For generations, Maine has been the unofficial lobster capital of the world. But it took a pair of 20-something brothers to directly link seafood connoisseurs with the state's lobstermen. That John Ready and Brendan Ready have been catching lobster since childhood might have something to do with it.
Growing up in Cape Elizabeth, Maine, John Ready and Brendan Ready first learned the trade of catching lobster in elementary school, when their uncle Ted, a lobsterman, offered them gigs as sternmen on his ship. John and Brendan got paid for their efforts in worn traps, which the two later fixed up and used to catch their own lobster. Over the years, they saved up enough cash to purchase an old boat, and continued to polish their skills on their own throughout middle and high school.
"Our parents and grandparents would watch us through their binoculars from our house to make sure that we were OK," John, now 28, remembers. He and Brendan both planned to forego college to become full-time lobstermen, but after graduating from high school, they reluctantly followed their parents' requests and enrolled in business programs -- John at a five-year program at Northeastern University, Brendan at Stonehill College.
The Readys may have embarked on the college path, but the majority of their time as students was all business. During the weekends, while their classmates frequented the local bar scenes, John and Brendan drove back to Maine to harvest lobster.
"We began selling our catch directly to customers the first summer we were in college, and for the first couple of years of doing this, our profit was minimal," Brendan, now 26, recalls.
It wasn't exactly the quintessential college experience. "Sunday night at 2 p.m., we'd pack everything up and I'd hit the ferry to Martha's Vineyard, deliver the product, and then park at the Northeastern parking lot and walk into class smelling like fish," John says. "And I had everyone looking at me like I had three heads."
"In my opinion, the largest single investment has been time," Brendan adds. "We sacrificed the fun, adventures, and lack of responsibility."
But that sacrifice laid the groundwork for a $10 million business today. Ready Seafood was initially born out of a plan that John submitted for an undergraduate business competition. His plan won, and the two launched the wholesale venture during the summer of 2004. Buying directly from fishermen on the wharf and contributing all of their own catches to the company without taking out a paycheck, they kept their business going on a minimal profit.
Finally, after securing buyers on both coasts and in the Midwest, and gaining nearly $3 million worth of business from a Spanish buyer, Ready Seafood turned profitable. The concept for Catch a Piece of Maine sparked soon afterward, after conversations with local fishermen revealed that rising fuel and bait prices were hurting the local industry.
"These were the people we looked up to, they were heroes, they were gods to us," John says. "And having them come up to us and say 'I don't know what I'll do, I don't know if I'm going to make my payments,' wasn't just frustrating. It made us feel obligated to make a difference."
The only major direct-to-customer initiative of its kind, Catch a Piece of Maine allows individuals across the country to rent out a lobster trap for a season for $3,000. The trap is then assigned to an individual lobsterman, who harvests the trap for a year and alerts the customer every time it catches. The customer also gets access to a personal lobster account that lists the trap's performance and allows him or her to schedule shipments -- for themselves or for gifts.
Since its conception late last year, the company has already brought in an additional $1.2 million in revenue. This spring, the brothers were awarded the Small Business Administration's National Young Entrepreneur Award.
"I didn't want to be given something. I wanted to earn it, so I could someday have a family and look back on what we've done and say, 'Wow, we did this on our own,'" John says. "We hit a lot of road bumps, and I can't believe I'm still here to talk about it. It's rewarding."