045: Aquarium Adventure: The Key to Succeeding in Business for 24 Years!
Apr 29, 2021
Bill and Sandy Wymard own and operate Aquarium Adventure in Hilliard, Ohio. Guests can see fish from all over the world in their public aquarium, take home fish for their own aquariums, and purchase retail merchandise as well.
Aquarium Adventure has carved out a truly unique niche for themselves as a specialty retailer with loyal, long-term customers and employees. When the COVID crisis hit, they needed to stay open, going the extra mile to keep their customers safe as they bought supplies to keep their fish healthy and fed.
Today, Bill and Sandy join the podcast to share the story of their 30 years together as a couple and 24 years in business together, what they learned from operating an essential business in the midst of a global pandemic, and how they emerged on the other side with what might be their best year of sales ever.
Here are just a handful of the things that we'll discuss:
- How Bill and Sandy got inspired to start a niche business with an eye-catching retail location that differentiates themselves from their competition.
- The value of running a business that requires education for customer success–and why it’s so important to train employees well.
- Why Aquarium Adventure pivoted to digital marketing when COVID hit–and how a year of “staycations” proved to be good for business.
- Why it can be so hard to get someone who’s truly great at customer service to answer the phone.
- “You’ve just got to be passionate about what you do, and I think the rest kind of falls into place.” – Sandy Wymard
LeAnne Siddell: It’s The Retirement Trainer with Ed Siddell, a podcast about helping you become financially fit for your future, no matter what financial shape you’re in now. 2020 has been a challenging year for a lot of people, in particular, small businesses. EGSI Financial believes in giving back to the community that has supported us for nearly 20 years. That campaign is called Giving Back to Small Business. And as part of it, we’ll be highlighting two small businesses every month on our podcast, Ed Siddell, The Retirement Trainer, which is on iHeartRadio, Spotify, Apple Play, everywhere you listen to podcasts to learn about these small businesses and what kept them going and succeeding during COVID-19. Our goal is to promote and learn the lessons of these small businesses to help other small business owners draw upon their experiences and lessons and learn to enhance their own current situation.
Today, we have Bill and Sandy Wymard joining us on our podcast. Bill is the founder and president of Aquarium Adventure right here in Hilliard, Ohio. And together, Bill and Sandy have built a fantastic niche business. This is LeAnne Siddell, and here to help us with all our questions and give us some guidance to help us stay in the best financial shape possible, the retirement trainer, Ed Siddell.
LeAnne Siddell: Hi, Ed. Hi, Bill. Hi, Sandy.
Ed Siddell: Hey, LeAnne, Bill, and Sandy. Hey, thank you guys so much for joining us today. I really appreciate it.
Sandy Wymard: Thank you for asking us.
Bill Wymard: It’s a pleasure.
Ed Siddell: Well, I wonder, have you guys on because you guys are really a great example of putting as many irons into the fire at one time, moving your business, and then at the end of that move, you had COVID-19 and you had all these things up in the air. And so, we just want to learn more about you guys, your business, and how you do what you do because it really is a niche business. And to be as successful as you are right now and have always been is just something I think we can all learn from. So, first of all, how did you guys get into the business?
Sandy Wymard: Hi, everyone, this is Sandy. Myself, I, in my heart, have always been an artist, an entrepreneur spirit. I love marketing, I love merchandising, and I love retail. I’ve got a really strong back growing up in retail, and I love putting those pieces together from a customer perspective, to me. And then, we’ll let Bill tell you about how he got into this. And so, the puzzle pieces will fit nicely.
Bill Wymard: I’ve always wanted to have a public aquarium where people could basically travel the world seeing fish from all these different continents and around the world, different oceans. And I wanted to be able to do that, so customers could see them, and then when they were done, they could actually take some fish elements, have their own aquarium at home. So, I’m kind of that science is black and white kind of thing, and then Sandy’s got all the color. And the retail merchandising aspects of it, they just kind of went together really well, actually.
Ed Siddell: Well, they really did.
Sandy Wymard: It’s been really exciting. We’re a married couple, obviously, and we’ve been married for 30 years. So, we survived it. Being a couple in retail is a challenge in and of itself, like you have to be passionate.
Ed Siddell: Absolutely.
Sandy Wymard: You just got to be passionate about what you do. And I think the rest kind of falls into place. And we have learned so much in this business more than just about fish.
