Not really a tough question, I suspect. Money in-hand is tangible and usable; it represents capability. In order for me to convince you to wait for money in the future it has to be more than what you can have today. But how much more? If the offer was $5,000 today or $5,200 in four years I feel pretty confident that you would still reject the deal and opt for today as the payday. The capacity for progress created by having money in hand will trump the promise of a meager future return. What the exact future return needs to be in order to entice someone to take the deal is going to vary from person to person. But barring extreme and pressing financial need most people will eventually agree to wait for a future payday.
My name is Colin Weaver. I am a ball python breeder. My best customer is named Colin Weaver. He is also my biggest problem.
I can’t seem to get it right. I’m in the ball python business to make money. That’s not something I keep secret. If I owned snakes purely for the love of snakes I’d own fewer than ten of them. Instead I own hundreds. I don’t know anybody who keeps hundreds of anything out of love. Most people who keep things in quantity do so for financial gain. I’m not different.
If you start out as a hobbyist you may find that you are lured into monetizing your operation. You buy a pretty snake and say, “Hey, it would be cool to get another one of these and try to breed them.” You buy a mate for your animal and that’s the first step down a long and expensive road. With ball pythons it’s not so simple, though. The color and pattern variations produce some very real problems that cause you to become a burden to yourself. Let me explain.
Suppose you buy a male pastel jungle ball python. They are pretty and quite affordable these days. You also really like spider ball pythons so you buy one of those, too. Your spider is a girl so you decide to pair the two up with each other. Eggs are laid, incubated and hatched. When all goes well what will you get? A bumble bee (hopefully a few). You could sell that bumble bee for some nice cash but are you really going to do it? I’ll wager no. You don’t have a bumble bee and they sure are pretty. So you keep it. Now you have (at least) three snakes. What should have been a money-generating event actually turned into a collection-size increasing event. You keep your bumble bee and also add a pinstripe to your collection. You breed them a few years down the road and now all hell breaks loose. You produce spinners, lemon blasts, more bumble bees and perhaps even a spinner blast. Second verse, same as the first. You don’t have any spinners or lemon blasts. You (like most other people) also don’t have any spinner blasts …until now. Can you really sell them now that you have them? Think of the possibilities they represent. Don’t you want to have these in your collection? What sense would it make to sell them and they buy them again later? So year after year, clutch after clutch, you find yourself keeping the best stuff you produce. You could, and arguably should, be selling these little nuggets but you just can’t bring yourself to do it. So you become your own best customer and you are your own biggest hinderance to profitability. It’s a vicious cycle and I’m in deep.
I, like many other breeders, keep back large numbers of my very best production every year. I should be selling it, taking the cash, paying off my house and buying nice cars and saving for retirement. But I don’t. Instead I’m cash-poor and snake rich, always trying to one-up my own collection.
I can’t seem to drink my own Kool-Aid. Sometimes you have to take the cash, sell the snake …even when it hurts. But it’s oh, so very hard to do.
…and the things you’ll learn.
Way back in high school I took biology (we all did). We talked about Gregor Mendel and genetics. The girl who sat behind me was gorgeous. I spent most of my time talking to her rather than trying to learn about genetics. My eyes are not blue and discussing the fact that I am het for blue eyes was less interesting than her.
In college I took courses in biology, physiology, epidemiology, genetics, chemistry and biochemistry. None of it seemed like it would ever be relevant (to me) in the real world. I began with the mindset that I was there to ‘check a box’ (e.g. get a diploma). Pass the tests, move along; that was my initial perspective. By the time I graduated from college I knew I was wrong. I had become a reptile breeder (albeit a small one). The ball python jubilee was still almost a decade away so the more exciting genetics considerations at the time were the albino and anerythrystic genes (yes, I know there was other stuff going on, too). Much of the awesomeness we know today in the genetics of burmese pythons, reticulated pythons, ball pythons, blood pythons, boa constrictors, etc. was still a long way off.
