Five Secrets for Success

We recently got an e-mail from someone putting together a business plan for a commercial Aquaponics business. They asked the five most important success factors for a commercial Aquaponics Enterprise. Here's our answer - let us know if there is anything different you would advise.

#1) Have a rock solid business plan. 80% of making an Aquaponics business successful is common with running any successful business. Recirculating aquaculture and hydroponics are both well-established. You can use the established industry yields from those two fields to estimate production numbers for your planning worksheets.

#2) Start small and grow as your market develops. Too many people get seduced by the allure of economic order quantity discounts, seeing on paper that building big initially should save money per produced unit. But if you don't have your market developed, then building big initially saddles you immediately with debt before you have an income stream to make your payments.

#3) Design for disaster up front. You will have an outbreak of disease in your fish, eventually. You will lose a crop because someone did something stupid. In the mean time, you can mitigate the damage by having a Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Point (HACCP) plan.

#4) Don't buy a facility just because it already exists and is cheap. The best scenario is that someone else built well but too big for their market. The worst case is that someone else built something crappy that caused them to go out of business, and you would be saddled with all their mistakes without having learned any of their lessons. Either way, there is a reason that facility failed. Do your homework and find out. In the mean time, make sure your bean counters don't push you into something "affordable" unless you know why the prior owners failed and are confident that you won't suffer the same fate.

#5) Install a proven system. Specifically, don't invest in a system that includes unproven innovations. We are always seeing people who want to innovate or eliminate to "save cost." Here are some of the worst examples:

  • "I don't need to buy expensive blowers or keep oxygen on hand." Fish need oxygen as much as you do. Putting fish in a tank without oxygen is almost like putting a plastic bag over a dog's head. A single fish in a tank might be able to live with the minimal air exchange at the surface of the tank, but if you're running a commercial business, you have to provide for your animals. Oxygen is a basic necessity, both for fish and plants.
  • "I'm not going to buy food for the fish - they can eat duckweed." First, only some fish eat plants. Second, most DIY food options are insufficient to meet the nutritional needs of the fish or the plants that indirectly gain nutrients from fish wastes. Most commercial businesses identify the fish feed as their biggest operational cost. But that feed is what powers your entire enterprise.
  • "I don't need to filter out solids - my media beds and worms will adequately mineralize the solids and nutrients." This is something scientists haven't validated. Serious businesses build on the known science, which indicates solids need to be removed from the water as it drains from the fish tank(s) for both plant health and fish health. Leaving solids in your system increases the risk that pathogens will thrive, as has been seen in select cases.
  • "I can save money by building large, rectangular tanks, and I'll just pull out the mature fish when they're ready for harvest." There are so many things wrong with this.
        First, fish are happiest in round tanks with bottom drains that allow the wastes to naturally flow out. Rectangular tanks increase the risk that a fish will brain itself on a wall, not to mention the feces and waste food that will collect in the corners.
        Second, oversized tanks contain so many fish that if something goes wrong, it will take out a huge number of your fish. Disease is real. Mechanical failures are real.
        Finally, grading fish causes stress for all the fish. Some hardy fish, like tilapia, can withstand some stress. But most fish will become diseased when subjected to this kind of stress. This last "innovation" of putting in large tanks (possibly rectangular) is a leading reason commercial aquaculture or aquaponic ventures fail. We know it looks good on paper. But it repeatedly causes people to lose everything.

Next week: Basic Aquaponic Systems