Like so many business owners impacted by the economic crisis spurred by COVID-19 closures, Chris Miller vividly remembers the last time things were “business as usual.”
It was mid-March and the cofounder of BeeKing’s, a Puyallup raw honey manufacturer, was selling his company’s wares at the weekend-long South Sound Women’s Show at the Tacoma Dome. That Saturday, everything went off without a hitch, but when Miller returned to the venue the following day, things had changed.
“On Saturday, the first death from coronavirus happened up in Kirkland,” Miller recalled, “so on Sunday people were at the event and they were kind of like, ‘What does this mean?’”
Miller, who does more than half of his business at live events, shows, farmers markets, and festivals, soon saw cancelations pour in from one business opportunity after another. Before he knew it, the state had entered into Gov. Jay Inslee’s Stay Home, Stay Healthy order and business slowed to a crawl.
“We watched our foot traffic dry up because everyone was staying home — which they should have been doing, it was the right thing to do — and (we’re) just slowly watching the frustrations (of other business owners) and trying to figure out exactly what is happening and what does that mean for me and my staff,” Miller said.
Fortunately, Miller was able to ramp up his online sales and engage with other business owners to innovate around drop shipping, but more needed to be done. Like many businesses amidst COVID-19 closures, Miller sought to use the time to create something new.
“In every struggle or tragedy that hits, there’s always an opportunity to look at the positive and create something,” Miller said of the circumstance that led him to create a new point of sale trailer, which he said wouldn’t have been possible without the kindness and generosity of others.
The trailer itself, had been a gift from Miller’s neighbors, who had told him the derelict horse trailer wasn’t doing anyone any good just sitting on their property and getting rusty. “It was very encouraging,” Miller said.
If Miller could find a way to turn the trailer into a point of sale kiosk, he could take it anywhere, including street corners and small neighborhoods, to find new customers and connections. This idea, Miller said, he took straight from the bees he raises.
“The way honeybees work is when they are in the hive they work as colony, but it starts with the scout bee leaving to go find sources of nectar,” Miller explained. “So it’s kind of that idea of saying hey, ‘We can send this little scout bee out to little areas that maybe we haven’t reached before.’ … It could be a good model to follow; learn from the bees.”
Next, Miller needed funding for his new venture. For this, he pulled from his background in marketing and created a callout via his email subscribers and social media followers to help fund the endeavor.
If customers purchased a $100 gift card, BeeKing’s would load $120 on each card. If someone wanted to kick in $500, Miller would take them out into the field to interact with a hive, or to the production facility where the honey is harvested from the comb. And for businesses that wanted to partner and kick in $1,000? They would get their logo on the side of the trailer along with gift cards to present to their employees.
“In four days, we funded the trailer — four days,” Miller said with a disbelieving laugh. “It was $17,000 that we raised in four days. I was just blown away by the amount of people who stepped up to give.”
Once funded, Miller turned to a friend of a friend who was similarly affected by the economic fallout of COVID-19, Ryan Seigler of Off Grid Innovations. Seigler had been let go from his job at a local RV manufacturer, which was the impetus to take the plunge and go all-in on his side hustle of fabrication and designing off-grid vehicles.
The final product was an eye catching, modern design with practicality and sustainability built in. The ideal collaboration, Miller said.
“I did a mockup in photoshop and kind of gave him my vision of what I could see it becoming and we discussed in person and did measurements and stuff,” he said. “And then he had some additional ideas that he added to it, especially in terms of the solar … Now we can go probably three days without charging it up and that’s running a TV menu, our speakers, and our register system.”
The relationship forged between Seigler and Miller was fortuitous for both businesses. Miller’s BeeKing’s was able to bring its products to new markets, and Seigler got his company name and a sample of his work out into the community.
“We were his first job, his first client he took on as Off Grid innovations, and he has got a lot of great publicity because of it and he is booked solid,” Miller said, joking that he hopes Seigler doesn’t get too busy that he can’t deliver a possible second trailer for the BeeKing’s brand.
Going forward, Miller said he would like to add more “scout bee” trailers and can possibly see an opportunity to create new jobs and bring partners onboard to operate other trailers. As far as the collaboration with Off Grid Innovations, Miller said Seigler already has plans.
“For our next one, he really wants to make it so (we’re) off-grid indefinitely; completely solar,” he said.
In the meantime, Miller said that despite the “tragedy” of COVID-19, he credits the economic climate for pushing him to take the next step to grow his business.
“Even in a low time for most businesses,” he said, “this has been a bright spot in our hearts.”