Interview: Aurora Bee Company
June 10 2016
So, this interview is part of our new business interview series, where we put the spotlight on fellow entrepreneurs that are doing their own thing, making the world and their lives better places.
First up in this series is an interview with our pal and owner of Aurora Bee Company, Joel Frieders. We’ve known Joel for years now, back when he was part of Chicago-based band The Cankles, and we all ran in the same circles. We’ve been friends for longer than a lot of people stay married, and he continues to bless us with drugs and honey to this day.
Yeah, see, Joel founded the Aurora Bee Company in Aurora, Illinois, but he’s also part of a family business called The Compounder. It’s a pharmacy in the same city, and they provide good drugs to good people, instead of bad drugs to good people, like so many pharmaceutical companies are wont to do. But, this interview is about honey. Because bees are badass, and honey is delicious. So, I’m going to let Joel do his own intro here before the interview starts.
So, here’s the relevant intro from Joel himself…
I grew up in Aurora, Illinois, about 35 miles outside of Chicago, and continue to sell drugs in Aurora, with my family, on a street corner, at our compounding pharmacy. I live with my wife and three kids in Yorkville, Illinois, where I am a one-term alderman and run a music blog with some of my friends around the country called SYFFAL.com.
When I was in high school, I wanted to be a rock star, so I was drawn to anything that included a guitar and a stage. I eventually moved out to California to join as many bands as possible. Soon after moving out there, I sort of lost interest in being a rock star, because 99% of being a rock star has nothing to do with playing a guitar, but rather whoring yourself out.
I moved back to Illinois and chose to attend a state school in the middle of nowhere. There I met my future wife, and earned a degree in political science and philosophy. It was at this school where I joined an agricultural group that was taking a three week trip to Russia.
Sure, I was going for historical fascination and a desire to try this liquid they call “vodka,” but I ended up learning more about the honeybee than anything else. And that’s sort of why I’m talking to you here.
1. How long ago did you start your business, and what inspired you to do so?
I started becoming interested in the honeybee while in Russia, in 2002, but didn’t actually move forward with education or mentoring under someone until 2011. Like most important life decisions, it was a fluke that I saw an ad for a beekeeping class online, and an even bigger surprise that I connected with it so quickly. I went from a 9-hour class over the winter, to having the teacher of that class agree to mentor me and let me be his laborer for a summer, to having my own little bee business in one calendar year.
2. How would you describe your business when you started it, and how would you describe it now?
It started out as just a couple of beehives on my family’s compounding pharmacy property, as a way of demonstrating that you can do small things to better the world around you. I would bottle what little honey I was harvesting from the hives, and sell one particular size bottle, and I’d label it with my logo and some smart-ass comments in really tiny text. And then, I realized that I couldn’t keep the honey on the shelves, and people were calling from all over the country to buy it. So, as I kept increasing my number of hives and selling more honey, I started tagging my pictures on social media with #beesbro, and then I hit a point where I felt I had enough hives to break even, and now I enjoy having a waiting list and selling out before I even finish bottling the honey. Plus, I know of three people around the country who are keeping bees now that I’ve shared with them how physically-exhaustingly rewarding it is.
3. Did you have any help starting and growing your business?
My family has been extremely supportive, yes. From understanding why I was on the floor in a puddle of sweat, holding my back and writhing in pain, to why I left a family party to capture a swarm of bees, to why I carry a veil and gloves everywhere, they get it. They were all just as surprised as I was that I wanted to branch out and try something so physically demanding, but it’s a perfectly complementary business for a pharmacy. We’re walking the walk we all talk about.
4. Do you have any mentors that contributed to your foundation and growth?
Absolutely. My mentor is Ed Bell from Belfry Bees in Oswego, Illinois. I call and yell at him constantly.
5. Do you have a team, or are you doing this solo? If you have a team, can you tell us a bit about them?
I do all the beekeeping solo, with the exception of showing my friends what I do when I check in on the bees once in a while. For honey extractions, I normally have a friend or two out to help me, and my friends Shawn, Bernie, Michelle, Adam, and Jason are professional honey extractors now.
6. Have those around you generally been encouraging of what you do, and how did they initially react to your path into entrepreneurship?
I’d say the majority of folks have been more interested in what it is I actually do with the bees than encouraging; but through the photos I share online, there’s a lot more interest than before, when I was just bottling honey and waiting for it to be purchased. If you ask friends of mine that I’ve had forever, they won’t say they’re surprised, although they never really understood me in the first place.
7. How would you describe yourself in your younger years, and how did the past-you influence the current-you?
I’m a recovering musician as well as a former bartender, so I’m used to having to improvise to keep the show moving, and I can B.S. with anyone about anything. But, I’ve always been a bit of an all-over-the-place kind of guy; and while I used to try and force myself to be like my other friends who were working corporate jobs, I learned about ten years ago that I can’t really succeed at anything besides being who I am. I’m a born risk-taker; but while it might seem like I do things on a whim, I’m pretty calculated. So, I’m pretty good at saying no, too, which is a good reason why I won’t expand my beekeeping business past where it is now. Why stretch myself so thin that something could poke a hole in what I’ve worked for?
