Ridgewood Natives Find Success in Niche Market

John Simpson and Peter Russo find success with Ridgewood Aquarium Imports by catering to small but enthusiastic group of hobbyists.

If you’re looking for a planted aquarium in Bergen County, your best bet is probably Ridgewood Aquarium Imports. And if you set out from New York City or Philadelphia to buy one, chances are you would still end up at the small store that opened on Broad Street two months ago.

That’s because Ridgewood Aquarium Imports, owned by partners John Simpson and Peter Russo, 2006 graduates of Ridgewood High School and Bergen Catholic, respectively, is one of only a handful of businesses in the country that cater to their niche market—and the closest competitor is in Houston. 

“We get a lot of the hardcore enthusiasts coming to check it out from about a two hour radius,” Russo said, adding that shortly after they opened one customer even made the trek from South Carolina.

For the non-enthusiasts out there, planted aquariums are a big step up from the average pet store fish tank. While suitable for fish, the main appeal of these high quality aquariums is their intricate landscapes, which create a small, self-sustaining ecosystem within the tank. The aesthetics of the designs are also the subject of international competition and, soon, a New York gallery exhibit by the Ridgewood pair.

According to Simpson, designing these tanks is a hobby that takes years to cultivate, and their store sells supplies that cater to the needs of those who have put in the time. But they also do installations of ready-made aquariums for homeowners, offices, and restaurants.

So how did Simpson and Russo get into this niche? Even though still in their twenties, the two are longtime business partners. “We’ve been friends since first grade, and we used to have a koi pond company,” Simpson says.  While most thirteen-year-old entrepreneurs tend to stick to traditional lawn mowing or snow shoveling ventures, the two friends installed the exotic ponds in neighborhood backyards.

Simpson’s interest continued through his time at Arizona State University, where he worked and eventually managed a store similar to the one he now owns with his childhood friend.  He always knew his political science major wasn’t his true calling. “I knew since I was twelve years old that I wanted to do this stuff.”

After graduation, Simpson sold aquariums online for a year and a half.  When it came time to open a showroom, the choice of partner was easy, and Russo was confident when he got the call.  “It’s good to go into business with someone you trust. We knew what to expect going in,” he said.

Still, Russo admits, the choice of industry wasn’t exactly what he thought he would be doing after earning a degree in economics. “I thought I would have my own business definitely. But that it would be this? Probably not.”

But the venture is working, and while many have struggled entering the workforce after college, these partners have found success by tapping an area market previously overlooked. Of course, it helps that the two have been in the business since an early age, and Russo stresses an entrepreneurial spirit is key to their success. “We were both independent-minded, and didn’t want to get a desk job selling insurance or something.”


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