Getting Started…the Necessities
Note: Use this information at your own Risk! Lantz Enterprises Inc ( www.walltanks.com ; www.kooltanks.com ) assumes no responsibility whatsoever.
The cost of a business license is miniscule. Unless you plan to sell from a retail store, the common price in most areas is approximately $25 per year. In addition, you will also need to obtain a special tax identification number for sales tax. In order to acquire a tax ID you must contact local and state governments to set up an account.
2. Business Essentials
• Business cards
One of the most important steps when starting a new service is the purchase of business cards. Generally, for $75 it is possible to print 5000 cards in multiple colors. Keep in mind that in order to gain a potential customer’s attention a more professional looking card will reflect on your business.
It is very important to maintain professionalism at all times. One of the ways to do this is through your letterhead. Letterhead is commonly used for sales letters, business correspondence, sales promotions etc. First impressions are crucial to draw in potential customers. When targeting high-end customers they will expect a certain level of professionalism.
Other marketing tools such as brochures and advertisements are essential in getting your product out to your potential clients however they are not always necessary. Normally, depending on the quality of brochure or advertisements you decide on, these can generally range in price from $50- $500. There are many print shops and graphic designers in your area that will take care of this.
• Invoice book
The personal appearance of you and your employees is a very important detail. Formal business attire is not necessary, either a golf shirt or a regular t-shirt with your company name and logo should be worn. T-shirts with simple pocket embroidery will cost between $10 and $12 per shirt. Embroidered golf shirts will cost around $15 to $19 per shirt.
Do not step in the door without some type of liability or damaged property insurance. No matter how careful one can be while servicing an aquarium, accidents will happen. Nothing will end your business endeavor quicker than a lawsuit for damaged property. Normally running around $90 per month with some variation of types of policies that are available, it is truly better to be safe than sorry.
It is good business practice to have some type of basic liability insurance. It gives the customer and you a sense of security and adds credibility to your business. A liability disclaimer against fish and livestock deaths as well as aquarium leaks and other collateral damage caused by leaks is included in the “Sales Section”.
The greatest challenge in starting an aquarium maintenance service is finding your base clientele. By allowing a local pet store and friends to pass out your business cards, you essentially turn them into free sales representatives. Positive contact made between a potential customer and others that recommend your service is truly a priceless commodity.
• Newspaper ads
Advertising in a newspaper is deemed ineffective and can become costly. A better approach would be to develop a catalogue or brochure, which you can personally drop off at potential businesses.
• Display your name on the tank
Always display your name and number somewhere on the tank. Always ask your client’s permission first then offer a free month’s service or free fish. Invest in some business cards or stickers that you can leave on or around your tanks.
• Radio / TV Advertising
• Keep it spotless
Most people associate a spotless tank with a healthy environment. Don’t try to argue this point. You will be doing yourself a favor and promoting your business as a clean running service.
4. Customer Service
If finding new clients will be the most challenging aspect of this business, keeping them is a close second. Depending on your local area, business can become very competitive if you are not the only service provider. Keeping your clients happy involves much more than simply cleaning their aquariums. It is important to go “that extra mile” and maintaining a top-notch service. Having flexible service hours and “on call” availability is vital for success. For example, restaurants and other businesses often close at extremely late hours. During their business hours clients will not want their patrons viewing a cleaning service. Offering late or “off hours” times to your clients will keep them happy and put you above your competitors.
On call availability is important. Customers can and will call at the strangest times so it may be important to give them access to a pager number. Not only to schedule appointments but to ask questions or report some type of emergency. From leaking tanks to major fish kills, you will be the first one your customers will call when there is a problem with their aquarium. If you are not available, they will seek out somebody else.
5. Aquarium Location
When examining the best possibilities for a tank location keeping a few factors in mind is crucial. You will want the tank to be in a high traffic area with maximum exposure where it is easy to maintain, has an abundance of natural light and no direct sunlight. More specifically, “Wall Aquariums” can only be installed in inside non-supportive walls.
