I have been asked a few times about my aquarium maintenance company. Starting your own business can be very overwhelming so I would like to do what I can to help people get into 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 much 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, at least not in the beginning. Most will want to spend very little to nothing over your service fee. They will also expect the tank to look perfect all 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 can end up looking worse and worse over 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 compared to many other businesses. Unlike a retail store where you would have to pay rent, utilities, and your employees whether money is earned or not, with aquarium service there is little that will definitely cost you money whether or not you are earning any. You can start part-time on evenings and weekends while still working full-time at your current job. One of the biggest 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 set up as your office, including signage on the door, business cards, brochures, 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, pick up dry goods for cheap, etc. If an office isn’t available, a couple of banners or posters and some business cards and flyers on the front counter can do just as much. It also makes it easier to function as a business since it is not a home business, which some wholesalers will 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 or fish 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 actual RO/DI system plus the storage container for RO/DI water, the containers to mix saltwater in (usually a second large trash can), and the water containers you will transport the saltwater in). Many people already in the hobby may actually have most of this running and ready to go. You will still want to get business cards and flyers in as many local stores as possible.
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.
The kit that I keep in my car and take with me to every job includes:
- Three five-gallon buckets
- Three full-size towels
- One hand towel
- Two clamps (hold buckets together and hold tubing as needed on jobs)
- One 25′ Python Water Changer
- Metal faucet adapters (2-3 for different sink styles)
- Algae pad
- Algae pad with handle
- Razor scraper
- Lee’s Small Specimen Container
Supplies that I bring with me but leave in the car to use as needed:
- Extra razors
- Red Sea Aiptasia-X with syringe and multiple tips
- X-acto knife
- TLF Aquastik coral epoxy
- TLF Coraffix gel
- 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
- Extra 25′ Python Water Changer to use for parts and as an extension
- Trash bags
- Bulkhead wrench
Dry Goods I bring with me and sell to clients that aren’t on an all-inclusive service package:
- Seachem Prime in three sizes (50mL, 100mL, and 250mL)
- New Life Spectrum Thera+A foods: 1mm 80g, 2mm 150g, 3mm 150g
- Acurel carbon pellets
- Filter media bags
- Filter cartridges for specific client filters
- Aquarium Salt
- API AlgaeFix
- API AccuClear
- AquaClear 110 impeller shaft (relatively common problem when so many clients have AC110s)
- Seachem Stability
- Poly-Filter (not just a mechanical pad, the one made by Poly-Bio-Marine)
- Seachem Purigen
- Air Stones
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
- 33-gallon trash can to mix saltwater in
- TDS meter
- Bucket/boxes of salt mix. I use the buckets to store the open salt in because they seal a lot better than bags and boxes.
- Test kits (pH, KH, Mg, Ca, nitrate, nitrite, ammonia, and phosphate) I only test clients’ tanks if they ask for it. The answer is almost always more water changes, which few are willing to do or pay for.
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. In addition, you may decide that being part of your local chamber of commerce may be worth it. All of these provide an image of professionalism you should want and that many clients will require.
My paperwork says that I am not liable for leaks, water damage, fire, etc. They are responsible and liable for checking the safety of all equipment. It also states that they agree to the policies and procedures found on the policies page on my website at the time of service, whether they have read the most recent version or not. This allows me to make any changes to the policies without having to send out memos to all my clients. Most don’t even read them at all.
With a lot of small businesses simply being a sole proprietor at first until you really get going is fine. This is not the case with aquariums. One little leak can do a lot of damage and if you are found liable they could go after your personal assets (house, bank accounts, cars, etc.). Setting up an LLC is cheap and easy, especially since it will be just you. The LLC is a separate legal entity so they can’t go after your personal assets if something happened (unless you don’t pay payroll taxes, are malicious, commit fraud, etc.). The point is that it is a good barrier between you and the liability created by working on aquariums. For the minimal cost to set up an LLC and renew it annually, the protection is invaluable. It also makes you look more professional (Something LLC looks a lot better than Joe Schlub with a tube and bucket).
How Much to Charge
Your hourly rate will depend on other competitors in the area. It is tough, on one hand, you want to get some business and undercut your competitors, on the other, you don’t want to undervalue your own services (this guarantees you only get the cheapest clients possible). The good thing is that it is a case by case basis and your rate is based on your estimated time. So if you round up a little you will have room in case you’re wrong or they want to haggle. You should also have a policy stating that the rates are based on the estimated time and work the tank requires and that if the amount of work required changes the rate may as well. I would also give no implication that the rate is in effect for no more than a year. This usually isn’t even said, but if someone explicitly asks you about it you wouldn’t want to say anything more than one year. If the issue comes up of someone saying ‘but you only charge so and so $X’, simply tell them the rate is based on the amount of work the tank requires and that every tank is different.
Figuring out how much to charge is always a challenge. 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 slightly 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 best way to do this is to add at least the current IRS mileage rate. I usually go a little above this since my cost is not just actual vehicle costs but also time. 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 location, tank size, how it is set up, 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).