Ed Siddell: Yeah. I mean, you guys– well, first of all, Sandy, I can’t even tell you, it’s so appealing when you walk in. Your old store, the new store, they’re on Cemetery Road in Hilliard. I mean, it’s open, it’s eye-catching. And you guys have done a really great job of just not– it’s an experience.
LeAnne Siddell: Yeah, that’s what I was just going to say.
Ed Siddell: I mean, it’s really an experience, even to the point, years and years ago, I don’t know if you guys remember, but I brought the Cub Scout pack in there, and you let the boys put their hands in the water. And I mean, it really was an experience. And I think that’s really what set you guys apart from a lot of the other stores like yourself.
LeAnne Siddell: Where people just go in and buy fish or aquariums or whatever.
Ed Siddell: It’s completely different.
Bill Wymard: We learned years ago that retail, especially brick and mortar, and that’s, of course, a difficult situation. So many stores have gone under because of online shopping, but these brick-and-mortar stores survive because they are experienced stores, retail experienced. You have to have a reason for customers to come in and enjoy some of those like entertainment. And that’s kind of what Sandy and I try to do with Aquarium Adventure over the years is to make sure it has that entertainment aspect and experience to come to the store.
Ed Siddell: Well, alright. So, Sandy, we know your background in retail and in kind of more of being an artist and the creative side, which shows as soon as you walk in, but Bill, what’s your background?
Bill Wymard: Well, I went to school in an FIT in Melbourne and got a degree in marine biology. So, ever since I was a teenager, I’ve always wanted to be Jacques Cousteau. I guess not many young people know who Jacques Cousteau is. I kind of date myself I’m afraid.
Ed Siddell: Well, apparently, all of us, because we all got it.
Sandy Wymard: Yeah, swim with the dolphins kind of thing.
Ed Siddell: Yeah, yeah. I know, it really is. And you guys, when you go back and you look at the employees and the tenure of a lot of the employees, they’ve been there for such a long time. I mean, obviously, that speaks of you two, because you’ve developed a culture where people just don’t want to leave, and they enjoy what they’re doing. So, what do you attribute that to?
Sandy Wymard: I think a lot of them just like what they do. Being a specialty retail store, a niche retail, as you had said earlier, they enjoy aquatics, they enjoy teaching, and an awful lot of our business is about teaching. You can send an aquarium home, but unless you know how to set it up and monitor it and the right kinds of fish put together, you’re not going to be successful. So, that’s what we want. We want people to be successful with their aquariums. We just don’t want to send them home with a bag of water with a goldfish in it in a goldfish bowl.
LeAnne Siddell: Well, I can tell you…
Ed Siddell: We’ve tried that at…
LeAnne Siddell: I was just going to say I can name off at least half a dozen people who have attempted to have aquariums, and without the education, you are destined to fail.
Ed Siddell: Yeah. And actually, often, we have a lot of friends of ours that go to you guys and you take care of them. And you can definitely tell the difference between going to a pet store and getting goldfish in a bowl and going to a place like Aquarium Adventure, I mean, it really is. And I’m not just talking about the experience the people that you have there and how they welcome and how they serve everyone.
Bill Wymard: I think Sandy is right, and I mean, you actually, but we do have people there because they like what they’re doing. And we’ve never really had a huge challenge in finding people to work at the store because it’s such a fun thing to do and when we do get them working in the store because they enjoy aquariums, so it’s easy to find special people, but you have to be able to keep them. And they become a family to us, all of those staff members are family for Sandy and I, and we take good care of them, we listen, we try to make things as nice as possible while we’re working at the store. So, they enjoy being there. And I think it’s a big part of why we have people who’ve been there 23 years, 20 years, 18 years.
LeAnne Siddell: Wow.
Ed Siddell: Yeah, it is. That speaks volumes to you guys. Well, so…
Sandy Wymard: I think Bill is a teacher, too. I do want to add that, Ed, Bill likes to train. And so, their training is important to Bill and to myself and to other staff members. We spent an awful lot of time training people. New people that come in and we train, we don’t take that for granted. We never say, we’re not going to hire them because they don’t have experience, because if they love it and the attitude is right and they know fish, we can teach them, just like we teach our customers. And so, I think training is also a big part of it. You can feel comfortable with what you’re doing, and that makes a big difference.
