Just the Facts
Company: Mesa Organics
Owners: Jim and Pam Parco
Location: Pueblo, Colorado
Number of Employees: 8
Operations: Retail store, grow operation and extraction facility
Grow Lights: LED
As a business and economics professor, published author and entrepreneur, Jim Parco understands the principles behind owning and operating a successful business, and he’s putting his own education to the test by opening Mesa Organics, a state-licensed cannabis retail store in Pueblo, Colorado.
Jim and his wife, Pam, followed a very different path and business model than most marijuana entrepreneurs. After retiring from the U.S. Air Force as a lieutenant colonel, Jim moved his family back to their home state of Colorado to take a position as a professor of business and economics at Colorado College. They began their excursion into the cannabis industry in 2014, when Jim went on sabbatical, making cannabis the research focus of his professorship. Neither of the Parcos had any previous experience with cannabis, so Jim took a job at a medical dispensary to learn everything he could.His 20-year Air Force career included teaching, working on the National Security Council during the Clinton administration, and serving as a diplomat in Israel. In addition to his highly decorated military career, he has a Ph.D. in management and economics from the University of Arizona.
Now he was doing grunt work for a medical marijuana enterprise.
“I swept floors, washed buckets, trimmed, managed inventory and simultaneously learned about the cannabis laws in Colorado,” he says.
Around that same time, Jim witnessed the medical benefits of cannabis firsthand, while helping his uncle deal with severe pain from shingles and double knee replacement surgery. He saw that the opiate painkillers his uncle had been prescribed were not working, so he applied to become a medical marijuana caregiver.
That same day, Jim went to a dispensary, bought some flower and made a cannabis-based balm.
“My aunt was not happy when I showed up with the balms,” Jim remembers. “Our family had never had experience with cannabis, but she called me the next day in disbelief about how well it had worked to ease the pain.”
With Jim’s scientific curiosity piqued, and to the shock of his family, he and his wife announced plans to open a cannabis dispensary, grow operation and manufacturing facility.
The cannabis industry rookie’s first project was researching the best way to cultivate Colorado’s booming new cash crop. Jim started with a 120-plant hydroponic grow at his home to determine how lights and nutrients affect yield and quality.
Using four grow tents with sixteen plants in each, Jim controlled the strain, grow medium, water, nutrient levels, lighting, temperature, humidity and pH (see table). The only variables in each tent were two different name-brand nutrients and the lighting source (high-intensity discharge versus light-emitting ceramics). Subsequent quality tests and econometric analyses revealed that yield and quality were essentially the same regardless of the different variables. This sold him on the less expensive nutrient line and energy-efficient lighting. He eventually pivoted to state-of-the-art LED technology with 650-watt LumiGrow fixtures after discovering that the local electric utility was offering rebates for LEDs. The LumiGrow lights give Jim the ability to change the light frequency with the touch of a smart phone or tablet.
Mesa Organics also aims to be on the cutting edge of extraction technology, using supercritical CO2 to produce concentrates, topicals and edibles. Jim believes hydrocarbon extraction would be contrary to Mesa Organics’ mission to improve quality of life.
Over the next year, the Parcos worked to obtain all the necessary permits for a commercial cannabis operation.
They bought the historic Greenwood’s Café building, located next door to their family farm, in the fall of 2014. The former restaurant had been abandoned for years; it was an easy target for graffiti and in desperate need of a complete overhaul. The Mesa Organics renovation was a stunning transformation for the local community.
Because of the Parcos’ deep ties to Pueblo — Jim and Pam were high school sweethearts, and Jim was valedictorian of Pueblo High School — they wanted to make sure they reached out to Pueblo residents for input before opening Mesa Organics.
In January 2015, letters were mailed to all residents within a one-mile radius of the proposed Mesa Organics location, inviting them to a community meeting to discuss the recently-legalized enterprise.
