Why do you do this? By ‘this’ I mean breed reptiles, of course. Is it a hobby? Do you do it for a living? Somewhere in-between? If you aren’t doing so already, do you aspire to one day breed snakes for a living?
Regardless of where you are in the reptile husbandry game, do you have a plan? Does it look a little like this?:
- Buy snakes
- Breed snakes
- Sell snakes
- Count crazy amounts of cash
What is the last snake you bought? Why did you buy it? Was it a smart buy or did you buy it on impulse? Did it fit into any current breeding project? How about the snake before that one? Did you buy it because of its price or because of what it was? How many times have you let your reptile purchases guide the direction of your reptile collection? Shouldn’t it be the other way around? Shouldn’t your collection guide your purchases? Shouldn’t you have a plan; an honest-to-goodness business plan?
I’m not good at rationalizing things. I am flat-out awesome at it! In the game of rationalization, I’m a rockstar! When I set my mind to it I have yet to come across something I couldn’t talk myself into. My decisions are good. The are solid and they are just. I have rationalized my way into many, many snake purchases, each of them a brilliant, strategic and soon-to-be-profitable decision. With a punnet square, an Excel spreadsheet and available credit I can design a plan for world domination and financial nirvana within a matter of minutes. On paper I am well on my way to living the dream.
The reality? I have lived in the same house and driven the same truck for the past eleven years. Neither are impressive (but I’m not complaining). Year after year I’m a year away from making good money. More than once I have run up to the precipice of profitability, stared longingly and lovingly at it, and then turned and walked back down the trail. By my definitions I am not yet successful. Some people who know me would argue otherwise. If three years ago I had the reptile collection I have today I would have said that I am very successful. But today I want the collection I will have three years from now. I just can’t seem to get my reptile collection and my timeline to sync up. I wonder if it’s because I don’t really have a plan any better than the one above. Who am I kidding? Step #4 doesn’t exist for me. After step #3 I jump straight back to #1. That’s me: buy, breed, sell. Repeat. Snake rich, cash poor.
Because ball pythons are so diverse there is an underlying and [perhaps] unconscious drive to have all of them. Your collection must have pastels, spiders, pinstripes, black pastels, albinos, mojaves, clowns, piebalds, ghosts, lessers, butters, yellow bellys, fires, axanthics and cinnamons. Right? But that’s just to start. With all the ingedients you can make all of the magic! But is that really the most profitable way to go about it? Maybe for some. I’m not sure it’s right for all of us, though. I think you need to explore your motivations before you buy any more critters.
Why do you breed ball pythons? You probably fall into one or more of these categories:
- For the love. Making money isn’t that important to you. You just like to breed snakes. You love the whole process and derive joy from successful husbandry.
- If this is you, congratulations! Your desires are pure. Please collect your group of normal ball pythons and make your way to the back of the room. From there you can listen at a distance, safe from getting any of my capitalism on you.
- To be the first to produce a new morph, to be a recognizable name. A pioneer in the ever-emerging ball python genetics/morph game.
- Bring your wallet. You will need it. If your wallet is mighty and equipped with sufficient stamina, we will all one day know your name.
- Fame in the ball python world is real but small. While I know the names of the big breeders, my parents do not. Nor do my friends and neighbors. Being a big name breeder makes you look cool in only the smallest of circles. Keep your ego in check when you get there.
- To produce a diverse and eclectic array of ball python morphs while making a profit.
- While the profit part may be elusive these days I suspect that many of us fall into this category. As your collection expands it becomes more diverse.
- To produce the animals that will make you the most profit, regardless of how you feel about them.
- You are a pure capitalist. Whatever sells is what you are selling. Some may call you a heartless, money-hungry bastard. Me? I admire your motivations and envy your lack of personal attachment.
- Some other motivation. There may be some other category into which you fall so put yourself here if that’s true.
