As Founder of Swarm Portland, Susan Laarman and her team are fighting to protect native bees. By advocating for better public policies that address harmful, bee-killing pesticides, Susan hopes to protect our pollinators while educating the public about the importance of a healthy bee population. As an entrepreneur with 20 years of experience in PR and Communications, she’s learning the difference between providing a service to clients and managing a business that sells products.
Hear more from Susan below:
The spark that inspired the birth of your concept: A few years ago, there was a large bee die-off In Oregon due to the misapplication (and overuse) of pesticides on Linden trees (often called “Bee Trees”). I noticed that this news created a buzz (no pun intended), and even aired on local TV news stations. My communications antennae went off and I realized this was a teachable moment because people get that we need our bees. I organized some activities to raise awareness about why bees and pollinators are important, and also why pesticides are harmful (a lifelong interest). This grew into work to help people create healthy backyard habitat as I started making our Pollinator Planters, which are hexagon shaped raised garden beds from Northwest woods. Almost three years later: in addition to pollinator garden goods, our product line has grown to include Bee Culinary and Bee Loved Body items that incorporate flowers and herbs from our own pollinator gardens.
The problem it solves: Our region’s award-winning food culture would not be possible without pollinators. You like coffee? Cherry pie? Summer cantaloupe salad? You can thank our bees for these and more than one-third of the foods we enjoy. It’s never been more clear that what we each do in our own yards and gardens can contribute to the survival of pollinators. While Swarm celebrates honeybees, we work to #savenativebees, which include mason bees, bumblebees, and leafcutter bees. In fact, there are about 500 native species just in Oregon!
How you came up with the name: Swarm originated as a call to action for people to come together – to swarm – and advocate for bees and pollinators. But we also like the name because, in nature, swarming is a very healthy and necessary ritual to keep their colonies diverse and strong.
How you are better/different than your competition: Swarm chose to be a business and not a nonprofit to help demonstrate how business can work for good. We are unique in our focus on protecting native bees, and we give people physical tools (in addition to ideas) to help achieve our mission. We are constantly amazed by research on the cooperative nature of the honeybee hive, and we truly “bee-lieve” that each organization and bee biz contributes to the cause.
How you make money: Most of our income now comes from special events we attend. We hope to increase our online sales this year with an eye on the holiday season as more and more people search for meaningful gifts. And we’re signed up for the Seattle Gift Show in August, our first trade show. Swarm’s marketing includes booths at many events in the Northwest including garden and maker faires. We incorporate educational information at our booths and serve as a resource to people interested in helping bees.
The best thing about being an entrepreneur: Before starting Swarm Portland, I worked for more than 20 years as a freelance PR and communications consultant, so clearly I am excited about being my own boss. Being an entrepreneur means facing daily challenges that are overcome by believing in oneself – and that is more rewarding than money!
The biggest surprise in your entrepreneurial experience to date: I am experiencing the difference between providing a service to clients, which I do with my PR work, and managing a company that sells products. The bee biz has much less downtime and I have to be very intentional at planning time to refresh.
Your biggest success: I know that Swarm has given people a new lens on the natural world, whether that be by teaching them that there are hundreds of other kinds of bees than honeybees, to offering honey sampling that demonstrates that different honeys have flavors depending on the flowers the bees pollinate. We sell Bee Tea (a “no buzz” herbal blend of edible flowers and herbs from pollinator gardens) and I’ve found that some people don’t even know how to make tea but are interested in consuming less sugary soda and more healthy drinks – that’s a success we’re proud of!
A failure and what you learned: I think I have more mistakes at this point than failures. I’ve learned not to try to do too much at once. There are things that I wish I had done more of or started earlier and while I can’t go back I just remind myself that there is so much more potential to leverage. Also, while I love social media and enjoy doing it, I was more focused on Facebook early on and slower to adopt Instagram, which I wish I hadn’t done. I have very visual content for Instagram and am working to build that following. Social media is a gift to small business, but also very time consuming when done right.
What keeps you up at night: My to-do list, and I find that I need to write all tasks down on paper or else I go over the list in my head when I should be sleeping!
The best entrepreneurial advice you have received: Don’t get emotionally attached to just one product. I don’t even know the name of the guy who said this to me, but it was after I had given him my elevator speech at an event. I’m not sure if it was just his general advice, or if he could tell that I was stuck on a product, but it was relevant to me at the time. So, ongoing, I try to ground truth if a product idea means more to me than it will to others. And I need to be willing to give up something if that’s best to keep moving forward.
Your #1 piece of advice for a budding entrepreneur: Have a business plan. Once you start implementing your business idea, it’s very hard to slow down to plan because there are always daily tasks at hand. Of course, the business plan needs to be updated and evolve, and I am a huge fan of the big roll of white paper on a wall as a starting point for setting priorities. Things become clearer when they’re on the wall and in BIG print!
Find out more: https://swarmportland.org/