Earning

How a 32-Year-Old Turned a Side Hustle Into a Multimillion-Dollar Business

Sam Becker@smbecker

“It’s been quite a week,” Jody Meade says. “No sleep. All fish.”

It's 1 a.m., and Meade parks his SUV outside of the Fulton Fish Market in New York City. Meade is the 32-year-old president of Meade Digital Enterprises Corp., which has the exclusive rights to sell seafood from the Market online, and ships fresh fish to 49 states daily.

He changes out of his jeans and black V-neck shirt into a pair of green Carhartt pants, a hoodie, and a vest, and heads inside for another night at work.

It’s cold enough to see your breath inside the Fulton Fish Market, which operates out of a massive 400,000-square-foot facility in the Bronx, after relocating from Manhattan in the mid-2000s. The facility is bigger than the Empire State Building if it were laid horizontally, and inside, roughly two-dozen vendors work through the night. Some of the family businesses here predate the Civil War.

Forklifts race around as seafood brokers jockey for position, arguing with vendors over pricing while vendors argue among themselves about cars, women, and sports. It’s loud, bright, and overwhelming, especially for the middle of the night.

Everywhere you look, fish, squid, octopus, lobsters, crabs, clams, and oysters spill out of large boxes, coolers, and crates from places all around the world. Sri Lanka. Brazil. Hawaii. Vietnam.

“It’s chaos. Organized chaos,” one fish vendor says as he slams a hook into a box of frozen squid, moving them into a cooler full of ice.

It’s also a typical workday for Meade, who managed to turn a one-time trip to the Fulton Fish Market in 2010—then as part of a side hustle—into a lucrative career. After years of building his business within the Market, which sells more than $1 billion worth of seafood every year, Meade says his company earns “between 15% and 20% of that”—or as much as $200 million.

And Meade says he himself reels in a healthy six-figure salary.

From side hustles to clams and mussels

Meade graduated from Penn State with a business degree in 2009 and moved to New York City to try and find a job at a hedge fund—just as the financial crisis and Great Recession were washing over the economy.

“I was almost certain I was going to be a hedge fund manager making $50 million per year within four to six months,” he says, half-jokingly. “But I couldn’t get an unpaid internship shining someone’s shoes. It took me nine months to find a job.”

Eventually, he found part-time work at restaurant-rating service Zagat earning $13.50 per hour. It wasn’t enough to make ends meet in New York.

Sitting at his desk one day, he read an article about a hedge fund employee who was making extra money, good money, schlepping oysters to New York’s high-end seafood restaurants before dawn. Meade tracked the guy down, gave him a call, and asked if he could tag along.

Meade started selling oysters as a side hustle, making sales runs between 4 a.m. and 6 a.m., before he needed to be at work at Zagat. Sales were good—so good that he and his partner needed to find new places to source shellfish.

That is how Meade first found himself at the Fulton Fish Market.

During his initial visit, Meade immediately identified a hole in the Market’s model. To buy seafood from the Market, you need to physically visit and negotiate with the vendors. There was no online presence at all, and vendors were missing out on potentially millions of dollars in sales.

His vision solidified: He wanted to make it easy for anyone to buy seafood from the Market, anywhere in the country. That would require better distribution and an internet presence.

With that, he decided to drag a 200-year-old operation into the 20th century—and then the 21st.

Turning a vision into a reality

Meade quit his job at Zagat in 2010 and started spending almost all of his time in the Bronx.

His idea for selling seafood online directly from the market, however, met with resistance at every turn. The vendors scoffed at him, as did Market management, and even his friends and family tried to convince him to give it up and get a steady job.

But he persisted, pitching his idea over and over again to anyone who would listen, and sleeping in his car in the parking lot or on the picnic tables where market workers take cigarette breaks. He eventually met an investor who, after dissecting a business plan Meade had put together, decided to give him some seed money.

Meade officially formed his company in 2011 and slowly started winning over converts.

“He was relentless, " says Sal Ruggiero, purchasing director at Joe Monani Fish Company, one of the many seafood vendors operating out of the Market.

"This market, the old school thinking...they never thought outside the box,” he says. “This is what this market needs. This whole market is going to be funneling their fish to him.”

Meade's tenacity attracted other investors, and eventually the resistance started to break apart. He signed exclusivity agreements with every vendor in the market to sell their products online. He was eventually granted approval from the market’s management, and after that, the city of New York.

The scales tip

In 2015 and into 2016, with contracts secured and approvals squared away, Meade’s company leased a quiet corner of the Market and set up operations. He hired employees, and got to work building out FultonFishMarket.com —the only place where customers can purchase seafood from the Fulton Fish Market aside from the actual market itself.

Building the site and establishing an internet presence took a couple of years, but today, Meade says, it generates millions of dollars in revenue.

Meade describes his company as “a technology company that sells seafood.” It employs between 50 and 60 people. Every day, the team ships fresh seafood direct from the Bronx to every state in the U.S. (Hawaii being the exception), with the majority of the action taking place between 1 a.m. and 4 a.m.

The model is simple: Customers place seafood orders through the website. Meade’s employees pick the orders from the market’s numerous vendors and then package those orders and load them into vans. Those vans leave at the Market at 4 a.m. and head to LaGuardia Airport, where they are loaded onto planes.

Meade’s operation is growing, too: The company doubled its sales last year and is on track to do so again this year, he says, mostly through word of mouth and social media rather than any big marketing efforts.

And, now, after years of scraping by, Meade’s finally managing to settle into a somewhat more normal routine, which includes working traditional eight-hour shifts and taking weekends off.

“It’s working. It’s a well-oiled machine. The team that’s working here is tight,” he says. “Now I need a hobby.”

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