What would Google Do

Evolving the saltwater aquarium industry: what would Google Do?

It’s no secret that Google, and the internet more broadly, have transformed (and even dismantled) entire industries. As I look at some of the pain points we face in the aquarium hobby, I can’t help but look to Google as a model for evolving the saltwater aquarium industry. 

What would Google Do

How the hobby should change–according to Google

My inspiration for this post was a book I read:

What Would Google Do?: Reverse-Engineering the Fastest Growing Company in the History of the World (that is an affiliate link to the book available on Amazon) written by Jeff Jarvis. In the book, the author illustrates case-by-case how Google has applied the 10 things they know to be true and succeeded, while legacy industries clung to their antiquated business models–and eventually–lost.

The book made me think about how things would be different in the Saltwater Aquarium Hobby if Google was in charge–how would they leverage the scale of the internet to connect us in new ways, take inefficiencies out of the system and democratize access to information and resources. I was surprised to see that after just a few moments of reflection, a few answers jumped off the page at me.

On Google’s website, you can find a page titled 10 Things We Know to Be True. These principles capture Google’s approach to business in the digital world–a code of conduct of how business should be conducted in the digital world.

Evolving the Saltwater Aquarium Industry

Four of Google’s Ten Principles ring true to me here as principles that would help the saltwater aquarium hobby evolve in dramatic ways. Those principles are:

  • The need for information crosses all borders
  • Fast is better than slow
  • Focus on the user and all else will follow
  • Democracy on the web works

By focusing on those four principles that Google laid out, it seemed clear to me what changes we need to make in order to evolve the saltwater aquarium hobby.

The need for information: Improved transparency in the supply chain

Transparency is key in the digital age–but where is the transparency in the saltwater aquarium industry? I can’t tell you a thing about where the last wild-harvested saltwater fish or coral I bought came from, how long it spent in transit, or how many times it changed hands along the way.

better transparency in the supply chain is needed

Wouldn’t you want to know if your collector had a habit of selling the Moorish idol?

As best I can tell (from what I learned from a Google search), many purchases take the following route to your home aquarium:
1) A collector in a far-off land collected it from a reef and sold it within a few days after collection to:
2) A broker, where it likely spent a few more days in unknown conditions before it was sold to
3) An exporter, where it sat again until sold to
4) An importer, where it sat until sold to
5) A retailer (local fish store or online store) all before it made its way into your home aquarium.

collector — broker– exporter — importer — retailer– your home

But, that’s just an educated guess. In reality, when we purchase fish or corals, we know almost nothing about who collected it, how they did it, who they sold it to, and what conditions it was subjected to on the long and arduous journey to my home aquarium.
We talk a lot about the need for sustainable harvesting, safe collection methods and humane treatment–but what do we really know about how our aquarium livestock is handled? I can tell you for sure that if there was transparency here–people would vote with their wallets and the system would get better.

Aren’t we entitled to know if the fish and corals sat in awful conditions for a week before shipping to you? Wouldn’t you want to know if they came from a system known to be infected with ich, marine velvet or something else? Wouldn’t you want what the experience of other hobbyists has been with that importer, exporter, broker or collector? Wouldn’t we all make better choices if we did? Wouldn’t those same operations act differently if the knew we were watching? If they knew we were rating them? If they knew their reputation depended on it? Would they sell a fish species with near-zero survival rate if they knew it would likely end up posted on the internet that their fish die?

banggai cardinalfish have low survival rates

Wild-caught banggai cardinalfish have low survival rate–wouldn’t you want to know what the survival rate is for the supply chain your fish come from?

What if there was a website that posted a real-time video of the reef where a collector was harvesting fish or corals? You could see for yourself how the animals were handled and whether or not they were harvesting appropriate quantities and specimens. What if you could see the success rate other hobbyists have had purchasing fish from that collector? What if you could see that a certain collector harvests more Moorish Idols (or another notoriously fragile species) than any other collector? Would that change your purchasing behavior? I bet it would. And that could change the saltwater aquarium industry.

What would Google do? Google would improve transparency. Google would give the information to the people and let them decide. Google would create a network for buyers to get information about the supply chain and make better decisions and for collectors to engage with buyers and select more suitable options to meet the demand. With better transparency, we all win.

Fast is better than slow: Improvements in speed of the supply chain

Let’s face it–the supply chain in the saltwater aquarium industry is messy and inefficient. It can take WEEKS for a fish or coral species to make it from the reef to someone’s home. Fast is better than slow online–and it’s clearly better for the fish and coral spending countless hours in holding tanks, bags and who knows what else. What’s odd is that there is almost zero ability for us as saltwater aquarium hobbyists to purchase what we want–pretty much our only option is to purchase what they have to sell–because there are so many layers to the supply chain.

