, are like this. We are happy to accept a lower paycheck if we can hang with our beloved reptiles. And if we live away from the city center where it is cheaper and don’t go on vacations it isn’t that bad for us. Because, who needs the hustle and bustle of people when you are hanging out with primordial beasts and what vacation spot would be more fantastic than your reptile room? So, let’s accept that you are willing to give up the more expensive things in life to live a happy life. Really, what you need is a business that pays for itself, feeds, clothes, and houses you, and pays for medical care. How hard this is to achieve depends on how expensive you want to live. You can easily price yourself out of having a reptile business just by living in, say, Southern California within 100 miles of the coast. Since this is highly dependent on where you live I will leave it up to you to place yourself in the location that gives you the greatest chance of success.
Let’s turn our attention to what kind of business. The easiest think to jump into is breeding your favorite reptiles. It is what you are doing already so this is simple. You may also be breeding feeder insects so there is another possibility. You can also invent a product if you have the skills to do so. I personally know people who have created and sell vitamin and mineral supplements, written books, create cage backdrops, sanitize branches, make stands, and make cages.
In all of this, here is the thing. You need to bring something new to the market. The market does not care about what you want. They just care about what you can do for them. And here is my first big hint in starting your own business.
Do something original that has true value.Bring something new to the market. Do not just copy someone else. Add value to what already exists. And make sure that value has true benefit. “Different” is not the same as value. Value is something people are willing to pay for. And this is important. Because if you cannot communicate the value of what you are doing you can’t get someone to pay money for it.
Now, value is not only in the product itself. There is convenience. Can you offer it in a different way? Someone who makes cheap coffee may have a business even with Starbucks all around if they sell their coffee on the subway. Can you physically be somewhere selling something and that is the advantage? So there are many angles that you can approach this.
Niche Down. Pick your passion and be specific. As specific as possible. And become the very best at the one very specific thing. Our industry is full of success for people that did just that. Josh’s Frogs, which, this year, was in Inc Magazines 5000 fastest growing companies and was in the top half, started out in Josh’s apartment with him selling fruit flies and dart frogs.
Rebecca from Leopard Gecko Talk on YouTube started with a love for her Leopard Gecko and turned that into a successful YouTube Channel that, not too long ago, celebrated her 100,000 subscriber. And she is knocking on the door of 200,000 as of the recording of this podcast. Marita De La Pena is building her business as the Deadly Tarantula Girl. We also have Josh Halter who is known as the Bio Dude who started his business focused on bio-active vivarium. And, heck, there is this Bill Strand guy who decided he was going to produce the best chameleon cages. All of these are very specific niches that speak to our passions. We start small and focused and be excellent at what we do. IF you do this you have the benefit of knowing your market intimately.
The thing is that once you are known for being excellent at that one thing you can expand.
Know the difference between a hobby and a business.There are three levels to a breeding operation. A sole business supports itself and your lifestyle. A side business supports itself and contributes to the general fund. A hobby is a loss no matter how much sales it brings in to offset its cost. The point is, do not think you have a business because you are making sales. Yes, the IRS now is interested in your activities, but your question here is not how to make sales and have bragging rights to your friends and all of social media that you are a mover and a shaker breeder. Your goal is how to have a true business that is actually healthy. And that means you must have a realistic knowledge of the true costs and income. If your breeding is paying for all the bills and your life then you have a business. Otherwise it is a hobby. If the people you admire that have this great business are working another job then breeding is a side job at best, but, probably, it is a hobby that offsets a percentage of the costs through sales.
Price fairly.Or else you are out of business. Sales are nothing without profit. You need to charge your customers what your bank accepts. You will be pressured from all sides to provide the lowest price. You will be told that your competitor is charging less. You need to charge what it takes for you to keep doing this. Consider yourself an employee that needs to take home a paycheck to pay the rent. The thing is that if you do not charge what you need to survive then you will be doing this as a side job only. It is true that people shop on price. And if someone else is willing to sell cheaply then you will lose out unless you can communicate why your’s has more value. But do not fall into the trap of selling for less than it takes to pay for itself and for your time to conduct the business. If you can’t sustain this then do something else. If you cannot make money at something you are trying to make your business then cut bait and doing something else. This is why weekend breeders or garage tinkerers come on to the scene with great fanfare all stoked that they have a business card, but end up fading away soon after with only an abandoned Facebook page left to tell of its passing. Someone somewhere, usually the spouse, figured out that all the time went into this project, but it wasn’t paying off. You see, when you build a business you are spending time doing that instead of everything else. You are not spending time with your family or friends. Of course, this is with the promise of great things ahead. But once they catch wind that your bestselling feature is that you aren’t making as much money as everyone else that flashy logo isn’t all that impressive to them. And when you hit the 12 month mark of working every night and through the weekends the luster of having your own business doesn’t shine as much if the numbers tell you it never will lift off. It was a lot of fun saying you are in business, but it doesn’t have the same satisfaction when you realize the unspoken truth that it really isn’t. Logos, social media pages, an LLC, business cards, and a business account at the bank don’t make a business. Producing a product that pays for itself and for you to live is. And so people quit. You obviously cannot price beyond reason, but you have to price in a way that sustains your efforts.
