How to Stand Out From the Crowd: Entrepreneurial Lessons from Jeff the 420 Chef
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Few stories illustrate how one can build a business raising little or no capital whatsoever like that of Jeff the 420 Chef.
Jeff started making pot brownies a few years ago and has since been dubbed "The Julia Child of Weed," built a brand out of his name, invented the FreeLeaf™ process for deep cleaning marijuana flowers, published The 420 Gourmet cookbook, created the podcast Wake and Bake and started The Cannabis Cooking Channel on YouTube. Of course, the cannabis industry has changed substantially since Jeff first got into it, but there are a few takeaways that are still very valid.
"I think that if you have something really unique and special that you do outside of the cannabis space and you can bring that into cannabis, then you'll find cannabis is an absolutely great place for an entrepreneur to start a business," Jeff says, reflecting on his trajectory. "But, you do have to have something special to stand out in the crowd," he repeats.
So, on to Jeff's story. It was 2012, and Jeff was cooking for a friend of his mother's who had cancer. The woman had a prescription for medical cannabis but could not smoke it. This might not sound like a problem nowadays, but it was back then. Things weren't as easy as they are today -- where you just go into a dispensary and get a bag of cannabis-infused gummy bears, a transdermal patch, a topical ointment, a tincture, a bar of chocolate or a cookie. So, Jeff was making marijuana-infused brownies for her.
"I had learned how to make pot brownies in college, so I made some for my mom's friend … And they were horrible -- terrible -- they had this really grassy taste, and we did not know how to measure the potency," Jeff discloses. "But, even though it didn't taste good and the potency was off, word got out that I was doing this."
As people found out about Jeff's weed-infused brownies and the number of orders increased, one customer pointed out that "the virgin sister" (or cannabis-free brownie) he included in every batch was delicious -- unlike its daring sibling. So he set out to find a way to replicate that flavor in his cannabis-infused edibles. The big question was, how to get rid of that plant taste?
After a year and a half of research, Jeff found out that the unpleasant taste "was not coming from the actual medicine on the plant, the trichomes, which are hydrophobic, meaning they stick to the plant and won't come off with water," but from the chlorophyll in the buds. So he decided to try washing the weed.
Experimenting with different cleaning methods, he arrived at a procedure that allowed him to "bleach the chlorophyll out of the plant," using distilled water and a blanching procedure (boiling and then quickly shocking buds back to cold). At the end of this process, his weed was almost tasteless, and so were his cannabis-infused oils and butters.
Taking advantage of this discovery, Jeff started baking cannabis-infused cupcakes that were free of that plant taste. A friend of his tasted them and recommended he reach out to a guy he knew, Justin Jones, who worked at The Daily Beast. And so, Jeff did.
Having tasted Jeff's cupcakes, Justin came out with a story he titled "Meet the Julia Child of Weed." That article alone catapulted Jeff to the next level.
"From there, I got a book deal with HarperCollins, I got poached by producers to do TV segments and stuff, I ended up doing [quite viral] internet stuff and recipes, teaching classes, even to other chefs … It all blew up," Jeff remembers. "Having built a name in the industry, I realized there are a lot of other chefs out there that nobody knows about, that don't have a voice, in every single state. So, I developed The Cannabis Cooking Channel to be a platform for every cannabis chef in the world to showcase who they are, have their own profile page, upload their own videos …"
"But the thing is that all this success was based on one thing: clean cannabis -- and making great edibles with the clean cannabis."
Jeff believes the universe guided him along, giving him everything he needed to make it happen "because it needed to happen." However, there is much more to this story than fate.
This is a story that proves the value of perseverance, the importance of having a good idea and a differentiated product, and the fact that one can start a successful business without getting hundreds of thousands, or even millions, of dollars in funding. "It's all about having something unique to offer," he reiterates.
So, what does Jeff suggest aspiring cannabis chefs and potential culinary entrepreneurs do?
"If you look outside the cannabis industry, the culinary industry is one of the largest in the world, with all these chefs out there and all these restaurants out there," Jeff argues, pointing out that, within the cannabis industry, the sector has not fully developed yet. Yes, there is an edibles industry but not a culinary industry -- as if there were food processors like Nestlé or Kraft Foods in the world but no restaurants.
In order to successfully start a cannabis business, you need to find out what it is that you do really, really well. He continues, "This is marketing 101: If you want to stand out, you need to offer something special -- have a unique selling proposition."
"If you really want to succeed in this business, you have to either build a niche for yourself, do something that nobody else is doing or build a better mouse trap," Jeff says. "If you are first to market, it doesn't really matter how good your product is until somebody else comes along, makes a better product and spends a lot of time and money marketing it." Now, if you are not the first-comer, you'll need to build a much better version of the existing product to be able to compete.
The last piece of advice he shared was: "If you want to break into the cannabis business in a big way, you need to be seen [and] you need to be heard. So, if you have any bit of money or connections or whatever, you need to get your product in front of the press -- you need to get the product out there so that somebody can write an article about it. Get samples together, get out there, meet with people who can spread the word for you because word of mouth is huge."
"You need someone out there to sing your praises in order to be able to develop one or multiple businesses around what you do," he ends. "You don't need a lot of money to succeed if you are good at what you do."
Be sure to get informed about all the rules and regulations that apply to cannabis businesses. Be smart and find ways to legally do what you want to do, Jeff recommends. In some cases, you'll need to become certified as a caregiver to prepare cannabis-infused meals; in other cases, you won't be able to provide your customers with cannabis but will be allowed to cook for them with their own cannabis and charge them for that service; in still others, you'll need to start a collective and have customers join it before you can serve them.
Whatever the method, find your passion, make yourself the expert and build your business around whatever makes you good at what you love to do.