By Garrett Rudolph
Over the past couple years, marijuana has been in the process of a mainstream makeover. As acceptance of cannabis, both for medical and recreational uses, hits unmatched levels in the United States, the old stereotypes associated with marijuana counterculture are disappearing quickly.
Nowhere is this more evident than with the entrepreneurs who are at the forefront of marijuana’s transition from demonized DEA target to legitimate business venture.
The lazy, stoner/slacker image is being replaced by this new wave of cannabis entrepreneurs, who are hard-working, industrious and conscious of how public perception could be the difference between long-term success and a short-lived blip on the radar.
More and more companies understand that looking like a real business is a key first step to being treated like any other industry.
“The norm has really changed in 2015,” said Megan Stone, founder of The High Road Design Studio. “It was like overnight, people all of a sudden got it.”
Stone’s business focuses on designing cannabis retail operations, but the “new look of marijuana” has encompassed every aspect of the industry.
Retail design is about more than just the look of a store. Function is equally important as form, Stone said.
“There’s a great Steve Jobs quote I use all the time: ‘Most people think design is how it looks but if you dig deeper, design is how it works.’ It’s hard to design a space if you don’t understand everything about how it works,” she said.
Stone first began working in the industry in California, while she was attending design school. She was initially a patient and later an employee at Orange County’s Patient Care. The owner put her design skills to work with a “really basic remodel” in 2010 — a fresh paint color, new flooring, a better layout and new display cases.
“The impact it made, not only on our business, but on the reaction and experience for the patients was huge,” Stone said. “People were calling us the Tiffany’s of dispensaries. I think that’s an exaggeration, but comparably speaking, we were offering the best experience around with such little effort.”
But at the time, California’s medical marijuana industry was on shaky ground. Dispensaries were being shut down left and right by the federal government. Business owners didn’t want to invest money in a space that might not last more than a few months, so the market for retail design in the cannabis space was non-existent. Besides, most business owners were making plenty of money at the time — there was no incentive to move away from a proven formula.
By the time Stone finished her schooling in 2013, she wanted to stay in the cannabis industry. At the time, there were no design firms or architects that specialized in cannabis.
So she started her own.
She moved to Arizona, which had recently implemented its medical marijuana program and founded The High Road Design Studio.
Business was slow initially, but as the industry matured, Stone began to connect with retail store owners who were looking to separate their brands from an increasingly-crowded market. Her work with Minerva Canna Group dispensary in Albuquerque, New Mexico drew national acclaim from both the cannabis and design worlds.
“My clients have gone from being non-existent to really understanding that they don’t have the time to figure this out for themselves,” she said. “Marijuana is becoming a commodity, and how else are you going to differentiate your retail store from the retail store down the street or right next door to you if you’re not offering a different experience.”
Part of the paradigm shift comes from a changing clientele. The micro-business model is slowly giving way to those who have been successful in the cannabis industry for several years and are looking to expand and set themselves apart from the competition, or to people who have been successful in other avenues of retail and are bringing that experience to cannabis.
When it comes to design, two keys for any business owner are knowing their clientele and knowing what they want their business to be. While her design style eschews over-stereotyped images like pot leaves, Bob Marley and green crosses, that look might still be right for some operators.
“I don’t think we’re going to completely see the old guard go away, but I just think we’re going to see so many different segments within this industry, similar to what you have with the liquor industry,” she said. “You have your stodgy corner liquor store, but you also have your really high-end, exclusive, boutique wine bar.”
When Chris McAboy and Allie Charneski went through their own process of designing The Novel Tree in Bellevue, Washington, they tailored the look and feel directly toward the clientele of the area.
Bellevue happens to be one of the higher-income cities in Washington, so the couple incorporated an upscale look with an open floorplan.
“When it came down to getting all the details, we knew that we were creating something specifically for Bellevue and that our store wouldn’t necessarily work in small towns,” Charneski said.
They wanted to “keep it cozy and a little bit industrial without going overboard,” Charneski said. “I’m happy with the balance we’ve come up with.”
The display cases and interior walls utilize reclaimed wood that came from an old warehouse in the Sodo District of Seattle, giving The Novel Tree a link to Washington’s logging history.
The open floorplan was done to set the cannabis retailer apart from medical dispensaries that often feature a waiting room or front lobby that’s completely separate from the actual retail space.
“We wanted to make sure that no matter where you’re at in the store, you don’t feel pushed to go one way or another,” Charneski said. “It’s very user-friendly and very newbie friendly in that regard.”
Those not familiar with The Novel Tree may recognize it as the backdrop of videos that Leafly has produced.
“They came in and used our shop as the green screen for a series of informational videos they’re doing,” Charnesksi said. “We were very, very excited to be chosen to do that.”
Most production facilities operate out of sight from the public. They’re hidden away in warehouses located within industrial districts, or they’re farms and greenhouses that blend in with other agricultural businesses.
But that doesn’t mean they’re immune to public perception.
Danielle Rosellison, of Trail Blazin’ Productions, and Lynsee Swisher, of Nine Point Growth Industries, spend a great deal of time working to interact with local community members, business leaders and government officials to make sure the cannabis industry is well-represented and dispels the myths associated with more than 70 years of prohibition. Both are devoted mothers and busy business women, who understand the challenges of operating in a space still deemed illegal by the federal government.
When Rosellison has met with various individuals, she often surprises those outside the industry with the company’s level of professionalism.
Trail Blazin’ Productions joined the local chamber of commerce to interact with the business community in the region. By the end of the first meeting, some of those that were neutral had shifted more in favor of the cannabis industry. Some that were anti-cannabis had softened their negative outlook somewhat.
