The Trojan Frog Strategy

The New York Times:

Few people can claim to have created an entire industry from scratch. But Greg Wittstock, who long ago labeled himself “The Pond Guy,” laid the foundation for the multi-million-dollar backyard water-feature industry in 1991 when he started Aquascape Designs, shortly after completing his sophomore year at Ohio State University.

From back-breaking beginnings digging his customer’s ponds by hand, Mr. Wittstock built his St. Charles, Ill.-based company, which now goes by Aquascape, into a juggernaut that employed more than 180 and produced almost $60 million in annual revenue at its peak. Over the last two years, however, business has been off and both of those numbers have declined – employment to 110 and revenue to an expected $40 million this year. Like many entrepreneurial pioneers, Mr. Wittstock has seen his success spawn much competition. That, along with the faltering economy and especially the collapse of the housing industry, has forced him to re-think much of what he does.

Q: What’s an example of a mistake you’ve learned from?

A: The biggest mistake we made was allowing third parties like distributors and retailers to communicate for us to our customers. I just assumed that everyone had the passion for building ponds that we did. I was wrong. Our sales have been down for two years as a result. And it’s not just because of the economy. We simply lost our focus. That’s why we have really embraced social networking as a way to start talking to our customers directly again.

Q: What are you doing?

A: We have something like 18,000 people using our chat room. We just landed a six-figure contract in Egypt because they found our page. But our big leap was the launch of our new community Web site called We want our customers to post pictures of their ponds and gardens and to discuss them. That way we create templates for others to follow. Our goal is to have the largest and most dynamic site in the world for anyone interested in the water-gardening business.

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