VENTEUR spoke with Greg Wittstock, Owner and CEO of Aquascape, Inc. Wittstock has been dabbling in water gardens since he was twelve years old, and he has always loved water and turtles. After experimenting with ponds for over eight years, he had a "light bulb" moment during a drive home from the tedious summer job he took during college in 1990. He decided he wanted to do something that he loved for a living—build ponds. Just 30 seconds later, he had a company name, Aquascape. The following year, he began building ponds during breaks in the school year. He created the Aquascape, Inc. business model, which includes a mix of distribution, retail, and installation services. When he’s not working, Wittstock enjoys scuba diving and exploring remote parts of the world.
The entrepreneurial journey is one of self-discovery. What have you learned about yourself while building your business?
I've learned that I have a limited skill set and should stick with what I am good at while running this business. The moment that I try to step out of my lane is when things go wrong. On the other hand, playing on my solid suits and letting my team members take the lead in areas where they are more skilled has made my business successful.
The entrepreneurial journey is often lonely. Have you experienced loneliness as an entrepreneur?
My entrepreneurial journey is the opposite of lonely. Because of the nature of this business as a wholesaler and through the training we provide for installers, I am connecting with other entrepreneurs daily. I've also made it a point to be active in the business leader community and build relationships and friendships with other CEOs.
In addition, I've recently found a large community of pond enthusiasts through social media. We not only post regular content on our various channels (YouTube, Facebook, TikTok, etc.), but I'm personally responding to people and sharing my personal "The Pond Guy" projects and journey. It's been a fantastic way to engage with a massive audience of pond enthusiasts across the globe.
What role has intuition played in your success as an entrepreneur, and why do you think this is the case?
Intuition is a critical factor in success. The start of Aquascape was a paradigm shift in the pond industry, and I used my intuition to create a new market for customers. This was realized by following my intuition that there was more to the industry than the essential water filtering products available when we started.
Coming from outside the industry, I saw a bigger picture of selling a true outdoor-focused lifestyle. While others were marketing only to the niche pond hobbyist, we knew that anyone could enjoy the benefits of a beautiful waterscape. Our work in simplifying the process and appealing to the everyday consumer with a low-maintenance experience has led to our continued growth and expansion for 30 years.
The Psychological Warfare
Entrepreneurs generally sleep less, work more, and let their health slip. This combination, combined with loneliness, often results in insecurity, self-esteem issues, and low self-worth. Have you experienced any of these issues as an entrepreneur?
Although my business is exhausting and overwhelming, I have strived for work-life balance. I remain focused on my friends and family, and I've aimed never to neglect my mental or physical health. Much of my work occurs outdoors, which helps (vs. being at a desk) because my business is my passion and "my baby," which drives me to keep going to work every day.
What is the most unrelatable part of being an entrepreneur, how does this impact your mental health, and why?
Most employees clock in and out. As an entrepreneur, you always think about work, even off the clock. All business is fixing problems, and the buck stops with you when you are an entrepreneur. However, as mentioned, because work is my passion, it does not negatively impact my mental health. It's crucial to ensure you are doing what you love. Otherwise, work can burn you out.
What are three mistakes you made early on as an entrepreneur, what did you learn from them, and how can others avoid them?
Most business owners make a common mistake: hiring friends and family. Of course, when starting, you want to hire those closest to you. However, I've learned that hiring friends and family is like a game of Russian Roulette. You never know what the outcome could be; unfortunately, it can easily be a bad outcome that will end or erode the relationship. If you want to maintain these relationships long-term, it's best to look outside your immediate circles as you build your team.
What are some seemingly insurmountable obstacles you've faced as an entrepreneur, and how have you overcome them?
While we experience obstacles every week, the biggest obstacle I've faced was the economic collapse in 2008. Before the descent, I saw double-digit growth in our sales numbers yearly. Everything I touched seemed to turn to gold at that time. In 2008, we had our first year showing a loss and had to learn how to adjust accordingly quickly. We had to retool and reinvent, and over a couple of years, we had to right-size the business as the market contracted. Learning to manage a company that was on the downside took time. I had to make tough decisions and lean on my experienced team. We were all in this together. I even tried bringing in outside consulting help at one point, but in the end, trusting in my core team, which knew the business, our culture, and our partners so well, saved our company. This is why having a great team is essential. My team helped me get through such a dramatic, unexpected challenge.
What three key pieces of advice would have made your entrepreneurial journey more manageable, and why?
The best advice that I can give is to embrace problems that arise. All business is fixing problems. You wouldn't have a business if it were easy because someone else would be doing it. You learn the most from the valleys, not on the mountaintop. So don't fear the downturns you face--try and embrace them. The lessons we know make the process worth it –so enjoy the journey!
Is there anything else you would like to share?
Start a social media presence for your business and be consistent with it. As mentioned, our social media pages have created a massive global community and helped us engage directly with our audience. This has helped our business grow and thrive.
Starting a social media page can initially seem intimidating, but start small. It's so easy to get caught up in "analysis paralysis," and you want to have a perfect approach to social media before you start. What happens here is that many businesses need help to get started on social media because they want to do it perfectly. I think you should start and figure it out as you go.
Once you have started, create a manageable system and schedule for your company by posting once a month consistently (or once weekly, etc.). Don't penalize yourself if you don't get it right away. You'll figure it out as you go, and it can be a lot of fun.
When we started, we did not know what we were doing. I had very little desire to create these channels initially, but I learned to embrace them and learn new channels. It's been extremely gratifying to watch them take off. Now I have 237K YouTube subscribers and 426K Facebook followers, just on my The Pond Guy channels, and we have over 22MM followers on our various Aquascape channels.