The ball python business, like all businesses, is evolving. I have seen a lot of changes and, through them all, I have endeavored to remain optimistic. That optimism has proved legitimate as the industry continues to be very good to me. Despite my love of the hobby (business) I’m not wearing rose-colored glasses; I regularly contemplate the negative aspects of being a reptile breeder and attempt to make sure I am doing what I can to mitigate them.
On a seemingly different note,
I have more than a few opinions in support of for-profit animal husbandry. On many occasions I have shared some of those opinions in the blog posts and articles I write. And as you might expect I receive a lot of comments. Most of them are emailed directly to me and most of them are decidedly supportive. But sometimes people come after me with varying levels of aggression and disdain for what I do. Some dislike my love of capitalism and attack me for charging more than $20 for any ball python I produce. They suggest that all ball pythons, even the incredibly rare and difficult to produce multi-gene morphs, should be available to everybody regardless of their ability to afford one. “Unto each according to their need“, is the message buried in their words. Intentionally twisting Karl Marx’s inane words I respond by saying, “No.
“Because they know all they sold ya’ was a guaranteed piece of shit. That’s all it is, isn’t it? Hey, if you want me to take a dump in a box and mark it guaranteed, I will. I got spare time.”
Several weeks ago I read posts on the Burmese Python Forums (Small Burms and Fake Hypos) that discussed sellers on some notable reptile classified web sites offering both dwarf and hypo Burmese that really were not what they claim. Apparently someone was selling hypo-like animals that were not genetic hypos and dwarf burms that were not genetic dwarves. This sort of stuff is fairly common and I see it every now and then in the ball python market. I’m sure it happens in every little crevice of the reptile world.
The Odds… The Odds…
Like gamblers in Vegas, ball python breeders sit at the table each and every year and play the odds. And each year we bet on increasingly long one’s. We have to. Competition is increasing, prices are fickle and our desire to make something magical is insatiable. In many ways the designer morph business is a competitive sport and the release of the second edition of John Berry’s book has put all of us on notice. The first time I sat down and flipped through its pages all I could think was, “I’m gonna’ need a bigger boat.” More so than ever I see the heights to which I need to elevate my game. All that and there are several existing combos that didn’t make it into the book and photographic contributions from a few of the bigger names in the business were missing.
Note: Before reading this you need to know a few things:
– Compared to the average blog post this is long …very long. It’s more like a chapter than a blog post.
– The purpose of this post is not to try and discourage ball python breeders. Quite the opposite, actually. I am enthusiastic about the prospects of this business and I want people who decide to be in it, myself included, to understand the consequences of their choices and adjust their behavior in order to allow an opportunity for profit.
– I am neither an economist nor an accountant. I’m just a guy with a spreadsheet and an opinion; a perspective for your consideration.
By my standards and expectations last year was a tough breeding season. In addition to losing a few key clutches during incubation I had an amazing number of clutches that bludgeoned me on the odds. At times it was depressing. But one thing that all breeders rely on is the fact that sooner or later the odds tend to swing around in their favor. It’s the nature of averages; sometimes you win, sometimes you don’t. Last season wasn’t all bad, though. I had a few moments that really stood out. My perspective is arguably tainted, mind you. With very few exceptions I do not try to produce single-gene carrying animals and producing things like black pewters, albino spiders, super pastels, and bumble bees has become business as usual. While I am certainly very glad to produce those animals I have my genetic sights set much higher. As I type two-gene animals are a common (but often still pricey) staple of the industry while the immediate future is in 3, 4 and 5-gene animals. To steal the words of a friend of mine, “I’m not in this for socialist reasons. In this business there will be winners and losers.
