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All That Slithers

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As a girl, Coby Steffani didn't concern herself with typical girly things. While her friends were playing with Barbies, young Steffani was out catching reptiles and spiders--and hoping for an opportunity to put her longtime love for all things scaly to good use. "I've always been a little different," she says with a slight laugh.

Steffani's unique ambition has paid off: She just celebrated two years in business at Reptropolis, her San Clemente, California, reptile store. Steffani spends her day surrounded by monitor lizards, frogs, turtles, tortoises, chameleons, geckos, boas and pythons--and she's loving every minute of it.

"Most people think only mammals are good pets," says Steffani, 20. "But reptiles are the same. It's cool to see how they're a lot like mammals--they give affection to each other and take care of their young."

It all started when Steffani met her now-husband, a lizard guru and former Petco employee. "Anyone who came into Petco with a sick reptile they didn't want--my boyfriend would take it home," recalls Steffani. "Our collection got up to around 45 reptiles."

Then came a settlement check for an injury she sustained at age 12--and soon after, Reptropolis.

Steffani, a musician who hopes to one day hand over her store to a trusted employee and do foreign ministry work, is quite content with her 2,500-square-foot store. In fact, she's so dedicated to her cold-blooded friends that she doesn't even keep track of her sales. "I don't think about that kind of stuff," she says with sincerity. "Every day, I just work my hardest and make as much as we can."

She admits, though, it's not easy working around certain city regulations. Nor is it easy to be a young business owner who might not immediately appear proficient in lizard care. "A lot of customers don't take me seriously," she notes.

Yet the self-educated entrepreneur, proud owner of two jungle carpet pythons, does know her stuff. "I tell them `This is what I know from experience," says Steffani, "not books."

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Karen E. Spaeder is a freelance business writer in Southern California.

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This article was originally published in the September 1999 print edition of Entrepreneur with the headline: All That Slithers.

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