Now look at the businesses around that have grown and are successful. How many of the examples of success here started with the idea that they were going to start a business that would sustain themselves? Not many. What happens is that we are deeply involved with a passion and we stick with it until we are surprised one day to find that there is a possibility that it could actually be a business. This is where you look into yourself and decide what do you love? If it is a passion, this shouldn’t be too hard of an action item.
And, I know what you are thinking. How can you make a business from what you love? You love Green Banana Roaches. Who the heck even knows what one is? You got a deli cups of them at a reptile show and just fell in love. You found you could breed them and are slightly embarrassed to share just how much you enjoy when one gets out and flutters away looking like a fairy bouncing around with those gorgeous pale green wings. Of course, none of your friends or family get it. Good luck getting them to even come near your collection! So, how in the world, do you translate your passion for green roaches into something that makes money?
Well, let’s put together a scenario. And, I hope you see what I am doing here. This is a template that can applied to green banana roaches, carnivorous plants, chameleons, sports drinks, or bath towels.
First, It starts with a passion. This is what will sustain you over the years it takes to build something into a business. And this is what you will use to interest others. You become an expert. This doesn’t mean just gathering all the information odds and ends on the internet and calling yourself an expert. Although, yes, that happens quite often, but I am talking about something true and deep. And we are talking your passion, not a chosen profession where you fake it until you make it. You are going to be the real thing here. So you gather all that information and then you test it all. Challenge it all. Expand it all. What we are doing here is establishing you as a person of substance. That will be done by people observing what you are doing rather than by how many times you can answer a question on social media.
Let me explain. The absolute deluge of information out there has created a whole class of data compilers. They want to make a name for themselves so they gather all the data and then regurgitate it out so they can be seen as experts. You’ll know them because they know one thing and one thing only and are willing to fight to be seen as right. You do not get to expert status by fighting everyone who is already established. This is a huge mistake by hobbyists trying to make a name for themselves. Your name will be made by what you do, not how many online arguments you win.
People take the easy path. Whereas before it was hard work to be able to call yourself an expert, now it is much easier to memorize talking points and talk a big game. The good news for you is that this means that if you actually put in the work to take all the information available and make it your own you can…shudder…be an actual expert.
So make it your own. Don’t spend so much time trying to be a big name and spend that time quietly building up your experience. And once you have a colony of roaches going ask – how can you make them breed faster? How can you make them grow bigger? how can you make them more nutritious?
My entire caging company grew out of my desire to have individual cages for each of my baby chameleons. I was tired of Sterilite bins and butterfly cages. I wanted to invest in solid caging for my babies. And that is what started it all. My question “How do I make this better”. I didn’t have to ask anyone what they wanted because I was my own expert consultant in what I needed. So become your own expert consultant. And it takes time. The Dragon Strand caging looks simple, but the fact is that I had been experimenting with the Breeder style concept, which was mostly solid sides, for more than 15 years before deciding to make it into a commercially made product. For those unfamiliar, in 2013 I started my chameleon caging company with the Breeder series which has the sides and back white PVC and the front and top screen. To a community indoctrinated that screen cages were absolutely necessary and anything else gave respiratory infections, coming out with a cage line that had three solid sides would be the last thing conventional wisdom would suggest. The reason why I could do it and be successful is that I had a decade and a half of experience with that design that said this was the way to go. I had been refining my experience with that cage configuration for longer than many of the expert regurgitators on social media had been involved with chameleons.
