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The Secret To Business Success: People Before Profits

How to scale a cool brand without watering it down.

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I don't know about you, but I try to spend my consumer dollars on brands that I trust and admire. When I shop for outdoor gear and clothing, I try to buy Patagonia; when I shop for food, I do so at a grocery brand central to Seattle, PCC Markets. I buy my coffee from the tiny, independent shop next door.

Cappi Thompson | Getty Images

All of my go-to brands pretty much fall into the category of "lifestyle," but that moniker does not tell the most accurate story. I'd rather call them people-first brands or triple-bottom-line brands (people, planet, profits).

Related: 5 Dirt Cheap Cannabis Marketing Tactics

The 4 Ps

For my cannabis brand, we have added another layer to the triple bottom line: People-Planet-Pot-Profits. Why add the 'pot' portion? Because valuing the product we sell internally is critical, especially if we are adhering to the People-Planet-Profits model already. Taking the extra effort to provide customers with diligently sourced, local pot from vetted and trusted farmers enhance every tenet of the People-Planet-Profit model.

It also fits into a $200 billion lifestyle market category called LOHAS (Lifestyles of Health and Sustainability). Traditionally, LOHAS consumers have focused on organic foods, sustainably produced outerwear and clothing, renewable energy solutions, energy-efficient cars, and more. Today that list includes high-quality, pesticide-free weed. At their core, LOHAS consumers do business with authentic brands that share their interests and are deemed cool. As a result, those cool companies then experience sustainable growth, which brings up the billion-dollar question:

How does an entrepreneur scale a LOHAS-like company without ultimately watering down their cool brand or sacrificing pieces of the PP(P)P model?

Living the mantra

For an answer, I reached out to a friend, Doug McClure, whose company was recently featured on CNN Business for creating a beer delivery network for local brewers in Seattle during the Coronavirus shutdown. The company sold over 2,000 growlers per week. According to McClure, it disrupted the main beer distribution networks owned by InBev/Budweiser and Miller/Coors when life was at a standstill. Everyone was at home and panicking, but not allowed to leave their homes. In that scenario, who wouldn't want good beer and pizza delivered safely from a trusted source?

Although CNN called McClure's decision a "pivot," the company didn't really do anything it wasn't already doing. First of all, Zeeks started delivering beer and pizza a long time ago. Second, the 18-location pizza chain killed its relationship with InBev five years ago and has only served local, craft beer ever since. It was a move that McClure says delighted not only Zeeks' customers but also gave Zeeks' complete control over its food and beer destiny. Unfortunately, this approach unique for a bar and/or restaurant today. Zeeks lives by the motto, Fuel Your Stoke, because it really is what the company does on so many levels.

So I asked McClure, "How did you scale so gracefully and without disturbing your brand?" He said:

"Somewhere along the way, we gathered a handful of people (6 to 8 people) who all 'got it' and could easily talk to each other about what Zeeks was all about. A culture was thus created and our pace picked up quickly as this group stayed in place. That cohesiveness got us to the next phase, which is the one we are in now where we can all rally around an honest mantra like, Fuel Your Stoke, because it was one born from living it, not some brainstorm session."

Don't ask where you're going; ask who you're serving

Perhaps you have heard of Jim Collins, author of the best-selling business bible, Good to Great? In his book, Collins echoes McClure and pulls off a beautiful metaphor of how to scale a cool, people-first brand by comparing [X] business to a bus, with the CEO/entrepreneur in the driver's seat. Here is an excerpt:

Most people assume that great bus drivers (read: business leaders) immediately start the journey by announcing to the people on the bus where they're going—by setting a new direction or by articulating a fresh corporate vision.

In fact, leaders of companies that go from good to great start not with "where" but with "who." They start by getting the right people on the bus, the wrong people off the bus, and the right people in the right seats. And they stick with that discipline—first the people, then the direction—no matter how dire the circumstances.

According to Collins, it is the entrepreneur's job to ask, "First who. Then what?" It is a school of thought that has guided me since the inception of the Canna West brand. I wanted to, and still want to be the Whole Foods of retail marijuana. I'm thankful for examples like McClure and Collins, but also to Yvon Choinard, Gary Erickson, Gary Hirschberg, John Macke, and other entrepreneurs who have built cool brands and built them big. They each figured out how to tap a valuable market, and then scale gracefully, by simply putting the people before profits in their company's bottom line hierarchy.