Ed Siddell: It does.
LeAnne Siddell: You basically make mini-me’s out of both of you guys by being good trainers.
Sandy Wymard: Oh, I don’t know about that!
Ed Siddell: So, obviously, training is a part of your process, but I mean, you don’t get to the size that you are and get to where you are today without having different processes and procedures in place. And Bill, I know, from experience, I mean, you like to have things in place, and so other people– well, no, that’s an entrepreneur. I mean, that’s the only way you could be successful is to have those processes in place. So, training is part of it, but what are some of the other processes that you’ve implemented over the years, you guys, that have really gotten you to where you’re at today? And obviously, they continue to evolve and change, but what are some of those?
Bill Wymard: Well, I think one of the things that Sandy and I both learned early on about business was to become a fanatic and probably lends to what you’re talking about there, Ed, being a fanatic.
Ed Siddell: I mean that as a compliment, right?
Bill Wymard: It’s a good thing. I’m a fanatic about our customers getting taken care of. I’m a fanatic about the husbandry of our animals. I’m a fanatic about the presentation of the store and how it works so the customers do have great experience. And so, over the years, Sandy and I developed, as she said early on, lots of training methods and operations, and we’ve got four or five manuals that we have written and put together to make it easy to bring people and teach them and train them, and not just about aquatics and fish knowledge, but just business and operations and how to manage day to day, things that go on in a retail environment. So, that’s where they help us, and we’re able to use those manuals with our managers and our staff so they can implement all of the processes that we’ve developed over the years.
Sandy Wymard: I think another thing, too, Ed, and it’s important, at least stay involved in our industry. Bill stays in touch with aquarists and product developers and public aquariums, and he stays that his network is quite wide. And I’ll let him talk about that a little bit.
Bill Wymard: We’ve traveled to some important trade shows, and we actually go and visit manufacturers around the country that produce a lot of the products that we carry to give them input on how they work and how they are perceived by our customers, and then things that probably need to be changed or fixed or made better. And then, of course, visiting our suppliers where we get all of our fish and plants and invertebrates, that’s most important, that’s number one actually for us at the store, because it’s important that we get the absolute best animals so that we can send home the absolute best for our customers. And to do that, you have to have a relationship with those vendors.
Ed Siddell: Absolutely.
Bill Wymard: You get to meet them face to face, you have to talk to them consistently. They have to become family, just like the staff, so that we get what we’re looking for.
LeAnne Siddell: Well, one thing I want to interject there is just talking about relationship building, because I think, whatever it is, whether you’re dealing with a vendor, a client, or somebody that is supporting you from an abstract perspective, that relationship, you guys all working together as a team, that seems to be something that I’ve seen solid through and through, both between you, meaning Bill and Sandy, watching that dynamic work, but…
Ed Siddell: And even your boys.
LeAnne Siddell: And that’s where I was going next.
Ed Siddell: Yeah, it is. Everyone has kind of brought in to what you guys are selling, okay. And it is the experience and that kind of– Sandy, this is really towards you because you’re kind of more on the creative side. How has the marketing for you guys really changed from when you opened the doors to before COVID and since then?
Sandy Wymard: Well, marketing has always been a puzzle, actually, as retail has changed. Since right before COVID, everyone had to go into the shutdown mode.
Ed Siddell: Right.
Sandy Wymard: And it was scary for us because the whole thing is scary, right? I won’t go into that, and particularly, because we do live, we have living animals and fish in our store. And we wanted our customers to be able to take care of them, we didn’t want to just leave people out there without equipment or food or what they needed to maintain their aquarium. So, we did everything that we could to keep things open for our customers, whether if we meet them at the curb, we market it that way, we send out email blast, we have the phone available for questions, we have kind of really put someone on call for emergency situations. So, we marketed that way. We were practicing safe distancing, all of the things that we needed to do that the state and the CDC required of us, we did, and we did that extra.
Ed Siddell: Yeah, you worked that extra mile.
Sandy Wymard: Yeah. Because Bill and I talked about this, even before all of that happened, we were thinking of it, our entrepreneurial mind, which is just a gift in and of itself I think, most of the time, I guess.
Ed Siddell: I think that means we’re all a little crazy, right?