The only way to know your stuff is to make it your own and put in the time. And this is how you begin charting your own path. I know how easy it would be to follow where someone else has gone. If you are following in the direction that someone else is going then you are competing on someone else’s home field. And, yes, if you are just jumping in to do something then this is what you have to do. You have to follow in someone else’s footprints and yell loudly to get attention. I know it seems easier to steal a community from someone else rather than build your own. Well, I am going to tell you that any audience you can steal away by your fancy words will leave you as soon as the next shiny thing comes along. So, be patient, and build a strong base of followers by building something unique to yourself. So start your Green Banana Roach Facebook page/Instagram account, YouTube channel, even if there are five of them already. This is not a zero sum game where there can be only one. Do not be distracted about what the others are doing. Do not copy. Learn from others, but do not follow. I can’t stress this enough. Chart your own course. Build your own community. And not by stealing or poaching from other content creators. Create a space that is cool to be in and dedicate yourself to creating as good of a space as possible. And assume that you will have no followers for the first six months. Work on creating a space that people want to come to rather than spending all that time trying to get people to your space. I am dangerously close to quoting a movie here, but it is so true. Build it, and they will come.
I can tell you that people who love green banana roaches will eagerly follow more than one account or business if they offer different perspectives.
So you create your Green Banana Roach digital presence with the elements of your choice. Pick one to specialize in. Facebook, Instagram, YouTube, Tik Tok, podcast, blog? I know we feel the pressure to do all of them, but you can’t. At least not well. Pick one and pour your energies into making it awesome. Facebook is conversational. Instagram is visual. YouTube is video, Tik Tok is short video gags, podcasting is audio, blogging is written. What is your strength? You can have toeholds in all the social medias you want, but real success will come from investing time and energy into the platform. That means more than just posting, You have to interact. The more you interact the more successful you will be. And, honestly, you only need one platform. Entire businesses revolve around a Facebook account or Instagram account and have no footprint on the other. Pick your favorite and be excellent there. Be accessible. Interact. Build your following. Though, note that Facebook is hostile towards live animal sales. You will be shut down. Instagram has not had the same hostility yet, but it is owned by Facebook and has the same rules. This is why we have laws against monopolies. Unfortunately, something slipped through the cracks, because Facebook has become too powerful and the major social media apps are under their control. YouTube is Google so that is a little safer, but who knows how long. The safest, of course, is having your own website so you are in control of your own platform.
And this problem is everywhere. Have you heard of Etsy? It started off as a sales platform for hand crafters. Many people built their entire business around etsy and grew quite profitable. Well, the people in charge decided they wanted to be more like Amazon and regularly implement new terms and conditions that are essentially killing the base of hand crafters. This is the danger of relying on someone else’s platform. But when starting out, you will have to be on these social media platforms. Just be careful which one you invest five years growing. Reptile breeders who had their businesses based off their Facebook presence suddenly found themselves having to start over some place else. So, just be careful. You can’t predict the future. Just do the best you can. Believe me, in building a business you will have many twists, turns, dead ends, and starting over.
While this is all going on you will need another source of income. Go into starting a business with a long term view in mind. If you budget in three years to build up your base you are starting to have realistic expectations. How much you can build the business by this point is up to how much time you can spend on building it during this time.
That passion for Green Banana Roaches can become an active social media group. And you can start selling cups of your own via mail (check the regulations) and at shows. You may find that your audience really loves the exotic roaches so you start breeding harlequin roaches and those huge ones from Australia. You become a supplier of exotic roaches and build up a clientele of people wanting roaches. You educate them on how to house them beautifully. In an industry that shows off their roaches in plastic bins, you show them off in lush vivariums. Your approach gathers a healthy following. You start offering other invertebrates and find that your approach of housing them becomes what you are known best for and your followers eat up your videos on how to create natural vivariums. You start selling terrarium supplies and have to take out a small loan to build up inventory and feed yourself as you write an ebook on the subject. You are invited to be a guest on a podcast or YouTube video. Your name gets out there more and with that there are more people who would rather buy their dry goods from you and get both their supplies and education from the same place.