8. What advice would the current-you offer the past-you?
Start saying no earlier in life, and be completely okay with missing out on things in order to focus on the things you need to take care of. When I first started the business, I thought I needed to be the guy that could solve the entire area’s problems when it came to honeybees. What ended up happening is that I let the responsibilities I created for myself play second fiddle to someone else’s problems, and I ended up failing on two fronts. I let my own business down, and I couldn’t handle the responsibility of someone else’s mess. When you say no more often than yes, you end up making better decisions, in my opinion.
9. Are you a planner, or do you fly by the seat of your pants? What option do you think is better?
Oh, I’m definitely a planner who flies by the seat of his pants. My ideas might be spontaneous, but I don’t invest in something until I’ve explored all angles of where I can potentially screw myself.
10. Where do you prefer to work, if you’re not doing so at your place of business? (E.g. home, café, coworking space, etc.)
Outside, 91 degrees, slight breeze out of the west. That’s my perfect office. But normally, it’s 98 degrees with no breeze and a storm coming in faster than I have time to do all the work that needs to be done.
11. Do you travel for your work? If so, do you have a favorite place to go and work?
Kind of, I keep my hives in small groups within a 20-mile radius, and I have it worked out where I can leave the gym and hit 80% of my hives on the way home to shower. And then, I have two more locations that I hit on my way home from the pharmacy. My goal is to keep bees only in the direct path between my house, my gym, and my pharmacy, and that puts a limit on where I put hives. I can’t expect to be successful if I spend more time driving to a hive than inspecting it.
12. How does owning a small business affect your social and home life?
Socially, it’s fun to answer people’s questions and have them refer people to you when someone needs honey, or wants to burn down a beehive without considering the implications of doing something like that. As far as home life goes, I’ve had to sacrifice my own flexibility at certain times of the year, making sure a million little bees have enough room, aren’t going to starve, and won’t freeze or get eaten by wild animals. There’s also the way it affects how I smell, because normally I smell like a sweaty campfire because of the smoker, and a few times a year I smell like honey, which makes the womenfolk go crazy.
13. Is it a breeze – probably not! – or is it a pain in the neck to get into your business and become successful?
It’s easy once you set your focus into play. When I first started, I wanted to do honey and lip balms and skin care products and removals and swarm calls and everything. But, how realistic is it to be able to accomplish all of those things when you have three kids, a wife, a full time job outside of the bees, and a brief 4-year stint as an alderman and all that entails to contend with? I learned the hard way that you need to know where you can make money and where you’re just dreaming. I don’t see anything wrong with attempting to do something that’s not profitable, as long as you understand why you’re doing it. Most of the things I don’t do today were learned by trying them first and learning why they aren’t something I should be doing in the first place.
When I first came to grips with the desire to be a beekeeper, I had to contend with a lot of other people in the bee business in my local area, but I had to be better in some specific way. So, I probably do what a lot of local beekeepers do in that I don’t chemically treat my hives, and I don’t do much supplemental feeding, but I think my shit tastes the best and I don’t compete on price. A person buying my honey is always second in importance to them buying local honey; so, as long as an actual person extracted and bottled that honey, I’m happy.
14. Are you at a point where you’re comfortable with where your business stands, or do you still feel that you have to grind hard every day?
I am finally at the place where I’m comfortable putting other responsibilities on hold to tend to the bees or extract or bottle honey, and vice versa. It took a good five years just to realize that I’m never going to make everyone happy, but I feel the bee company is a good move for myself and those around me. Because of the immediacy of the honey sales, the second I make honey available to purchase, I can legitimize the labor and exertion I’ve put into those bottles.
15. Do you do something outside of your business in order to make a living, and if so, what do you do?
Like I mentioned before, I run a compounding-only pharmacy with my family, which is what allows me the flexibility to run the bee company and utilize the land adjacent to our facility to house it all. We’re a custom-only business that specializes in treatments for autoimmune disorders as well as veterinary medicines. The Compounder is a restaurant for drugs, basically, where we make any particular drug into any specific dosage form, from creams to capsules to flavored liquids to suppositories.
16. On an average day, how much time do you think about your work? Does it drive you mad when you want to work on something, but aren’t in a place where you can? If so, how do you handle that?
Because a lot of my work is weather-related, I deal with the stress of having all my available time be during storms and all of my time away from the business having blue skies. This means that a lot of weekends and weeknights are spent with the bees instead of with my kids.
