Innovation

Unexpected Business Lessons from a Beekeeper

Lessons from one entrepreneur's success that all business owners should heed

Written by Chandra Clarke

Cat Jaffee is a remarkable woman.

I had the privilege of hearing her speak earlier this month, at a conference in Istanbul. The story of her latest business venture is not just inspiring; it brings up several interesting points about a handful of current business trends, from buzzwords to online marketing approaches to corporate social responsibility.

In 2008, Jaffee was on a Fulbright scholarship studying internal migration in Turkey, when she stumbled across a region near Kars in the far east where the dominant local crop is honey. She fell in love with beekeeping, the people, the area, it’s rich history, incredible views, and amazing wildlife.

But she also saw firsthand how the locals toiled, living in relative isolation and poverty. In particular, she noted how the women there really struggled to complete a beekeeping course that had been set up by a charity to empower them to make their own living. She realized that part of the problem was that the program kept the women away from their daily activities, which provided little income at the best of times. Those that finished didn’t end up with enough connections or resources to put their newfound knowledge to work.

When she completed her study, Jaffee (a U.S. native) left Turkey for a while, but soon discovered that the lure of the region and its challenges were too hard to resist. She returned to found Balyolu (“The Honey Road”), a tasting tourism company. Proceeds from trekking/tasting tours and a percentage of product sales fund the firm, which is designed to help women start village businesses based on traditional products, tourism, and “niche food experiences.”

What does this have to do with general business trends?

To start with, the story is a reminder to always beware of the Law of Unintended Consequences. The original beekeeping course that Jaffee observed was well-intentioned, but may not have considered how the program would actually work in real life.

A more prosaic example in the business world that you and I know is the recent online coupon marketing trend. For a while, the hottest advice for marketers was to produce coupons to post on sites like RetailMeNot.com to attract new customers. In reality what happened for most websites was that savvy shoppers already in the checkout would open another browser to search for coupon codes to use to complete their order. Rather than bringing in new sales, the practice cannibalized existing ones.

Balyolu also demonstrates that there are business opportunities everywhere, even in unlikely places such as rural Turkey. Derek Halpern of Social Triggers likes to talk about how sales is a process of “bridging the gap” between a world with a pain point and a world without that particular problem. Jaffee’s venture is attempting to bridge two gaps: one for the producers who need a better livelihood, and one for consumers in search of exotic, food-based adventures.

It also reminds us that as hip as the term “empower” is right now, especially when it comes to women’s issues, it might be producing exactly the wrong mindset. As Jaffee points out, empower means to give power to someone who doesn’t already have it. This in turn prompts us to use charitable approaches, rather than bootstrapping and self-sufficiency approaches to problems. The former tend not to be sustainable in the long term.

Finally, Jaffee and the other women that I met in Istanbul show that social entrepreneurialism is really picking up steam. It used to be that a company was in business to make a profit, and anything else came second. Lately, more and more businesses have a social issue as the starting point. How sustainable these ventures are will depend on how strong the business case is. After all, these companies face some seriously daunting problems because of their very social approach: things like politics, the tyranny of local history, entrenched customs and traditions, and so on.

On the other hand, customers of these companies may be far more loyal, because they believe in the cause. Companies that simply donate to charities or take up causes because it makes them look socially responsible can be regarded by a cynical public as engaging in “brandwashing.”

The questions for you, now, are how will any of these points affect your business in the coming years? Will you pivot to be a social enterprise if you aren’t one already? Or is the better path to be an entrepreneur with a goal to be a philanthropist later on?

Food for thought, inspired by a tale about honey.

Chandra Clarke is the president of Scribendi.com, an award-winning, ISO-certified company that provides document-revision services to corporations and SMEs around the world. She blogs about the issues particular to female entrepreneurs at NeverPink.com.

More columns by Chandra Clarke

Originally appeared on PROFITguide.com