“The things you own end up owning you.” – Tyler Durden
I’m self-employed. I have been that way for almost a decade. In addition to my reptile enterprise I am a founding owner of a small information technology (IT) company. Because I have a passion for computer networking and information security I long ago decided to start my own business doing the thing I love. That is a theme familiar to a lot of self-employed people and if you are not currently self-employed I’ll wager that a good number of you aspire to one day be so. For those of you not currently at the helm of your own enterprise let me remind you of an expression I’m sure you have heard before: “The grass is always greener on the other side of the fence.” Owning your own business does nothing to eliminate the stress and frustration you
They say the first step on the road to recovery is admitting you have a problem. Well, after several years of denial and inner-confusion I have come to realize that I have an odd sort of problem. Now that I know I have it I’m not entirely sure what do to about it. It vexes me because it’s part of me, I internalized it long ago. People who don’t suffer from one type of affliction or another often don’t understand why people struggle with such things. Skinny people who eat to live can’t figure out why fat people live to eat. People with no particular desire to gamble are baffled by the compulsion others have to do it. Souls at the mercy of a bottle of Jack Daniels are odd to people who don’t have any desire for a drink on Friday night. The problem I have may be just as elusive to understand as those just mentioned. My problem is the strange combination of ball pythons and money. It’s a multi-faceted problem with the ever-present “too much out, not enough in” issue riding on top of the heap. But the problem I’m writing ab out today is not how much money is coming or going; it’s about how the money goes after it comes.
Pull any breeder aside and they will tell you that there is no better way to build an excellent reptile collection than to produce your own babies and raise them. The problem is that it usually takes forever to build a collection worthy of note when you do it this way. Producing new morphs of your own is an incredibly gratifying accomplishment, though. It’s a big part of the reason that so many of us are in this business. Pretty much every breeder holds back a few animals each year but it’s often a tough call to to determine which ones and how many to set aside. Producing something cool and deciding to keep it means your pocket is ultimately missing some cash. Sell it and your collection is not as cool the following year. It’s a constant battle. Unless you are financially well-to-do from other sources you do, at some point, have to take the money. But that point is different for each of us. People who know me know that I am a notorious ball python hoarder. I hold back a lot of production each year. It is an addiction for which I am unable to find a cure.
I have been keeping reptiles for about 20 years and I have been going to reptile trade shows in a vendor capacity (on and off) for a little more than half of that time. I took a hiatus from the reptile scene in the early part of this decade but I have been back in full swing for more than four years.
In the early-to-mid 90’s reptile trade shows were awesome events; the excitement and enthusiasm could sometimes be carnival-like. Both vendors and customers came from all around the country to participate. Show dates were comparatively few and far between and the Internet, as the average persons knows it today, was not reptile-enabled. There were far fewer breeders (even though many of today’s names remain the same) and many of the animals that are commonplace today were available to most of us only in pictures. Outside the potpourri of animals in our own collections all most of us could do was look at the small assortment of available books. My top five books were:
- The General Care and Maintenance of Burmese Pythons by Philippe De Vosjoli. A tiny and concise book, printed in black & white, but still one of my favorites. My affection for this book is more sentimental than anything; it was my first book on reptiles.
- The Reproductive Husbandry of Pythons and Boas by Richard Ross. A bible to reptile keepers. I really wish there was an updated version of this book, one that reflects all the things we have learned over the past 15-20 years.
- Completely Illustrated Atlas of Reptiles & Amphibians for the Terrarium. This book is mammoth in size but short in the amount of detail it has on each species. But in a time when the inventors of Google were still in middle school there weren’t many choices for getting information on obscure reptiles.
- Kingsnakes & Milk Snakes by Ron Markel. Still relevant today. Would very much like to see it updated.
- Rat Snakes: A Hobbyists Guide to Elaphe and Kin by Ray Staszko, Jerry Walls, and John Quinn. Another excellent book, also still relevant.
