Beekeeping for Bees
Charlie finally received the partnership agreement promised by Brad two years prior... only now he was no longer an owner, and there were four other "equal partners" with Brad as the sole decider and owner. Hows that for Beeing an April Fool.
Steadily over time through masterful duplicity, Brad managed to win confidence from Laura and Scott. Building a magnificent corporate fiction about how difficult I was to work with as he defiantly and in private, continued to refuse repeated requests to show sales, financials or even accounting information.
One day Brad left his laptop in the office and Charlie was told to get some needed files off it on a thumb drive. While sorting through open screens, Charlie noticed Brad had been secretly monitoring all Charlie's email correspondance sine the start. No wonder he knew about meetings and plans even before I did.
He later brought on a Brian Sweitzer, some business expert from Poland, allegedly on a review basis. With absolutely no consultation or approval by CHarlie, now Brad was just doing his own thing.
As Charlie and Jesse began working the Beepods, they realized the bees were better behaved. Far fewer bees took to the air in defense of the hive and those remaining on the combs seemed oblivious to us inspecting them. The bees were so calm we began shedding our traditional bee suits and not bothering with the smoker. We started using turkey feathers to to move bees rather than smoke. Wore thin latex gloves rather than heavy leather mitts. We found simple techniques for manipulating the bars of comb seemed to not bother the bees at all. Why?
Well seems when you let the bees make their own home, the way they want, and you are only lifting comb-like walls, up and returning them back tightly together with no access out the top, the bees are much more tolerant of interventions. Think about it. The only thing a honey bee protects is it's home. It will guard it with its life. So inspecting the stacked box design is all about tearing the bee's house apart floor and ceiling. Beekeepers typically inspect in the daytime because the expert flyer bees are of expertly flying and only the younger "house" bees are left inside and they've got specific tasks to do and have not yet learned how to fly. So rip their house apart and they all take flight, Even the design of a stacked box, with its vertical spacing to allow the colony to move up and down the boxes, encourages more bees to take flight during an invasive inspection. Thats why beekeepers use smoke and wear protection. Bees communicate mostly by smell and smoke makes it hard to hear. But if there are no bees in the air, who needs smoke. So by a series of unforeseen accidents began realizing this design changed the paradigm of beekeeping. As the bees became more comfortable of the inspections and polite behavior of the beekeeper, they also became tolerant-in fact oblivious to entire groups of visitors to the Beepod.
As fate would have it, this was around 2006, when a mysterious die-off began happening to the world's bees. All of a sudden a whole new sector of people were becoming interested in backyard beekeeping and the idea of using the "traditional" stacked box hive in backyards, was not entirely appealing to the new-bees. Suddenly it became obvious Beepods needed to create this new alternative choice to the traditional Langstroth Stacked Box design.
Over the next few winters we really started understand the idea of creating a complete beekeeping system. Customers needed a complete system because we knew they'd get flack from their local beekeeping "experts" until the hive became acceptable.
We were still bootstrapping our costs and we leaned on our friends and family to keep us afloat. Eventually Jesse left the business for a more stable income and career, leaving Charlie the sole owner.
Charlie developed specialized tools, techniques and data collection forms to help teach "pattern recognition" the way of the bee. He partnered with local blacksmiths, artists and craftsmen rather than going overseas—that's not the way of the bee. Next he added a Harvest Box for storing full capped comb from summer to give back to the bees in winter. Then realized it was a great box to catch swarms and raise splits.
The next step was to build an App to make data collection easier and able to be aggregated in the cloud for greater knowledge and research. Charlie had moved the Beepod operations to Bucketworks a makerspace collective for tech startups and creatives. There he met all the local 414 meetup groups like programmers, wordpress users and DC414, for the serious geek. While there he was invited to pitch an idea for a bee inspection form app at a hackathon.
There he met Scott Offord, an SEO geek and head of the wordpress group. Scott was impressed by the Beepod and volunteered to help when we needed it. At bucketworks Charlie particpated in a mini local shark tank session and was really turned off by the lack of Angel investors. Everyone was looking for a get-rich quick scheme... it was discouraging.
