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Ep 300 – Cannabis Investors Are Changing Tactics Amid COVID-19 Crisis

kim kovacs arcview

How is COVID-19 impacting investments in the cannabis space?

Here to tell us is Kimberly Kovacs of The Arcview Group, the leading private investment network and market research firm in the cannabis space. 

Learn more at https://arcviewgroup.com 

Key Takeaways:

  • Kim’s background in cannabis and how she came to be CEO of The Arcview Group
  • An inside look at Arcview and its mission to forge a principled and profitable industry from the ashes of cannabis prohibition
  • How the coronavirus is impacting cannabis businesses and investor sentiment
  • Kim’s advice to startups looking for funding right now
  • Tips on how new investors can get started to set themselves up for long-term success
  • Kim’s best investments and factors that played into her decision-making
  • An update on what investors are currently funding most
  • Important takeaways from Arcview’s recent data reports on the size and dynamics of the cannabis market
  • What investors and entrepreneurs can gain from AV Access, Arcview’s new educational webinar series
Click Here to Read Full Transcript

Matthew Kind: Hi. I'm Matthew Kind. Every Monday, look for a fresh, new episode where I'll take you behind the scenes and interview the insiders that are shaping the rapidly evolving cannabis industry. Learn more at cannainsider.com, that's C-A-N-N-A insider dot com. Now, here's your program. The Arcview Group is the leading private investment network and market research firm focused on connecting high-net-worth individuals, institutional investors, and money managers with investment opportunities in the cannabis space. Here to give us an update on what investors are funding right now is Kim Kovac, CEO of the Arcview Group. Kim, welcome to CannaInsider.

Kim Kovac: Thank you so much. Matt, it is a pleasure to be here. I have to say I'm quite a groupie of the show, so I'm thrilled to be on this now and representing Arcview.

Matthew: Oh, that's great. I can't hear that enough. Give us a sense of geography, where are you in the world?

Kim: I am in my home office, I think like many of us today, in Laguna Niguel, California. It's raining here, which is a novelty for SoCal. We need the rain, and it actually makes sitting inside a little bit easier.

Matthew: Oh, that's nice. It's only like 10 days of rain, I think, a year or something in Southern California, something crazy like that?

Kim: Yes, so we're tipping it probably at 20 this year, which we desperately need.

Matthew: Wow. We've had Troy Dayton and Steve DeAngelo on the show before, co-founders of the Arcview Group, but this is your first time on the show. Can you tell us a little bit about your background and journey and how you got into the cannabis and investing space?

Kim: Oh, absolutely. First of all, I have some really big shoes to fill and also a big hat. If you know Steve DeAngelo, you'll know the reference to that one. It's an interesting journey, one that I wasn't expecting. Probably what you hear from a lot of guests on your show, jumping into cannabis was a little bit of serendipity for me, but my journey actually with Arcview is a little bit of a poster-child situation.

I got into the industry a few years ago, also listened to your show, Matt, but decided to become an investor in Arcview and become a member. I started going to events and meeting folks, then I had this harebrained idea that I wanted to start a company, which I'd done before in my past, and I'll talk about that in a second, but I started a company called MyJane, and it's a company focused on women and getting more women into the cannabis space as consumers.

We actually then funded the company through a pitching event that we did on the Arcview stage. I was actually sharked by some of my, now, team members. Then we also got investing through that and then five months later, we exited the company also through an Arcview member. I'm truly the Arcview success story.

Matthew: Yes, the circle of life.

Kim: The circle of life, it is. Before that, it was really interesting for me. I'd a whole long history in tech investing, tech entrepreneur. I've had six startups, exited all the companies, good or bad. The last one that I had, which was successful in 2012, I took some time off and became an angel investor, and I started investing in a lot of technology, women's companies.

I actually ran an angel group in Southern California, it's a branch of Golden Seeds which is a well-known women's investment group out of New York. One day back in 2017, my mother-in-law actually confessed to my husband and I that she was taking cannabis, and she was taking it to get off of opioids, and I was really surprised. I had no idea that the plant could do this, I had no idea that it could be a replacement for things like that.

Literally, within a couple of months, she was off of it completely. With a 10-year history in managing pain and now doing that with cannabis, it was remarkable. I made a decision at that point that I needed to be in this industry, and I needed to invest in this industry. My heart and soul are in it.

Matthew: Wow. We have another interesting intersection going on with the coronavirus right now. How do you think that's impacting the cannabis space in the investment world?

Kim:  I think, like all of us, we're living day-by-day and really looking at, what is this next thing? How are these things happening? What are we going to be looking at tomorrow, even our families and our businesses and our markets and looking at everything? At the end of the day, I believe and I believe our investors believe in the consumer. The consumer is really driving what this market is now and what it will also look like.

