#TheProof is a series that celebrates the success of our community. We can’t be what we can’t see, which is why we proudly feature our students from across the globe who’ve made their dreams a reality.
Sena Wheeler (pronounced Seena) comes from a family of fishermen. It would’ve been easy for her to fall into what’s “always been done” in the industry. Instead, she completely transformed it. Today, Sena is the founder of Sena Sea, an Alaskan fish delivery company and “steward of the ocean,” creating a direct link between customers and their fishermen.
Read on to learn how Sena:
- Created her business plan on an 8-hour road trip.
- Started an online business despite rural, bandwidth-restricted internet.
- 10Xed her sales — simply by changing her writing.
Your family has a long history of fishing, but there’s an usual twist, isn’t there?
We call ourselves “a third generation fishing family” and people just automatically assume it's been passed down from father to son. But it’s not, it’s been passed on through the wives! My parents had three daughters, and I’m the one who took the reins.
Did you always know you wanted to continue the family tradition?
Never! I enjoyed learning about it, but I didn’t want to run a boat. Now I look back and think, “Oh, it’s perfect for me.” Growing up, I got to experience every aspect of this industry. I know about the rotation on deck, I understand the lifestyle, and the long days and long nights. It's given me a really unique perspective.
So how did you go from, “I never want to do this,” to founding a fishing company?
My dad was a fisherman and my mom owned a natural food store, so when I went to college, I went into nutrition. Later, I wanted to get my master's degree in food science and needed an adviser. The one professor who was looking for students happened to be in the fisheries department.
I wrote him an email and said, "Hey, I know how to fish, and I've been on my dad's boat." I hadn't thought fishing would be my line of work, but after that one email he was like, "Great, you’re in," and suddenly I had my whole master's degree paid for… studying fish
Full circle. I love that.
That was around the same time I married Rich. He wasn't a fisherman by trade, but he thought he’d give it a try. That’s when he started working on my dad's boat.
I eventually got a dream job working in R&D for a national food company. Rich and I had kids, and during all of that — about a decade — we sold Rich's fish to friends and family. I had a little spreadsheet and when my coworkers or friends wanted some, they’d let me know. I would bring the fish to work and collect a little money on the side.
At a certain point I quit my job to have our third kid and we moved way out into the mountains. It was so rural we barely had internet. We lived like that for eight years.
So your transition into entrepreneurship was a slow build. When did Sena Sea become a reality?
We were on our way to Thanksgiving dinner with my family, and it was an 8-hour drive. At the time, Rich was fishing for Copper River Salmon and he was on the board of the marketing association for Copper River. For context, Copper River's a big deal, and how it's marketed is an even bigger deal.
So we’re in the car and I’m telling Rich, "You guys should market it like grass-fed beef! You should do this and you should do that.” He finally turned to me and said, "Yeah, you should. You should sell my fish."
By the time we got to dinner, we had a business name, Sena Sea, and a plan. I joined B-School a couple months later, built the website, and we had it up and running by the time Rich left for the fishing season.
Wow! So you went from no internet and no business to B-School and a full website in just a few months. That’s a dramatic transition! Logistically, how did you make that work
When you're really rural there’s no cell phone service and only satellite internet. During the day, there's enough bandwidth to check your email, but you can't download anything or stream video. But at night they open up the bandwidth, so from 8:00 p.m. to 8:00 a.m. you have more bandwidth available.
When I signed up for B-School, I knew I’d have to watch the training videos before 8:00 a.m. At the time my husband was away fishing, I had three kids who were eight, five and three, and I was working part-time at my kid’s school.
Sena, this is amazing. I am amazed.
I'm kind of amazed when I think about it! But at the time I just soaked it up like a sponge.
I went through every Module and I did every step as the trainings were released. So when Marie talked about building a website, I was literally building my website alongside her. When she talked about starting an email list, I was setting mine up.
Honestly, I had no idea what an email list even was! Because I was living in the mountains and I had three little kids, I wasn't on a lot of people's lists. So even though I didn't know what she meant, I set it up anyway. And I’m so glad I did, because email is the number one way we make sales and connect with our customers. I would never have known to do that.
Let’s talk about that. Email is now a cornerstone of your business.
Way back when we first launched the website, I launched the email list right alongside it, just like Marie said. At the beginning I only had, like, 40 people on that list. They were literal friends and family, but that helped me write in this low pressure way. And as my list organically grew, I put more time and energy into it.
That's when I took The Copy Cure — so I could learn how to write to people outside of my little bubble. I could see that email was working, and I figured if I could get better at it, it would work even better.
And did it?
It really did. I continued to email twice a month with an average of $500 per email for the remainder of the year. To stay consistent, I just thought of it as getting paid $500 per email and kept going. That was with a list of well under 1000.
Fast forward to today. I email consistently every week and our average sales per email and list size have both increased by 10x. I consider email sales to be our "secret sauce" and I know our business wouldn't be where it is without it.
“I email consistently every week and our average sales per email and list size have both increased by 10x.”
What do you write about?
It's very seasonal, because fishing is seasonal. When the Copper River hits, I'm only talking about Copper River. When the kids and I go up to Alaska to fish on the boat with Rich, I share photos and talk about fishing on the boat with Rich the kids.
In the winter, I talk about stocking up your freezer. In the New Year I share healthy recipes. It's very cyclical, but it always has to do with what's going on.
I get people on my list by opting-in for a free cookbook, How to Cook Fish Like a Fisherman's Wife. We did a lot of farmer's markets when we first started and I would ask customers, “How do you cook your fish?” And they’d look at me and go, "No, how do you cook fish?" That’s where the idea came from.
Your Instagram captions are beautiful too.
So, those are actually straight from my email! I don't like to spend a lot of time on social media, but I do like to spend time writing emails. When I write the email I just re-use that content. I don't try to be at all the places. I try to be in the one place that moves the needle, and for me, that's email.
“I don't try to be at all the places. I try to be in the one place that moves the needle.”
It’s been 8 years since that Thanksgiving road trip. Tell me about Sena Sea today.
We’re based in Central Washington, but we now sell as much in New York as we do in Seattle. We ship overnight to your door. I have a background in onboard handling techniques, so we invested in refrigerated tanks and not letting fish flop on the boat. We use a flash freezing process on the boat, then wrap our catch in parchment paper before vacuum sealing it.
In 2016, we purchased a small processing plant in Cordova, which means the fish never leaves our hands and we have complete control of our entire process. Not only does this help us have the best quality, but it also moves the whole industry forward.
People buy from us because they know how the fish are caught and handled.
Congratulations! What’s been the best part of becoming an entrepreneur?
When we started Sena Sea, I considered myself a person who hates writing. I didn’t even write birthday cards. I made my husband fill them out!
I didn't realize when we started, but owning a small business, especially an online business, is really just being a writer. That's what you're actually doing day in and day out. You're writing emails, you're answering emails, writing product descriptions, writing every word on the website, blog posts… it's all writing.
So wait, you’re saying that the best part of running a business is writing?!
Yes! I've embraced it, and I feel like I'm a writer. I would've never in a million years thought I would be one.
Thank you Sena! You’re incredible!
What did you notice from Sena’s story? Any ahas you can apply to your own life and business? Let us know in the comments below.
→ Want to write words that sell and sound like you? Sign up for our FREE writing class at TheCopyCure.com. You’ll learn the 5 writing mistakes you can't afford to make in your business (and the easy fixes that’ll take you from “crickets” to clamoring fans!).