Nearly 30 years ago, a BFA graduate with an industrial design focus left college just as the Apple Macintosh was introduced. Rather than going in the trade, I followed intuition and went to work selling Desktop Publishing to agencies and design firms. Its always been about helping people be better. More than a dozen years later, I left the innovative Apple Authorized Smart Studio I founded, helping people “think different” about using Apple Computers, and started thinking different about Bees. After a tip from my sister Barb about an urban farm on 55th and Silver Spring in Milwaukee, I began helping Will Allen's Growing Power do marketing and discovered bees. Soon I was partnered up and taught classes with Jesse Spanaus, their first beekeeper. One day, while instructing four retired nuns about bees because their gardens were not getting properly pollinated, an epiphany happened. It was clear they could not handle the conventional stacked box hive. One look at these frail nuns lifting honey boxes weighing as much as 80lbs each, filled with stinging insects and towering above them in stacks it was clear there needed to be alternatives to the "traditional" hives. So began the search for a different hive. One that spreads the colony out wide, not tall. One that lifts box up for easier access.
I teamed up with a friend and woodworking wiz, David Hinterberg, and with Jesse, the three began prototyping a modular elevated square box "pod". The clever cube pods had variable use portals with custom inserts to either join pods together or add entrances, vents, feeders, observation windows, even an art studio for custom wax work. While it was very clever and precise in its design, it was not a good fit for the bees. It was too air-tight, the bees could not shed the moisture they created generating heat over winter. Bees are masters of HVAC (heating ventilation air conditioning) but... Bees don't have towels.
The Connected Catalyst team of Brad and Zach zoomed in overnight and began meticulously recording all the manufacturing and assembly procedures. They were obsessed with making everything into a step by step handbook for when we had 100 employees. Charlie was tolerant by Brad's obsession with creating the big picture, but struggled to get him to just stick to the day to day. Saying things like "its great to spend all this time making a manual about how to assemble a beepod, but meantime we have to make five to go out the door." Brad was all about the heirachry and protocol and business structures planning. He worked round the clock to understand and "own" every step of the operations. All the while Brad assured Charlie to concentrate on the bees and leave operations and business to him.
Charlie confided to Brad of a few blemishes in his past including a foreclosure and back taxes, that might jeopardize the business so it was decided he not be an officer until that was straightened out. Months went by and there was always an excuse for not having the business paperwork (Income Statements, P&L, Balance Sheets) as well as that agreement.
But they were busy doing things, making deals, growing relationships.
Learn more about the inventive beekeeping system
This is as much an 'exorcize' for me, the inventor, to let go my emotional connections in order find the way forward as it is the telling of the Beepod story. What happened to me is not uncommon. These days far too many people, from Steve Jobs to perhaps even your neighbor, endure betrayal by a dishonest business partner. Inventors are dreamers and concept drivers. Their invention would never exist were it not for all the trial and errors, ceaseless determination, countless hours of refining and rethinking.
Often they look to a business-savvy partner to help manage the company. Sometimes these partners take advantage of trust (or naivety) of the Inventor, and steal the rights and ownership. Such was the case with Beepods with a swindler named Bradley James who deliberately created a false narrative to steal ownership and rights from me. Having lost everything I worked on for a dozen years, I now feel redemption and promise for the vision my nemesis gave me with his treachery. I will detail the history of my inventing Beepods not so much as a warning to others of the grift and deception of one man, but as a karmic lesson that he gave me by stealing from me what was thought most important in my life... he gave me a gift of bee-ing redeemed.
The colony stores honey not only for food, but also to hold heat. They cluster tightly around their queen and wiggle, creating friction and heat. Honey holds temps much like flannel sheets keep you warm on cold winter nights once you wiggle your legs a bit to create friction heat. Bees can heat, eat and melt doorways through their combs til Spring springs and they go out for fresh food.