If you read any one day, consumption numbers are up or they're varying. In California, we're still up 9%, 10% over where we were last March. Last week or actually two weeks ago, we had a lot of the top CEOs from the industry talking about the market right now and what we're doing with COVID. If you think of things like going from legal or illegal to essential in 18 months, that's incredible, Matt. We don't see that in any other industry, and all of a sudden, we're now an essential business with cannabis. These shifts in consumer behavior, I believe, are creating opportunities for investors to step in right now.

Matthew: Investor sentiment, how would you describe it right now? Are they mostly waiting for the dust to settle or are they saying, "Okay, this is the time to get a better valuation on something I was interested in before"?

Kim: As you know, investors are a little bit like cats and dogs, they all operate under different theses and different situations, but I would say, generally speaking, everybody is very cautious right now, but they're also very opportunistic. They're looking at deals, they're funding deals. The public markets are very risky right now. Private companies are actually looking very attractive, especially those that have what I'd say a longer-term horizon or a longer-term outlook on the market and what they're going for. The days of the quick buck are gone, and I believe our investors are looking for those companies that are doing the right things and have a sustainable business model and product.

Matthew: Even though the coronavirus is severe, it's not been around a long time. Is it fair to say that founders aren't really ready to give up too much equity for too cheap since it's a fairly recent development?

Kim: I would say probably some but I think others who have been around for a while, for example, one of my companies that I started. We literally started in 2007 and did our first round of funding in 2008, that was not a good time to fund.

[laughter]

Kim: If you read the Death Spiral of Venture Investing by Jason Calacanis, those are the things that would just deter, I would say, many from seeking capital or having real valuations, but I believe that right now because we've had such a brutal beating in our valuation markets in the public side, I think we were ready for this reset, and I think it needed to happen. I don't think it's COVID-related as much as it was, it needed to happen in this industry anyway.

Matthew: What advice do you have for startups looking to raise funds right now if you were having a cup of coffee with a startup founder and say, "Hey, if our roles were reversed, this is what I would do"?

Kim: The first thing I would say is, do you need to raise money right now? I am a realist, and there isn't as much capital in this market. It is a little bit more challenging to find, but supply and demand, so the less that people are looking for capital, the ones that really need it and, like I said, have realistic expectations and all these other things that make a solid investment, they're going to get invested in, but that being said, I'd say get real.

I wouldn't focus on what you're going to do in five years from now and how you're going to take 5% of a $100-billion market and things, but how are you going to tactically execute on a plan over the next 30, 60, 90 and get really real about those expectations? Have a couple of scenarios, making sure that you've looked at, what if this gets extended, the stay at home order, for another six months? What do you do? How do you maintain and/or build your business in that kind of situation?

We talked about reasonable valuations, but I'd also say reasonable exit plans too. A lot of this cannabis industry was a quickie, and we can't be thinking that way. Other investors don't think that way in other industries. We always talk about a 7-year plan and sometimes even 10 years for companies in the private space. I think we're culling the herd a little bit, but I think there's great companies out there, and those are the ones that are going to not just survive but thrive.

Matthew: Do you feel like any first-time entrepreneurs, they focus, maybe, on the wrong things, like getting their logo just right or something and not focusing on the bigger picture of what the investor might be interested in and or getting cash flow in? How would you try to orient a startup founder on what's the most important thing?

Kim: I had a great mentor, he ran a venture fund in the cleantech space, so think about emerging markets, right? This is cleantech back in the late '90s, early 2000s, and nobody even knew what cleantech was. For me, if you have a shiny logo and you have a great PowerPoint presentation, anyone can put that together. Your job as an entrepreneur is to talk to the investor and convince the investor that this is the time, this is the now, this is the right team, and you're the one to lead it.

That can be done over a conversation. It doesn't have to be a flash. I think that's where a lot of new entrepreneurs don't have a lot of confidence because they haven't done it before. If you really believe in this business and this idea and "the time is now," that's what you need to communicate, and you need to do it in a way that makes the investor want to invest. It's an opportunity, right?

We always think of this in the reverse. I think of being an entrepreneur, going to an investor is an opportunity for that investor. You're allowing them to come in, and you're going to demonstrate how you're going to make them, really, a lot of money based on this, and it's going to be a good time. It's going to be a fun ride together, right? Focus on those things that you would want to see if you were also sitting in the investor space.

