Of Beekeeping and Entrepreneurs, Part Two

By John Freisinger

A year ago, I wrote what turned out to be a very popular column about the similarities between beekeeping and supporting entrepreneurs. admonished economic developers to only provide services to entrepreneurs that support their growth and, much like bees; entrepreneurs will thrive despite our best efforts to help them.   I was recently reminded of that column.

A friend asked me to help him move a hive from a property he owned since the resident bees were a threat to local kids and livestock.  The bees were aggressive and he worried that they might harm someone.  My goal was to move the hive away from potential human and livestock interaction to a location where I could “requeen” the hive safely.

True to their reputation, the bees quickly moved out of the hive as I approached and despite my safety precautions (suit, veil, smoker, gloves) several bees found their way up my pant leg as I movedqueenbee the hive.  After four well-placed stings I managed to strap the hive into the bed of my truck and drive off.  As a further insult, and to emphasize its  dissatisfaction with my activities, a lone bee had found its way into my truck and managed to sting me on the forehead as I drove off.  I am not particularly allergic to bee stings but the swelling around the tightly grouped sting sites on my leg did cause some level of discomfort over the next few days.

As I made the long drive home I began to think about the parallels between the growth of companies and the efforts I was taking with this hive.  As an example, this hive had found a way to survive and grow despite the remote location, the poor conditions of the hive boxes and the constant threat of predation, (likely the reason the hive was so responsive to my presence.)—like many small companies that find a way to grow despite the numerous factors against them like lack of capital, support and access to broader markets.

Also, someone had begun the effort to get this hive established but had since abandoned the efforts.  Too often the programs that are developed to assist our entrepreneurs are begun with the best of intentions but are then abandoned becomes of lack of funding or because the program only provides support through a narrow portion of their growth phase.

Third, my decision to move the hive was exactly that: my decision.  I certainly did not ask the bees what they might want, although their stings were a strong exit poll indication of their intentions.  I did what was in my opinion and based on my experience and the desire of the landowner, what I thought was best.  Too often I see programs, boot camps, accelerators and other interventions that while well intentioned, do not adequately address the needs of the entrepreneurs, rather the needs of the program for metrics.

My planned intervention for this hive is to “requeen” the hive.  Beehives will often take on the characteristics of their environment and their leader, the queen.  Requeening will involve destroying the existing queen and introducing a new, more docile queen.  The risk is that the hive will not support the new queen or that she will not be as docile as I would prefer her to be.

In entrepreneurial terms this is akin to a forced change in the management.  As a company grows, sometimes the management does not grow with it, thereby limiting the company’s growth potential.  Boards of directors have been known to replace senior leadership within companies when the direction of the company does not meet their expectations.  This extreme measure faces the same risks as requeening, namely that the staff may not accept the new management or that the new management may not make the intended changes to the company’s direction.  And like the requeening process, monitoring the hive or the company in the days immediately following the change is critical.

My last observation was around my decision to relocate the hive to a new location so late in the season.  When flowers and pollen are prevalent, bee colonies are much more resilient to change than in the middle of autumn.    With constrained resources the bees will need some help getting reestablished in a new location.  Access to water, possibly some supplemental feeding and protection from new predators are all on my list of things to monitor.

The same is true with any company undergoing a transition, especially in leadership, location or clients.  Companies are vulnerable at these times and those of us that seek to support them should be very aware of this critical period.   I have seen too many instances where a company receives a new large contract, or a new high-powered executive or expands into a new, larger office only to watch them shutter their operations in less than a year.  Sometimes what we view as a positive step may be the most vulnerable time for the growth of the company.

So what did I learn from my experience?   First, continued growth is often impacted by external forces, like being too close to livestock.  Second, not everyone will be on board with the new decision.  Third, if a dramatic change is necessary, carefully monitor the progress of the new endeavor.  And finally, always tape up your pant legs before lifting a hive and even then you still might get stung.

See “Pt 1” here:  http://www.innovation-america.org/all-praise-entrepreneurial-bee

John Freisinger is president and CEO of Technology Ventures Corporation and an enthusiastic apiarist.