But just like humans, when bees shiver to create heat, they increase respiration and without adequate ventilation, they cannot stop the condensation from collecting above them, eventually dripping down on the colony. Bees don't have towels. By Spring they were a dead ball of moldy gross bees.
Back to the drawing board, this time, thinking like a bee. We researched ancient designs and studied bee-havior. David learned of Kenyan tribes in ancient times that kept bees in hollowed tree logs tipped sideways with sticks over an opening spaced so the bees would draw comb in fins but from each stick... a Top Bar Hive. Next they found a British beekeeper, Phil Chandler, who published a book with plans to build your own.
Believing Brad to be a trusted advisor from Slow Money, Charlie had given complete access to records, notes IP, in fact all the admin passwords. Days after the event Brad proposed to become a 30% shareholder in Beepods and handle the business portion of Beepods saying "trust me" he believed in the cause and felt it could become a major business.
As great as it sounded, this all just didn't sit well and Charlie asked a friend sit in on Brad's pitch because it sounded almost too good to be true... Well following a masterful white board ben franklin close where Brad listed all Charlie's challenges, goals, concerns and dreams, he drew a big line down and wrote Trust... and circled it a couple times. Saying trust him and he'd do all the right things. Well Charlie's friend agreed Brad was the right person for the job, witty, savvy and a natural at gaining confidence. The two shook hands and Brad said his Banker father would draft and Agreement in a couple weeks. And it was off to the races.
Being industrial designers with a fancy triple-axis CNC machine, we also took the opportunity to get creative with the design. Rather than simply manufacturing the plans from Chandler's book, we started rethinking and redesigning it. Sliding screened bottom with adjustable vents and the slotted top bars, mechanical fasteners, shuttered windows, an internal feeder system, a vapor barrier roof—the vented top bar hive. We made the bar length compatible with the stacked box "Langstroth" so people could have mixed apiaries.
One late night cutting parts, drinking beers and surfing the net for bee info, David and Charlie came across a bee's head image that gave us an idea. Lets make the hive LOOK like a bee's head from the side. We could make the whole system an educational tool. Thus the legs became metaphors for antennae, the entrances became nostrils, the end cap slides looked like mandibles and we added three round vents on the top as Ocillia were the bee's navigation system sensors. Charlie's background with Apple made choosing the name Beepods a no-brainer and he quickly designed a logo and branding began.
Once it was done we took the prototype to a meeting of beekeepers and instructors to roll out the concept. Following a round of ridicule and disbelief, the participants offered suggestions, however it was clear that "traditional" beekeepers would be skeptical and reluctant to support this "radical new design". We went back and made final refinements, produced a dozen prototypes to sell at cost to beta testers. Some were experienced, others were beginners, young and old. We lost a few colonies but learned alot from our beta testers and went into limited production the next year selling 25 units. There was alot of hand holding and learning with the first units. Mostly we learned we'd created an alternative to a very long standing hive design and the "traditional" beekeepers did not appreciate it at all. We had trouble selling the idea to the retailers and found traditional tools and methods were not compatible. We had to create a complete beekeeping solution for new beekeepers to embrace and understand. And here's where it gets magical.
Then one day Charlie got a call from a friend who recommended Beepods apply for a spot on Slow Money Wisconsin's 2014 Showcase in Madison. He was assigned a "mentor" as were all the candidates. The candidates were to be coached because as Executive Director, Tera Johnson said "Inventors rarely know how to speak Investor" and the advisors were to get them ready. Charlie was assigned slick young business guru, Brad James and his consulting team Connected Cataylist.
James knew all the buzz words and had all the "right moves" to get Beepods the needed slow money funding to get off the ground. He and his partner Zach Munns drew up a slick business prospectus showing how Beepods was destined to make millions in just three years ... with the right startup capital. The projected numbers seemed quite idealistic but Charlie was assured this was standard business practice. Brad and Zach exhaustingly coached Charlie even scripting the language.
Alas, the 2014 winter extended well into spring and most of the investors were still in their summer retreats when the event date arrived. Beepods didn't attract investment, but shortly afterwards Brad had a proposition.