“You look like such a normal person … I want to talk to you about this whole marijuana thing,” Rosellison remembered hearing one lady say.
The same happened when Trail Blazin’ invited the local fire chief for a tour of the facility. The chief’s reaction was, “This is not what we expected,” Rosellison said.
That reaction is invaluable in building relationships with the community and marketing the entire industry as being no different than any other business. When members of Trail Blazin’ volunteer during city clean-up efforts, they wear shirts that say “Cannabis Community” on the back, putting a positive, community-minded vibe on the industry as a whole.
But Rosellison and Swisher are careful about managing expectations. Acceptance of the cannabis industry is sure to be a slow-moving process.
“It takes time, and it takes everybody in the industry,” Swisher said. “There’s so much one foot in front of another. It really takes a business professional to do what we do. You have to be organized, adaptable, flexible.”
There’s a certain mindset necessary in transitioning from an illegal, underground business to an above-board, legitimate, licensed, tax-paying business.
Trail Blazin’ Productions was among the first businesses in the state to submit its application to the Washington State Liquor Control Board in 2013. Danielle Rosellison, along with her husband, Justin “Juddy” Rosellison, and business partners Kelsey Briscoe and Scott Kirk made a decision that they wanted to run the business with an environmentally-friendly mindset from the very beginning.
“This is important to us because we are aware of many other industries that have conducted their business without any regard to the environmental disasters that they leave behind, and that just doesn’t sit well with us,” Juddy Rosellison said. “We saw this as an opportunity to lead by example and to try to ‘set the bar’ of standards at our level, and hope that everyone would rise up to it.”
Once Trail Blazin’ Productions committed to an all-LED growing facility, everything else fell into place, he said.
When the growers talked to other industry professionals about LEDs, the initial reaction was one of shock and doubt, Rosellison said. He said people told them that LEDs wouldn’t be successful. Sticking with HID lighting was safer in terms of the investment, but more expensive in terms of electricity consumption.
“We chose to make environmentally correct decisions in order to be comfortable with ourselves,” he said. “The folks at PSE (Puget Sound Energy) are super stoked with the decisions that we’ve made, and we’re going to be working together to share our experiences throughout the industry. But other than that, we’re focusing on how good the product is, not necessarily how we do it. That time will come.”
The team was originally willing to accept a 15% reduction in yield as it made the LED transition. Although too early to say for sure, Rosellison said the yield in flower has been excellent, but the total cannabinoids have been almost 20% higher, as well,
And the electricity savings has been nothing short of remarkable. Trail Blazin’ Productions was able to save about 55% on electricity consumption, resulting in an 80% savings on air-conditioning needs and 50% less nutrient and water consumption.
The team is working on a water recycling system that could reduce water usage by another 70%, Rosellison said.
Stereotypes can’t be changed overnight, but legalization is helping put a new look on cannabis.
“A majority of the smart, productive and responsible users out there have chosen to stay in the bathroom — or closet if you will — about their usage in order to avoid the stereotype, and now it’s time to come out of the bathroom to show that there is a very broad spectrum of intelligent and productive cannabis users, and that the stereotype needs to be diluted,” Rosellison.
Everything about cannabis is evolving with the 21st century, including how people consume it. As the saying goes, this isn’t your father’s marijuana.
It’s not to say that joints and bongs are ever going out of fashion, but they’re kind of the marijuana equivalent of bulky, outdated flip phones. Companies all across the nation are diving into the vape pen market, trying to gain a foothold in an increasingly-crowded market.
Seattle-based Vuber Technologies is one of the fast-rising contenders for vape products.
“People love the technology side of it,” founder Brandon Gallagher said. “Even though there’s not that much technology involved, it’s still fun to them. It’s new. It’s like a gadget. I had one customer refer to it as being like an iPhone for pot.”
Gallagher had been selling vaporizers for another company before launching Vuber in early 2014. The company has been developing a variety of different products, including the Comet, Cosmos and Atlas. The first order was placed in February 2014, shortly before Jim Makoso joined the small team to head up business development.
“The biggest thing we prided ourselves on was customer service,” Gallagher said. “I think that’s the biggest reason we did so well.”
With so many different vape pen options on the market, Gallagher understood that customer service and having exemplary sales people would be keys to Vuber’s growth.
Gallagher put his sales background to work, training the company’s sales people to be professional, have a strong work ethic, display knowledge about Vuber’s products and those of competitors, and perhaps most importantly, to be on time for meetings.
“We don’t want to be put in that stoner category,” Gallagher said. “We try to always be on time. We try to promise what we can deliver. We promise small and deliver big.”
In many instances, the sales people at Vuber are the face of the company, so it’s vital that they’re able to represent the company well.
“We’ve done virtually no marketing, except through the sales people,” Gallagher said. “It’s just about having boots on the ground. Our sales people are out there all the time.”
The company tagline — “fun, discreet and guaranteed” — emphasizes the draw for the entire vape pen industry. It’s far more inconspicuous than using a lighter and smoking out of a pipe, where everybody can see and smell what’s going on.
“It’s not only discreet in a way that you can literally smoke it anywhere, and it’s vapor, so you don’t get the marijuana scent, but it’s also very simple, button-less and fun,” Gallagher said. “A lot of cannabis users are switching to that because it’s so discreet and fun, and they just love the idea of it.”
Vuber also gives a lifetime warranty on its products.
Since gaining popularity in Washington’s medical and recreational marijuana markets, Vuber has been expanding into other cannabis markets as it seeks out vendors and partners in California, Colorado, Nevada and Arizona.