So who among this list is in the worst position? It’s the people who want to ‘produce a diverse and eclectic array of ball python morphs while making a profit’. Why? Your motivations are at odds with each other. A diverse ball python collection of 100 animals (or 50, or 25, whatever) will allow you to produce a good number of morphs. It’s exciting and cool when you open the cages and see all the colors and patterns. But stop for a moment and really think about what’s happening with your collection. For ease of discussion I will talk about Clown Ball Pythons. Clowns are not cheap but they are within reach of many breeders. The most common gateway into breeding clowns is to buy a male clown and some female het clowns. So let’s say you buy 1.2 (one male, two females). Chances are good that you buy them as babies. In about 2-3 years you will have raised your females and are now producing clown babies for the first time. What are you going to do when they come out of the egg? Sell them? Really? Don’t you remember what you just went through to produce these? You just spent almost 3 years of your life raising these things up and now, there they are: baby clown ball pythons produced by YOU!!! If you sell them you still only have your breeders. How are you going to grow AND refine your ball python collection if you sell them? You gotta’ keep some. And as soon as you decide to do that, you’re screwed. The cycle has you. But if you do sell them you’ll still only be producing a few clowns the following year (you are breeding het females after all). You will never get any bigger and your collection will never get any better than it is today. That’s the rub. Keep your production and you’re screwed. Sell your production and you’re screwed. Neither is the end of the world but neither is getting you to the world you worked up on your Excel spreadsheet a few years earlier, either. What to do?
I know it’s easy to write this and not have to talk about the money behind it but if you are going to breed clowns, BREED CLOWNS. Don’t buy 1.2 clowns and 1.2 albinos and 1.2 ghosts and 1.2 mojaves and 1.2 spiders. Buy 2.8 clowns instead. No, it’s not as exciting but when you do produce clowns you are more likely to produce a bunch of them. When you have 25 clown babies to sell it is A LOT easier to sell them without emotion AND keep a few back to raise up. When you are only producing a few clowns you often can’t bear to part with them. Because they are few they are precious to you; a cherished commodity. And they are the source of your problems.
So into your business plan you need to integrate VOLUME when it comes to a particular morph. Resist the desire to expand both size and diversity. If you are expanding the size of your collection do it with a morph you already have. Don’t add new morphs to the collection until you have a sufficiently large production capacity with one of your other morphs.
This philosophy holds true when you start producing multiple-gene animals. How are you ever going to bring yourself to sell that silver streak when you only produced one of them? If you want to produce silver streaks, go all in. Produce them by the dozens. Two black pewter males and a slew of pastel females is a very affordable project (relatively speaking, of course). Don’t even get me started on white snakes. I’m sick of hearing people refer to them as being “just another white snake”. You know the one thing that is always 100% true of white snakes? They sell like you wouldn’t believe.
If you continue to insist on building a diverse collection of animals without focusing on building a larger production capacity for specific morphs then you are acknowledging that making money is secondary to your love of ball python diversity. And that’s a tough thing to realize about yourself; what is more important?
In summary, if making money in this business is important to you: Have a plan. Produce any particluar morph in sufficient quantity that you can sell them and keep some without being conflicted. Focus less on diversity, more on quantity.
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.
I love going to reptile trade shows. As a breeder it gives me a chance to buy, sell and trade with other breeders and enthusiasts. The shows are a lot more personal than doing Internet sales and it’s cool to meet new people, forge new friendships and make a few bucks at the same time.
For me the whole experience of the show is a blast. I like the hectic scramble of packing for the show, the long drive to wherever the show happens to be, the inevitable lack of sleep and the breakneck pace of the actual show. The time rockets past and the show is over before I even know it. I almost always thoroughly enjoy the experience. But the Long Island Reptile Show that took place last weekend (March 7, 2009) was an unusual exception to the joy I normally get from going to shows.
The show was not good. Compared to the last Long Island show we attended very few people showed up. There were window shoppers and families roaming about but the people looking to add some nice animals to their collection must have stayed home. They were few and far between.
The disappointment of a poor turnout was all the more evident because the previous Long Island snake show was a huge success. That show was packed! People were elbow to elbow and it was 2-3 people deep waiting to get to the table. It was like, well, Hamburg. Or White Plains. You know, good shows. I thought Long Island was on pace to become a good show like those. It may not be in the cards.
The story relayed to me was that the show promoter did put ads in the newspaper but accidentally listed the wrong address. I am not 100% sure this is true; it’s just what I was told. If it is true it may or may not have had an impact on attendance.
I don’t blame the economy (which is a scapegoat for every problem these days) because the last Hamburg and the last White Plains (both in the past month) were excellent shows. Reptile lovers are relatively impervious to our global financial crisis.
On the very long drive home from the Long Island show there was a lot of discussion about whether or not the show will get another chance with us. As of today it’s not looking good. My total drive time (round trip) was over 20 hours (including dealing with rush hour traffic). That’s a long time to spend in a car only to be disappointed by a poor show turnout.
But I’m optimistic! The Richmond reptile expo is at the end of the month and there is another Hamburg snake show toward the end of March. Hamburg always redeems!
See you at the next show!