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The Secret to Small Business Success: Sell What You Love


Like Russ Leiner, your greatest passion could become your small business success

6829381157_8edcb521e5_zBy: Jaron Serven, Staff Writer

Russ Leiner sits back in his chair, the cool early-April breeze wafting past us into the spacious living room, and smiles.

“[Saltwater fish] were the most colorful, unbelievable fish you’d ever seen,” he says, remembering first glimpsing them at 15 or 16. “At that same time, Jacques Cousteau was on television—”

He breaks off, laughing slightly. His eyes gleam with good nature behind his spectacles and his black hair is dappled with grey.

“They didn’t have Discovery Channels back then.”

Russ has good reason to laugh—he’s looking back at the beginning of his success as a small-business owner.

As a country, America has never really been at the forefront of entrepreneurialism when it comes to small businesses. The primary mentality seems to be “go big, or go home.” However, with the recent economic hardship, more and more Americans—about 9.3 million since 2001, Forbes reports—are forging their own path, foregoing the usual routes to success and creating their own  businesses.

Yet there are still many jobless Americans out there who may be thinking about starting their own home-based entrepreneurship without any clue as to which field would suit them best. In Russ’s case, the choice was a very specific one:

“I’m a purveyor of saltwater aquarium equipment.”

Say what?

“I sell on the Internet, and through home-based business, dry goods and equipment for people to put together saltwater reef aquariums.”

Most people who hear about what he does initially meet the news with a mixture of apprehension and surprise, but Russ, like many writers, musicians and educators, is working in one of his oldest passions. Not in saltwater livestock itself, which he admires wholeheartedly, but in literally creating small environments for these beautiful creatures to live in, which he then sells on saltwatercritters.com

This is, briefly, a more complicated science than it seems. You must create the exact conditions of the ocean in the middle of your living room for the livestock to survive comfortably, which includes circulation, neutrality, salt content, everything. Even rudimentary set-ups recommended by pet-stores provide a complicated and thorough step-by-step process, which would prove infuriating to those expecting the easy set-up of a freshwater tank.

He wasn’t always in this field, and the path to it was long and, in its own way, fateful.  Russ originally comes from a background in accounting.  “And computer science…” he adds, smiling again. “But [that field] was a lot different than it is today.” He was a successful contractor, accountant and businessman for years.

Then, an unfortunate car accident left Russ unable to do his regular job, and the career he’d been working on for decades was suddenly gone.

But where some would find mere tribulation, Russ saw opportunity. “I got a chance to go and basically take my passion and make a business out of it.” What started as a childhood passion for colorful fish—one visit to the pet store, and he was hooked—grew into something that could flourish in our day and age. Still, the task of starting a business from scratch was (and is) no joke, especially during a time when the economy was in flux.

It doesn’t appear to have stressed Russ too much. In contrast to your stereotypical American citizen, he has an almost unusually calm demeanor. It might be influenced by that breeze, heralding the incoming arrival of spring and refreshing the living room of his home, or it could be encouraged by his small dog, Scooter, curled asleep in his lap.

That calm, as much as it’s a part of his personality, is also a carefully cultivated aspect of his business, and it’s likely contributed to his success.

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