Don’t be even a tiny bit confused. These weren’t just books that were in my personal library; these books were in my hands every single day! I spent hours upon hours poring through the pages, memorizing the images, the content, the latin names, everything I could. I didn’t just read these books, I consumed their content. I read them with such frequency that their pages fell out. I loved the Kingsnakes & Milksnakes book so much that one day in 1994 I jumped in my car and drove 18 hours to Arlington, Texas just so I could meet Ron Markel and talk to him about gray-banded kingsnakes. Completely broke and sleeping in my car I spent a week hanging out with Ron, learning everything I could from him (Ron thought I was staying in a hotel. I was too young and proud to admit otherwise). It was such a cool experience. I never made it the rest of the way down to Del Rio, TX to search for gray-bands of my own but a few weeks later I bought a captive-bred pair of them from Brian Barczyk at the Mid-Atlantic Reptile Show (MARS). To this day I still owe myself a trip to southern Texas to hunt for kingsnakes.
I digress. I didn’t sit down to write about books and road trips from the 90’s. I’m sitting here to write about trade shows. Having been back on the Mid-Atlantic trade show scene for several years I must say that it is no longer what it once was. The excitement and novelty of those days so long ago are all but gone. The market is saturated and it is getting worse. But it’s not the number of animals that seems to have saturated the market, it’s the number of shows. The number of reptile trade shows being hosted on the east coast of the US has exceeded critical mass. A few days ago I sat down to work on my list of show appearances for 2010 and was blown away by the addition yet more reptile shows in the Mid-Atlantic and surrounding area. Vendors have been complaining for a long time that there are too many shows. But there the shows are and more and more are being added all the time.
There are several factors at work causing this increase in the number of shows:
- Not everybody knows it but the Hamburg, PA show was actually two different shows. For years there were two different promoters with different show dates. The shows were held in the same place and to the customers nothing looked different. The politics of reptile trade shows has produced a situation where one of those vendors is no longer able to host their show at the Hamburg armory. In response that promoter has launched a list of multiple new shows in Pennsylvania and surrounding locations.
- The promoter of the White Plains, NY show, which is one of the best trade shows on the east coast, added another show on Long Island last year. That show continues to struggle to match the White Plains event. Both of those shows are outside the Mid-Atlantic but White Plains is a good enough show that it attracts people from quite a long way away. Me, for instance. I travel almost nine hours to get there. I know other vendors who come from several more hours away than me.
- NARBC tried to host a trade show in Northern Virginia. The show lasted two years before poor attendance caused its cancellation. Northern Virginia is brimming with reptile people but even NARBC’s first-rate shows didn’t survive in the over-saturated mire of the Mid-Atlantic scene.
- Repticon continues its northerly march, expanding up to Baltimore in 2010. Prior to this they only went as far as Charlotte, NC.
- One show promoter in the Mid-Atlantic area hosts monthly shows in Virginia and Maryland. The shows are poorly advertised and poorly attended by vendors and customers alike. At most these shows should happen every other month (and that’s me being generous). The show promoter can’t resist the dollars made by the trickle of patrons coming in the door so he continues to try and jam more and more shows down the community’s throat. More and more vendors are no longer supporting these shows. Despite the continuing and ever-increasing lack of participation from customers and vendors alike the promoter insists on adding more and more show dates to the schedule.
Show promoters can’t force vendors to come to shows so let’s focus our attention on the real culprit: the show vendor. Show vendors are duplicitous. We say we want fewer shows but we support the promoters when they add new one’s to the schedule. But why do we do such things? The prospect of money, of course. To understand how the money presents itself I recommend you visualize a polar bear fishing at a hole in the ice. Imagine each morning a polar bear wakes up and hauls himself down to a hole in the ice. For hours upon hours he sits, patiently waiting for a sea lion to rise up through the water and poke its head through the hole. Most days the bear goes hungry, leaving at the end of the day with nothing to show but a wasted trip. It is however, inevitable; a sea lion will eventually poke its head up through the hole in the ice. The key is for the polar bear to be there when it happens. When he is, …delicious! It’s a polar bear payday. It’s the prospect of getting a meal that keeps the bear coming back. The sea lions are few and far between, sometimes eluding the bear for painfully long periods of time. But they seem to pop up just enough to keep him coming back. It’s an inconsistent and inefficient process but he doesn’t really know any other way to catch the sea lions. With seemingly limited options he is, at this moment, preparing for his next trip to the ice hole.