After college I enrolled in graduate school courses. I wanted more information. I took graduate level courses in herpetology and genetics. By this time I had been breeding a variety of different snakes (colubrids, boas & pythons) for a few years. Technically, this makes me a herpetoculturist, not a herpetologist. While the difference in spelling is subtle, the meaning is not. So in my herpetology course I was an immediate outsider. My classmates were interested in counting differences in subcaudal scales on snakes obtained from the top and bottom of some far away mountain. I was interested in how to breed them. The course did not include a section on husbandry and breeding, which I understand but still missed. Strangely, herpetoculture and herpetology don’t mix like you might think. This particular group of herpetology students did not embrace the idea of breeding reptiles for profit. Capitalism and academia are often at odds with each other.
I am not suggesting that all my schooling made me a good reptile breeder. While it certainly didn’t hurt me I suggest it provided me slim to no advantage over most of my reptile breeding peers. Pretty much all of my friends who breed snakes arrived at this particular location (e.g. reptile breeder) via different paths. Some of us began as car mechanics while others were general contractors, stock brokers, longshoreman, pharmacologists and information technology professionals. And virtually all of them have as much usable knowledge about genetics as I do. That impresses me. It doesn’t take college or graduate courses to learn how to do any of this. It does, however, take motivation and a desire to learn. And it takes a lot of ‘doing’. The more I do this the better I get. Yeah, yeah, we all love reptiles but it’s the attachment of dollar signs that really gets a lot of us motivated to figure this stuff out. Visit any reptile forum and you will read everyday people talking about Punnett Squares, dihybrid crosses, genes, alleles and loci (locus) just as naturally as they talk about cooking with a microwave oven. It just goes to show the chinese proverb, “What I hear I forget, what I see I remember, what I do I understand” is as true today as it was 2,500 or so years ago when something like it was first written.
My whole point is this: We are a community that has become functional (if not proficient) in a field that until a few years ago was reserved for academics. The past 10-15 years in the reptile industry have been a whirlwind. We have become better at herpetoculture, breeding and genetics. Rather than having a bunch of snakes in glass aquariums we have applied science and capitalism to reptile husbandry. I’m glad to be part of that.
…And then there was H.R. 669. While not the first (or last) assault on our rights to own, breed, sell, trade and transport reptiles, I witnessed two things happen as a result of its introduction:
- We galvanized as a community in a way I honestly didn’t think possible. From the largest breeders to the guy with a single pet reptile I saw people get fired up and say, “What do you need me to do to help fight this?” People quickly became willing soldiers, ready to fight for their right to own reptiles. That impressed me. Using the Internet as our primary vehicle (forums, Twitter, email, web sites, etc.) we all worked to get the word out and get others motivated. The axe has not fallen on H.R. 669 but, to steal from a famous story, ‘Horton heard a Who’ by the time 4/23/09 came around.
- We got also got an unexpected education through this ordeal (not unlike the genetics education we have all received over the past 10 years). I met more than a few reptile people who got caught up on all the stuff they missed in high school about how our government runs. How many of you reptile fanatics out there now have a much better understanding of how things work in the House of Representatives? Maybe you didn’t put it all together but there are a lot of us who are much more acquainted with how the process works. And if H.R. 669 ever makes it out of the House we’re going to all get a lot smarter about how things work in the Senate. We’ve got to be educated, organized, and vigilant if we’re going to win this. People who used to say, “I don’t vote.”, are beginning to realize that their voice, when combined with others who share their beliefs, actually does count.
In one form or another, being in the reptile business is an education…
First, a disclaimer: I am in the early stages of starting a web site called ReptiTrack. www.reptitrack.com is not a competitior to kingsnake.com or faunaclassifieds.com or any other site that people use to sell their reptiles on-line. ReptiTrack is a complimentary site to those on-line sales locations. It will serve one and only one purpose: to be a centalized repository of price tracking for reptiles so you know a realistic price to put on your animals when you go to list them on the site of your choosing. The cycle of going to kingsnake.com to see what your animals are worth has to stop. It is destroying our industry. And no, that is not an overstatement. It is true. A multi-billion dollar industry is at the whim of the most recent stupid price advertised by some out-of-work house painter who breeds ball pythons on the side and just crashed his car while driving home drunk. The biggest names in our industry go to kingsnake to figure out what animals are worth. I won’t name names but you know who you are. I cannot imagine anything more silly. In the ball python world, the tail is truly wagging the dog.
Let me offer you a hypothetical scenario (or is it?) that illustrates why you should never again trust a price you see on kingsnake.com (or any other site of a similar ilk). For this illustration I am going to make up a ball python morph called the Phantasm Ball. Phantasms are co-dominant and currently sell for $2,500.
