Nearly every day I get an email from an enthusiast who who says something like this: “Justin, I love following you online and watching your videos, it must be awesome to breed Ball Pythons for a living,” or “can you tell me how you got started with your business.”
So I’ll tell my story for the first time online, and I’ll be completely candid.
When I first discovered Ball Python morphs, the titans of the industry were already rocking it. By almost any measure I was late to the game (although it seems early now!) I would visit the websites of RDR and NERD during my senior year of college and dream of being like them, creating these amazing animals. At the time I was breeding a few kingsnakes and had one normal Ball Python as a pet. When you’re in college a lot of people ask what you’re studying. I would always reply, “My degree is in marketing, but I’m going to be a Ball Python breeder!” (I can’t imagine how crazy this must have sounded to non-reptile people.)
When it came time to actually spend the money I was SCARED. I’ll admit it. After all these were just snakes right?! There could be no way they were actually selling for these obscene prices. Maybe it was just all a trick and the guys at the top were the only ones actually making money. This was 2005 and lots of naysayers were already crying that whole thing would collapse in a year or two and we would be left with beautiful pets. (The same arguments we’ve heard every year between then and now.)
I obtained financial backing and jumped in with both feet. My initial investment was about $75k (about 20 animals + caging and supplies). Having just graduated, that was fortune to me.
I kept my full-time day job and for the next 3 years did only two things with profits, bought out my financial partner and reinvested every extra dollar. This reinvestment amount was likely as much as my initial investment.
The collection grew and so did overhead and time costs. Honestly it wasn’t always fun spending weekends and evenings cleaning and feeding hundreds of snakes by myself. It was even harder to find the time to care for customers to my high standards. I was working a 30-40 hour/week job for free, just building my dream.
In the end I just couldn’t do it in my spare time. I remember the night my wife pointed out what I too busy to see: that I had to quit my job. I told her “There’s no way. The snakes couldn’t support that.” I still hadn’t taken one penny personally from my profits.
However it quickly became clear that I couldn’t possibly keep the snakes & customer service up to my standards. Just like the moment I decided to invest, I was at another key decision moment: give up or push forward. The reality was that I couldn’t live on the current sales the business was generating, but I knew that quitting my job would give me 100% more time to focus on the business, both animals and sales. It was a big gamble and quitting my job was the best decision I ever made
That was in the fall of 2009. Over the next couple years I dedicated myself to growing the business. During this time I built a better collection, sold more snakes, made more customers, and reinvested more profits than ever before.
JKR has now has thousands of customers, millions of youtube viewers, a couple great employees, and a fantastic income – one that has allowed my family to comfortably live doing what I love. Thank you customers! I’m also excited to say that this fall JKR is expanding into a brand new snake building. (That’s now complete.)
In short, this is the dream, but it didn’t come easy and it didn’t come fast. It was always in doubt all along the way. A hundred times I thought about quitting. Anyone who sells you snakes and suggests that you can get easy money, or that success in the reptile world is a shortcut compared to success in any other business is dead wrong.
The reality is that the margins are there, fantastic margins sometimes. What’s not guaranteed is the human factor. Not everyone is going to be a good business owner. If a local Ford dealership down the street closes its doors, that doesn’t mean there’s no money in the car industry.
Can you do it in today’s Ball Python market? Absolutely! Will it be easy? No way. As any market matures, it becomes more difficult to break into it. Established players expand to fill demand. Nothing is permanent though, if you’re willing to take a risk and work your butt off, it could be the best experience of your life.
Maybe its not for you. Maybe you just want to enjoy the hobby and do the projects you love. Maybe you want to stay small and work it just enough to make a bit on the side. Whatever your goal, go for it! Keep a realistic expectation and have fun! There are very few hobbies that can legitimately pay their own expenses. Nothing is as rewarding as creating living artwork. Know what you’re getting into and embrace it!
PS. If you want to see a nerdy teen who grew up to be the author of this blog, click here.