Original Posted: 12/9/2013
The ball python business, like all businesses, is evolving. I have seen a lot of changes and, through them all, I have endeavored to remain optimistic. That optimism has proved legitimate as the industry continues to be very good to me. Despite my love of the hobby (business) I’m not wearing rose-colored glasses; I regularly contemplate the negative aspects of being a reptile breeder and attempt to make sure I am doing what I can to mitigate them.
On a seemingly different note, the evolution of computer-related technology and, specifically, the Internet is even more fascinating and fun to watch. It’s growth is largely impossible to calculate and the ever-increasing ways in which we leverage the Internet to make our lives different/better/more simple/more complicated/less|more social is worthy fodder for many a master’s thesis. The evolving reptile business, which has been around a lot longer than the Internet, is one of many industries that has both benefitted and suffered from the ever-evolving Internet.
The Internet makes everything happen in fast-forward. The pace of change and the speed with which ideas spread can leave you reeling. Because the reptile business plays out largely on the Internet it also moves with the same breakneck speed. The moment an animal emerges from an egg it can be seen by tens of thousands of people. A smartphone combined with Instagram, Twitter and Facebook is all you need. Salt that with a quick post on the Pictures section of the relevant reptile-related Internet forums and your snake is viewed by most of the reptile world by morning. That is an amazing accomplishment that would be impossible in a world sans Internet. But the Internet is a two-edged sword. It helps us and hurts us simultaneously. The stupidity and silliness that permeates our hobby spreads equally well via TCP/IP.
There are many things that have a detrimental effect on the reptile business. In this article I would like to explore some of them and focus on one in particular. We have plenty of challenges but there is one in particular that is the most nefarious. It is not blatantly evil, mind you. It is its insidiousness that makes it so bad. It has always been there but is increasingly eating away at the economic viability of the business. But I’m getting ahead of myself. Before going there let’s back up a bit, look back, and see how we got where we are today.
Back when I first got into reptiles the only thing we had was a few books and a small handful of availability lists sent out by reptile importers/distributors. The number of breeders was fairly small and the number of species being bred was smaller still. Back in those days ‘keepers’ pretty much kept; keepers didn’t breed. We didn’t have the Internet in any reptile-usable form. And for those of you who have grown up in a world where the Internet has always existed that means we did not have email, web sites, Internet forums, chat rooms, Internet classifieds, SMS/text-messaging, YouTube, Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, Google, JPEG’s, PNG’s, mobile phones of any kind including smartphones, camera phones, camcorders smaller than a Dachshund, tablet computers, wireless networks, bluetooth, Google Maps, and GPS (that was affordable). All of the things that are regular, normal and an omnipresent part of today-life simply did not exist in any form most of us would recognize 15-20 years ago. Purveying your reptile inventory to a pool of buyers was not simple to do. It was, in fact, quite difficult. If someone wanted a picture of a snake you took them with a camera loaded with film, not an SD card. You took the film to the photomat to be developed, not to your computer to be imported. You put the pictures in an envelope and dropped it in the mailbox rather than attaching them to an email and clicking send. The process took a week or more if you were on the ball (pun intended). That’s a far cry from the world of today where I can be on the phone with you, take a picture of a snake and text it to you while we continue to talk. We should all take a moment to appreciate what is now available to us.
Way back in 1990 I was a college student at Virginia Tech. While there my good friend Ian Gniazdowski (some of you may know him) and I used to sell reptiles to students on campus. How did we do it? Late at night or in-between classes we would walk the campus and staple paper fliers with little hand-cut pull tabs at the bottom to real cork bulletin boards that were, at the time, all over the place in the buildings. Do you know how today, when you post a new ad on your favorite Internet classified site it quickly gets buried by newer ads? Well, back when Ian and I were doing this, our ads got buried, too. Paper ad stapled over paper ad stapled over paper ad. We wallpapered the hallways of campus buildings with our ads for candoia aspera, basilicus plumifrons, p. molurus bivittatus and a dizzying array of lampropeltis. You couldn’t bump your ad to bring it back to the top; you had to re-wallpaper the cork bulletin board with freshly photocopied fliers. Looking for that flyer with info about the band playing at the Sigma Nu keg party on Friday night? Sorry, that flyer was covered up with ads for reptiles! We plastered the campus over and over, covering cover band’s flyers with our own. We stapled them to trees, taped them to windows, and slid them under doors, anything and everything we could to get the word out. People called. Transactions were conducted. Money was made. It was entrepreneurial genesis admittedly limited by the transmission media of the time.
