I have been asked a few times about my pet care company (that includes aquarium maintenance). Starting your own business can be very overwhelming so I would like to do what I can to help them get in to this industry.
Starting an aquarium maintenance company is a huge undertaking, like starting any business. Some people think it is a dream job getting to work on great setups and working with what you love. This is not the reality most of the time.
Before you try to start your own aquarium service company I highly suggest you work for someone else first. This will give you first hand experience with what it is really like. It will also give you an inside perspective on a working service company. You will learn things to do that you would have never thought of, and hopefully a lot of things not to do. I say hopefully because learning the hard way is the most important learning of all. Those are the hardest lessons to learn and learning them while working for someone else is the best way to learn them.
You will not be working with a lot of high dollar tanks with clients who say yes to any recommendation you make. Most will want to spend very little to nothing over your service fee. They will also expect the tank to look perfect all of the time. In their mind they are paying for a premium service and you are providing it, so the tank should always look amazing. Unfortunately most will not pay to have you come every week. They will want you every two to four weeks, meaning the tank will look worse and worse with time with most clients. Some will take great care of their tanks between your visits, but others will do nothing but feed (or overfeed) between visits. There are certain things you can do to make the tank look good for that long, but not much.
Starting an aquarium service company has many pros and cons. Some of the most important pros are the low startup cost and the low overhead. Unlike a retail store where you would have to pay your employees whether money is earned or not, with aquarium service there is little that will definitely cost you money whether you are earning some or not. One of the biggect risks is that it can be difficult to build up a large enough client base to earn a living income.
The ideal situation is that you work in conjunction with a local pet or fish shop. This gives you a pool of potential clients to tap in to. You can work there between jobs to supplement your income. Ideally they have a small room visible from the sales floor that you can setup as your office, including signage on the door, business cards, etc. This not only gets you some effective advertising that is either cheap, free, or even pays you (if you work there enough) but gives you a place to house livestock, pickup dry goods for cheap, etc. It also makes it easier to function as a business since it is not a home business, which some wholesalers do not work with.
Running the business from home is another great option. It may not earn you any extra clients, but is less overhead since you will not have to pay rent to the pet store. This requires some space and a little more infrastructure on your part. You will need the actual office space, space to store dry goods and livestock, and space to house your RO/DI system, the storage container for RO/DI water, and the containers to mix saltwater in. This space also needs enough extra room to store the water containers you will transport the saltwater in. Many people already in the hobby may actually have all this running and ready to go.
There are a lot of supplies that you will need in order to provide service without any issues. Some you will use a lot, until they literally fall apart. Others will rarely be used, or hopefully never used, and just kept on hand in case something bad happens.
My kit that I keep in my car and take with me to every job includes:
-Three five gallon buckets
-Two clamps (hold buckets together and hold tubing when needed on jobs)
-One 25' Lee's Deluxe Ultimate Water Changer
-Algae pad with handle
-Lee's Small Specimen Container
Supplies that I bring with me but leave in the car to use as needed:
-Red Sea Aiptasia-X with syringe and multiple tips
-TLF Aquastik coral epoxy
-TLF Coraffix gel
-Seachem Prime in three sizes
-New Life Spectrum Thera+A foods: 1mm 80g, 2mm 150g, 3mm 150g
-Acurel carbon pellets
-Filter media bags
-Lee's Large Specimen Container
-Buckets with lids for transporting fish (one, two, and five gallons)
-Siphon/gravel vacuum to use on saltwater tanks
-Zip ties of various sizes
-Labels for cords
Equipment and Supplies kept at home:
-RO/DI system with extra cartridge for each stage
-33 gallon trash can with auto shutoff for RO/DI water storage
-Five gallon bucket to mix saltwater in. My current saltwater clients have small tanks that get 5-10 gallon water changes. This also means that each water container (which can hold up to six gallons) holds only five gallons, so I can exactly match what I take out of the tank with what I have ready to put in it.
-Bucket of salt mix. I use the buckets because they seal a lot better than bags and boxes, and in the end you have another five gallon bucket, which you never have too many of.
-Test kits (pH, KH, Mg, Ca, nitrate, nitrite, ammonia, and phosphate)
-Extra 25' Lee's Deluxe Ultimate Water Changer to use for parts and as an extension
-Extra supplies for specific clients (filter pads for specific filters, anything they have ordered until I go to them again, etc.)
Running the business could be a whole book, and there are lots of books out there specific to every detail of running a business. I will share the important things that I think are unique to aquarium service or make the biggest difference.
Being licensed, bonded, and insured is very important. People may not know what each means, but they have been trained to think they need to hear it. It doesn't cost much and does protect you, so go ahead and do all three. Once the business has been up for at least a year it is worth it to be accredited by the Better Business Bureau. It is another thing that can set you apart from other service providers and help put your potential clients at ease. All of these provide an image of professionalism you should want and that many customers need.
