DURHAM – At 22, fresh out of NC State, Leigh-Kathryn Bonner launched her urban beekeeping startup, Bee Downtown, to help make a small difference in the dangerous global decline of bees.
Four years later, she’s on a roll with nearly 50 corporate partners – and counting.
“Bee Downtown offers a one-of-a-kind engagement and leadership development experience,” said Elliot Brewer, associate at Karlin Real Estate, the parent company of Parmer RTP, which recently added a hive to their campus. “This partnership helps support our mission to provide world-class amenities and a healthy work-life balance where people can interact, spark ideas, and make a difference.”
This year, the company is on track to rake in $1 million in recurring revenue.
WRAL TechWire’s Chantal Allam sat down with the 26-year-old founder and CEO for a chat at American Underground, where the company is based, to get the scoop on her success, and where she plans to go from here.
- How did you come up with idea for Bee Downtown?
I’m a fourth generation beekeeper, and I’ve always loved agriculture. We had a family farm about an hour away from Raleigh in Farmville, North Carolina. My grandfather has been a beekeeper since he was at college at NC State, and then my uncle has been a beekeeper for most of his life. But I didn’t really get into beekeeping until I was in college. I also went to NC State and took a course called Introduction to Bees and Beekeeping, and fell in love with how the professor taught about bees. My uncle took the same class from the same professor, a generation apart. The professor talked about the issue of bees in the world, and the darkness and pain around it, but if you do just a little bit, you make a difference.
I wanted bees. I was so into it — from freshman to junior year. I asked our apartment complex if I could put beehives there, and they said no. Then I was interning for Michael Goodmon at American Tobacco Campus, and I was absolutely terrified to bring this idea up to him [to put a beehive there]. I finally talked to him about it, and without hesitation he was like, Absolutely. Let’s do it.’ Burt’s Bees world headquarters was there, too. So we put a six-foot-tall clear beehive at their headquarters, and then we added the bees to the roof. Media started picking up on it, and people starting saying, ‘This is really cool. Our office should have this.’
I went home, and I had to give a pitch to my parents like “Shark Tank” in our living room. After the pitch, they said they’d invest in my living expenses for one year, but I had to be profitable and pay myself a living wage and show growth. That was 2015. It just kind of started to snowball from there.
- Bee Downtown has corporate partners in North Carolina and Atlanta, Georgia, including the most recent additions — Parmer RTP, RTI International, Accesso and Appalachian Brewing. What do these additions mean for the company?
We’re close to 50 corporate partners now, and we’ve got more on the way that we just haven’t announced yet. For us, every year we want to grow in both locations. We’re still trying to figure out how we sell, and how our business model works. I was talking to the COO of RTI, and he said, ‘It was a no-brainer for us to do this [after seeing] other companies across the Southeast participate and commit to making a difference in a sustainable way.’ That meant a lot to me to know that people are noticing the company, and want to be part of the Bee Downtown family. My hope is that it does what my professor always taught — brings people joy. It doesn’t matter who you are, where you work or what you do, you want to be part of something that is greater than yourself.
- Give us some background. What is the state of the global bee population at the moment?
It’s where it’s been for a while. Actually, this year it’s supposed to be a little bit of a higher decline. People typically misunderstand that we lose a quarter to half of the bees in the U.S. every year. However, each year we have the same number of honeybees in the U.S., and it’s because honeybees are managed agricultural populations. We can take beehives and turn from one to four, if we need to, or six or eight. We are now mass-producing honeybees to bring the number of bees back to the levels that they need to be, mostly for agricultural pollination. This is a band-aid to the situation because we’ve wiped out all the genetic diversity now, and the honeybees are just split and grown into oblivion, and they’re sick, and when one hive gets sick, they all get sick, and they all have to have medicine now.
For Bee Downtown, the hope is these bees are in stable living conditions in these cities. That they’re not on the back of 18-wheeler trucks being moved across the country for pollination. The hope is not that we’re going to feed the U.S.; it’s that these beehives are small, little microcosms of sustainable agriculture in cities that people can come to and learn about, and again have respect for agriculture and the reverence for the work that goes in to feeding people around the world. We’re not fixing honeybee decline and fixing issues of large-scale agriculture. What we’re trying to do is help other people tell their stories, and hope that those stories mean enough to the people that they then turn around and say, ‘this impacted my life in a way I want to do better and support local farmers.’ It’s a ripple effect. We’re doing our very small part, but each time a company gets a beehive, we have a new epicenter of the ripple effect, and that ripple effect then starts to become very big when you look at it as an aggregate.
- Talk us through how you set up a beehive in a corporate setting.
We have beehives in all different types of corporate settings. American Tobacco and WRAL have them on their rooftop. We’ve got some that are clear inside of buildings that have a tube through which the bees leave. That’s at Be Home Realty and Burt’s Bees headquarters. We have some that are literally up against a glass window – like at Georgia Power. Every time a beekeeper comes out and does classes, literally there is an exodus to the glass windows of the lobby and employees are, like, glued to it because they can see everything happening through the glass. And some are pretty far away. They’re meant to be more of a secret on the campus. It just depends where companies want to put the hives.
