MANILA -- Knowing that staying at home is crucial in ending the global pandemic, Paul Jason Flores picked up fishkeeping as a diversion to cope with the mandatory isolation.
But as one of the world’s longest COVID-19 lockdowns dragged on, the 25-year-old managed to transform what started out as a mere quarantine hobby into a thriving business.
Flores co-founded MNL Betta Squad, the country’s first online one-stop shop for all the needs of Betta splendens or Siamese fighting fish.
With their shimmering scales, bold colors, and flamboyant fins that dance with their every move, the nouveau entrepreneur was immediately captivated by the species.
“They’re the perfect pets for me,” Flores said. “Aside from their look and beauty, I really like the size of the betta fish because they do not consume a lot of space.”
Flores, who now has a total of 8 fighting fish, keeps his pets around his work area as they offer him “a refreshing break” from his corporate day job.
“When you see your bettas swimming, looking healthy and alive, it’s a whole new form of relaxation as a break from my usual routine of just working in front of my laptop,” he explained.
He went on: “I think it's similar to the relaxation and satisfaction that people get from taking care of plants, from cooking and experimenting in the kitchen, from reading books, from doing online workout classes.”
Like thousands of Filipinos lucky enough to keep their job after the economic crisis, Flores admitted he too had difficulty transitioning to a full work-from-home set-up.
“I always say this, betta keeping really helped me stay sane and keep away from any form of anxiety,” Flores said. “This pandemic has caused so much stress to so many people, so we do what we have to do to be productive and to take care of our mental health and overall well-being.”
According to the hobbyist, he thought of turning his newfound interest into a business after realizing it came with a hefty price tag.
“When I computed the total expenses I had incurred because of this new hobby, I was overwhelmed. Since I've spent a lot already and since I don't think this is going to be a short-time hobby for me, why not turn it into something that's profitable,” he explained.
He continued: “I've been wanting to find an opportunity for me to simultaneously enjoy my interests/passion while learning about the art of putting up a business.”
BUILDING THE BUSINESS
In just 2 months, Flores was able to set up shop with Vars, the owner of the pet store he bought his first betta from. The latter invited the 25-year-old to partner with him after he saw his vibrant social media posts.
“We became friends online and at the time I was doing pro-bono food photography services for my friends as a form of support for their businesses. Whenever Vars would see my posts online, he and his wife said they would be amazed at how I turn the food into ‘something that's very alive,” Flores recalled.
“We then talked about this possible partnership where we can both use our skills. So we began conceptualizing and agreed to use our strengths,” he added.
Since Vars already had strong connections with suppliers and was well versed with the breed, he handled the logistics and operations. Meanwhile, Flores, who has a background in supply chain planning, marketing, sales, and customer service, was tasked with growing the brand.
“I was also capable in terms of web designing, photography, and online advertising which took a big cut on our expenditures because we didn't have to pay for a web developer, a photographer, a digital marketing manager, and designers,” he explained.
He went on: "I want to be able to help him maximize what he earns by doing what I do best.”
Aside from capitalizing on each other's strengths, the duo said they compensated for each other's weaknesses.
“I'm very active on social media while Vars is not and we all know given this situation, sobrang important ng online presence especially for businesses na gusto mag-thrive,” Flores reasoned.
He continued: “Whenever we look back, we would always say na swak talaga 'yung partnership kasi my strengths are his weaknesses, and my weaknesses are his strengths… kumbaga dun namin nasasabi na we make a really good team.”
Efren Betta Reyes cohabiting with a compatible fish species
Blue Marble Half Moon from MNL Betta Squad’s first collection
Fancy Snow White Halfmoon from MNL Betta Squad’s first collection
One of the betta fish in MNL Betta Squad’s collection
Given the unprecedented circumstances the worldwide pandemic ushered, the pair had to build their business through phone calls and chats.
“Our actual business meetings are limited and regulated, we also want to be safe. We only meet whenever it's really necessary e.g. when we need to take actual photos of the products,” Flores said.
He went on: “We haven't even had a single actual handshake as a symbolic gesture of cementing any partnership.”
Acknowledging two months was a fast time frame, the duo said it was intentional because they were banking on the sudden boom of the betta industry in the Philippines.
“Strike while the iron is hot,” Flores said. “We started working separately on our responsibilities right away — my partner did the necessary work to secure the initial batch, while I was able to put up the online pages and the entire website from scratch in around two weeks.”