Focus on the end user: Eliminate the middlemen

As I mentioned above–if the typical supply chain goes:

collector — broker– exporter — importer — retailer– your home

then that means that the fish or coral you bought was bought and sold 4 times before it got to your house. Four times! What happened along that process is that a fish that was extracted from a reef for about $0.10 became a fish sold to you for $25.99 (hypothetically speaking). That’s some impressive alchemy. It’s not unusual in business for products to change hands or for raw materials to be transformed into finished goods commanding a higher price–but what exactly is the value added in that supply chain? There are shipping costs that get factored in, and there is value, I suppose, in the logistics expertise around import/export, but I’m not sure that reflects 25,890% more value than when it was collected. If you actually think about that harvested fish as a ‘product’, I’d argue that the majority of the time the product quality goes DOWN the more times it changes hands and the longer it takes to get from ocean to you (or a reputable retailer that will care for it properly).

So why are the collectors being paid such a ridiculously low wage while we pay a 25,000% markup? What would Google do? Equip the people to communicate and transact directly, eliminating the costly layers of middlemen adding no real value. In the process, the collectors make a living wage and are able to be more selective in their harvesting as a direct result. Hobbyists pay less money and get fresher, more vigorous fish and corals–and are able to harness the power of the internet to evaluate and keep score on who the good guys are and who the bad guys are. The only people who lose are the middlemen who add cost and complexity without value.

If you’re one of the middlemen in this industry…I don’t mean this to sound like a personal attack. Indeed you’re entitled to make a living too.  But the truth of the matter is that Google has put middleman all over the world on notice:

Add value, middlemen–TRUE VALUE–or you will be out of business soon

-Respectfully Yours,


The truth of the matter is that the reefs are in danger and we need to evolve. When the light shines on the supply chain and margins, value and timing become transparent, we will probably have what we need to evolve. Hopefully you’re able to evolve with the industry and find ways to add value or you’ll likely be out of luck.

Democracy on the web works: Retailers need to be a bigger part of their local communities–not just exist in the community

Retailers—I especially don’t mean to pick on you. You may be in the toughest spot of anyone in the saltwater aquarium industry. Your store isn’t operated in a dark, unknown part of the world. You’re right here, out and in the open with bricks and mortar costs, marketing costs, shipping costs and you have to make enough money on the livestock that survive (and sell) to pay for the losses.

coral-in-aquarium_zyiWP1KOGoogle has also already take a big chunk out of your business. Saltwater aquarium hobbyists can find the cheapest price for routine items in milliseconds–shipped to their door for free. As I look into my crystal ball, it certainly doesn’t get any easier for you. Bricks and mortar cost money…so do water and electricity. But we need you to change too. What value are you adding in the equation here? Google gives you the same megaphone we all have—so why aren’t you using it?

You can’t compete on price anymore—any internet company worth their salt (pun intended) can beat you there…except maybe for salt…because its so damn heavy and expensive to ship–although I think there have been inroads made there over the last couple years.

So aside from having a nice store on mainstreet with fish and coral we can go home with that day (which is something, I don’t mean to discount that totally–I just don’t think it’s going to be enough in the future) what VALUE are you adding to the transaction? Do you quarantine your livestock? Guarantee their survival? Guarantee they will eat prepared foods? Provide ANY information at all about their care?

The advantage you have is location, location, location. You’re in our towns, you’re part of the community, and you’re staffed by real people. You provide a WYSIWYG (what you see is what you get) experience that the internet can’t compete with–so why is it so hard to figure out what you have in stock, where it came from and how well it is doing? With a WordPress theme like I run on this site, even non-tech-savvy owners could update their livestock lists pretty easily. Why not tell us what’s in stock? Why not let us pre-order online to get ‘site-to-store’ style service so I don’t have to wait here for UPS?

Unfortunately, I see that a lot of traditional retail stores don’t seem to exert much effort at all. Sponsors on forum sites (not this site) moan about group buys and hobbyists who nternet shop only for the lowest cost, but I don’t see is local fish stores doing much to combat that. What value do you bring to the equation? Half the time I can’t even get someone to help me in the store, let alone provide value. If you can’t figure that out, Google’s going to put you out of business soon too.

What would Google do? Google creates networks and links the world. We use the internet every day to create communities and share ideas Your stores are made from bricks and mortar and physically exist in the towns we live in. You can use the internet to become a hub connecting your local community of saltwater aquarium hobbyists. We all suffer from ‘gotta have that’ syndrome in this hobby. The single most important thing you could do to sell more STUFF from your store is to help me know more about what my friends and neighbors just bought in your store. You want us to come to the store, but for what? Give us a reason? Give us more value than we can get online and we’ll come. Match the convenience of online, and we’ll come. Give away the WiFi and we’ll pay for the coffee. Give away the search and we’ll buy ads…Give away shelf-space and let us sell our frags and used equipment…give away the water and sell us the salt.