Larry, a small-time ball python breeder desperately wants a Phantasm Ball but can’t afford one. Unwilling to save his money Larry hatches a plan. And here’s how it goes:
Larry doesn’t own any Phantasm Balls but Larry posts an ad on kingsnake.com offering 1.1 Phantasms for $2,000 each or $3,500 for the pair. Individually that’s $500 less than the going rate and as a pair is $1,500 off the current market value. Naturally, Larry is going to get calls to buy the animals. “Sorry,” Larry says. “They already sold”. But he says he should be getting some more in the next week or two and he takes names and numbers to call people back. The animals never actually existed, of course, and the one’s he is going to get next week don’t really exist either.
A real owner of Phantasms logs in to kingsnake.com and sees Larry’s ads selling Phantasms for $2,000. “Crap!”, he says, “The price is already down $500 from last year.” Wanting to be competitive with Larry (the liar), the real Phantasm owner offers his on kingsnake.com for $1,800 each, $3, 000 for a pair. He sell them, happy for the $3K but disappointed because he thought he was going to get more for them.
Three weeks later Larry the Liar posts two more Phantasms on kingsnake.com for $1,500 each. In his ad he explains how much it pains him to sell the animals for so little but he was recently injured and needs money to pay medical bills. When the calls pour in he once again explains that they have already been sold. He again says that a fellow breeder is expecting some more Phantasms to hatch in the coming weeks and will post them up as soon as they are ready. In a few weeks, the cycle repeats again.
You can see where this is going. Larry, a guy who doesn’t even own Phantasms is able to drive the price down by more than 50%-80% in a matter of months. Now, with the prices at a level he can afford, he buys himself a pair of Phantasms. He is laughing his ass off at the rest of us as he does it.
Is this story true? I don’t know. It’s possible. The fact that it took me about zero seconds to think it up means that someone less ethical than me thought it up long ago. Never mind economics, supply and demand, the economy, falling home prices, unemployment, blah-blah-blah. Pinstripe ball pythons were more than $2,000 in the latter part of 2006. Now, at the beginning of 2009, barely 24 months later, people balk at paying $300 for one. That is false. Ball pythons lay an average of 6 eggs. Few to none of us have super-pinstripes (yes, I know there is no super-phenotype) so 3 of those 6 are pinstripes (maybe). I’m a small/medium sized breeder. I produced about 70 clutches of eggs last year. That’s about 420 babies. How many were Pinstripes? Less than 20. I kept 12 of them for myself, I sold 8. Multiply me by 200 similar-sized breeders and there are 1,600 Pinstripes for sale in 2008. Think there are more than 1,600 ball python freaks in the USA who want a Pinstripe? Uh yeah, there’s more than that in my little crevice of Virginia. If the market isn’t saturated how did the price fall by almost 90% in 2 years? I’ll tell you how: kingsnake.com and all of us going to it for pricing. Whether it’s people lying about animals they don’t have or every person posting just a little bit less than the person who posted before them doesn’t really matter. If we continue to use kingsnake.com as our source for pricing the market will not have longevity. We are ruining our own business and most of us are conscious of it.
I used to email people who put up really low prices asking them why there were doing it. Most of them didn’t offer valid reasons other than, “I really need money”. One guy told me he bred his own food and wasn’t able to produce enough to feed his ball python production so he wanted to sell them as quickly as possible so he didn’t have to feed him. He admitted he knew he was selling them for a really low price compared to what they were worth but you know what? I never again saw them for more than his admittedly low price. His two weeks of low posting brought the price down nationwide by over $150/animal.
Kingsnake.com allows a breeder with a single pair of animals, say one bumble bee male and one normal female to control the price of bumble bees for every producer in the country. I’ve heard breeders say, “let them sell theirs for those low prices. After they do, they’ll be gone and prices will return to normal.” But they don’t. Prices go back up once they go down. NEVER!
I have more to say on this topic. A lot more. But I’ll save it for another day because if I don’t, this will turn into a book and no one will read it. I also don’t want to rant. I want to come across as a lucid, sane person.