Ask the client to choose three areas they want to consider and do a checklist. Make sure the final location has access to power and educate the client on why some areas may need further prepping.
6. Working with Contractors
You will need to work closely with a contractor unless you are licensed. Contractors can be found in the Yellow Pages and range from $50 – $70/hour on average. Average installation in an existing wall takes 12 hours, from nothing to fish.
7. Financing Services
If your customer wishes to finance the installation, payment plans are available from Finance Companies. You will be paid 100% of the cost upfront from the service and your customer owes them the balance. These businesses can be found in the Yellow Pages under “Finance Companies”.
8. Fish Selection
Most “non” fish hobbyists struggle with fish selection and compatibility. You must educate the client on understanding why some fish can cohabitate and some cannot. Listen to your customer and get a general idea of size and colors they want. Suggesting species will help guide them through fish selection and your professional opinion will be appreciated.
Once you have a good idea of what they want, do some homework. Put together a list of compatible and available fish for the tank. Listing an estimated price per fish will aid the customer.
9. Service Equipment
Gathering all of the necessary equipment needed to run your service is simple and easy. Most of the tools required may be found in your personal equipment that you have acquired through the years.
You will need:
• Aquarium cleaning siphon (battery operated ones work nice)
• Algae scraper (acrylic friendly)
• Fresh & Saltwater test kits
• Filter media
• Fish medication (Melafix, Pemafix, Kich-Ich, Salt)
• Instant Ocean Bio-Spira (instant tank start)
• Fish food
• 100% Cotton towel
In addition to these items, a canister filter that can be taken from site to site would be a good investment. You may also consider purchasing a portable diatom filter for ‘polishing’ your client’s aquarium water. If you do not already have these tools you may be looking at an equipment start up cost of $100 to $200.
10. Aquarium Set-up
1. Fill the aquarium with pure water. Culligan works great or you may want to invest in a R/O unit (reverse osmosis).
2. Add the appropriate amount of water conditioner to neutralize chlorine.
3. Add a starter fish or two.
4. Test the ammonia and nitrate levels.
5. Anywhere from 2-5 days later pending the results of your tests you can introduce more fish.
• Test the ammonia and nitrate levels every time the tank is serviced so that you will be well aware of any unseen problems.
• In the case of a sudden fish fatality, test the water to see if anything has changed.
Depending on your client’s tank the ideal ‘photoperiod’ (the length of time the aquarium is lit) ranges from two to four hours for saltwater and six to eight hours for freshwater.
If algae is a problem in the tank, a contributing factor is usually too much light. Reducing the artificial lighting time to eight hours, or a bit less may be necessary.
Plugging the light into a timer is essential in creating a controlled environment.
Most aquarium inhabitants prefer water temperatures around 77°F. Typically, if water temperature increases above 80°F, or below 72°F, disaster is imminent. Secure the heater as directed and place a thermometer as far away from the heater as possible in an easily readable area.
Follow the instructions included with your filter for proper system set up. The filter cleans the tank water and provides vital oxygen for the fish so it must be left on 24 hours a day.
There are three types of filtration that you must educate yourself on: mechanical, chemical and biological.
• Mechanical filtration (the removal of pieces of debris from the water) works by passing water through a screen, a thin piece of sponge, or through a floss material.
• Chemical filtration works by passing water through small pieces of carbon. The carbon removes molecules such as ammonia from the water.
• Biological filtration works by certain types of bacteria that live on gravel and in your filter. These bacteria remove ammonia and nitrites from the water (see next section).
Most filters will clean mechanically and biologically if not all three.
11.Understanding the Nitrogen cycle (Fish make Waste – Bacteria get rid of Waste).