It’s frustrating to see local fish stores pop up and disappear every few years. But the world has changed around you–our expectations have been raised and aquarium stores need to evolve too.


I realize I’ve written this post as a rant and in a tone that could be offensive to those of you who have invested your time and money in the saltwater aquarium industry–and while perhaps I was a bit flippant, I hope you see that change is on the horizon–change that may hurt your business as it is designed now–but change that will provide improved transparency, accountability and a redistribution of wealth that rewards efficiency, transparency and true value. Frankly, I welcome the change–it’s overdue for all the reasons I’ve already ranted about. The key for all of us is deciding how we move forward and evolve.

To those of you who have already embraced the teachings of Google and incorporated them into your businesses–I applaud you, look forward to spending my money with you, and thank you for being a change-agent. Who knows, if you’re wildly successful (like Google) maybe someone will write a post in a few years asking what YOU would do.

In the meantime, let me know what you think by leaving a comment below–have you implemented ‘Googley’ business practices already? Do you agree? Disagree? Have other thoughts on how the saltwater aquarium industry should evolve? Let me know.

Written by Albert B. Ulrich III

I’m going to calm down after my rant. If you liked this and want to get regular updates and helpful tips by email–sign up for the newsletter using the box at the top of the page. Thanks.


  1. As a hobbyist, I couldn’t agree with you more. I live in an area where we really only have one or two retailers within an hours driving time so our options are limited. My main retailer is in Santa Barbara, Ca, and he does a great job of “adding value” so I use the Internet to find products and then go to him to buy or for advice. I’m doing this right now with protein skimmers.
    I would absolutely not buy fish online. My store does the quarantining, does a lot of his own coral propagation, and all his employees are knowledgable about the stuff they sell, not just how to use the cash register.
    I do think, however, that you should have put some of the summary section up front as most retailers will probably have stopped reading when thet got offended before reaching that part.

  2. Author

    Hey, great point about the summary. I really hope I don’t offend–it’s not really intended to be an indictment. There are a some great suppliers–I think it’s about evolution, improving transparency and continuing to add value in new and innovative ways.

    I’ll take a look at moving some of the content in the conclusion up…in rant-like fashion I think it just happened too late. I sincerely do not want to offend those in the business–my intent was to be provocative and encourage evolution and growth in the hobby. While that may relate in some aspects of the hobby declining, it should be (theoretically) offset by a greater long-term good.

  3. I’d like to propose an additional step that hobbyists can take that will rapidly facilitate change in the trade/hobby: stop buying wild caught fish. Buy ONLY captive bred and of those, ONLY species that can thrive (some captive bred species grow far too large for the average tank). For those hobbyists who object to that radical position, but agree with you that Moorish Idols should stay on the reef: boycott fish from Hawaii like yellow tangs. Every year Hawaii collectors capture and sell thousands of Moorish Idols, Hawaiian cleaner wrasses, Achilles tangs and many other species that are far too sensitive for captivity. The state has documented the corresponding shrinking populations of many Hawaii species due to aquarium collecting. Don’t just talk about it – do something. Boycott Yellow Tangs!

  4. Author

    Thanks for the great addition to the post–buying captive-bred fish is extremely important. When a captive-bred species is available–there is no reason to purchase a wild-caught specimen of that same species. Kudos to you for your suggestion there.

    As far as boycotting the yellow tang–I don’t know that I’m ‘there’ with you yet. Over time, as more fish become widely available via aquaculture–and as the science and technology of breeding saltwater fish evolves to a level where the broadcast spawning fish can be safely aquacultured–I do see the hobby gravitating closer to your vision of ‘no wild-caught fish’. But for now, since those alternatives are only available in a limited capacity, I suppose my individual philosophy stands with supporting sustainable, ethical collection when aquaculture is not available–provided the fish acclimate well to aquarium life. That said, you are not alone in your vision–I know others who share it–and do think that if more people embrace your suggestion it would alleviate pressure on the reefs. I respect and appreciate your perspective on that.

    My reply is getting long-winded at this point, but one other aspect of your comment which I appreciate is the focus on what hobbyists can do now–I think a lot of what I wrote in the original post focuses on what ‘the industry’ should do–so kudos to you for encouraging us as consumers to make better choices and help drive the evolution of the hobby. That is clearly a huge element. Any change would have to be supported by hobbyists or doomed to fail. Thanks again for the thought-provoking comment.

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