Tim Tunstill was a precocious 6-year-old when his Aunt Sophie gave him an aquarium. He quickly filled it with fish, and his infatuation with aquariums was born.
Today, Tunstill operates Tanks-A-Lot, a mobile service offering both tank setup and maintenance of aquariums. Tunstill travels to clients’ homes and businesses, taking care of their aquarium needs, whether it’s providing a new tropical fish or checking on their tank’s environment.
Also a longtime hairdresser, Tunstill started his business on the side in 1990.
“It wasn’t called anything back then,” Tunstill said.
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“I was helping my hair customers set up tanks and I wouldn’t charge them,” Tunstill said. “It was born out of wanting to help them.”
Tunstill operated informally for several years. On Wednesdays, Tunstill’s day off from the hair business, he used to go fishing. With the aquarium business growing, that changed.
“My hobby had gone crazy so … I had to establish myself as a business and go wholesale to keep costs down,” he said.
During his first year in business, Tunstill used a ticket book to invoice customers and track sales and services. When he incorporated the business, Tunstill turned his books over to his accountant.
Q: Why did you choose not to have a storefront retail space?
Tunstill did not want the expense of retail space, choosing to “rent” his own basement to hold all his supplies and tools.
“If you have a storefront you’re married to it,” Tunstill said. “A lot of money goes out the door.…
“The meat of my income is not sales. I really don’t compete with other pet and aquarium stores.”
The 991 square feet in Tunstill’s basement meets his needs. In the space he treats about 1,000 gallons of water as well as propagating coral he sells and stores pumps and other parts essential for Tanks-A-Lot.
“I also have live rock that comes out of the ocean that you need to stock your tank,” he said. “I sell it for $8.50 a pound.”
Q: How did you increase your business?
Word of mouth has been effective.
“I grew my business through a lot of pet shops in town referring me to do their customers’ maintenance,” he said. “I’ve had a huge response from Yellowpages.com.”
Most of Tunstill’s business has come from referrals, and he has a high percent of repeat residential customers. Tanks-A-Lot’s website has also been a big draw for business. Tunstill outsourced its creation to eGumBall, after he received a telephone solicitation for the service.
“I got a five-page site with a movie for $149 a month,” he said. “They maintain it for me and I can change it through a backdoor key.”
Tanks-A-Lot does have a few commercial clients. Tunstill said half of his clients are doctors’ offices.
Tunstill said he averages one new customer every three weeks — and that is about what he can handle as a one-man business.
“It’s getting to the point where I’ll need to increase my prices to balance things and limit my customers or hire someone, and that will never happen,” Tunstill said. “No one ever takes care of your business like you do.”
Tunstill is facing some medical issues; he’s scheduling to have heart valve replacement surgery in November.
Q: How will you handle taking care of your customers in your absence from Tanks-A-Lot?
“I have a good friend with Aquarium Solutions who will take care of them while I’m down for about a month to six weeks,” Tunstill said. “It should only be for one (maintenance) cycle.”
During his health-imposed downtime, Tunstill will have the opportunity to sit and watch the aquatic life he’s enjoyed since childhood.
“They’re just tranquil,” said Tunstill, who has seven tanks himself. “They’re so relaxing. I can sit and watch my saltwater tanks like TV.”
IN A NUTSHELL