CRESTON-An Ashe County entrepreneur is harnessing technology to revolutionize the art and science of beekeeping.
James Wilkes, owner of Faith Mountain Farm and the chairman of Appalachian State University’s Computer Science department, is the co-creator of Hive Tracks, an online tool to help beekeepers make better decisions about the way they manage their hives. Here’s what you need to know.
Beekeeping is in his blood
In 1964, Wilkes father ordered a package of bees from Sears and Roebuck, so he was born into a family where beekeeping was the norm. He learned tips and tricks from his dad, but never took up beekeeping himself until 2000, when his dad gave him two hives of his own. He’s been hooked on the hobby ever since.
Farming at Faith Mountain
After Wilkes completed his undergraduate education at Appalachian State University, and finishing his graduate studies in computer science at Duke University, Wilkes returned to teach at ASU. Feeling the urge to farm, he moved with his wife and kids to the Big Laurel area of Ashe County a decade ago and founded Faith Mountain Farms. That move also allowed Wilkes to expand his backyard beekeeping operation.
So what’s the big idea?
By the time Wilkes’ beekeeping operation had grown to more than 40 hives – that came in 2008 – keeping track of the state of his bees had become too hard to do just by memory. He needed an easy to use tool that would help him track his hive inspections that he could then analyze to make decisions. He envisioned a smartphone or web-based application that would make the chore easy.
Born in Boone
Wilkes met Mark Henson, a professional software engineer over lunch one snowy day in Boone at the Red Onion Cafe. Henson, also a backyard beekeeper, had come up with a similar idea to Hive Tracks at nearly the same time as Wilkes. That meeting became the basis for Blowing Rock Software LLC. After months in development, the air launched Hive Tracks 1.0 in 2010.
17,000 users and counting
Wilkes said the service has been constantly redeveloped over the past five years, and Hive Tracks feature set has grown as he and Henson have incorporated customer feedback into the design. Hive Tracks was a free tool for much of the product’s history – Wilkes said they’d hoped to attract enough users to potentially make Hive Tracks a viable advertising platform – which helped the product grow in its early stages. It’s now used in more than 140 countries.
Time to go paid
Wilkes said the company has since decided to move to a paid subscription model for Hive Tracks. Think a relatively cheap per month subscription per hive along the lines of Netflix or Hulu, Wilkes said. He said the company hopes to have some 5,000 paying subscribers within two years. That’s been difficult because Wilkes believes the company may have given away too much functionality while the product was free to convert many of those users to a paid subscription model. The company has, however, reached 10-15 percent of its subscription goals and said the company is on pace to realistically reach its target.
And Wilkes said the company has been able to reach all its Hive Tracks goals without taking on any debt to date. The “bootstrapping” model means development has been relatively slow but the upside means the company isn’t forced to meet artificial deadlines or ship application features that aren’t quite ready.
Back to basics
Along the way, Wilkes said he and his company partners have discovered that you can create a product that actually includes too many features. Hive Tracks in its current design is somewhat cumbersome for commercial beekeepers who must keep track of thousands of hives. So the group is working on another hive management tool that will be simpler for commercial beekeepers to utilize.
Check out Hive Tracks at try.hivetracks.com. Reach Adam Orr at 336-489-3058 or Twitter.com/AdamROrr