Profession Reboot: From App Developer to Aquarium Ace

Career Reboot: From App Developer to Aquarium Ace

2021-05-02 21:30:00

When Kenny Lin was a toddler rising up in southern China, his household didn’t have a lot cash. His leisure got here from nature: protecting pet chickens, climbing bushes, chasing frogs. “I’d be that bizarre child with some insect in my hand, scaring everybody. However to me, that was enjoyable,” he says.

Even in New York Metropolis, the place his household moved when he was younger, he tried to tame pigeons and catch cicadas. His mom labored lengthy hours stitching pockets on shirts at an area clothes manufacturing unit, making 6 cents apiece. The household struggled financially, however nature was a well-known refuge.

He by no means knew what he needed to do professionally. At Stony Brook College he experimented with electrical engineering, pc science and enterprise administration, however none of them caught. He bought a level in economics. “I simply wanted to select one thing,” he says.

In faculty, he’d began educating himself to code, and after graduating in 2003 he labored to construct his portfolio, discovering website-building work on Craigslist and looking for technical recommendation on-line when he wanted assist. It was a lesson in resourcefulness. “I attribute plenty of my business-building [instincts] to that time period,” he says.

He landed his first full-time job in 2006 at a digital-advertising firm, constructing advert banners. The hours have been punishing: He recollects leaving the corporate’s Manhattan workplace as soon as at 7 a.m. His girlfriend, Sid Might Chan, purchased him a small tank for his desk with neon tetra fish, so he’d at the least have some nature to take a look at.

“That was the fuse,” Mr. Lin says.

A tank space the place Mr. Lin grows corals in his retailer. Previous to opening the store, he’d been rising coral in his dad and mom’ basement.


Sasha Maslov for the Wall Avenue Journal

He put in an even bigger tank at dwelling and crammed it with cichlids and a Bala shark. “After a pc 12 hours a day, it was very soothing to go dwelling and take a look at a fish tank,” he says. A good friend was giving freely a 90-gallon tank, which Mr. Lin populated with saltwater fish and corals. Whereas in pure daylight, coral normally seems brown—or white, when lifeless—he found that when illuminated with particular lights, residing coral would mild up in good shade, turning his aquariums into fluorescent wonderlands.

He bought a job at a digital company, AKQA, in 2008 that supplied extra common hours, taking a demotion to make the transfer. In his eight years there, he labored his means as much as turn into a senior artistic developer, making six figures.

On the similar time, his ardour for saltwater life had taken off, too. He turned his eating room into an aquarium, together with a 6-foot-long fish tank. He started rising his personal coral and swapping specimens with different hobbyists. He was spending critical cash: In a single yr alone, he estimates he spent at the least $35,000 on coral and fish, together with a uncommon wrasse that price $1,000.

That gave him an concept. “I’m pondering, I’m spending all this cash. Who’s making this cash?” he puzzled. Possibly there was a chance for him there, too.

A collection of cultured stony corals in pictures taken by Kenny Lin at Items of the Ocean.


Kenny Lin

A collection of corals and anemones in pictures taken by Mr. Lin.


Kenny Lin

Mr. Lin favored the work at AKQA, the place he constructed digital cellular and net experiences for big-name purchasers. However his initiatives operated on quick deadlines: a one-week mission right here, a two-week mission there. Expertise was always altering, and strain to maintain up was intense. “I used to be like, do I see myself as a 50-year-old nonetheless sitting in entrance of a pc nonetheless attempting to determine this coding factor out?” he says.

Mr. Lin began small, promoting the coral he’d grown right here and there on-line. In 2016, he give up his job. By then, he and Ms. Chan had married and had their first of two youngsters. That they had moved again in together with his dad and mom, who took care of their daughter whereas he tried to construct out the enterprise, rising corals in his dad and mom’ 400-square-foot basement.

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In 2018, with $80,000 in funding from relations, he and a enterprise associate opened a retailer promoting saltwater fish and coral in Staten Island, N.Y., referred to as Items of the Ocean. It was a tough first two years: Mr. Lin had underbudgeted and needed to take out extra loans, and the shop misplaced cash. “Accounting was not my sturdy swimsuit,” he says.

They grew extra disciplined and discovered which suppliers they may belief, handle their money and worth their wares. In 2020, as extra homebound prospects stepped up their purchases amid the pandemic, enterprise boomed. Final yr, the shop grossed $650,000 in gross sales; this yr it’s on monitor to exceed that.

Mr. Lin says that when he steps out onto the ground and sees the rows of glowing tanks, he has the identical sense of pleasure nature kindled in him as a toddler. “I find it irresistible,” he says. “It doesn’t really feel prefer it’s a job.”

Although Mr. Lin’s pastime started with fish, he grew extra fascinated by corals. Their fluorescent vary of colours may be introduced out with the assistance of particular lights.


Sasha Maslov for the Wall Avenue Journal

Profession Replace

Title: Kenny Lin

Age: 40

Location: Staten Island, New York

Training: B.A. in economics, Stony Brook College

Former job: Digital utility developer

New job: CEO of Items of the Ocean, which sells coral and fish

Aha second: In his 30s, he requested himself if, on the finish of his life, he’d remorse not attempting to show his ardour for saltwater aquariums right into a profession. The reply was sure.

Write to Te-Ping Chen at

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