Trick question: can a shark a million years extinct be an endangered species?

Fun post for Friday: an interview with serial entrepreneur Matt Heaton, who has just launched FossilEra, a site at which you can buy cool fossils to impress friends and yourself. And to ponder on just how late we human beings are to the terrestrial party. 

As you read this interview, keep in mind that Matt is a passionate fossil hunter himself. I believe a species of trilobite has been named after him, such is his affection for that creature noted in paleontological circles. Disclosure: I am an investor in Matt's company.


Q: Matt, if I go to Fossil Era to buy something cool for myself, or a gift for a friend, what should I expect to spend?

A fossil can make a very interesting gift. There is something unique and appealing about being able to hold something in your hand that was alive tens of hundreds of millions of years before humans. They can be appealing to people for a large variety of reasons, the natural history aspect, the aesthetic/art aspect, or a big fossil Megalodon tooth can just look downright impressive.

We have specimens across a large variety of price ranges from $10 through several thousand. There is a pretty good selection of quality fossils under $50 for sale.

Q: How old are these fossils, and where do you get the inventory?

The fossils range from trilobites which are as old as 540 million years to things like Megalodon teeth that can be as recent as 3 million years.  To put this time range in perspective, modern humans have been on earth for only about 200,000 years.  

Inventory comes from a variety of sources.  Most of it comes from wholesale suppliers who I personally know and have collected with in the past.  Some material comes from old collections being liquidated which I either buy in mass or sell on a consignment basis.   There is also some fossils on the site which I've collected and prepared myself.  All of the material has been legally collected mostly from private leases.  You won't see material offered from BLM lands which is illegal to sell, or China where it can't be legally exported.

Q: How much time does it take to prepare each fossil? What is the process?

The preparation time is an under-appreciated aspect of fossil collecting and in many fossils preparation time represents the majority of the cost.  Many fossils when collected are still partially or even fully covered in matrix (rock) which has to be removed.  In many cases such as with most trilobites this requires tedious work under microscope using air abrasives (think miniature sand blaster) and air scribes.  Here are some examples for the site.

437-137The trilobite of the species Walliserops trifurcatus with free standing spines [pictured at top] would have been found in cross section completely encased in hard limestone.  Removing all of the rock surrounding it would have taken on the order of 40 hours of highly-skilled preparation work under microscope.  And yes, all of those spines and the trident shaped appendage on it's nose is real.

Here's another example of a trilobite from New York which I collected and prepared myself.  It includes a before and after photo of the preparation and probably took me about an hour of work under microscope.

Q: Fossil Era started as a game company, Bad Pug Games. Is this the mother of all pivots, totally random, or is there any link between the old business and the new venture?

Yes, this is a pretty interesting story.  About two years ago I developed a massively multiplayer, strategy game called Starpires purely as a hobby project.  It ended up gaining a passionate following with some very impressive player acquisition and monetization numbers.  Based off of these numbers I raised a small round of funding from local angel investors (yourself included), so that I could scale the game.

Things went great for about 6 months, with Starpires garnering some impressive player growth and revenue numbers.  Then early in the summer it hit one wall after another, primarily due to platform changes with Facebook, my primary avenue of player acquisition.  They shut off nearly all of my sources of organic players and my advertising cost per signup quadrupled in two months.  With the spike in player acquisition costs the game went from have great profit margins to being unprofitable.

I explored many other avenues for player acquisition without much success.  There was still some investor capital in the company and a revenue (quickly dwindling) stream so I decided to look for an alternative course forward.  Given the state of the free-to-play gaming industry I felt building another game was unlikely to yield a positive outcome.  I decided to do a 180 degree change in direction and pursue a business I'd been looking at for years. Fossils and paleontology has always been my passion but I was very wary of corrupting my hobby by making it a business.

After discussions with many people in the industry I got over my fears and began work on building FossilEra. I built FossilEra under the Bad Pug Games corporate structure in order to bring along the current investors and use the existing capital/revenue as seed funding.  I felt this was much more preferential outcome than simply wiping out investors, or being stuck stubbornly pursuing a line a business to the bitter end with little chance of success.

Q: Show us your favorite, moderately priced item on the site right now.

Well that depends on your definition of moderately prices.  I'm really like the cut and polished ammonite fossils we are selling from Madagascar in price ranges to $10-159  They not only are very interesting from the natural history perspective but are absolutely gorgous and display well.  


Q: So I hear you’ve been banned by Google for trading in “endangered species.” How in the world did your pre-historic fossils get on an endangered species list?

This one really wants to make me bang my head against the desk.  Google decided to ban one of our advertising accounts because in their opinion selling Megalodon teeth violated their policy against selling endangered species.  Nevermind they've been extinct for several million years, long before the appearance of modern man on this planet.  I think someone has been watching too many fake Shark Week "documentaries"  After about a dozen  emails back and forth they still continue to stick to their claim that Megalodon is an endangered species.

Photos are copyright, used here with permission.

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