Matthew: Then switching it around a little bit for investors looking to get into this space, maybe they have some extra capital, they're an accredited investor, they've had some success with their own business and they want to get out and invest in the cannabis space. They believe in it, and they want to invest, but it's this nagging feeling like, "Who do I pick? Can I trust them? How do I do due diligence?" All these things jump up as these roadblocks, and they prevent the action. What do you say to someone who's thinking those things?

Kim: We all have that exuberance. I think a couple of years ago, it was hard for investors, especially, I would say, sophisticated investors who'd been in other industries, to jump into cannabis because it was a two-week turnaround, no due diligence or very little, nothing to really go on. It's still an illegal market, federally. There were just so many things that were red flags for most investors that they just couldn't get their arms around it.

I think as an industry, we allowed it to happen because we really saw the Gold Rush or the Green Rush happening. Investors now, especially new ones getting in, they're going to take their time. They're going to want to also buddy up. I call this a team sport. I say this every time I talk to anyone about getting into the cannabis space or investing in general, don't go it alone because you have your experience, you have your life experience, your investing experience, and you're bringing, to the table, that.

If you multiply that by 5 people, 10 people, 20 people in a room and they're all collectively doing due diligence and looking at a company, that group-think is extremely powerful. That's what Arcview offers. It's this ability to connect with others that are like-minded or have like-interests in types of companies but bring in different experiences so you guys can rely on each other to do that due diligence.

One thing that we did start this year, Matt, which I think is brilliant and something I am a big believer in, is this collective fund. It's a member-managed fund. It's run by Jeanne Sullivan, who you probably know in this industry, and also Jeff Finkle. It's for members to invest and then manage these deals together. They've made seven investments in the space already, and it's a great way to go for first-timers.

Matthew: That's great. I watched that, firsthand, at Arcview events, people coming for the first time and they're thinking about what they want to do and then they meet someone that's made investments, that's been to many of the events, talked to many entrepreneurs. They sit in and listen to the questions they ask to the entrepreneurs and then slowly, you start to develop patterns where you say, "Oh, okay, this is a good thing to ask. How come they can't answer that question?

"Maybe it doesn't mean they're a bad startup founder, but they just haven't thought about it, and they need to, and that's a hole they need to fill in their business before I can invest." Then you can whittle it down to, "Hey, I need these questions answered before I can get to yes." It's an interesting thing. I also think that the startup founders have a tough job because the investors ask a lot of tough questions, and you can't know everything.

What do you advise a startup founder if they don't know the answer to something or they get confronted with a difficult situation? Because sometimes investors, most investors are nice and very polite but some can get a little bit-- I don't know how to say. I was like, "I feel like this has gotten adversarial, and I don't know why." You have to learn how to handle those things, but it's good to know how to do it because they come up over and over.

Kim: That's part of our Investor 101 course, right? That's how we learn how to be a shark. If you think about that personality of the shark and what they're trying to get at, they're trying to get you rattled on stage. The question and the answer aren't as important as how you respond, and they want to see how you act under pressure. I always say there's a power to the pause.

It's okay to take a beat, think about it and come back with even an answer that's something like, "I don't have the answer for your exact question, but I'm going to connect with you after this meeting, and I'm going to make sure I answer that question in more depth for you," or something along the lines of, "That's an excellent question. Here's how I would answer this today but given a little bit more research because you brought up some great points, this is the way I would approach this in the future," something around there.

You want to acknowledge that they have a good question, but you don't want to get rattled, and you don't want to show a lot of animosity, which I see a lot of entrepreneurs do. They get pissed off [laughs] because they're like, "Weren't you listening?" or "Hey, why do I have to answer this?" or "Why are you asking this question? I think it's a stupid question."

Don't go there because then you're creating this situation that is unwinnable for you. They have the right to ask you anything, and you have the right to not answer. I would just be respectful and take a lot of notes. You'd be lucky to get an investment on your first pitch. I usually say it takes a ton, a 100 sometimes, to get to the right message, to get to the right delivery, and to get to the right investor.

Matthew: Those are great points. I'm hearing you say you're honest about what you don't know, but then you're going to take accountability, "I'm" going to do this to get you the answer," instead of deflecting and doing something else.

Kim: That's what they would want to see as a leader of a company that they're investing in, as the CEO. They don't want you making up stuff as you go along, they want you to be making decisions based on data and analysis, not just winging it.

Matthew: It seems like there are seasons in investing in cannabis, and sometimes ancillary products are hot, sometimes extraction is hot, and things come around, and they come back again. What season do you feel like we're in right now in terms of what investors are really interested in and looking to invest in more?

Kim: You mean besides being in the winter season where everybody's-

Matthew: We're in the winter, yes.

Kim: -indoors, bundled up?

Matthew: Winter is here.