Typically, we do a big grand opening party to celebrate and let people ask about the bees from our team. Then the bees come in a week later. It’s a much smaller introduction because they’ve been jostled around in the back of the truck and moved, so we want to keep that a small introduction to the campus. The beehives are painted by local artists to match the branding of the company. We also paint the queen bee a color, so she’s easier to find during tours and classes. Worldwide there are colors based off of years. This year is lime green. If they are a year older, they’ve got red dots on them. It helps us know how old the queens and the hive are. The bees come out, and we typically will work with their landscaping team to talk about spraying and how to interact around the hives, what they could potentially plant to add more health on campus, not just for the bees but for all the pollinators.
Then we start the classes. Ben (in the Triangle) and Nick (Atlanta) are out in the hives every six to 12 days. Every hive they visit. They’re working the hives and employees are always welcome to stop by and ask questions. The tours and leadership classes are more structured.
- What kind of technology do you use?
We run on different Salesforce platforms, but we also use beehive scales by Solution Bee. We put those scales on some beehives and those scales are sending data back every two hours to the beekeepers and also to us to be able to send to our corporate partners. It’s measuring humidity in the beehive, temperature, and weight. We’re able to see if a hive is losing weight very quickly, then we know that something is wrong with it and look into that. We can also see when the honey flow starts and when it ends, and we can see how many pounds they put on in a day. The companies love to see that.
- What is your business model?
Companies pay an annual fee for the hives and the programming. The programming is what is Bee Downtown. The hives are great, but it’s not sustainable to have a company that only puts beehives places because you kind of tap out on what companies are willing to pay, which is what we learned. We started with just beehives, and we learned that the amount of time and engagement companies wanted at the beehives was a service that we were providing. So we changed the pricing structure around it. The companies pay depending on how many programs they want to have and events and classes, and leadership development that they want to have for their employees on the campus. Some companies pay for all of it, and others will pay for the hives and a couple of classes.
- How’s the company doing in terms of revenue?
When we started, we were at $17,000 our first year in annual sales. Last year, we were about at $750,000 in annual sales. We’re bringing on a good number of new partners this year, on top of adding more classes for the companies that are current partners. Fingers crossed, we’ll get to $1 million in recurring revenue this year.
Initially, my goal was a $1 million by March – my 26th birthday. It’s the first goal that we didn’t hit, so that was a little bit difficult for me because I really thought that we were going to get there. But part of that is, we stopped and took a step back. I feel a lot of startups aren’t able to do that. They’ve got investors and they’re running out of cash. Bee Downtown is fortunate because we really don’t have investors. We’ve taken on investment formally once. That was through Engage Ventures Fund, and it was $75,000 so we could be part of this program in Atlanta in 2017. We’re able to stop when we need to reassess what the value is that we’re providing, and where we can add more. This is different than most companies out there. We’re not the next Uber or Bird. We’re about beekeeping and relationships. There’s really nothing like this leadership development that we’ve developed with retired Colonel Joseph LeBoeuf. It’s kinetic, and it’s biomimicry. It’s getting employees out of their comfort zone in a learning situation. It’s an even playing field when they go out in the beehives. Pretty much nobody knows what they’re getting into. They’re all a little scared, learning and doing things for the first time.
- In 2017, you were named Southern Living’s Southerner of the Year. Then you were named an Inc.’s 30 Under 30 Young CEOS and now you’re a Forbes’ 30 Under 30 Listmaker for 2019. What do you say to that?
It’s my name on it, but it’s really “we” on the list. I say “we” because it’s my team as an entity that got us there. It’s the community and the people, Capitol Broadcasting and Sas, and all the companies that took a risk on us as the crazy bee company that wants to put tens of thousands of flying-stinging darts on campuses. They got us to where we are, telling a story that is so different to any other startup story out there right now. It also makes us seem so much bigger than we are. We are tiny team and we work our butts off. People are so surprised when they realize how small Bee Downtown actually is.
- Now that you’ve mentioned it, how many employees do you have working for you?
There are seven, and one is on maternity leave, so there are six, right now. It’s a really small team managing contracts with the some of the largest, most influential companies in the world. We are all very young. Scotty is the lead contact for Delta, AT&T, Chick-Fil-A, Sas, IBM, and she is 22 years old. They can’t get enough of her. She’s managing some contracts that some people would dream of, and she’s knocking it out of the park.
- So where to from here?
The leadership development is where we see Bee Downtown really thriving and being able to provide the most benefit to the partners that we work with. It’s five out of five stars for all the surveys of employees who take the tours with us. Over 90 percent want to come back and do it again. With leader education and employee engagement, you want that. You want it to be this experience that employees hold on to deeply about their company. Over 85 percent says that even just a tour of 90 minutes in the beehive made them more proud of the company that they work for. And at a time in which people are job-hopping and you’re having a hard time with retention, to have an experience that employees more proud of their workplace, that’s a big deal for corporations, and it’s bees and bee boxes. It’s getting back to this understanding that people love being outside, and we don’t invite that enough anymore.