And then, in the latter part of the 1990′s, I remember being at a trade show (Mid-Atlantic Reptile Show if my memory is accurate) and seeing a small table set up with an outfit called Kingsnake.com. They weren’t selling any animals, they just appeared to be trying to get people to sign up for or enroll in their new web site. The Internet, which I was very aware of by that time (personally and professionally), was getting its footing in a big way and it appeared that someone was trying to do something with snakes and the Internet. Unfortunately, I didn’t think much of it at the time. Classified newspaper ads, hometown ‘trading post’ publications, word-of-mouth and the few reptile trade shows that happened each year were the way to sell snakes. At that time, so few people were using the Internet for commerce it didn’t really register to me that it would become the way to sell snakes in the future. I don’t know if Kingsnake.com was the first shop to really take reptiles to the Internet but I was there and can say that they were definitely one of the first. Kudos to them for their vision. This was not less than a year before Google opened its doors, Facebook was almost a decade away and there was a fledgling little company called eBay that had only been around for a little while. My how times have changed, huh?
In the years that followed, the Internet market for reptiles really took shape. And in the on-line world that shape was in the form of the Internet classified. Some people set up web sites but, across the board, they were generally terrible. Not only were they sad from a design perspective but they were also not maintained with any consistency (a problem that persists today). But for all of their inadequacies these sites were laying the foundation for the Internet as a tool for reptile commerce. By the very late 1990′s and into the early 2000′s personal email had become very commonplace. The dot-com bubble was about to burst but even in its wake the Internet remained for snake sellers to post pictures on-line or email them to each other. The Internet, as a tool for reptile sales, was growing.
Not too long after the dot-com bubble burst the prices of homes began to skyrocket. Many people found themselves suddenly equity rich and were lured by the opportunity to borrow against that (false) equity. If you happened to be a homeowner and a reptile fan the ball python business was waiting, arms open, for you to come in. Fortunately for the ball python business home prices were ballooning at the same time the python business was booming. It was a time of great speculation and ridiculous sums of money were spent on animals. Names synonymous with ball pythons and reptiles earned permanent positions in the reptile-geek vernacular: McCurley, Barczyk, Ian G. (because nobody knew how to pronounce his last name), Bob Clark, Pete Kahl and Ralph Davis, to name a few. Guys like that led the way in the ball python business. They were pioneers of the designer morph craze; speculators in a highly profitable, niche market that has since become a pretty big industry. The influx of cash into the business was impressive. That money, huge portions of which were the extracted equity of people’s homes, helped to finance the acquisition and subsequent proving of many new genetic mutations. Had that money not been spent we would not have the ball python business as we know it today. That money, whether it ultimately helped your or hurt you, did double-duty as both financier and lure. When the money from the days of soaring home values was no longer available it did not immediately prove problematic for the industry; catalyzed and perpetuated by such a large influx of cash there was still a lot of money trading hands. But that is changing. The amount of money changing hands has decreased in recent years. But it’s not because of a lack of money. Something else, as I will explain later, has happened.
Now let’s jump forward a few more years. Rather than being occasional occurrences that people looked forward to and saved money for, trade shows had become almost weekly events. The insatiable desire for reptiles, ball pythons in particular, had caused trades shows to pop up everywhere. Combined with the Internet, reptile sellers now had and oft-repeating ability to sell direct to people who drove endless hours to view their offerings in person. And that same inventory of animals on display at the trade show was simultaneously available to the entire country (or world) via their website and Internet classifieds.
Because shows have become so commonplace there is no longer any excitement leading up to them. Trade shows, in earlier days, were huge events. People planned and saved for them and buying at the shows could be frenetic as a result. But the frequency of shows is rivaled only by the availability of animals. The number of breeders has grown along with the number of shows. The buying pool has grown but the never-ending number of shows has dulled their show-enthusiasm and diluted their trade show dollars. For show vendors this has become increasingly problematic. Trade shows have become hit-or-miss events. Some shows are great and others are not. Being impossible to tell which will be which, vendors continue to support them all in fear of missing the one that will be profitable. After all, vendors are unable to identify when those select few people will come in and spend a few thousand dollars on a single animal. Skip a show, miss the sale. It’s an underlying fear that consistently lures vendors onto the nation’s highways going from show to show.