Sandy Wymard: Yes, we are. You got it. You’d have to take the risk if you think from there, right?
Ed Siddell: Yeah, absolutely.
Sandy Wymard: So, we kind of thought the process, long even before things are now. I was making masks for everybody, my customers, and I certainly couldn’t find any, and I couldn’t find elastics, all of those things that go with it. And we just stayed available for our customer. Now, the unique thing about our business and being in a niche business, we found that it seems to kind of loosen up a little bit. People weren’t going anywhere and they weren’t traveling and they weren’t taking their vacations and they were sitting close to home. So, our aquarium was a great thing to have at home. You have to get an electronic and all those other things, but it gets kind of boring after a while. And so…
Ed Siddell: Yes, it does.
LeAnne Siddell: Yes, it does.
Sandy Wymard: We were one of those businesses that..
LeAnne Siddell: Yeah, added to the home environment by, I mean, people who…
Ed Siddell: Yeah, the vacation at homes, staycation. I mean, really, it gives them that peace of mind without a doubt.
Bill Wymard: Prior to the COVID challenge, there was a lot of print type marketing, but once we got into COVID, we really pushed a lot of it into digital advertising. So, an email blast, website, and a strong Google marketing, knowing that people would find us. We still do some print, but I think it was the digital that was going at a difference. As Sandy said, people now want to stay at home, couldn’t get out, acquiring something to do. And so, they found this because of the digital marketing that we were doing.
Ed Siddell: Well, you know and see, and that’s what’s so important, I mean, Sandy, like you talked about it, having that entrepreneurial mind, adapting and overcoming and figuring, it’s a puzzle, right? How can we get it done? How can we get it done because it changes, it evolves? And so, you guys, I mean, from the end of April, beginning of May last year, I remember talking to you guys around the holidays, you guys are crazy, you have that annual sale right around the spring break, and you have those times of the year where it’s just so crazy busy that you basically live there. I mean, how do you keep that work-life balance? I mean, especially in retail, because it’s tough.
Bill Wymard: It hurts kind of you talk about that.
Sandy Wymard: I think what has happened at work-life balance through the years, we always have the sales on, we have approached a little bit differently with social distancing, etc., but I think the work-life balance to us is that we have certain parts of the business that we’re better at than the other. And we have things that I like to do and things that I still like to do, and they are that. Honestly, if you cut it down the road, it would be the color for me in the black and white, accounting and math for Bill. I don’t like that stuff. And my ADD tells me I don’t do that, I don’t focus well on those things.
Ed Siddell: Right brain and left brain. That’s a perfect combination.
LeAnne Siddell: It is awesome how you guys compliment each other that way.
Ed Siddell: It’s a team, oh, yeah.
Sandy Wymard: So, you have to find and you have to take time off. You can’t just be there all the time because this isn’t going to happen, regardless. Even some of the brick-and-mortar business owners that I know, even through this COVID that their business has been down, they still need to allow themselves that schedule and that schedule time, because if you don’t, you can kind of make yourself crazy and run things crazy and not focus on what you really need to focus on.
Bill Wymard: Ed?
Ed Siddell: Yeah.
Bill Wymard: I think the best things that probably happened for Sandy and I that balanced was having kids.
Sandy Wymard: Yeah, honestly.
Bill Wymard: And I say that…
Ed Siddell: That’s a great equalizer in it.
Bill Wymard: And you know, we have two boys, but it forced me, allowed me to take some time away from work to be with them and spend time with them, whether it’s outside or sports or school stuff. It was something that really helped me balance things, and I know helped Sandy balance.
Sandy Wymard: Yes, as I wouldn’t have to be with them 24/7. Just kidding.
LeAnne Siddell: Well, we are a little familiar with that. I do think.
Ed Siddell: Yeah, I think we are. I think we are, that is for sure. And having that family, that’s when you realize what’s really important. I mean, you have a passion for what you do, but family for you guys is obviously extremely important, and that comes through because that’s going back to what you guys said earlier. I mean, that’s how you treat everyone there at Aquarium Adventure. I mean, it really is, because every time I come in there, they really enjoy being there.
LeAnne Siddell: Yeah, but they do things on their time to benefit others. We’ve been at the end of that where we’ve seen them stretch outside and help us out.
Ed Siddell: Yeah, absolutely.
