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Three Keys to Start-up Success in the Cannabis Industry

By Tim Cullen

Startups are adventures in navigating the unknown.

Like captaining a small boat at sea, even the best strategies and planning do not change the height of the waves, and a well-provisioned ship does not make the wind blow in the direction the crew desires. A high-risk, nascent industry with perpetually shifting rules and expectations at times feels like building a boat while already on a trans-Atlantic journey.

Leading one of Colorado’s first and largest cannabis companies means our people and processes adjust constantly to factors outside our control. I focus my efforts on the aspects of our journey I can control:

  1. Hiring and retaining key employees;
  2. Being a positive player in the process of creating state and city regulations; and,
  3. Focusing on an outstanding experience for a unique and diverse customer base.

Hiring, retaining key employees

In the early years of my company, the Colorado Harvest Company (CHC), I wore all the hats: Grower, budtender, reception, accounts payable, bookkeeper, controller, graphic design, custodian, and the list goes on. But I learned an organization is only as good as the people who make it up.

Letting go of areas where I was weak, but strong enough to know my deficiencies, were the first spots be filled. A solid CPA and a reliable bookkeeper were my first hires before I took on help anywhere else.

A living wage is something that I have always held as a core value. Health insurance is something everyone needs and the ability to take time off work and go on a vacation with pay is what makes life interesting, and what keeps my people interesting. I have always believed people will surpass your expectations if you give them an environment to flourish and the opportunity to do so.

I divide the business into two halves. We are vertically integrated, so we need an energetic sales staff that serves as the face of our company to the public in our stores, but we also need experienced, intelligent, hard-working employees in our grows to make our folks in the shops look like rock stars.

About 20 percent of our sales are to out-of-state customers who come to Colorado to shop. The other 80 percent are regulars. Having a staff answer questions for a first-time visitor and also offer detailed explanations of complex processes to a regular is critical to a favorable shopping experience.

The idea of staff development through a vendor training program came to me by way of how the world of outdoor retail functions. A quick 30 minute presentation about the unique selling points of a product fosters a relationship between the vendors and staff as well as ensures that the staff is always up to speed on any given product line.

Being a positive player in creating regulations

Over the last seven years I’ve watched rules change, and change again. That has been one of the few constants, but knowing those rules has to be another constant.

Staying active in the process allows me as a leader, and my company as contributor, to be a part of those rule changes. Many of them are good for the public and the federal government’s acceptance of a large-scale legal cannabis market – but some of them are not, but we endure.

I reach out to local city council members and state representatives, and I joined the local chapter of like-minded business people. I participate in the fundraising efforts for government officials who fight for my industry, and I contribute to the state and federal lobbying efforts that are making positive changes.

I make sure to introduce myself to my business neighbors so they develop a favorable opinion about our business and our practices.

Focusing on an outstanding experience for the customer base

The ability to give a customer an outstanding experience is the key to keeping them.

There are many recreational cannabis centers in Colorado to choose from. Making the customers’ shopping experience fun, simple and exciting is what makes them want to tell their friends. This experience only happens when the flower is a great value at every price point, the sale is pressure free, informative and efficient and the atmosphere and ambiance make everyone feel comfortable. Down to the greeters at the door to the music that is played, the experience is designed to make everyone feel welcome in an inviting space that provided something for each shopper.

There is still no way to accurately predict the weather, and the impossible has been overcome so many times that I’ve stopped using the word. There is a huge momentum of change on the horizon.

Legalization is not just a Colorado concern anymore. The entire country and even the world is moving in that direction. The odds have been stacked against the cannabis entrepreneur since the start, but the boats have been constructed and they are out on the high seas flying their flags for the whole world to see.

Tim Cullen is CEO of the Colorado Harvest Company.

Tim Cullen

Tim Cullen

Tim Cullen, CEO of Colorado Harvest Company, a vertically integrated enterprise that grows and sells its own natural cannabis, is also a member of the Colorado Department of Agriculture’s newly formed Private Advisory Committee to help cannabis producers gain insight into safe cultivation practices. The project taps into Cullen’s expertise as an educator and expert cannabis grower. Earlier in 2016, the Colorado Department of Agriculture returned a perfect score on all 80 tests of Colorado Harvest Company cannabis samples taken between August 2015 and January 2016.

Cullen, who took a sabbatical after 10 years of teaching high school biology to start a marijuana business, oversees the production of more than 700 pounds of high quality natural cannabis.

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