Online Auction Site Aquabid Runs Fishy Business
By Greg Holden
Fish naturally swim in schools. Both they and the enthusiastic hobbyists who keep them as pets tend to stick together. These days, fish lovers gather in the same place where they surf - the Web. Specialty marketplaces like AquaBid.com give them a place to buy and sell live fish in a community setting, online.
Back in the early days of the Web, Mark Barnett (now the owner of AquaBid.com) was one of those hobbyists - and a self-taught computer programmer as well. He started going online to bring aquarium and fish lovers together.
"All my Web work started with the Atlanta Area Aquarium Association," says Mark, 44, who lives in Stockbridge, Georgia. "I am one of the cofounders of this aquarium club. I was the editor for the monthly newsletter, Fish Talk. I wanted to exchange the newsletter with other clubs around the world. I found addresses on the Internet and sent letters to each one I could find. Once I had all of this information, I decided to publish the newsletter on the Internet."
The newsletter led to the creation of the website Fish Club Central in 1996. In 1997, Mark renamed it FishLinkCentral.com. As the website grew, it split off to other, related sites such as AquaChat.com and AquaBoards.com, where fish lovers could compare notes.
It was in the course of comparing notes on another discussion site that the idea of creating a Web site for buying and selling fish online came to the surface.
"AquaBid.com started because I was a member of the Native Fish Conservancy mailing list," explains Barnett. "They would try to have auctions on the mailing list, and people would email in a bid. Things would often get messed up as two people emailed in a bid at the same time. I decided to create an auction Web site for this."
AquaBid.com, like any ecommerce Web sites, started as a one-person invention. Mark did the work at home after putting in time at his 9-to-5 day job, and outside of devoting time to his wife and daughter. "I created the Web site using Everysoft's auction script," he recalls. "I have heavily modified the script over the years. I've been the only person doing the programming." The first item put up for sale was an aquarium instruction book that Mark himself posted on February 12, 2000.
Even though eBay prohibits the sale of live animals, you may be surprised to discover that live fish are being offered and sold on the site. (Do a search for "goldfish" or "live fish" and you'll see; this page sets out requirements for selling fish: http://pages.ebay.com/help/policies/wildlife.html.)
But Barnett has never seen his site as competing with the auction giant or with trying to do something better than eBay does. Rather, he sees his site is an outgrowth of a vibrant group of hobbyists.
"AquaBidcom has grown into a community," he observes. "We are a tight knit group. If something bad happens to a member, people will post auctions to raise money to help the person out."
Currently, the site has more than 95,000 registered users. At any time, you can find 5,000 current auctions on the site, for everything from goldfish to piranhas. Scanning the auctions is illuminating: it reveals the special challenges involved in selling this kind of pet.
Taking photos is a challenge: You have to wait for your "merchandise" to swim into position and hope that they'll pose obligingly. Then, watch out for the glare from the aquarium glass. Alternatively, some sellers scoop their fish into their hands quickly and photograph them in this "stationary" position.
Another challenge with selling fish is the same with selling anything online: the work begins when you need to pack and ship what's been purchased. In some cases, sellers require local pickup. But in most cases, overnight shipping is offered. Many sellers add a "live arrival" guarantee. In some cases, shipping by Priority Mail is allowed but without a "live arrival" guarantee. Shipping, in other words, can cost as much or more than the fish itself.
When you're shipping fish, you naturally need to take extra care. The U.S. Postal Service, in fact, has a set of requirements for shipping live animals. One sentence obviously can't be taken literally: "Live animals must be transported without food or water, because liquids, moisture, and loose foodstuffs can cause damage to the shipping container, other mail, and Postal Service equipment during transport." You must mark the package with "Live Fish" or a similar description. The package has to be extra-strong, waterproof, and weather resistant. The fish container, must be cushioned within this outer package. One common method is to put the fish in a plastic bag, place the bag in a styrofoam container, and place the sytrofoam in a shipping box.
For Barnett and other fish lovers, this isn't work. Money doesn't even appear to be the primary concern. "The best part of running AquaBid.com is the fact that it promotes the aquarium hobby," says Barnett. "It enables people to get fish they wouldn't normally find in their local pet shop."
About the author:
Greg Holden is EcommerceBytes Contributing Editor. He is a journalist and the author of many books, including "Starting an Online Business For Dummies," "Go Google: 20 Ways to Reach More Customers and Build Revenue with Google Business Tools," and several books about eBay, including "How to Do Everything with Your eBay Business," second edition, and "Secrets of the eBay Millionaires," both published by Osborne-McGraw Hill. Find out more on Greg's website, which includes his blog, a list of his books, and his fiction and biographical writing.
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