My name is Ward Graham, I am a beekeeper; My degree is in environmental engineering and civil engineering, and I also have a degree in forestry and an undergraduate degree in science and mathematics. My actual day job is something completely different; I work for a telecom company as more or less a network consultant, where I talk to customers about how to integrate technology into their existing infrastructure.
I started Brighton Honey as an experiment simply for the challenge. My main goal is to produce artisanal honey local to my area that is of exceptionally high quality. Supermarket honey is simply a poor facsimile of real honey and may not even contain honey. My customers are honey connoisseurs of sorts and like myself in that they appreciate the clean, flavors of local honey.
Beekeeping is a lot of work and scaling to match my market demand is my main goal. However, I will never scale past what I could not handle myself. I started beekeeping about 10 or more years ago with 2 hives to get familiar with what beekeeping entails and if I could deal with honeybees in general. I always had an interest in beekeeping since I was young, however, I was never able to keep bees. After spending the first 10 years renovating my house I was able to concentrate on beekeeping.
What's your backstory and how did you come up with the idea?
The hobby side of Brighton Honey started a few years earlier with a couple of hives to get familiar with what beekeeping entails and if I could deal with honeybees in general. I have always had an interest in beekeeping since I was young however I was never able to keep bees. After spending the first 10 years renovating my house, I felt I was now able to start beekeeping.
My brother started beekeeping a few years before, and I was able to use him as a resource to jumpstart my journey. I did procrastinate a bit, I will admit, as there is a fair amount of financial and mental capital. Bees are animals that need care and maintenance to keep themselves alive and that is part of the challenge. They are essentially a unique form of livestock that needs a special shelter called a hive. The main challenge of beekeeping in the northern latitudes in winter. If a beekeeper can keep bees alive through winter to spring, they are doing well. The first year did not go too well and both my hives died over winter.
With the investment of the hives and other ancillary equipment, I decided to keep going and had to take this a bit more seriously. I took some beekeeping classes at Cornell University, and this provided a better perspective and foundation for me. My personality is, if I can get a good basic introduction and understanding of something, I can then use that perspective to take in what I need to know at a greater rate. Once I took beekeeping and the challenges of winter seriously, I was then able to scale by adding more hives each year.
Take us through the process of designing, prototyping, and manufacturing your first product.
Beekeeping and honey production is essentially farming. The product is honey and the end state is a neatly packaged product. The logistics of filtering and bottling honey is not hard but it does take perseverance as it is a very labor-intensive process and takes time. I did go through several label designs and still, it is an evolutionary process. Simplicity and branding are a difficult combination to balance. The web can provide a myriad of examples but finding your own is an undertaking and I encourage folks to seek feedback from peers, friends, family. The feedback and criticism may be difficult to hear however they will help in guiding your decisions.
Let yourself make mistakes on the first try at something then you will learn how to make the next one and know what not to do.
Branding and packaging in today's world go beyond the physical and extends into marketing and the web. A product showcase i.e. a website in its simplest form allows customers to become familiar with a product before purchase and get over their fear of commitment to purchase.
Describe the process of launching the business.
The business was launched with the challenge of building an e-commerce website. A “by product” of beekeeping is honey. Obviously, I had to sell the honey to supplement the cost of beekeeping. I was confident I had the ability from a technical perspective to easily build a website, it’s just figuring out the best methods, etc. I wanted to run the site based on WordPress on a Linux virtual machine.
For many years I helped a buddy of mine program his LAN/WAN networking gear on and off as needed. I asked about a VM at his data center, and he had no issue providing it. He spun up a CentOS VM for me and gave me the login info. I was off and running and had the site up and running in a few weeks. I then proceeded to learn everything about getting noticed in search or Search Engine Optimization (SEO). My goal was to never pay for advertising and rely completely on “organic” search. It takes a long time, but I was not really in any rush as winters in Rochester, NY are long and there are plenty of things to do and learn.
Any person that ventures into an entrepreneurial endeavor, I suspect, tells something very similar as to why they do something or as to why they started. It is the personal challenge of an endeavor that keeps a person interested and feeds perseverance. The unique challenges and problem-solving requirements of beekeeping are what keep me going.
Since launch, what has worked to attract and retain customers?
Happy customers are returning customers. When people come to purchase honey I always offer a visit to see the bees. I always answer all their questions and show them the different components of the hives. I point out that the bees are non-aggressive unless you get in their way or bother them and they go about their business ignoring us. People enjoy human interaction and appreciate the direct personal description of the bees. I get visitors that don't necessarily want or intend to purchase honey and are just interested in learning about bees. Living near 2 major universities I get visitors from all over the world.
How are you doing today and what does the future look like?
The future seems bright and as long as the bees are healthy, I will be doing this for a while. My plans moving forward are to add a “honey house” for processing. I have really expanded beyond what I can handle in my existing garage and kitchen. With honey processing equipment storage and maintenance really needs to be within its own workspace.
Through starting the business, have you learned anything particularly helpful or advantageous?
Yes, marketing and SEO is almost a full-time position. I spend many evenings updating and tweaking the website to make sure it is responding well and keeping the search engines happy. Organic search needs constant monitoring and various tools to get results.
Through starting the business, have you learned anything particularly helpful or advantageous?
Anything worth doing is inherently difficult. Try to keep an open mind and convince yourself that you don't know anything about the subject or task you are trying to learn. I have found that prejudice and egos are our worst enemies when trying to learn something. The quote by Albert Einstein “The more I learn, the more I realize how much I don't know.” is so true and perhaps most of us don’t realize this early enough in life.
What platform/tools do you use for your business?
A good well-designed website is key if you want to appear in search. Getting the site noticed you need the basic backlink listings to get you started. The idea is to create a funnel to your website which is the center of a business. All answers are within the content of the website. The entire suite of google web tools is essential, Google My Business and Google Analytics. Getting your business exposure via free business listing sites is critical and of course the top: Google, Bing, Yelp, Apple Maps. Also, social media, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and LinkedIn are a must.
What have been the most influential books, podcasts, or other resources?
There is a wealth of information on the web for almost any problem, it is taking that information and applying it. Podcasts are a special tool to stimulate thinking and it does not necessarily need to be a subject that fits your business.
Personally, I listen to podcasts while doing the mundane physical tasks that go along with any business. If I must make for example 30 bee boxes I must keep my mind occupied in a learning mode. This is where I use podcasts or a good audiobook.
Advice for other entrepreneurs who want to get started or are just starting out?
First and foremost, don’t lose sleep over mistakes. Mistakes are learning opportunities. Let yourself make mistakes on the first try at something then you will learn how to make the next one and know what not to do. Use YouTube and watch several videos about the same thing. You will learn what to do and what to avoid.
Are you looking to hire for certain positions right now?
I don't really want to grow Brighton Honey beyond what I can do myself. I think it would lose the unique character that it grew into. Also, I can manage and interleave beekeeping with my life and enjoy the blend of personal, business, and hobby as it is today.
Where can we go to learn more?
I love to talk about bees and beekeeping so if you have any questions or comments about anything please feel free to contact me
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