In the meantime, please, please, please stop going on-line to figure out what your animals are worth. Call Brian Barczyk. Call Kevin McCurley. Call Bob Clark. Call Adam Wysocki. Call Pete Kahl. Call Kim Bell. Call Colette Sutherland. Call Tracy Barker. Call an established and respected breeder in this business and ask them what the realistic price should be. Don’t look at kingsnake.com anymore.
If you agree with me, even a little bit, please get other people to read this. We’ve got to start preserving our industry. Prices will fall, they always do. But prices shouldn’t fall they was they have been.
As a final thought, let me explain prices to you. There are four different types of prices in the ball python industry. They are:
- Retail prices – This is the price that should be listed on kingsnake.com or at a trade show. You should be relatively serious about this price. If you negotiate on this price it should not be by more than about 10%. Pricing an animal for $1,000 and selling it for $500 ruins the credibility of all other prices you advertise.
- Sale prices – These are “weekend special” prices or “Santa Claus Specials”. These prices should be a reasonable discount (10-20%) off your normal retail price. Don’t get crazy. Sale prices damage the market long-term. For instance, pastel clowns were selling for $12,000 last year. One weekend someone put them up on kingsnake.com for a “weekend special” of $6,500 (because he needed money). The price never again went above $6,500. All it takes is one stupid person to ruin it for everyone.
- Wholesale prices – Jesus, don’t get me started. Somebody conned the world into believing that wholesale prices are 50% off retail. That’s crap! Wholesalers DO NOT DESERVE 50% MARGIN. You know who decided that it should be 50% off retail? The wholesalers!!! Quit buying into their crap. Demand more money for your production. You do all the work, ALL OF IT, and the wholesaler gets to make the exact same amount as you??? Seriously? Think about it. You think the rest of the world (outside the reptile world) has a 50% margin on their products? Nope. Try 15-20% on average. If you sell an animal at 50% of its retail value you give the person buying it 50% of margin to ruin the going rate. Why wouldn’t he sell it for 80% of the current retail prices? He only paid 50% so he’s making 30% for absolutely nothing. STOP WHOLESALING YOUR ANIMALS FOR 50% OF THEIR VALUE!!! YOU ARE DESTROYING THE MARKET IF YOU DO IT.
- Friend prices – These are whatever you want them to be. Hell, I’ve given extremely valuable snakes to good friends for free. These deals should be secret, between you and your friend. Don’t go on a forum and tell everybody that you just got a bumble bee for $300 and leave out the part about how the guy who sold it to you has been your friend since birth and you gave him one of your kidneys last year. Someone hearing that you got a bumble bee for $300 makes them think that they deserve one for that much, too. Deals made between friends in back rooms need to stay there.
Let’s get a collective clue, people. C’mon. We’re smarter than this.
Until next time,
Being in the ball python business is one of the most rewarding things I have ever done. I love the animals and I love the whole yearly cycle involved in breeding them. I have also developed some good friendships with other ball python breeders and that’s something I would not have been able to do if it weren’t for ball pythons. Our paths simply would have never crossed without these snakes as a binding agent.
But being in the reptile business doesn’t come without sacrifice. You give endlessly of your time and money. If you allow it to do so the constant demands of animal husbandry can put tremendous stress on other aspects of your life. I own more than one company and there is a constant struggle to split my time between the two enterprises. I also have a wife and daughter who want to be with me and nothing in life comes before being a father and a husband. Nothing. But being so resolute does not change the needs of my ball pythons. They still have to have fresh water, clean cages and food. And they never stop requiring it. By the time I finish cleaning, feeding and watering it’s time to start again. To successfully balance all of these facets of my life is almost impossible but I’m not willing to give any of them up. Something must be sacrificed. I sacrifice sleep. I seldom sleep more than four hours per night. I’m fortunate that I can still function very well on that little sleep. I’ve been doing it for years so my body is used to it.
Time isn’t the only thing that gets sacrificed in order to participate in the ball python business. Other things have to be given endlessly as well. Money is at the top of the list. To make a living on ball pythons you need a lot of them; a whole lot. While many ball pythons have become extremely affordable (their prices are falsely low, actually) it wasn’t always like that. Many of you know this all too well. An animal that cost multiple thousands of dollars a few short years ago is now in the low hundreds. Pinstripes, for example. I get a little sick to my stomach every time I think about their current price.