17. Tell us about one crazy, terrible experience you had as a burgeoning business person.
It was the middle of July, I was about to go on vacation with my wife and kids, and I had to harvest honey before I left, so I could return, extract, and bottle as soon as possible. I pulled off about five full honey supers using a fume board, which is basically a lid for the beehives that you spray with an almond oil extraction that the bees don’t care for. So, you spray the carpeted insides of this lid, and then let the sun bake it into the hive, and the bees travel down into the lower cavities of the hive, and you take away the honey super on top.
Well, I did this about five times, and because a storm was rolling in, the last super probably still had a good amount of bees in there. But normally, what happens is, I’ll crack open the supers I’m about to extract from, and I’ll just bring the frames outside and gently brush off the bees that stuck around. No big deal.
But this time, I somehow managed to capture a queen and a boatload of nurse bees, because when I attempted to open my honey supers, I was greeted with a few thousand baby bees pouring out of the supers, all performing their orientation flights inside my building.
I quickly suited up and dragged all of the supers outside and tried to separate the fully capped honey frames from the frames with eggs, and capped brood on them, and because of all the new bees being hatched, well, I was standing in the middle of about 50,000 bees, some from the boxes I just dragged outside and some from the five or so hives I had a few hundred feet away who smelled free honey. This entire ordeal lasted about six hours, as I couldn’t salvage any honey because every single frame was being attacked by every flying insect from five miles around. And, the new bees that had just hatched had no idea where home was and chose the front door of my pharmacy as their place of residence, which didn’t sit well with our UPS driver or any of our customers.
I spoke about this incident with three different beekeepers and each one of them said what I had happen was a one in ten million accident and that I should learn from it rather than dwell on it. I have changed my methods for harvesting honey, I assure you.
18. What about one memorable experience that has made it all worthwhile?
This is difficult to answer, because every time someone who has never tried local honey actually tastes it, the look on their face is one of pure joy. I’ll never get tired of that. But, I will admit that showing kids the bees is probably the most rewarding. They can go from fearful to fascinated faster than I can take down a pound of honey, and it’s even cooler to be recognized by a complete stranger in public as the guy who showed him the bees. Even though I don’t have the time or facilities to do that sort of thing quite often, it’s still among the best feelings I can imagine.
19. What are the top physical tools that you can recommend for any aspiring small businessperson?
You need to know what you are physically capable of. Trying to do everything for everyone is only going to make you miserable. So, either get a watch, a calendar, or an app that will keep you on task if you need it; but I would recommend focusing on the physically possible before anything else. If inspecting one hive takes you 45 minutes, you can’t logically assume that it’ll somehow be faster when you multiply that times ten.
20. What are the top mental traits that you think a businessperson needs?
First, you have to understand your market with no bias. Just because your mom says you’re good at something doesn’t mean it’s true. Second, truthfully figure out why you would be better than someone else doing the same thing as you. And third, make your product desirable.
21. What dos and don’ts do you have for someone who wants to open their own business?
Do establish a relationship with a mentor as soon as possible. Don’t assume they know you’re looking to them as a mentor, so make sure you’re clear in who you call, and when you call them, that they are in fact your mentor.
Do follow a dream. Don’t blindly assume your dream is worth following. Research the hell out of it.
Do prepare to fail. Do believe you won’t. Don’t be afraid to ask someone wiser than you for help.
22. Would you recommend people forge a path as an entrepreneur?
I don’t see anything wrong with working for someone, as long as working for someone doesn’t stifle your creativity and potential. You can be just as original and creative working under someone as you can on your own; you just have to find the right boss, company, or organization.
23. Do you think you’ll ever leave, sell, or close your business? If so, what would bring it about, or what would it take to make that happen?
Sure, I hope to one day gift it all to an aspiring beekeeper when I’m ready to close up shop. If one of my kids is that person, great. If not, I am completely open to handing the smoker over, as long as I’m emotionally ready to say goodbye to me bees, bro.
24. In a parallel universe, what would be your ideal profession, and why?
I always wanted to be a college professor and have corduroy jackets with patches on the elbow. I’d ride my bike to work. I would wave to everyone. I’d be debt-free. I would be the spitting image of the sitting president. One day, that president would die while sleeping with a prostitute. Wait, I’m describing the movie Dave. I love that movie!
25. If you were a plant, what would you be, and why?
Cannibis sativa. Because hell yeah, I help kids with seizures, returning soldiers with PTSD, make amazing textiles, and when the stress burns my brain just like acid raindrops, Mary Jane is the only thing that makes the pain stop.
26. Any last words of wisdom or warning?
If you’re going to approach a beehive, don’t eat a banana beforehand.
You can learn more and support Aurora Bee Company at the following links:
- Aurora Bee Company: aurorabee.com
- The Compounder: thecompounder.com
- Facebook: facebook.com/aurorabeeco
- Twitter: @joelfrieders
- Instagram: @joelfrieders
Any thoughts about our interview with Joel, or his work with Aurora Bee Company? Any questions about this talk, or suggestions for future interviews? Let us know your thoughts down below!