The Bumpy Road to Becoming the Martha Stewart of Cannabis
Meet Jane West, cannabis advocate: the tale of how her brand came to be and acquired celebrity status -- how she became one of most prominent advocacy voices in the cannabis industry and was named "the most widely recognized female personality in cannabis" by Inc. magazine in 2016 -- is marked by the overcoming of social stigma, the embrace of reputational and legal risk that came with getting involved in the pot space, the need to become an industry operator and advocate, the lack of seed capital, the taking advantage of a preexisting skillset, the challenge of an industry migration rather than a job change, the recognition of an unfulfilled need and capitalization of such an opportunity and the fortune of being at the right place at the right time.
"When I first joined the industry more than four years ago, a lot of people thought we were going to change the world -- the consciousness of the planet. But that wasn't my original motivation; I just wanted to be able to smoke joints at an upscale event," Jane comments.
"I do feel that way now, though," she adds, pointing out that, while she does advocate for the normalization of cannabis use, she does not like to call herself an advocate -- as the media often tends to do. "There is an entire sector of people that are real advocates and do not get enough credit or attention for the very, very important public good they are doing."
Anyway, let's get to the story.
The year was 2013. Jane West, a mother of two in her 30s, lived in suburban Denver, Colorado. She had a pretty good job planning corporate events, making roughly $90,000 each year working from home. "I loved, loved, loved, this job I had held for eight years," she declares.
One night, while having dinner at a restaurant, a friend of hers (who knew she was an avid cannabis consumer) offered a marijuana-infused edible. She describes that as an amazing night filled with laughter and joy.
The next morning, she woke up feeling great -- not even a tiny bit hung over. "How can you go out one night, and literally cry laughing, and then wake up the next morning filled with energy, thinking you want to go take a yoga class?" she thought at the time.
You can call it coincidence, serendipity, luck or causality, but legalization of recreational cannabis in Colorado was about to kick in. And so, Jane's pleasant experience with weed quickly became a business idea.
"I've been in event planning for 20 years," she reflected. "Now that the recreational use of cannabis is about to become legal in Colorado, I will start hosting pot-friendly parties. It's going to be amazing!"
A scarce couple of weeks later, she decided to just go for it. "For the first time ever in my life, because both my kids had started school full time, I had free time on my hands. And since I had been planning events for maybe 10,000 people, planning a cocktail party for 150 people at an art gallery was a fun thing to do."
And so, she did. This was her first cannabis event.
"After that, I just started putting myself out there, setting up a website, a Facebook page, an Instagram profile, those sorts of things," she continues. So far, however, this was more of a side-project, "a fun thing to do," as Jane called it, than a real business. But this all changed overnight when she got what she conceives as her big break: the food editor at the Denver Post became interested in her story, met her, attended one of her events and decided to feature it on the first page of the newspaper's food section.
"This article was particularly huge because it ran on January 8, 2014, the weekend of legalization [in Colorado]," Jane explains. Due to this unique occurrence, every major media outlet in the U.S. had sent a reporter to Denver. However, there wasn't really much to report on, besides showing pictures of a few dispensaries and grow operations.
Since the reporters were in Denver anyways, Jane decided to invite them all to one of her cannabis events. "About a dozen outlets, including Al Jazeera, CNBC, and a few others, were at my party," she says. "Allowing journalists to be there and take pictures of people consuming cannabis was a huge sticking point. People told me I'd sell a lot more tickets for that event if I didn't have journalists poking around, taking pictures of people using weed. But, at the same time, this was a huge opportunity, so I decided to fill the party with people from the cannabis industry -- people who were proud to be pot users."
The party was a hit, Jane remembers. But, when the CNBC segment on Colorado's legalization aired, heavily featuring Jane, her bosses at the events planning firm she worked for, which was headquartered in Washington D.C., were not at all happy. And, just like that, Jane was out of a job.
"I didn't think I was going to get fired when I started this," she says. She had been left with no choice but to embrace her destiny. Fortunately, demand for her services was hotter than July.
All this went on until April 2014, when the city of Denver shut down one of Jane's events, eventually charging her with criminal misdemeanor charges. "I am now a criminal with six criminal charges," she adds.
Legal prosecution forced Jane to transform her events into fundraisers -- she was not willing to give up on her project even if it meant making zero dollars out of it. "This new focus got us international media attention," she says.
Riding this notoriety wave, Jane and famed entrepreneur Jazmin Hupp decided to start Women Grow in August of 2014 after raising $42,000 in seed capital. "I wanted to create this nationwide network of women involved in the cannabis industry," she explicates. "Cannabis was becoming an old-boys' club. So, what we needed was a networking group, because it was clear that so much of the information about how to succeed was a secret. It wasn't on purpose; there were just no classes you could take . . . . In the end, success is about having the right connections [and] building a good network."
While Jane's cannabis events company, Edible Events, struggled to make a profit, Women Grow proved to be a runaway success. Soon there were chapters in nearly 50 cities nationwide, with tens of thousands of regular attendees. While the networking group's revenues are still catching up with its brand recognition, the venture has nonetheless proven invaluable to Jane in terms of experience and industry connections. It also helped plant the seeds of her next business venture. With Women Grow, she'd successfully helped women engage in the cannabis space as professionals. Now she saw the need to connect women consumers with cannabis.
"I was ready to do something real," she says.
From organizing so many events, Jane had noticed it was close to impossible to find bongs that were consistent in quality and design. They were either too big, too ugly or round at the bottom -- so they could not stand -- or just too different from one another. As cannabis went mainstream and users became more sophisticated, even replacing things like wine drinking with weed consumption, there was a gap that needed filling, and Jane was determined to be the one who did that.
"It took me a while to determine exactly what I wanted to do, but I finally arrived at my idea. The thing was, I did not know how to make it happen; I had never started a products company before," Jane recalls. She was determined to create a company that made actual products that people bought and owned and to become a millionaire doing so.
But Jane knew that if she was going to create an outstanding product, she needed expert help. So she reached out to Grav Labs, a company she believed was great at making cannabis-related glass products, and asked them to make a customized, Jane West–branded line of marijuana consumption devices, which now generate millions of dollars in sales a year.
Their advice and input were fundamental, Jane recognizes. So was their help in getting her product to market and her brand name and logo really out there. But, while she was getting a portion of the sales, this product line was basically Grav Labs'. She wanted her own thing; she wanted to become a self-made millionaire -- a Martha Stewart of cannabis consumption, if you will.
This is what led her to her final business: her proprietary Jane West product line. To do it right, she had learned by that time, she needed to raise money; so she did. $1 million later, she was ready to launch her brand.
Following the success of her initial product line with Grav Labs, the Jane West Collection, her team's first line of proprietary smoking accessories, has been conceived for women and holds the potential to revolutionize the way adult women see cannabis. "It's all about getting adult women, especially those women aged 35 to 50, to change the way they medicate, how they treat their anxiety and depression," Jane says. It's about time these women start to conceive cannabis as an alternative to other, more harmful mind-altering drugs like prescription anti-anxiety and anti-depression medications, which they consume more than any other demographic in the U.S., she concludes.