• The Biological filter process:
1. Starter fish are introduced to aquarium.
2. Ammonia from the waste starts to build up (toxic).
3. Bacteria start growing that use Ammonia.
4. Ammonia level starts to drop as Nitrite level builds (toxic).
5. Bacteria start growing that use Nitrite.
6. Nitrite level starts to drop as Nitrate level slowly rise (much less toxic).
7. Water is changed and Nitrate level drops.
8. More fish are introduced.
• These bacteria are called Aerobic Bacteria because they need oxygen. The best way to fuel them is to have well-aerated water and plenty of places to grow.
• A new tank isn’t ready for a full load of fish because the biological filter hasn’t built up yet. Slowly adding fish during scheduled visits will aid in water quality.
12. Water Changes
• Cleaning frequency
You will want to do a 20% water change every two weeks. This would be a partial cleaning. If your customer prefers less frequent visits, a 30% water change can be done every three weeks but will cost more. A major water change is only necessary if tank has not been cleaned in a long time.
Clean your aquariums in the following order:
1. Inside aquarium walls
2. Decorations (rocks, plants, etc)
5. Outside and fixtures
Cleaning the inside walls will cause particles of debris to fall on the plants, decorations, and gravel, so it’s best to clean them first. Removing the plants and decorations will cause debris to fall to the bottom, so hold off cleaning the gravel until the plants and decorations have been taken out. Also, the gravel is much easier to clean once the plants and rocks have been removed. Cleaning the inside of the tank will cause the outside to get dirty, so clean the outside last.
Start your cleaning process by giving the acrylic a good cleaning on the inside. All you need for that is an acrylic algae scraper or sponge. There are a wide variety of algae scrapers on the market, from long handled scrubbers to magnetic scrubbers. Buy your algae scrapper at a pet shop instead of the house wares department at a regular store. Although the pads may look the same, they may have a soap or chemical residue in them from the manufacturing process. A residue will not affect your kitchen sink, but it can leave a lethal film in your aquarium.
For particularly stubborn residue on the sides, use a special plastic razor blade, as standard razors will scratch acrylic.
Once the inside walls are clean, remove any rocks, artificial plants, or decorations that have significant algae growth, or are noticeably dirty. Do not clean them with soap or detergents. It is very difficult to completely remove soap, and even the smallest trace can be lethal to fish. Usually a good scrub with an algae scraper will remove the algae and dirt from rocks and plants. For particularly stubborn cleaning problems, prepare a 10% bleach solution (1 part household bleach to 9 parts water) and soak the items for 15 minutes. Scrub any remaining residue off, rinse well in running water, and let air dry to eliminate any residual bleach. Leave the rocks, decorations and plants out of the tank while you vacuum the gravel. That way none of the debris stirred up from the gravel will settle on them.
Get a new bucket and designate it for aquarium use only. Using a bucket that has already been contaminated with other household chemicals could result in the loss of your fish.
Clean the gravel next by using an aquarium siphon to vacuum away the debris into a bucket. There are several types of siphons available, all of which work essentially the same. Be sure to vacuum all of the gravel thoroughly so that all debris is removed.
Glass and Lime cleaners
Once the inside of the aquarium is cleaned, the hood, light, tank top, and outside glass can be cleaned. Only use cleaners designated as aquarium safe. Regular glass cleaners contain ammonia, which is toxic to fish. Standard lime cleaners are even more toxic. Use aquarium safe cleansers and rinse. Do not scrub the acrylic with paper towels or any wood by-product. Use a 100% cotton shirt or towel.
After doing a partial cleaning and it has been 4 weeks since you last cleaned the filter, it is time to clean it again. If you did a major water change you may want to wait until the next visit to clean the filter. The reason for this is not visible to the naked eye. The major cleaning you just performed has disturbed the bacterial colonies on the plants, rocks, and in the gravel. Fortunately a significant number of the beneficial bacteria reside within the filter media meaning you haven’t completely upset the eco-system. However if you changed the filter at the same time, you could end up with a significant spike in ammonia levels due to the lack of beneficial bacteria. For that reason, it’s wise to give the tank a rest before removing the filter and cleaning it.