Breeders who have adult pinstripes, genetics stripes, bumble bees, black pastels, ghosts and albinos paid a lot of money for them. A LOT! Some of you who are relatively new to the business don’t fully get that. What have you sacrificed in order to be in this business? Anything? Everything? There may be a choice few who have jobs that afford them the opportunity to pay cash for their animals. But that’s a select few, I’m sure. Most of us have had to make many personal sacrifices of one type or another to build our collections.
The other day I was preparing to reinstall the operating system on my computer so I was moving my files to another computer so I could restore them after the rebuild. I always seem to come across interesting photos when I do that (I’ve got dozens of gigabytes of photos on my laptop) and it was these photos that prompted me to write this little article:
This was my 1996 Twin Turbo 300ZX. Most car enthusiasts agree that this is a very special car. I had wanted one for years but their $50K plus price tag back in ’96 put them out of my price range. It wasn’t until several years later that I could afford one. When I did get one I proceeded to put many more thousands into upgrading it; custom exhaust, upgraded computer, turbo timer, performance intakes, and beefier brakes. I waited for several years to be in a position to buy that car. And just after I got it to the the point that it was perfect for me, I sold it. Why did I sell a car that I wanted so badly for so long? I sold it to buy ball pythons. Building my collection was worth more than having that car in my driveway. The sale price wasn’t anything magical; somewhere in the $17K range. But that was back in 2006. $17,000 in 2006 didn’t go very far in the ball python world.
This isn’t the only big sacrifice I have made over the years to be in the ball python business. I haven’t been on vacation in almost a decade for example. I choose to take the money I would spend on a vacation and re-invest it into building my ball python collection. If I were to give it some more thought I’d be able to come up with a long list of personal sacrifices I have made to be in the position I am in today. When I look at the sacrifices I have made to have the animals I do I get all the more annoyed with people who say that all ball python morphs should cost $50 so everybody can have one. You know what I say to those people? Two words: “Pack Sand!” I gave up things that I wanted to get the animals I have and you need to do the same.
And it’s because of these sacrifices that I hold the line on ball python prices. I am not now nor will I ever be the guy who sells ball pythons for a bargain basement prices. I will never lead the way on decreasing ball python prices and I will fight against those who do. I have put too much of myself into this. I have made too many sacrifices in the form of time, money and personal relationships. I will not discount the value of my investment simply because some guy on kingsnake.com is freaked out over money and is selling his animals for $100 less than the going rate. I won’t do it and neither should you. I love ball pythons and this industry too much to do it. I won’t do it to myself and I won’t do it to my peers who have made many sacrifices similar to mine. I’ve got your back on pricing. You got mine?
Anything Ghost just does it for me. Take any morph out there and add ghost to it: Boom! Better! Bada-bing Bada-boom! I’m always amazed to see what the ghost gene does to a morph. I absolutely love Ghost Mojaves (I can’t get enough of them). Ghost Black Pastels, a morph that you might think would be not too different from a normal ghost, are actually exceptional looking animals. Easily a favorite in my book. I’m so anxious to produce a ghost super black pastel that I can hardly stand waiting for the eggs. I’ll be a wreck on day 53 of that clutch. I haven’t seen a ghost clown yet and I both yearn for and fear the day I do. It’s going to wreck my bank account. I’m not close to producing them on my own this year or next year so I’ll have to drop some quan in the lap of someone parting with a male. Clown anything is a winner in my book.
One of my favorite ghost morphs right now is the cleverly named Humble Bee (aka the Ghost Bumble Bee, aka Ghost Pastel Spider). I guess we could also be calling this guy a Pastel Honey Bee. But I think I like Humble Bee best. It pleases me. Not sure who named it but they did a good job. One of the things I like so much about ghosts is watching the way they change colors throughout their lives. Every phase they go through is cool to see.
I suppose it’s possible that in a few years I may look back at the Humble Bee and wonder why I was so excited about them. Today I can’t see how that’s going to happen, though. They’re stunning. But with Ghost Spinner Blasts and Ghost Killer Blasts so close to being produced (may have been produced already, I’m not 100% sure) I can only dream of how the Humble Bee may pale in comparison. But then again, maybe not. I still don’t get tired of looking at my Honey Bees. I’d like to build an army of Honey Bee females. Aw heck, who am I kidding? I want to build an army of ball pythons.