Bee Biz Talk

On January 19th, I gave a talk to the beekeepers of the Finger Lakes Beekeepers Club. More and more hobby beekeepers would like to turn their love of bees into a business–sideline or full-time–but how to go about it?

I admit that Avital’s Apiaries came about almost by chance. I had planned for years to make a sideline business out of my beloved hobby, but was exploring the different ways of doing that. After all, honey bees make a lot of marvelous raw materials that can be used in thousands of ways, from cosmetics to furniture polish to candles to tinctures.

So I was exploring making balms, along with candle making and honey sales, while also toying with the idea of creating a beekeeper-to-beekeeper business that would include raising queens, making packages (3 pounds of bees and a queen used for starting new colonies) or “nucs” (nucleus hives) which are 4 or 5 frame “mini hives” with workers, brood, and a queen that are also used for starting new colonies. Realistically, I knew that to do this I would have to increase my apiary to at least 100 hives, and eventually more. That amount of work concerned me, but I knew that I could hire help as needed.

My husband David is a great guy who looked at the wholesale price of honey and saw in this… an expensive hobby. I knew he was probably right about that. I considered niche markets for honey, like wedding and shower favors, kosher certification, whipped honey, and so on as ways to make the hobby pay for itself, and perhaps earn a bit of income.

2010-tbe-fair
Notice that candles and honey are prominent in my first fair set up. Little did I know that the best seller that day would be the lotion bars!

In the end, though, it was serendipity. I was asked to participate in the Chanukah Fair at a local synagogue, and discovered that my lotion bars–which I’d made for years for myself and friends–were a hit. In fact, they were a hit for months afterwards, as people contacted me for more! That settled it. If I could make something that so many liked, that was the way to go.

For the next year, I worked on packaging and labels, and taught myself to make soap from scratch. I improved my formulas, explored more exotic oils and butters, tested essential oils, joined discussion groups, and watched YouTube videos, and honed in not only on what I was making, but on what I wanted my business to be.

I realized that it was important to me to showcase the wonderful things that bees make, and how good they are for our skin. I also decided that I would stick to natural or natural-identical colorants and scents in my products. Not because there is anything wrong with, for instance, fragrance oils used by many soap and balm makers, but I want my products to emphasize the bounty of nature. And finally, I wanted to minimize packaging generally, and stay away from plastic as much as possible.

It didn’t take long to learn that I couldn’t avoid plastic packaging entirely: nearly everyone prefers the plastic tubes to tins for lip balms, and the current alternatives are few and difficult for someone with a micro-business. Gift BagGlass spray bottles still have plastic caps. So do glass honey jars.

So that was lesson too: be true to your vision, but be flexible, too. The tubes and caps are at least recyclable, and there are alternatives on the horizon. When they are ready for prime time, I’ll make the switch.

In addition to formulas and packaging, and having a vision, it’s important to learn the legal issues around what you make. Cosmetics and soaps have labeling regulations, for instance, concerning weights and ingredients. Learn about types of insurance, and what you need or want to protect yourself and your business. What about becoming an LLC? Do you need a special kitchen for food prep, or is there one locally you can rent? Depending on your choice of business, there will be a learning curve. Invariably, there will be things you don’t enjoy doing. I don’t love bookkeeping, for instance. But I do love the inspiration and creativity of working on new ideas. So I do the parts that are meh, so that I can lose myself in the parts that fascinate.

Finally, there’s marketing. You can start in local farmer’s markets and fairs in the area, find outlets like the People’s Market or start an online store. But you’ll need to do a little advertising, and that’s where Facebook, Twitter, and blogs like this really help–for free, or almost.

Let people get to know you! After all, what’s more enticing: buying a cake from a faceless commercial bakery, or from Tal Cohen at Ba-Li Cravings (my favorite local baker) who writes with such love and passion about her creations? Let people know why you do this, and who you are, and how much you love it. You aren’t just selling a product–it’s something you love to do, and you’re sharing it!

Obviously, there’s a lot more to starting a business than I’ve put in this post, but if you’d like to chat more about it, leave a comment on this page, or head over to my Facebook page and we’ll start the discussion!

Here’s a link to the handout from Sunday. I hope it helps, and inspires you to take your hobby to the next level!

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