In most cases your filter has media containing carbon, ammonia absorbers, or ion-exchange resins, and should be replaced if it’s more than four weeks old. After a couple of weeks the absorbing qualities in the media have been exhausted, and there are enough bacterial colonies elsewhere to offset its removal. If you are using two filters, clean one per visit.
Your package prices should include installation, aquascaping, filling the tank with water, fish and cleaning the aquarium for the 1st month. You should offer a 5 – 10% discount with a 6-month service contract as listed on the example “Sales Contract”.
• Service charges
Your service charges will be based on competition and target demographic. The charges below are suggested and should be adjusted to your area.
Service programs include:
• Scheduled bi-monthly visits (can be adjusted to meet clients needs)
• Water change (see Water Changes)
• Delivery of equipment, supplies and environment as requested by client
• Free consultation for
• Fish tank makeovers
• Fish stocking
• Equipment replacement/upgrades
• Water quality improvement
• Medical treatment of fish illness
Set aside specific hours or days a week for sales and stick to the schedule. During this time you will approach businesses and introduce yourself and product line.
If the client wishes to finance a package or service, contact your “Finance Company” (see Finance Company) and you will need to complete work before you receive your payment.
• Customer’s concerns and frequently asked questions
Concern: I don’t have enough money right now to cover the package prices.
Reply: No problem, the entire amount can be financed and it’s also a tax write off for commercial clients.
Concern: I don’t want you to clean the aquarium in front of my customers.
Reply: No problem, We can come by after business hours for commercial clients.
Question: How do I access the tank for cleaning if it’s in the wall?
Answer: Access will be hidden under a picture-frame style border or an access panel where the top piece swings open.
Question: How will electricity be supplied to an in-wall aquarium?
Answer: An outlet will be mounted inside the wall facing the aquarium.
Question: How will the fish be fed when I’m on vacation?
Answer: An automatic fish feeder will feed the fish for up to two weeks for freshwater fish. We also offer a vacation feeding service.
Question: What if the tank leaks?
Answer: It is extremely rare however it is under manufacturers warranty for one year.
These are a few handy tips and suggestions that may make things a little easier.
1. If you have a computer, make use of it. Most of your customers will have a computer and it makes for a great way to communicate. E-mail is a wonderful way to contact your customers, send them invoices, and allow them to ask questions when you’re not in their area.
2. Teach your clients and their employees about feeding and the filter system. Show them what to do in an emergency and teach them to recognize problems before they get out of hand. Always train at least two employees on feeding methods.
3. Keep your customers up to date on the system and any changes you make. Never allow things to become a surprise. Clients tend to frown on sudden changes made without their consent.
4. Invest in maintenance tools that are easy to use and which do not create a mess. Water changes with a 5-gallon bucket are an accident waiting to happen. Find methods that are user friendly and clean.
5. Control algae. It is your clients’ number one concern. A dirty tank delivers the wrong message to your clients’ customers. Use fish species, lighting control, feeding programs and good removal tools. Just remember these tanks are acrylic and will scratch if rubbed with an abrasive material. Use 100% cotton towel instead of paper towels. Paper towels are a wood by-product and can scratch acrylic.
6. Great customer service means being patient. Not everyone will have the understanding of aquatics that you do. Things that are simple to you may be more difficult for others to understand. Try to become well versed in basic principles; you will be explaining them over and over. Treat everyone with respect; you may be talking to one of your client’s valued customers.
7. Fish deaths are a part of this business. Learn to be sympathetic but firm. Some fish deaths are unforeseeable, while others are preventable. Work out a fish replacement system and stick to it. Replacing a few fish for free is no big deal, replacing a whole tank is.
8. Try to keep up to date on new products and fish species. Don’t be afraid to try new things, it’s the only way you will advance your skills. Invest in some good books and magazines; they will become useful for reference.