Tips for Successfully Navigating the Cannabis Industry

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The cannabis industry is rapidly expanding. Public opinion has never been higher. A recent Quinnipiac University poll found that 93% of Americans support the legal use of medical cannabis when prescribed by a doctor. With analysts projecting $20 billion of annual sales by 2021, excitement from entrepreneurs and investors is higher than ever before. 

In the past three years, I’ve educated thousands of people about cannabis, even giving a TEDx Talk on the subject. Some have become leaders of promising entrepreneurial ventures while others have already been weeded out of the industry. It’s impossible to sustain a successful cannabis business just for fun. The industry is becoming more competitive every day.  

Collaborating with the industry’s leading experts and coaching hundreds of entrepreneurs has revealed to me five fundamental prerequisites for success in the cannabis industry.

Passion For The Plant And The Cause

Lifesaving medicine. Superfood. Biofuel. Textile. Construction material. C02 absorber. Soil detoxifier. Nutritional supplement. Party favor. CommodityHowever you think about it, the plant itself is the lifeblood of the industry. While ancillary businesses (grow lights, nutrients, security) may seem less risky, they, too, ultimately depend on the plant.

The most accomplished and ambitious cannabis entrepreneurs I’ve encountered practically worship the plant on a metaphysical level. They view it as a vehicle for global transformation and healing. Passion for the plant is what drives them to endure the hard work and many challenges of cannabis entrepreneurship.

Without a clear and authentic passion, you will be fighting an uphill battle. Not only will industry veterans be skeptical of you, but your competitors will be driven by a higher purpose and will likely out-hustle you.

Endless Curiosity

Playing in a cutting-edge sector requires constant education. Much about the plant remains a mystery, even to the world’s top experts. I met Meg Sanders, CEO of Mindful, one of Colorado's first dispensaries, at an event. She told me, “The best thing in cannabis hasn't even been invented yet.” Yes, it’s still that early. 

At a minimum, cannabis professionals must become informed about: 

  • The history of prohibition
  • The plant’s scientific properties
  • Growth, extraction and infusion basics
  • Product quality and safe consumption
  • Cannabis lexicon
  • Constantly changing regulatory frameworks
  • The political landscape
  • The culture of the cannabis community

That’s all in addition to the work of, you know, actually running your business. A lifetime is not enough to learn all there is to know about cannabis. Don’t just self-medicate, self-educate. Read books, attend conferences, find mentors and coaches. As your knowledge about the plant grows, so does your capacity for adding value in the industry.

Spirited Activism

This industry was born out of a countercultural social movement. Without decades of political engagement, community organizing, and civic participation, the legal cannabis industry would simply not exist today. Activism is absolutely mandatory for cannabis entrepreneurs. Honor those who paved the way and do your part for the sake of human liberty and social justice.

How does restorative justice fit into your business model? Is reform part of your brand's identity? Do you contribute to organizations like NORML (National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws), Drug Policy Alliance, and Students for Sensible Drug Policy?

You don’t need a cannabis business to be an activist, but you need to support activism if you want to succeed in the business.

Professionalism

As more of the mainstream enters cannabis — institutional investors, big corporations, seasoned professionals, etc. — the nascent industry will start looking and feeling more like Silicon Valley and less like deals in the alley. Today, entrepreneurs can differentiate themselves, and even stand out, just by being professional. Investors can differentiate themselves by cultivating an authentic understanding of the countercultural roots and values common amongst cannabis entrepreneurs.

Although some entrepreneurs may be attracted to cannabis because they want to let their hair down and bust out their favorite tie-dye, the fact is, once you enter the industry, you become an agent of the plant, and as such, you must represent your business in the highest light possible.

The cannabis industry is tightly regulated and under constant scrutiny. There is still a huge stigma against cannabis. Everyone benefiting from the plant can be more mindful of challenging — and not perpetuating — that stigma.

Community Support

Restrictions on advertising, lack of access to banking, and a rapidly shifting legal landscape make the already difficult pursuit of entrepreneurship even more challenging in the cannabis sector. Building a successful cannabis venture requires the help of other passionate, curious professionals. One of the best ways to cultivate that network is through community service.

Many cannabis entrepreneurs find great joy and renewal by engaging with local communities. Whether it be through volunteer projects, social events, political fundraisers, there is undoubtedly a communal spirit in the cannabis industry.

This is an easy starting point for aspiring cannabis entrepreneurs. Participate in your local community and find ways to create value for others. Once you do that, you’ve begun to succeed as a cannabis entrepreneur. The plant will reward you.

The five qualities above, when combined with business savvy, hard work, and resilience, can grow into the cannabis unicorn the world has yet to see. There is already plenty of opportunity for entrepreneurs to contribute and succeed in the cannabis industry. Just know that every moment you wait, another entrepreneur is taking small actions towards building a large, green future — beyond prohibition.

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