On MNL Betta Squad, enthusiasts can shop from a wide inventory of essentials that meet the standard needs of the fish along with detailed descriptions of the product’s dimensions, function, origin, recommended use, etc.
“We sell different types of tanks, liquids like triple black water to make the environment healthier and more favorable, food pellets and live worms that we cultured ourselves, water pumps, and other equipment that one needs in basic betta keeping,” he said.
Aside from offering their clients shopping convenience, the partners emphasized they also wanted to cement the brand’s online space before more Filipinos joined the bandwagon, to help dispel the harmful myths surrounding the breed.
On their website, the duo plans to publish informative content that will benefit both newbies and enthusiasts.
“We don't want it to just be an online store, we want it to be a go-to website for people to learn more about bettas and how to take care of them,” Flores explained “We want to change the game by bringing a taste of formality into the betta selling business.”
According to People for Ethical Animal Treatment (PETA), bettas are among the most commonly mistreated species in the animal kingdom.
Although the aquatic critters are somewhat easier to maintain compared to their fluffy counterparts, animal welfare groups assert the claim they are “starter pets” is wildly exaggerated.
Contrary to the common belief that the fish can thrive in plastic cups, each betta actually requires a regularly cleaned aquarium with a good filtration system, gallons of water with the temperature ranging between 25 and 27 degree Celsius, as well as enrichments such as caves, rocks, and plants to help mentally stimulate the fish.
Like most animals, PETA said the species may also experience stress, frustration, and even depression when these conditions are not met.
Newer studies have now thwarted the long-standing belief that fish are “lesser” animals compared to other vertebrates and instead adduced the swimmers are more sentient and clever than previously suspected.
While fish lack audible and facial expression to indicate distress several experiments suggest that not only do fish possess an anatomy that responds to pain and produce neurotransmitters such as endorphins to relieve pain -- they remember it as well.
In a paper published in the journal Applied Animal Behaviour Science, the researchers reported that goldfish exposed to painful heat, later showed signs of “defensive behaviors, indicating wariness, or fear and anxiety.”
Culum Brown, biologist and associate professor at Macquarie University in Sydney, Australia, meanwhile, attested that the cognitive abilities of fish “often match or exceed [those of] other vertebrates.”
In the paper he published in the journal Animal Cognition, Brown noted some fish exhibit Machiavellian intelligence, recognize other fish, use tools, possess long term memories, solve puzzles, have social communities and can cooperate and learn from each other.
While these traits are typically seen in warm-blooded animals, numerous accounts of fish exhibiting similar behavior have been documented over the years. Male bettas, for example, are known to build bubble nests for their young and even protect them from predators.
“I've read bettas are among the more intelligent fish out there, they say you can even train them,” Flores mused.
He went on: “That’s what I enjoy the most with my collection right now. Whenever it's eating time, they're already accustomed to wait at a certain corner of the tank for me to drop their food. 'Yung iba, tumatalon-talon pa sa sobrang excited kumain.”
The account of Flores is no fish tale. A study conducted by scientists from University of Oxford and Australia’s University of Queensland, suggested that despite lacking a neocortex, fish are able to distinguish humans.
In the experiment, the researchers trained several archerfish and discovered they were able to differentiate the face that fed them from up to 44 faces with an 81 percent accuracy.
FIGHTING FOR THEIR LIFE
Unfortunately, despite the numerous studies suggesting the consciousness of fish are similar to mammals, they are not afforded the same rights.
The blood of these fish, however, is not just on the hands of pet owners but the suppliers and merchants who market the flashy creatures as decorations rather than living beings.
Investigations conducted by PETA uncovered the common practice of some breeding farms in Thailand and Southeast Asian countries of “haphazardly dumping bettas into baskets covered with nets, confining them in tiny bags, and stuffing them into boxes stacked up in massive wholesale warehouses where they are usually starved for days.”
Because of the pitiful conditions, many of the fish die before and during transport. The fate of those who do survive the arduous process, however, is just as tragic. Upon reaching stores, remain in miniscule enclosures with only a few ounces of water — where some will continue to stay for the remainder of their shortened life.
Aware of these existing practices, the entrepreneurs said they hope to pioneer change in the betta-selling industry.
“We put maximum attention to the proper care for the fish… The fish are alive, they must be well taken care of,” Flores admonished. “We want to be able to build a network of betta hobbyists and enthusiasts who share the same energy in taking care of these beautiful creatures. Tulungan, hindi siraan,” he added.
For more information, visit MNL Betta Squad's website or Instagram page.