Many aspects of running a small business are very in depth and you need to know your limits. If you do not already have the knowledge the best thing is to use professionals (hire an attorney to consult with and an accountant). The second best option is not for everyone, but if you can do things on your own you will save money (assuming you don't mess something up and cost yourself a lot more than the professionals would have charged you). I do my own accounting in Excel and do my own tax paperwork. When I have used employees I handled the payroll and payroll taxes as well. This is not for everyone, using professional services is a safer option.
Advertising is another very important issue. I suggest you try different methods and see what works for you. Whenever you try a new type of advertising assume that it will not work so make sure you can handle the cost as a complete loss. Never assume that even one client will be produced by any form of advertising. An essential for any business in today's world, and especially so for a service business, is a website. Most Americans use the internet and are more likely to search for a business online than any other form of advertising. I designed my own website and enjoyed it so much I started doing it as a second home business. You may decide to do the same, use someone like myself (link at bottom of this page), or hire a high end web designer. Before and after photos on your site can have a great impact on possible clients. When they see some of the other tanks you maintain and how you turned them from algae farms with yellow water to crystal clear beautiful displays they will be very confident in your abilities.
When dealing with clients be prompt. Return phone calls and emails immediately. Be consistent. Do not make exceptions for one client and not for others, this can be hard to track and there is a reason for every policy you establish. You should have starting fees (for example $60 for freshwater and $90 for saltwater). These fees should vary as consistently as possible based on the size of the tank, the frequency of service (I charge less per visit if they use my service more often), the client's location, etc. You should decide how far you are willing to drive without increasing the fee. Anything above that distance should add to the fee. The IRS mileage rate for 2011 is $0.51 per mile. This means that for the average vehicle the long term cost of wear and tear, maintenance, gas, insurance, etc. is $0.51 per mile. You need to remember this when you quote a price for a client. If you only charge $60 and they are a 30 mile trip, half of that service fee is just going to maintain your vehicle. I like to know the client's address, tank size, how it is setup, filtration, etc. before I quote a price because all of these can make the job more or less work and time (actual cost to me).
Do's and Don'ts:
-Label all cords so you know exactly which is which.
-Explain that you are not liable for any leaks or other damage regardless of when it occurs. Give them the examples of 'even if it is two hours after I provided service or while I am algae wiping'. Include this in your paperwork. Tell them you are not liable. If they ask 'why not?' or 'who is?' tell them that it is the nature of having an aquarium, that there is the risk of it leaking.
-Compliment their tank, especially on the first visit. Even if it looks bad say the fish look good. If the fish don't look good then say the setup is nice and has a lot of potential. People want to hear something positive, so butter them up. The last thing they want to hear is that they did everything wrong.
-Make recommendations. Don't push anything, but saying something that demonstrates an advanced knowledge can have a very good impression and make them more comfortable that you can really help the tank do better. If you have nothing to say you may just come across as some guy with a bucket and tubing who wants to make some money.
-People love Poly-Filter. It changes colors as it absorbs things so they know it is actually doing something (even if you can't see a difference in the tank). The smaller size is very affordable so it is a nice add-on product to sell to your clients.
-Sell every client a Mag-Float. It is a great product to have in any tank. It allows them to wipe the algae without going into the tank. This means they are more likely to do it. This will help the tank look better between your visits and should mean less algae wiping for your.
-Never do anything to a tank until the paperwork is done. If anything were to happen you would be personally liable.
-Don't buy things like carbon or dechlorinator in bulk. Whether you plan on including the price in your fee or want to have a price for a certain amount it just gets messy and confusing. It is easier to sell smaller quantities to each client individually and keep it at their house. Use their dechlorinator and sell them a new one when they run out. Sell them a container of carbon and sell them another one when they run out. I worked for a service company that bought stuff in bulk and it just ends up being an expensive complication. Different service techs didn't charge for it, they charge too little, everyone had different measurements when they were giving it out. It just isn't worth it. There was one person who was giving away half of a sheet of the large Poly-Filter to every client when they should have been giving them about 1/16th of the sheet. The only exception I would make to this is the salt mix. It simply isn't practical to sell separate salt mixes since you will be mixing it up at home. This is one of the reasons I charge more for saltwater tanks. They require extra work, time, and materials at home.
-Do not make the tank too easy to maintain. I have managed to develop a certain way of setting up tanks that makes my tanks at home very easy to maintain. Doing this in a client's tank can make their tanks run a little too well. Obviously you want their fish to thrive, but if there is very little maintenance to be done they may start to think they are overpaying you or that they could simply do it themselves (especially since most are home when you provide service).