Beehives and Business Colonies

by Lorne Mitchell on 05/12/2012

I took part of the afternoon off yesterday to sort out a friend’s beehive.  He had started keeping bees earlier this year, having been given a new hive by his parents for his birthday.  After two inspections he called for help for me to take them away.  The bees had stung him so badly that he had dramatic side-effects.  Last weekend, I took a new hive over and yesterday I went to put the bees into my hive.  The bees were one of the most aggressive colonies I have ever opened – and it became clear that they were not the best colony for a beginner beekeeper to start with.

It got me thinking of a few visits that I have recently done to business incubators and business colonies around the country in the past few months.

The first was in London, near Kings Cross at the Centre for Creative Collaboration (C4CC).  My good friend, Brian Condon, has just started a new phase of development by taking on a full-time role running the place.  The C4CC is based near Kings Cross and funded by various parts of the University of London.  The way that the centre attracts projects and develops ideas is outstanding.  A particular success has been Pavegen – which creates paving slabs that generate electricity from footsteps.  They started with the founder and a desk in C4CC two years ago and have now moved out to a local office employing about 30 people.

The second example was in Edinburgh, where I was shown around a new venture called “The Tech Cube” .  The building used to be the home of the The Royal (Dick) School of Veterinary Studies until last year when the School moved to new purpose-built facility 7 miles to the south.  The vision for the Tech Cube was impressive – though the building was still under refurbishment.  What was interesting was the link between the Tech Cube and the University – with the idea of taking some of the young ideas that will be incubated on the top three floors of the Appleton Tower (part of the Informatics Department) about half a mile away and then to commercialise them further in the Cube.  Again – a strong link between University and the commercial sector seems to be the trend.

I was also lucky enough to be shown around O2’s new Business Academy in London – part of a network of accelerators owned by Telefonica under the brand name  “Wayra“.  19 start-ups in London (from a total of 171 worldwide) are each given about £40,000 as a loan by Telefonica to catapult them to the next level.  They each spend 9 months in the accelerator in a cube on the edge of the building bounded by corner-less walls of black that can be written on by passers by.

There is an interesting map emerging – which is summarised on the TechBritain website:

All this got me thinking what the similarities were between my apiary and the successful custodianship of these new businesses accelerators / incubators around the country:

  • Projects and/or businesses are bounded physically (like a hive is within an apiary)
  • Each project has a leader.  Some are more successful than others – depending on the leadership qualities of the boss (queen bee)
  • The organism depends on cross-fertilisation of ideas between the various colonies (a role performed by the drone in the bee world)
  • The workers of each project (hive) collect ideas (pollen and nectar) and enrich their organisation
  • Some incubators (like C4CC) have private rooms that projects can keep their Intellectual Property (honey stores) from the competition
  • Each building (apiary) needs a good leader (beekeeper) to ensure the right treatment is given to each project (hive) to ensure they flourish and survive
  • Each business (hive) has a different path, a different energy, a different future.  Predicting which ones will win and which ones will fail can be difficult!  Just as with bee hives.

Colonies of Artists are not a new thing (see previous post on the Cranbrook Colony.  However, with all the mergers, acquisitions, outsourcing, offshoring and MBA-ification of our business fabric, I somehow think that the only way we can get the UK back on its feet is to get back to the level of the hive and re-learn the art of business within a colony, or business apiary.

This is backed-up by thinking from the Futurist, Thomas Frey, in his analysis of the future of work and how business colonies will become a growing force in the future of how work works.

This weekend I will move the hive from my friend’s garden to my out-apiary where I will have to decide what to do with it in the spring.  Some colonies are just too angry for an amateur beekeeper to want to keep.  Below is a rather quaint scene from the French Alps of an apiary that has probably not changed for a hundred years or more:

However, on the up-side, they are often one the most profitable hives for producing excess honey.  After  this appalling year of honey production, I might well encourage them to flourish next year.  The again, it might be good to encourage them to swarm – so I lose the queen that produces such aggressive daughters.  As in beekeeping, so as in Wayra’s motto: “The rules are not yet written!”

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