LeAnne Siddell: So, yeah, that’s unique.
Ed Siddell: Well, first of all, how long have you guys been in business?
Bill Wymard: 23 years.
Sandy Wymard: 24.
Bill Wymard: Yeah, going on 24.
Ed Siddell: Wow. Okay, so in 24 years, I know it’s not a hockey stick straight up as far as everything going great. So, you have some ups and downs going through it. So, what are some of the things that struggles that you can maybe talk about and share with us? And how do you turn that into a success down the road? Or how do you learn from those kind of experiences?
Sandy Wymard: Well, when you move hundreds of tons of gravel and glass and aquatic products to another location, that was really challenging.
Ed Siddell: That was a big roll of the dice, too.
Sandy Wymard: Yeah. And for those who don’t know, how many years now in the new location?
Bill Wymard: We moved 2017.
Sandy Wymard: 2017, we moved our entire 11,000 square-foot store to another location, and it was great. We kept trying to find the positives in everything. First of all, finding the location, the challenges of finding the right location and retail. The truth is location, location, location.
Ed Siddell: Right.
LeAnne Siddell: Yep.
Sandy Wymard: And we were coming up at the end of the week and we didn’t want to extend that particularly. And so, we looked at lots of places, and there were times when we felt the pressure of maybe we should just take this location, we’re running out of time, but we were stuck. We were working with that. In our gut, it was like, no, this just isn’t right. This just isn’t right. So, persistence, I think, has been the key to us living the ups and down. When someone has a bad day, another usually picks them up. And so, you try to manage the stress in that way. And there have been lots of ups and downs even more than losing a store. Retail in general, this internet thing has been a real– talk about puzzle.
Ed Siddell: Oh, yeah. Yeah, it really is.
Sandy Wymard: Buying merchandise, and coming out of COVID now, Bill can tell you, let’s say, a little bit about finding inventory, getting inventory products out of COVID.
Bill Wymard: Yeah, I have to go back, first of all, to say that when we opened the store in June of 1997, I wanted you to know that at the time, we were sitting there, living in Pittsburgh. And Sandy was pregnant with our first son, Jonathan.
LeAnne Siddell: Wow.
Bill Wymard: And we had just sold the house. And I’m here in Columbus building and opening the store. So, you have to understand one of the hardest things we ever did was have a baby, sell a house, move the house, open the store, all within about two months.
Ed Siddell: You guys like having a lot, you guys like juggling a lot of balls at one time, don’t you?
LeAnne Siddell: Talk about some serious…
Bill Wymard: That was the hardest thing ever. And so, we had to move the store in 2007, which I swear we’d never do again, so.
Sandy Wymard: But then again, that’s very positive because that allowed us– having a 20-year-old store at that time allowed us to upgrade everything.
Ed Siddell: Yeah.
Sandy Wymard: And allowed us to have more state-of-the-art equipment actually working in the store, because things change a lot.
Ed Siddell: Technology, the lighting, all that stuff. Oh yeah, absolutely.
Sandy Wymard: Yeah. So, you have to keep up on…
Ed Siddell: Well, and here’s the other thing, too, that’s cool. You were pregnant with Jonathan, and now he’s there at the store with you guys, I mean, that after college. And I mean, that’s what’s pretty cool.
Sandy Wymard: Yeah, he came in, and helped his colleagues. And we never have put to our kids that this is something you have to deal with at all. They worked at the store once in a while as kids, dressing up as clowns or clown costumes, special events or whatever, but we didn’t really think that they would come back to work with us.
LeAnne Siddell: I think it’s exactly them watching– I mean, it’s amazing with our kids, but watching, they know when something…
Ed Siddell: They see more than you think, yeah.
LeAnne Siddell: Yeah.
Ed Siddell: They get it.
LeAnne Siddell: They do get it.
Ed Siddell: They see the bigger picture, that’s for sure. Alright. So, last year, I mean, what are your takeaways from last year? I mean, if there was, what did you do and what do you think that you would change?
Bill Wymard: COVID was really tough. In March, April last year, Ohio pretty much shut down all businesses and told everybody to stay at home. And Sandy said earlier, we were considered essential because we had animals in the store we had to take care of. So, people had to be there to do that. And then, of course, we have supplies and equipment that people need to maintain their animals at home. So, being essential, we opened minimal hours and it was tough at that time because there were no mask mandates other than employees needing to wear masks and it put everybody kind of at risk. So, it was…
Sandy Wymard: Very emotional, Ed.
