Marine Depot Turned 20 This Year! We Talk To Our Founder Ken Wong About His First Aquarium, Starting Up The Business, And Meeting The Needs Of Today’s Hobbyists

Marine Depot’s founder Ken Wong with Robert from our YouTube channel.

How did you get into aquarium-keeping? Tell us about your first aquarium.

I had kept various freshwater tanks for a long time, but what I really thought was cool were saltwater fish. I was fascinated by how colorful they are. In college, I dove in and set up my first saltwater tank. I kept mainly damsels and tangs. In the early 1990s, there was not a whole lot of technology, so I just did a lot of water changes.

It didn’t take long before I set up my first reef tank. In the early 90s I set up an SPS tank. Not a whole lot of people were doing this. Very, very few stores were selling SPS corals. Back then, there was a forum on the CompuServe ISP called the FISHNET. I found a local reefkeeper, Steve Tyree, on there and I was able to buy some nicer SPS frags from him. This was before he started importing stuff in. He used to sell super cool frags off of his colonies. I used to go down to Steve Tyree’s house. Interesting times.

Every so often I would buy a brown SPS coral in those days from an LFS for next to nothing and it would color up under my halides. Speaking of halides, I started out with Coralife (Venture) 175W 5500K bulbs. At the time, I was so in love with my lighting set up!

Aquarium technology has come a long way. Can you tell us a little about the equipment you were using on your early tanks?

I used a skilter in my original tank. People knock this skimmer a lot nowadays, but back then, what this little skimmer removed was meaningful. Probably cut my water changes in half. Today, you probably should boycott any store that is selling this as a skimmer for a 55 gallon tank.

What inspired you to start an online aquarium supply store?

I saw a lot that told me that there was a huge need at that time for a solid online aquarium supply store. I had a lot of difficulty early on setting up my tank. I couldn’t find quality equipment and I learned quickly I couldn’t trust stores to tell me what was quality and what wasn’t. That still happens a little bit today. I see other online retailers pick up stuff that we had tested and knew was not a good product for the hobbyist.

How long did it take from when you decided, “OK, I’m going to do this!” to the website launching?

I was fairly naïve in those days. Getting a store set up is simple in many ways and difficult in so many other ways. I think I worked 100+ hours a week for about half a year early on.

Setting up the website was the easy part in those days. There was work to be done in every facet of the company. I think my damage rate was about quadruple back then what they are now. Just doing something as simple as packing a shipping box had a huge learning curve. I think it took us about half a year to get to the carriers damage rate average and another one to two years to get to about half of their average. Pretty much every other facet of the company was the same.

Ken with an enormous AquaMaxx protein skimmer in October 2012.

Nowadays just about anyone can sell stuff online. What was the landscape like back in the late 90s? How difficult was it to get the site up and running? And at what point did you realize, “Wow, I think we’ve really got something here”?

The landscape was a little different. Back then, manufacturers would sell to somebody just because somebody said they would conquer the world. Eventually, that somebody would go out of business, would stiff the manufacturer, and leave their customers with no company to support their purchases. I don’t think that happens as much anymore.

The site wasn’t hard to set up. Sites back then all looked like they were coded by a 15-year-old, so creating a site of that time was definitely achievable even for me.

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When I felt I got something here was when customers would convey to me my information was helping them succeed or when they would tell me the product I helped them buy was the right choice for them.

How did local fish stores feel about Marine Depot in its early days? What do you think sentiments are like today?

Then and now, it really depends on the local fish stores. Good local fish stores have some issue because they see us as competition, but they know they have a huge edge in that they can have a personal, face-to-face interaction with their customers. These guys tend to be very knowledgeable and passionate and they tend to be well stocked with quality product. They really don’t sweat too much about us. The not-so-good LFSs complain about a lot of things and we are included in that list.

We see the relationship as mutually-beneficial. In the end, it’s not about us or them, but about the hobbyist succeeding. We believe LFSs and Internet stores like us are helpful to the customer. LFSs provide great livestock. We provide a wide variety of products that are difficult for LFSs to carry.

Marine Depot is in Southern California. The company headquarters has moved to different locations within the region over the past two decades. Can you talk about what necessitated these moves and challenges you overcame to continue growing the business to meet customer needs?

Online retailing is pretty space intensive. We need a lot of space for servers, associates, and inventory. As we grew over the years, we needed more and more space. As we outgrew a location, we moved to a larger location.

Our most recent move was to two different strategically located warehouses. That was more for customer service reasons than it was because we outgrew our space. Things were taking too long to get to our east coast customers from our west coast warehouse. Even if we had a centrally located warehouse in the middle of the US, it would take too long. Two warehouses allow us to deliver to pretty much all of the country within 2 days.

Ken with many Marine Depot team members at MDHQ in Garden Grove, CA.

How has social media impacted your approach to customer service?

We see it was another avenue in which we can connect with fellow aquarium hobbyists. It helps us stay in touch with our customers and provide assistance. So, in that sense, it’s just another channel.

You’ve been working in the aquarium industry for a long time. Who are some influential figures you’ve crossed paths with that made an impact on you?

It wouldn’t be one influential person. I’ve grown close to a network of fellow entrepreneurs that have given me a sense of what it takes to serve the customer. These are all the things you hear about:

1.  Work ethic
2.  Integrity
3.  The value of an education
4.  The importance of staying current
5.  The necessity of continual improvement

One may have heard all these before, but witnessing others live these traits is very powerful!

Congratulations on 20 years in business! How does it feel? What are some things you are most proud of?

It’s humbling. It’s thoroughly fulfilling to help people succeed in their journey to keeping a saltwater aquarium. It’s a challenging but beautiful hobby. It’s great to be able to help people!

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