Someone once told me you never know what a day will bring, and founding a medical cannabis dispensary in 2010 brought new meaning to that statement. In the past, I’ve visited thousands of businesses, large and small. From learning the heart of the famed Toyota Production System firsthand in Japan to teaching mechanics how to rebuild diesel engines in rural Mississippi, from being a director of sales for a large multinational to becoming a Six Sigma Black Belt quality manager, one would think a 30-year career would prepare me for almost anything. In truth, I discovered how little I knew about running a small business when I actually opened one. Here are a few lessons I learned along the way.
– Walk with my sand in your moccasins. Jack Whiting owns Brookline Machine Company, a truck parts distributor with multiple locations across the Northeast, now run by his son. Harvard-educated and a hands-on manager, Jack transformed the industry with his leadership, dedication and innovation. Twenty-five years ago he gave me this advice and it has caused me to stop and think many times, remembering that people are right from their own perspective. You have to have empathy, patience and wisdom to succeed in this business, and throw a little of their sand in your shoes before you act, and you’ll gain respect. I have a small sign near our exit that serves as a reminder that we serve others for a living. It simply says, “I’m Third.”
– Managing a family business can bring added stress. Sara Williams, a dispensary license applicant in Alaska, wrote recently in this column that “business relationships should not be mixed with friendships until after loyalty has been gained; and some people are only loyal to their perceived need of you.” I think you can add that family relationships should also factor in loyalty, which can get sticky because so many small businesses are family run.
Most of the companies I visited in the past were family businesses, and I found some were well-run, but not all. I’ve hired family members that worked out, and some that haven’t. It’s important to ensure that proficiency in the assignment is achieved, or morale will suffer. Our employees must perform well in their jobs, no matter who they are. Remedy has a family atmosphere; it’s not a family business. We’re here to serve other people, not ourselves.
– Don’t just leave decisions to the grower. Williams also cautioned about hiring black market workers for a legal market. No doubt many experienced growers create impressive flowers that could win the county fair, but what harmful chemicals, hardeners or other inputs remain in those bountiful buds? Can they grow without using pesticides of any kind, as our law in Maine dictates? Can they scale from a closet or room-sized grow to thousands of square feet of production space? Can they manage people?
The transition from a small cultivation to a sophisticated production process where cultivators follow standards with no deviation from formulas to create consistency is a big leap for many, and we haven’t found anyone who could make that transition successfully. We started with “expert” growers who did their own thing, and we quickly fell behind our production quotas. We became more involved in every area of our business — especially cultivation. We created a process, improved it along the way and stuck to it. As long as people follow the steps we’ve carefully laid out, work diligently and accurately and report promptly to their supervisor anything out of the ordinary, we can cultivate excellent products consistently with people who know plants, instead of just cannabis.
– You can change laws, rather than putting up with them. Before entering the cannabis industry, politics were frustrating, confusing and worth avoiding at all costs. While it’s still all that, I’ve learned how to engage at the local, state and national levels to effect change. I also found I enjoy it immensely, and as a result, have excelled as a legitimate and respected resource for legislators and regulators. I spend about a quarter of my time on political matters about nine months out of the year, slowing down when legislators break. If you’re not allocating time, energy, funds or all of the above to political activities, you have no right to complain. Cannabis policy change requires a sustained professional approach over time, built on trust and relationships, not just donations. It’s important to use the right people at the right time in the right places, and get involved yourself.
– If you don’t believe in yourself, who else will? Before we applied for our own dispensary license, I spent weeks being courted by others to write their applications and manage their operations if they were to win a bid. We then decided to submit our own application, and chose an area near our home that we thought might have less competition. In the end, we were surprised to learn our application received the highest score of any applicant and that we could have chosen any market and won. We financed Remedy with personal money and loans from friends, and were able to overturn a moratorium in a town that has 65% of Maine’s population within 30 miles of our facility. We ended up in one of Maine’s largest retail shopping plazas, not hidden in some warehouse district, and created a highly-respected, model dispensary.
Tim Smale is co-founder of Remedy Compassion Center in Auburn, Maine, one of eight regulated dispensaries in the state. He holds an MBA, is president of the Maine Dispensary Operators Association and has served as chairman of the American Herbal Products Association Cannabis Committee since 2012.