Cannabis supporters and opponents alike attended the meetings. The following week, protesters posted a sign across the street from Mesa Organics reading “No Marijuana on the Mesa,” complete with the cell phone numbers of three county council members. The protest attempt reportedly backfired; the majority of calls to the council were in support of Mesa Organics.
“A big mistake I see within the cannabis industry is owners trying to open a business under the radar,” Jim says. “Since cannabis is such a controversial topic, it really is better to be as transparent as possible from the get-go. That’s what we did at Mesa Organics, and it’s worked, so far.”
The Parcos were granted a local permit to open in Pueblo in April 2015; by January 2016, they had acquired the six state licenses required to grow, manufacture and dispense medical and recreational cannabis.
While Jim draws on his experience in academia and the military for his business principles, he also takes inspiration from the late Peter Drucker, a prolific author of business books.
“Drucker reminds us there are only two things in business worth paying attention to: innovation and marketing,” Jim says. “Everything else is housekeeping.”
Due to regulatory concerns, Mesa Organics has not activated its medical license, but its target customer is still the “cannabis newbie,” people who are 40 and older using marijuana for medical relief.
“Something I see a lot in business is a try-to-be-everything-to-everyone approach,” Jim says. “Those pursuing this model end up being nothing to anyone.”
In order to determine the best equipment and setup for growing cannabis, Mesa Organics owner Jim Parco set up an experiment to test different lighting and nutrient combinations.
Using a set of control variables and grow tents, he tested four different nutrient and lighting combinations.
Based on his metrics of yield and quality, all four combinations turned out virtually the same, leading him to choose the cheaper brand of nutrients and more energy-efficient lighting.
1,000-watt Hydrolux Blue metal halide
1,000-watt Xtrasun high-pressure sodium
630-watt SunSystems light-emitting ceramic
Strain: Gorilla Glue #4
Hydroponic Controls: Oxygen Pot Systems
Water: Ambient 50 ppm
Nutrient levels: Followed the nutrient manufacturer’s guidelines
Light exposure: Weeks 1-5: Vegetative: 18 hours of light/6 hours of darkness
Weeks 6-14: Flowering: 12 hours of light/12 hours of darkness
Temperature: 77 degrees average
Minimum: 68 degrees
Maximum: 84 degrees
Humidity: 45% average
Feeding schedule: Every six hours
Flush: Once a week for 12 hours
When business owners settle on their target market, they should focus on serving those specific customers better than their competitors, Jim says. Once that’s been accomplished, then businesses can keep their eyes open for ways to accommodate a broader demographic.
Mesa Organics uses color scheme, price labeling, lighting and employee training to create just the right feel for its target customer. Even the store’s layout was designed to relax customers.
“We really wanted to make that new cannabis consumer comfortable, so we tried to make our shop feel similar to other retail experiences,” Jim says. “The bud bar lets shoppers browse our selection of flowers before talking with a budtender, just like at other stores where you can look at products before talking to a cashier.”
Mesa Organics hosted its grand opening on April 20, 2016, with the local chamber of commerce and more than 60 people in attendance. The future looks good for Mesa Organics, but Jim admits that marijuana businesses face an uncertain future. Even today, anti-marijuana activists have circulated petitions to shutter the cannabis industry in Pueblo County. Citizens for a Healthy Pueblo is attempting to put an initiative on the November ballot that would ban marijuana retail stores, manufacturing facilities, testing labs and grow operations in the county.
“It’s going to take a while for everything to get settled in this new industry,” Jim says. “Owners getting into the cannabis business should be prepared to face challenges and develop solutions, especially in marketing, outside of what may work in more traditional business models. But eventually, like other industries, things will settle down.”
While marijuana businesses face a unique set of obstacles, all startups have challenges they must tackle if they’re going to survive and succeed. Jim says he has a phrase that he often repeats to his students that definitely applies to cannabis: “There are entrepreneurs and wantrepreneurs. Nike says it best: Just do it!”