Kim: Yes, winter is here. I think that's part of being a really good entrepreneur right now is to recognize that seasonality, not just in the investor cycle but in the consumer cycle too. My husband plays hockey, so I'm going to give him a shout out, but he always says, "Skate where the puck is going, not where it is." We as an industry and I believe as entrepreneurs and investors, we need to really look at that.

If you look at the things that are happening right now, literally today, edibles are up, flowers down, delivery is kicking ass right now, and touchless technologies are hot.

A lot of these areas of our industry that have been ancillary businesses or great ideas or hoping that consumers adopt them someday, that day is today. If we can start really looking at that consumer behavior today, that's going to dictate a lot of what happens in the future.

I had an e-comm company back in the early 2000s, and some people were like, "Ugh, everybody's going to want to continue to go to the store. Why would they ever buy online books?" Come on, right? These things change consumer behavior permanently. We are going to see a permanent shift in our cannabis consumers and how they're going to want to have product delivered.

Another thing that I found really interesting in talking with Dennis at Caliva, for example, he said that brand loyalty is starting to become prominent, and it hadn't been, before. People were looking for deals. They'd go into a dispensary, right? If it was there, it was there. If it wasn't, they'd get something like-minded or like-product, but now they're asking for brands because those brands represent something to them.

It represents a good experience, but also it's safe, and we're looking for safety right now. We don't want to take risks with our health, so if you find a brand that is going above and beyond not just sustainability but organic and clean and this, you're going to stick with it right now.

Matthew: Yes, good points. It does seem like delivery is crushing it right now. It also makes me skeptical about how and when people return to a retail environment, a dispensary. Is it going to have to be like a Cirque du Soleil experience inside of a retail environment for me to want to go there? I don't know.

Kim: You know what, I believe it probably will. If you look at just general retail, they're trying to outdo each other with pop-up shops and all these other things that are happening. There's an amusement park, literally, like you're saying, in the malls now to attract people. I was listening to your last podcast about Andrea from Sava. She was the winner on our stage back in Santa Monica.

She's crushing it right now. I believe that the consumer wants the products delivered. They want that curated experience. They want to know that there is a quality behind that and that the brands are vetted. I think her business model is right on, and I think that she's going to be very successful not just now but as this new paradigm of cannabis consumption happens.

Matthew: Yes. She does have an interesting angle. For people that haven't listened to that episode, her business, Sava, and her name is Andrea Brooks, her focus is not on getting the product there as fast as possible but getting it there quickly and having a real relationship with the customers they deliver to, so much so that they know their name, they have conversations, and they only recommend products they really believe in or have some value.

It has a feel of like a co-op whereso it's kind of they've gone the opposite way to just speed, speed, speed, and it just feels more like family. It's like a family delivery-type network vibe to it. That is interesting when people say, "I'm going to try the exact opposite," but there's a reason for it, and then it works because I know in San Francisco, on the Peninsula there, there's ridiculous delivery times like, "Okay, I just placed my order for--" and there it is. It's so fast. It's like, "Wow, I don't even know how they manage this." It is interesting because sometimes convenience trumps all, interesting about the pop-up.

Kim: You have to listen to the consumer, in my opinion. The net new consumer to cannabis is going to be less interested in speed than they are, like you were saying, in this quality and the conscientiousness of the product selections and knowing who is coming to their door. Let's be honest. I'm 52 years old, Matt, I have children, and I don't necessarily need someone who is a little random coming to my house and delivering marijuana and cannabis.

Having that discretion and knowing that the person showing up at my door is someone who I would actually invite in for lunch, that was actually the entire [inaudible [00:23:09] MyJane model that I started two years ago was to have that kind of experience. We call them brand ambassadors, and they are female drivers who deliver products to women. We were a little early.

Matthew: Yes, ahead of your time. That's another way of saying it.I just want to press you a little bit more on Andrea Brooks because she won the Best Pitch at the Arcview event in Santa Monica, as you mentioned, but what specifically do you feel resonated as you watched the investors listen to her pitch and how she was delivering and that fit there? Why did it fit on that particular day, her message with that audience?

Kim: I think a couple of things that she did really well. She was extremely prepared for her presentation. She had all of the high points that investors are looking for, the establishment of the team, the inner workings of the company and testing theses out and then having them working, repeat customers, cart size, unit economics. She had everything really laid out well, and she told it in such a succinct way that she wasn't jumbling things around.

She was carrying that investor audience through that story and very well and hitting the high points of what investors are looking for. The team, the product, the traction, the longtime customer value, or the lifetime customer value, all of these things she had really identified, how she stacks up against her competition. Like you said, she's not there to deliver it in half an hour. It's going to be timely, but it's going to be quality, and how she differentiated then. She really nailed it with regard to that.

