The fish fanatic who reeled in a fortune

Profile of Matt Stevenson of Reef One who turned his hobby into a business with a turnover of £5.9m. What was his big idea?

Aquarium designer and manufacturer Matt Stevenson's earliest experience with keeping fish was rather traumatic. When he was ten, his sister made the regrettable mistake of cleaning out the pebbles in his goldfish bowl with bleach, killing his pet fish, Johnny. But it didn't put him off his hobby. In fact, ten years later, as a student of product design at Derby University, he couldn't get into a halls of residence because of the portable aquarium he was carrying around with him it was too big to fit into the halls. "I had a huge fish tank with all the filters, three or four fish, a few shrimp, corals and loads of really weird organisms."

How Stevenson began his aquarium design business

It was these complicated accoutrements that gave Stevenson, 30, the big idea that led him to start his own business. Plenty of people wanted to keep fish, he believed, but were unable to cope with the plumbing and electrical devices on the tanks. Eventually, they would get sick of the whole thing, "because they just can't keep fish alive", he says. Little wonder that keeping fish was confined to only

"a few geeks like me".

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Stevenson believed he could change the popular view of his hobby and set about designing an aquarium filtration system as part of a dissertation. The aim was to take as much of the slog out of fish keeping as possible by reducing tank maintenance. The result was a tank that sucked air upwards from its base through a column in its centre, rather than one attached to its side. A central column pumps more oxygen into the water, so the fish can go longer without a change of liquid and it also looks nice.

Design in hand, Stevenson moved back in with his parents in Norwich after graduating in 1998. It took him six months to "cobble together" a prototype of what was to become the bi-orb'. Suppliers would come to his house to see the new fish tank, with his mother "bringing tea and biscuits" up to his bedroom. One immediately liked the idea he loved the fact that you didn't "need to understand how it (the fish tank) works, you just follow the instructions". He ordered 2,000 great news, but it meant Stevenson had to find the funds to manufacture them. As luck would have it, his father had just retired, but wasn't quite prepared to put his feet up. He invested his retirement fund in the new start up, while Stevenson sold his car together raising just under £100,000 to manufacture the new fish tanks.

The moment Reef One became a success

The two finally moved into an office because the neighbours "wouldn't like a 40ft truck turning up" outside the house "full of bits", he says. And because suppliers "literally bought everything we could make" in the first 12 months, they were able to "concentrate on manufacturing" rather than new orders. The tank was well received by other fish fans. But the moment that Stevenson knew it would be a success was "when we realised outside the hobby people suddenly became really interested. So we concentrated on marketing to a lifestyle consumer as well as a hobbyist".

Eight years on, his firm, Reef One, is expecting a turnover of £5.9m this year. Yet despite being busier than he was, Stevenson still finds time to tend to his fish. But does he let his sister near them now? "She's not allowed in the house!"

Jody Clarke

Jody studied at the University of Limerick and she has been a senior writer for MoneyWeek for more than 15 years. Jody is experienced in interviewing, for example in her time she has dug into the lives of an ex-M15 agent and quirky business owners who have made millions. Jody’s other areas of expertise include advice on funds, stocks and house prices.