5 Things I Learned Starting a Business in the Cannabis Industry
A unique industry requires a unique approach.
Starting a business isn’t for the faint of heart. There are constant highs and lows, and everything in between—sometimes all in a single day. For me, this roller coaster ride is an addiction. I love taking an idea and turning it into something that others value and desire. I’ve done it three times: first building an organic juice company, then a beverage distribution business, and now Willow Industries, which helps cannabis cultivators and infused product manufacturers produce a cleaner, safer product that is more likely to meet state regulations and stand out in the marketplace.
Having launched a business before, I thought I had a good handle on how the process might go. But the cannabis industry has its own unique challenges, making this venture different than the others. Here are five things I’ve learned along the way:
Patience Pays Off
When I started Willow Industries two-and-a-half years ago, I was on a mission to move fast. The state of Colorado was starting to test for microbials and cultivators had crops that were contaminated. We had the technology and machinery to save their plants, so I thought I needed to get our product to market as soon as possible.
But our technology and initial data supporting our concept were not enough to make growers comfortable with our offering. They wanted more results. It turned out this was a blessing. Slowing ourselves down was the best thing that could have happened.
We doubled down on our R&D and watched as state regulations constantly shifted, enabling us to adjust our technology accordingly. We redesigned our solution to both help flower pass microbial tests, and to reduce total yeast and mold, in the process providing consumers with as pure and safe a product as possible.
The added time also helped us pinpoint our purpose and strengthen our message to the marketplace. More than simply helping growers meet state regulations, our goal is to help cultivators produce cannabis that is more qualified to stand out among the overcrowded inventory on dispensary shelves.
My Advice: Start slow. The cannabis industry, while constantly changing, isn’t moving as fast as you think. Before pounding the pavement, thoroughly develop your concept and observe market trends, then adapt or adjust; and solidify your message so that your purpose and offering are clear and desirable. Your patience will allow you to pivot faster than otherwise possible.
It's a Unique Culture
Too many times I’ve had my emails unanswered, voicemails and texts unreturned, and meetings unapologetically canceled at the last minute. Early on, I also became accustomed to cryptic conversations, and a general unease about who I was, what I wanted and why. It wasn't personal—these are typical behaviors of an underground culture that operated illegally for so long.
In fairness, I’ve begun to see a shift in the industry’s collective polish and professionalism. Communication is vastly improving, as is respect for each other’s time.
But Rome wasn’t built in a day. Culture change takes time. We all bear the responsibility of becoming a legitimate industry that understands the need for transparency and the value of working together to attract customers and deliver a consistent and exceptional customer experience.
My Advice: Don’t be surprised to find that the cultural norms in the cannabis industry are much different from your previous one. This isn’t a direct reflection of how others perceive you. It is a reminder that this industry is in the midst of major change and that all of us must play our part to drive the industry forward. The more we communicate and collaborate, the faster we’ll innovate and expand.
This Ain't No Gold Rush
At the outset, Willow Industries had quite a few investors interested in working with us. In one instance, we even had a signed operating agreement. But time after time, whether because of our skepticism, their inability to follow through in a transparent manner, or their insistence on terms that were inequitable, these relationships didn’t pan out.
Too many times investors also told us that our concept was not viable and that the market didn’t exist. For now, we have opted not to invite in any investors. Today, I’m proud to say that we are flourishing.
My Advice: Don’t be fooled into believing investors are waiting in line to fund your product, even if they act like they are. Cannabis isn’t the gold rush that some have suggested it is. Try funding your business through non-traditional means. Raise a round of investment money from friends and family. Prove the concept by generating revenue. Keep a close eye on overhead and stay lean. And don’t let the nay-sayers shake your confidence. Keep believing in your purpose, your product, your team and yourself.
Don’t Get Hot and Bothered by Your Competition
Very early on in this business, I allowed myself to be emotionally affected by perceived competition. They always seemed to be one step ahead of us. Big warehouses, plenty of financial backing, a lot of press, aggressive tactics aimed at diminishing us—all these factors fed my entrepreneurial doubts.
It also forced me to lean on lessons learned from earlier endeavors: There is nothing I can do about the competition except to stay focused on strengthening my business. So, we kept our heads down, plowed ahead with our R&D efforts and remained true to our purpose.
My Advice: As in any business, see the competition in the cannabis industry for what it is—a healthy reminder that you have to stay focused and determined to achieve sustained success. While it would be foolish to turn a blind eye to your competition, allow your passion to drive you, not your fear of things you cannot control.
Related: How to Make Competition Work
Don’t Stop Believing
The current ebbs and flows of the cannabis business are challenging. The volatility has certainly tested my patience, tempted us to veer off course, and made us question whether to fold up and shut the doors (what entrepreneur can’t relate!). But we’ve kept going and no one at Willow has ever stopped believing in our purpose or each other.
My Advice: Stay the course! Challenge conventional thinking. Embrace your inventiveness and creativity. And remember, success is rarely a linear process. If you believe and if you support that belief with steady, strategic business decisions, you will prevail. You may even become a critical player in an industry at the doorstep of long-term growth potential.