How to Vape It Till You Make It
Hilary Dulany bootstrapped her vaporizer business then sold it for multiples on her investment.
In 2018, Hilary Dulany's company, Accuvape -- which produces four personal, oil vaporizers that they call "the easiest to operate in the entire market," -- became the first women-owned and Michigan-based company in cannabis to be acquired by a publicly-traded company.
But the path to get there was anything but a stroll down easy street. This is how she took a fledgling startup to an impressive exit, and the valuable lessons she learned along the way.
Tell us your origin story
I owned a marketing firm [Grass Roots Promotion and Design, LLC], focusing on small business development and expansion in Michigan. Then Michigan voted in medical marijuana legislation in 2008 and my life changed. I was one of the original organizers of the first medical marijuana expo in Michigan in 2009, and founded the first business trade journal for the medical marijuana industry in the Midwest with just $50 and help from some of the Expo sponsors. After publishing for almost 5 years, expanding to 13 states and selling 50,000 copies per issue, I donated the publication to a Michigan-based 501c-3 and took a year away from the industry. During that time, I realized I wanted to stay in it.
Related: In Michigan, It's Beginning to Smell A Lot Like Cannabis
In 2013, I returned to cannabis with a new startup, Accuvape. I focused on the business part-time while working at a corporate job. One day I got a call from a friend in Portland, Oregon, telling me to come to check out the market there. I sold about $26,000 worth of vaporizers and parts in about 10 days and decided we needed to attack this market. When I came back to Michigan, I quit the corporate job. Five years later, Accuvape has hundreds of wholesale accounts nationwide and limited distribution in Canada and Europe.
What challenges have you faced operating in this industry?
The cannabis industry is unpredictable. In traditional businesses, like real estate, there are protocols and standards. There are references that will help guide you along your way. In this industry, we're writing and rewriting those protocols daily so everyone is operating on a moving target. We can't follow a set business plan like other industries. We are constantly making adjustments and decisions based on new legislation, market corrections, and opportunities that may not have been available just weeks prior. We are doing this on top of trying to develop and grow our businesses. This is why there are people who recommend staying out of this industry for three years until it settles. But there are great rewards in being first, provided you know what you're doing.
So how did you overcome these obstacles?
Persistence. While we were in Oregon, I wanted to quit almost every day. I stayed in because I was reminded that nowhere else would I be challenged to this degree. Nowhere else would I have the opportunity to do so many 'firsts'. Nowhere else could a woman either climb the ladder at her own pace or scrap it and build her own. I opted for the latter of the 2.
Every day that I don't quit and every day that I do what people tell me I can't, I add value to a project. I become stronger and it's the harder to push me down. Believe in what you do and it will never feel like a job. Missions are harder to quit.
What traits do you rely on most when making business decisions?
Intuition and business smarts. When I entered the industry 10 years ago, it was 100 times harder to navigate, but the stakes were smaller. Now the stakes are higher and the con artists are a little slicker. That is why I stage agreements with any new partner or vendor over extended periods of time. Sometimes it takes a few months for a snake to show its head, but it will always show eventually. With a staged agreement, good partnerships grow stronger and weak ones are easier to dissolve.
As a woman in cannabis, do you feel that you are at an advantage or a disadvantage?
I think women are tremendously advantaged right now in this industry, but some don't know how to maximize this advantage. Women are better organized, more approachable for customer service and can multitask better than men. Those that are looking for opportunities should emphasize these qualities in addition to their specialized skill sets in whatever job they are seeking. Empathy and patience are key in servicing the client base of our industry -- some are patients and some are new to the industry with questions. Women can be key to locking in a great first experience for a retail or medical customer.
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