You see how this builds on itself and grows? So, how much money can you end up making from that first deli cup of green banana roaches? Well, that is unknown. I am telling you right now that nobody knows. Can I tell you how many people scoffed at the idea of a podcast on chameleons? Or questioned whether a chameleon caging company that offered more expensive cages then existed at the time could do well? It is easy to predict failure. 9 times out of 10 they’ll be right. In fact, predicting failure is the single most boring way to be right. It takes no skill and you can get that feeling of being right and saying I told you so with absolutely no wisdom in your head. And having the world full of people predicting failure is a great way to weed out the timid. So when someone says there is no way you are going to make it with your green banana roach passion I want you to feel good about that. Look at these people as guardians of your future because they are discouraging everyone else who is not passionate out of your way. They are clearing the road of your competitors for you! Just realize they never go away. There is always failure to be had and people whose lives are wrapped up in predicting it. I can guarantee, if you are an entrepreneur, sooner or later you will have to start being more selective about the type of people you hang out with. It takes a special person to handle being around someone who has a vision of what could be without being threatened or jealous. If you are constantly pushing forward, I fear you will have to get used to a very small true friend base and a fluid social circle, but that is for another podcast.
So, lets summarize. If you are interested in starting a business in the reptile world start small with something you love. Give yourself three years to build a social media following. Be a doer that explores all the options and create your own path to follow. Bring something new to the table whether in product, service, or approach. Build this up while supporting yourself with another job for as long as you can. Price your product so that when the time comes that the only way to continue growing is to quit your other job, that the growth you can provide with the extra time dedicated will sustain your life. And, then work your butt off. Once you do this you will be in a panic situation where you are fighting for your financial life. Give yourself a year of 14 hours days 7 days a week to build that business into something strong.
How long does it take? How much money can you make? All is unknown. Am I encouraging you to take the leap? No. I am not. I suggest you stay in your comfortable 9-5 job with health benefits and paid vacation. It is a much easier life. And you have weekends off. Having your own business is brutal. And playing with chameleons is fun, but when you have to do it 14 hours a day 7 days a week and deal with a public that isn’t always reasonable or rational you may think back and remember that doing this as a hobby and dreaming about doing it as a business was a whole lot more fun than actually doing it as a business. You find you are no longer able to afford a vacation, much less leave the house with a whole herd of chameleons needing to be taken care of. It sounded wonderful when you started, but after two years of it and realizing that you need a full time person to take care of chameleons and a full time person to do the selling and social media and you have only one you…your paradise is now a trap. So, no. I don’t encourage you to do this. I am actually still paying off the last business I had that failed. And it was dramatic. I lost thousands of dollars due to an unexpected civil war and was finally shut down because of a global pandemic. Include that in your business plan. Things happen and they can ruin you. It was ten years before I recovered enough to start again.
Talking to my friends who are actually making a living in the reptile industry and we have conversations about bankruptcies, loans that were paid off just in the nick of time, having to start over….it isn’t pretty. So, and this is for starting any business, not just the reptile world, it is risky. 9 times out of ten, that annoying friend or family member will be able to say I told you so. A particularly annoying person in my circle said of me starting my caging business “ you think he would have learned from his last failure”. And these people will be all around you. They will be much more sympathetic to you being laid off than you having to close the doors of your business. So, it would be safest for me to encourage you to follow the well trod path of 9-5. And there is nothing wrong with that, actually! There are huge benefits and I have never felt any particular pride in saying that I had my own business. It is a balance between benefits of both. And I go back and forth between the two. I enjoy working for a large company greatly. I enjoy working on my own business. And what I do at the time is based on what benefits my family the most.
Break off into your own business only if there is a passion within you that cannot accept anything else. If you have a vision for green banana roaches in the world, you feel that call stronger than anything else, and it is a call you must answer, then, yes, you have to go. You will need that passion to get you through the wilds. The discouragements, the road blocks, and loneliness of being the only one who sees what you see. But if this is you, and you do prevail over everything the world has to throw at you to make you fall, then you get to be in a very special place where you are able to create something that didn’t exist before. And, that is an incredible feeling.
So, in the end, if you have a 9-5 job, I am not encouraging you to leave it. But if you have a passion and that spark just wont go away then you don’t need my encouragement. You are already packing your backpack and just need a direction to go. So start in with the three year plan to build your expertise and social media following. If you are able to build it as a side job while you are working the job that pays the bills and you find that you actually have the business and marketing skills to make it work then you are ready to make the fateful decision. And, honestly, I am not sure how much you want to listen to me. I am of the mindset that the true failure is not trying. And I am glad of it. I have experienced amazing things. I really don’t know what the end of my story will be, but you can be sure the movie of my life will be fun to watch. You laugh , you’ll cry, and, secretly, I hope you will come away thinking, yeah, I need to try.
Good luck and perseverance to you. And, please, find me five years from now and let me know what you have built.