- Show vendors are polar bears. They require a consistent and steady supply of food (money).
- Customers are sea lions (Pardon the crassness of referring to you as a consumable but the reality is that vendors don’t spend money, time and energy to go to shows to socialize and display animals; they are there to give you reptiles in exchange for money.)
- Trade shows are ice holes. Despite the ease with which they can be created they will freeze over and disappear if left alone.
These days there are so many holes in the ice (trade shows) we don’t know when or if a sea lion (customer) is ever going to poke his head through and spend some money (become a meal). In response we (the vendors) need to make sure we never miss an opportunity, knowing full well that most of our time at the ice hole is going to be wasted, fruitless.
What the polar bears don’t know is that by running from hole to hole they are helping to create more holes. The more holes there are the less likely it is the bear will be at the right place at the right time. The sea lion may pop up through the hole but the bear was staring down into the wrong one. Opportunity missed, another wasted effort. If I could sit all the polar bears down for a chat I would tell them not to spend all day in front of the holes. I would tell them to cover most of them up in order to get rid of them. By eliminating most of the holes in the ice they can focus their attention on the best producing holes; achieving a similar end-result with a lot less overhead.
Alas, most polar bears are too caught up in the cycle of running from hole to hole to break trend. They system has them and they can’t break free. It’s a shame, really. They are running themselves ragged, effectively chasing nickels when they should be focusing on dollars. The joy they once derived from going to the ice hole is gone. It has become a chore encapsulated in frustration. While the costs of policing all of the ice holes continues to rise profitable results continue to decline and the cycle is made even worse as a result.
The solution is easy to write but tough to implement: If we (the vendors) stop supporting the show promoters by buying tables they will stop having so many shows. The trickle-down effect is that customers won’t continue going to trade shows without quality vendors with quality products. The vendors I have spoken with this all give me a similar argument; that it’s better to go to the show and make a little bit of money than to stay home and make no money at all. This, however, is only an opinion, not a fact. I suggest that there are ways to better your business each weekend without going to trade shows. Consider the following:
- Rather than going to yet another local trade show that is poorly run, poorly attended and barely profitable, stay home and work on your web site. Have you looked around at reptile web sites lately? Most of them are in poor shape, terribly outdated and incomplete. My own site suffers from this in some places. Web sites are a lot of work if you want them to be good and you can get the time to work on them by foregoing a trade show each month.
- Pick a web site and go take a peek at the list of supposedly available animals. Most reptile web sites (mine included) are not up-to-date. Few have actual lists of animals that a person can really shop from. Some have available lists that are several years old. That’s damaging to your credibility in the long run. So rather than going to the next trade show spend that time taking photos of your available animals and posting them up on your web site.
- Update your content, add updated pictures to your photo gallery and incorporate new content into the site. Make your site better each month by skipping a trade show and adding new information that will cause people to come back on a regular basis. Static web sites with unchanging content don’t need to be visited on a regular basis. If you take the time to populate your site with photos, discussions, how-to articles, videos, etc. you will find that you get a good amount of traffic and that traffic will lead to sales. Most of us don’t have time to do all of this, especially if you spend so many of your weekends doing trade shows. Skip the trade show and you have created the time necessary to get this work done. It will pay for itself in the long run.
I am bailing out on a long list of reptile trade shows in 2010. I just don’t see the value in doing them anymore. My efforts as part of the reptile community are better spent doing other things. Don’t get me wrong, I will still attend every Hamburg and every White Plains show. They are quarterly, which is reasonable and they are still solid staples of the business. But all of these smaller shows …I’m done with them. They are a waste of time for vendors and customers alike. Vendors: join me on this. If you do we can make the industry better by restoring value to the trade show scene.