Bill Wymard: Yeah, it was…
Ed Siddell: Oh, yeah. A lot of ups and downs.
Bill Wymard: We’d gotten through it and we had worked through it. And I think, a blessing on the other end is everybody wants an aquarium because they’re stuck at home. So, it’s been very busy, very, very busy, probably the highest year we’ve ever had in business will be this year.
Ed Siddell: Wow.
Bill Wymard: Because of people who are looking for something else to do at home rather than be on the computer all the time, watching Netflix.
LeAnne Siddell: A lot of parent teaching going on. So, what better tool than an aquarium?
Ed Siddell: Something that moves, that’s living, breathing.
Bill Wymard: Yeah.
Sandy Wymard: And another big part of it, too, is we do ponds and water gardens, maintain them and source, clean them up, and all the products available.
Ed Siddell: And you do that both at residential and commercial, right?
Sandy Wymard: Both residential and commercial, yes. And so, this is a very busy time of the year for us.
Ed Siddell: Oh, I bet it is, especially with it getting so warm, so quick.
Sandy Wymard: Yeah. And that’s another thing that happened last spring is that, even as people are staying home more, outdoor water gardening was big. And we’ve got a really strong base of customers that have come to us through the years that have always come to us for a ponds, water ponds and water gardens. So, that’s a really exciting kind of year for us right now.
LeAnne Siddell: Well, I think you touched on something right there. And you have a lot of repeat customers, people who are continuing to come back to you. You take care of the people on the front side and they become regular parts of your life. And that’s something I want to make sure that we focus on is it’s not just about the relationships that you guys have with your employees, the relationship you have with your client, your vendors, and your customers that come in the door, but I want to make sure that people can get a hold of you, Bill and Sandy. So, why don’t you tell us how people, if they don’t know, let’s direct them, how do they get a hold of you? How do they find you?
Sandy Wymard: Well, the good old World Wide Web is a great place to start.
Bill Wymard: Our website’s probably the best thing, and that’s AquariumAdventureColumbus.com. It’s the best thing. There’s a lot of information there. It tells you everything about our business, what we do, how to reach us.
Sandy Wymard: We have a blog on there.
Bill Wymard: Yeah.
Ed Siddell: Oh, awesome.
LeAnne Siddell: That’s great.
Sandy Wymard: Other than that, it’s difficult sometimes, but we’re really old school, we tell you guys. I think that’s part of the success that we have. It’s sometimes difficult to get a hold of us on the phone because we focus on the customer that’s in the store that needs the help then. So, sometimes, the phone rings for a long time, and it frustrates people when they’re trying to get on the phone and ask the question, but I think what frustrates people more in your environment is if you turn your back on them, so to get to a customer and you start helping another customer over the phone when they’re right in front of you. And our customer service takes a bit of time, because we are one on one, and we do and explain things thoroughly. So, people in this generation, where that microwave generation that we want it now, the best thing to do is contact the website or come in personally, we’re on Fishinger Road in Hilliard.
LeAnne Siddell: Great. That’s what I want to make sure of, is that we direct people to that location there as well as to check out your website. So, if you have a small business in the Columbus area and you are like Aquarium Adventure, where you have navigated these very big twists and turns and hills, we want to hear from you. So, as Ed always says, when difficult times hit, it’s important to have a plan and we build plans for our clients to help them avoid the anxiety of what happens next. When bad things happen, which they sometimes do, this is what we do, we have a plan in place. Small businesses need a plan and need to prepare for the unknowns. The largest asset most business owners have is their small business.
So, we want to make sure that we are out there supporting, learning about these small businesses. So, give us a call if you know of a small business, or if you are a small business owner, you can reach us at firstname.lastname@example.org. You can give us a call here at the office, which is (614) 526-4118, or you can check us out on the internet also at www.EGSIFinancial.com. Thank you, Bill and Sandy. Thanks, Ed.
Ed Siddell: Thanks, Bill and Sandy. I really appreciate it.
Bill Wymard: Thanks, guys. It’s our pleasure.
Sandy Wymard: We appreciate you.
LeAnne Siddell: We appreciate you.