The excessive number of trades shows, now commonplace, will never be broken by show promoters. They make money independent of the vendor. Only vendors, through their selective support can control the number of shows. That will was not there years ago and it is still not there today. We need a few really good shows, not dozens upon dozens of mediocre ones. The frequency of shows is not helping the reptile business. It is hurting it. Badly. The expense of being a vendor at a show is independent of the profits made at a show. Put another way; the cost of vending at a show is the same no matter how much you make in sales. Vending at an ever-increasing number of shows increases expenses. And because there are so many shows dulling enthusiasm and diluting spendable dollars, the profit margins are getting smaller. As of today, trade shows are usually profitable but their frequency and the resulting lack of enthusiastic spending is taking its toll. This is not new information, though. I wrote about this same issue a few years ago. Click here if you’d like to read about it.
Now let me shift gears and explore one of the supposedly newer phenomena of the reptile trade: Internet reptile auctions. They are not new. The social networking reptile auction, however, is. Social networking combined with reptile auctions is still wet behind the ears compared to Internet classifieds, etc. It’s simple: snakes sold to the highest bidder. Auctions always have been a great way to get a good deal. It doesn’t matter if you’re buying antique furniture, a lawnmower, a house or a snake. But retailers, as a general rule, don’t like auctions. Products comparable to the one’s they have for sale tend to go for less money at auction. If an expensive snake sells for two-thirds of its retail price at a local auction it doesn’t have much of a downward pull on the retail price of the animal; the auction price was only seen by a handful of people. But when the auction plays out on a social media site it can be seen by thousands upon thousands of people. And the price they see plants a seed that the morph is only worth that much (regardless of the quality of the specimen). That’s a totally different phenomenon and it makes the social media snake auction a legitimate threat to pricing structures in this business.
Another big downside to auctions, this time for the buyer, is that you have to bid on what is being auctioned, not necessarily on what you are looking for. It’s serendipity if the two happen to coincide but more often than not bidding requires you to be an opportunist that benefits from whatever comes up on the block. Plenty of people who buy animals at auction would not have purchased that animal had they not been able to get it at such a great price. If asked, they would say, “I didn’t really need it …but I can use it.” It’s a bit aimless on their part but what heck; it’s cheap, right?
The underlying motivation of an auction is that the seller wants the items (animals) to move more than his desire to maximize profit. Lower your profit margin, move more product. This is a business model that exists in many walks of life. Despite the timelessness of auctions I regularly hear reptile breeders bemoan the Internet snake auction as a death knell of the ball python business. While I do concede that this new form of auction is putting downward pressure on ball python prices they are not any less damaging than the complete lack of business acumen demonstrated by the average ball python breeder. No, I’m not writing about you, of course. I’m writing about the other guy (wink). The whimsy and stupidity applied to determining how much to sell their ball pythons for are nothing new to the industry. Countless debates have been had on this topic and nothing has changed. The most eloquent forum rant is not equal to a course in economics, even if the students were capable of processing the lesson. There is a faction out there that attempts to end the argument by saying supply and demand is the ultimate determiner of price. From a large scale perspective I don’t doubt this to be true. But supply and demand controls ball python prices far less than general stupidity does. Cash equals success to the average snake seller, sublimely oblivious to the time, money and effort they have put into producing that animal. And in most cases there is little to no attention paid to preserving the longevity of the business. Selling ‘product’ now in order to finance whatever today’s financial crisis happens to be (beer money, a bag of weed, car repairs, and other usual suspects) represents the full capacity and scope of their vision as business people. This is the part where someone clicks on the comment button and proceeds to flame me, educating me on the fact that a snake is only worth what someone is willing to pay for it. Let me go ahead and put that bromide to bed and tell you that a snake is only worth the least upper and greatest lower amount that buyer and seller can agree on, respectively. Buyers have a 50% say-so in the prices of animals, nothing more. I have been on many a tirade on this particular topic so I shall resist further digression on this angle. Please peruse my older articles for more.
These auctions should eventually reach a harmony with the reality of the business. Ball pythons, with their impossibly small clutches, can only be sold for so little before it becomes cost prohibitive to produce them. Long before we get anywhere close to that number breeders will be exiting the industry in large numbers. This exodus will make animals more difficult to come by which will have a stabilizing effect on prices. What remains to be determined is whether or not the market’s margins remain enticing enough for people to bother with all the associated headaches of reptile husbandry.