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 necessary then the best thing is to use professionals (hire an attorney and an accountant if needed). 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, on top of the time required). Unless you are trained in bookkeeping/accounting (something every business owner should at least take a class on) you should outsource it. If you have taken a class on bookkeeping and discussed it with your CPA or tax preparer so that you know for sure you are doing things properly (and send them an occasional email when you get a tricky situation) then it is great for you to do this on your own. This is not for everyone, and this is one of those things that many more people think they are good at than really are. Make sure you discuss things with your CPA or tax preparer. There are good and relatively cheap payroll options when you get to that level, that is not something you want to scramble to try to figure out on your own. Most areas have local, small firms that are old enough to show they have a clue what they are doing (not just a year old), but still young and small enough to offer competitive rates for very small businesses.
You will want to set up a separate checking account that is strictly for the business. All business income goes into that account and all expenses come out of that account. This account should be strictly for the business. No business expenses or income should touch your personal accounts. When you can start paying yourself, do it on a monthly basis. I pick an amount as my base (minimum to avoid bank fees plus a couple months’ expenses) and anything in the business checking account over that amount at the end of the month I pay myself. For example, if my base is $10,000 and there is $16,000 in the checking account at the end of the month, then I would pay myself $6,000. You can increase your base to save up for big investments (like a work van, livestock system, etc.). Track all your expenses and keep the receipts. I recommend Quickbooks because it is so universal (it is easy to ask questions about it, all accountants can use it, etc.). There are other bookkeeping services online, but I haven’t worked with enough to say anything good or bad about most (I would really stick with Quickbooks). If you truly love Excel then using Excel or Google Sheets are good options, but you really need to understand bookkeeping very well in order to do it from scratch like this.
Take an online class on accounting or bookkeeping, something like a community college or even Udemy.com would be a good start. Get a decent book or two as well. Bookkeeping is vital to any business and if you can learn to do it properly yourself, do so. If not, know when to outsource things and pay for professional assistance. It isn’t worth the time to struggle through something you don’t excel at when you could be out getting and working on jobs.
In general, unless a client has a history of not paying in a timely manner, you can wait until after each service to bill the client. I don’t like to bill monthly if at all possible because then the checks are bigger and it hurts them more when they write them.
Installations should definitely have a non-refundable upfront deposit. Make it at least half of the total install, but your actual cost for the dry goods would be better (just don’t tell them that’s what it is). Anyone should be more than understanding of a big deposit for such a project. Don’t worry about the labor for the deposit, just worry about your actual cost for the dry goods.
Square is a great option for aquarium maintenance billing. I try to lean people toward checks, but streamlining everything with Square makes things very easy (and they can still pay by check). The best thing about Square is the emailed invoice that allows them to pay right in the email. Another great thing about Square is that there is no monthly fee like there is with Quickbooks and PayPal, it is just the merchant fee. It is well known so people trust it and it makes you look professional.
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 do not spend more than you are okay getting no new clients out of. 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 business (something I still enjoy doing for small businesses). You may decide to do the same, use someone like myself (link at bottom of this page), or use a do-it-yourself type option such as WordPress, Wix, or SquareSpace. Make sure to keep it simple, use lots of good pictures, and drive them to contact you on every page.
About half of my clients come from craigslist. There is a lot of spam out there, but that’s because so many people go there for so many things. You will need to do the ads well, but if you keep them running you should get a great return (especially for something that’s free!).
Make sure your image is consistent. So use the same logo and color scheme on your business cards, website, flyers, and any other advertising you do. This lets potential clients know they found the right place and makes you look much more professional.
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. Include this in your paperwork. Give them the examples of ‘even if it is two hours after I provide service or while I am algae wiping’. If they ask ‘why not?’ or ‘who is?’ tell them that it is the nature of having an aquarium, that there is always 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 and it looks horrible.
Make recommendations. Don’t push anything, but saying something that demonstrates an advanced knowledge can make a very good first 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 will actually do it. This will help the tank look better between your visits and should mean less algae wiping for you.
Never do anything to a tank until the paperwork is done. If anything were to happen you could be personally liable.
Don’t buy things like carbon or dechlorinator in bulk unless you have an all-inclusive option for clients. 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. Some clients view this as nickel and diming them. Really you are staying competitive on your rates and charging what they would pay for the same stuff in a store. Offer them an all-inclusive option as well (which should include pricing for this type of stuff in the rate). I worked for a service company that bought stuff in bulk and it just ends up being an expensive complication unless you are VERY consistent and clear about portions. Different service techs didn’t charge for it, they charge too little, each tech had different measurements when they were giving it out. Remember, these techs don’t pay for the supplies and don’t get paid any more or less if they use $30 worth of supplies versus the budgeted $5-8.
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 there when you provide service). So unless you know this is one of those clients that will only pay you to come once per month, don’t make the tank too easy. This really just means using gravel instead of sand (something fine like ‘Bits o’ Walnut’ is ideal) and canisters instead of HOBs. When they see all the junk coming out of the gravel and how much work a canister is to clean, they will let you keep doing it. Standing there watching the tank drain and fill for 30 minutes since you don’t have to vacuum and already swapped out dinky slide-in filter cartridges from a HOB makes them think they can do it themselves.
Although there are a lot of books I could list here, Dave Ramsey’s EntreLeadership is a great first step for anyone thinking about starting their own business. It gives a great way to build a business based on how you treat your customers or clients. It gets into a lot of other issues as well such as leading employees, but I don’t think anyone should start a business without reading this.