Historically, ball python enthusiasts are not afraid to spend money on new animals. We all have different financial tolerances but spending a few thousand dollars on a single animal is not a big stretch for someone bitten hard by the ball python bug. Combine this with the fact that ball python breeders are also a financially incestuous lot (i.e. we spend a lot of money with each other) and you have a recipe for legitimate wealth distribution. Let me explain using a snake show as an example:
When a vendor at a show has four different customers buy animals that total $10,000 a few very important things happen:
- The vendor has had a good show (only a tiny few vendors would consider this a poor showing).
- Using some of the money earned at the show, the vendor is likely to buy something from one of the other vendors. Of the $10k he made he might spend $6k with other vendors on new animals for his collection.
- The vendor-to-vendor transactions means a second, third or fourth vendor has also had a good show.
- Those vendors may take some of that cash and spend it with other vendors.
The most important thing to note here is that there was an influx of cash into the trade that created multiple sales with multiple different breeders. This creates a situation where multiple breeders will say, “it was a good show”. Attitudes on the state of the industry are positive because the quality of your bank account and your collection are growing. Breeders add animals to their collection and still have money left over to pay for some of their reptile-related expenses: rodents, electricity, new caging, table fees, Internet hosting fees, etc. Please note a very simple yet important item in the chronology: it all began with someone spending money on a new reptile.
So what is the biggest evil hurting the ball python business? Is it the increased number of breeders and the competition they bring? How about the massive rise in trade show frequency? Is that our biggest problem? Or maybe it’s the Internet auction; could that be it? How about the lack of business acumen demonstrated by the average reptile breeder? That has to be it, right? So which is it? While I acknowledge that they all take a toll I have come to believe that the single biggest problem with the ball python business (and quite possibly the reptile business as a whole) is something that has been part of the trade from day one. It’s a normal, natural part of many businesses but I have watched it grow into something so frequent that it has replaced the normal processes of business and, if it continues on it’s current tack, will force all but the smallest of hobbyists out of the business. What is it that could be so problematic? Two words: snake trade.
The snake trade has become the single most devastating feature of our industry. I know, I know: snake trades are a long-standing and integral part of the business and people have been trading snakes since the reptile industry began. I don’t deny the value of an occasional trade. I do them from time to time. But from a financial perspective a snake trade has, at best, a vector of zero. When a trade is completed your collection has probably not changed (much) in size. Your expenses have not decreased and you now are in another project that will create additional parity between you and your competitors. Because your collection is growing it requires more resources to sustain it. And the biggest of those expenses is your rodent bill. Whether you buy your rodents or produce your own there is a lot of overhead involved. Trading for snakes does not pay your rodent bill and it does nothing to profit your business in the short term. How long do you think you can survive if all you do is trade for more and more animals? Your business (and this industry) cannot survive without continuous infusions of cash. And every time you agree to a trade you are taking money out of two different pockets, yours being the most important. And because, for many people, trading has replaced buying as the primary mechanism of animal acquisition, the industry is becoming increasingly financially anemic.
Using last weekend as a typical example I witnessed two events in support of this:
While sitting at my kitchen table discussing the industry a friend of mine said, “I’m going to spend any money I make on new racks. I can trade for all the animals I need.” I immediately dug into him, explaining what I have written above. He nodded, conceding the point. I thought he might be cured but at a trade show the next day I heard him say the exact same thing to someone else. Overnight the importance of spending money in the business oozed from his ears and put him right back into his “I can trade for that” mentality.
About an hour later another friend was admiring an animal on my table and said something to the effect of, ““I really want that <insert name of awesome morph here>. Come take a look at my table and see if I have anything you want to trade for it.”
I get it, though. Why spend money when you can spend snakes? I’m not saying that we shouldn’t do trades. Again, I do them from time to time. I’m saying we shouldn’t do as many trades as we do. But let me be a little more specific. We should not trade snakes for snakes as much as we do. If you want to trade snakes for new tires on your car, go for it. If you want to trade snake for rodents, rock on. Got a landlord who will take snakes as a rent payment? Woohoo! In all of those situations you are turning a snake into a thing it was meant to become in the long run; something that perpetuates and sustains your existence. I support that subtle distinction. But trading snakes for snakes is the zero vector that drove the title of this article. It’s a circular reference that leads to a downward spiral that ultimately leads to a business/hobby that cannot support itself.
Snake-for-snake trades do not support the industry; money does. And it’s only when money is spent on snakes that people will have money to spend on snakes. And electricity. And rodents. And plastic tubs. And water bowls. And …everything else.