She was very respectful with the questions and very knowledgeable, not just about her industry and what she was doing, but I would say about the industry as a whole. Because we all ride together here, if there's trouble with the supply chain, there's going to be trouble down the road. She was just really able to nail that. The other part is that the pitch on stage isn't where all the action happens, it's when you walk off that stage and you start to create these one-on-one connections with people.

I can't emphasize that enough. So many people go to these pitch events, like an Arcview event even, and they don't work the room. They come offstage and then they go hide in a corner or somewhere. You can't do that because people still want to ask their question. They may not have asked it publicly, but they certainly will privately, and they're going to want to hear from you directly. Sometimes that one-on-one connection is the most important.

She worked the room afterward, then she came to our women's lunch, which is such a cool thing. By the way, with Arcview, we have this thing called WIN, which is the Women's Investor Network. It's a separate group part of Arcview, and we focus on women investors and women companies, and she worked that room like nobody's business. She was able to get more connections out of all of those than she was just on stage.

Matthew: That's great. That's like a little whitepaper we just did on Andrea.

Kim: We did. [laughs]

Matthew: I hope you don't mind, Andrea. There's people listening that are going to say, "Okay, I'm a startup founder, I have a good business, or I have a good business plan, and I want to get up on stage and pitch to investors. What does that process look like? How do I get into consideration?" What do you say to that, Kim?

Kim: I'd say, first of all, our stage has really changed in the last couple of months. It's now Zoom, Zoom. We are all on the Zoom stage. We are doing this now every other week. It's a rapid fire. It's actually really exciting now. I love it. We don't have to wait for three, four months to go by to bring more companies up in front of investors, we're doing it every other week. What I would say to entrepreneurs is, make sure you connect with us.

We are on LinkedIn, Instagram, Twitter, you name it, but also hit our site, put in an application, get in queue, be on our new platform, which is called Proseeder. That's where you're going to get visibility in front of all of our investor members and then every other week, we select companies to present in a webinar via Zoom, and we call it Arcview Access, and you get a chance to showcase your company. To me, this is really how I think, to be honest with you, I think this is how the world's going to be from now on. Why wouldn't it be?

Matthew: Yes. Can you record those [unintelligible [00:27:44] Zoom and then people can watch highlights right after [unintelligible [00:27:47] they can watch them? Is that how it works?

Kim: Absolutely. As a member of Arcview, you get access to your own profile, and part of the platform is that we record and store, for the companies, all of these presentations, so they have that as their legacy document library to be able to add things to. The platform is amazing. Full disclosure, I'm an investor in Proseeder, and I actually helped that company launch when they were working with Golden Seeds.

It's a platform that angel investors use. There's hundreds of them, different organizations. If you think about having your company on a platform that is being used by hundreds, if not thousands of other organizations like angels, small VCs, family offices, we can share those deals across that platform. It's called syndication. We do it all the time. For an entrepreneur now coming into Arcview, this is a new world. We've opened up digitally, so you get exposure to not just our members but all of these others that we syndicate with. It's brilliant.

Matthew: That's great. Now, switching gears a little bit to Arcview Market Research, which is the data-gathering and report arm of Arcview, is there any interesting data right now that's coming on your radar? You mentioned flowers down, edibles up, anything else that you feel is important to know?

Kim: Yes. We have a deep relationship with BDS Analytics, and we produce reports cobranded together under the Arcview Market Research segment of our business. We're coming out with our new intelligent report, which is the State of the Legal Cannabis Market. I think that's coming out next week. That's going to be a very lengthy report. One of the things we're working on with BDS is, how do we do this in bite-size?

How do we make data available to our members on a more frequent basis and more relative and more relevant? Because this market is literally changing every day, sometimes it's a little hard to keep up. Data analysis from a month ago may not be as relevant, but we're working toward delivering that data differently and bringing it to consumers and our members, both, and opening it up to the public. It's pretty exciting.

Matthew: Everything is moving to virtual, you're moving more to real-time data with BDS, everything's becoming shorter and more relevant to the moment and less to the in-person. That's a little trend we're drawing on right now here right in this interview, and we're doing it virtually. Everything's moving in that direction, so there's probably a lot of business opportunities just around that, creating the infrastructure for those type of experiences.

Kim: That's a great business idea.

[chuckling]

Kim: To be honest, I think a lot of industries have moved that way. I think for us, as an angel investor group, as a network of investors and companies, that technology has existed, we just haven't embraced it that much. We really have enjoyed, and we still do, the personal interactions. I don't want to say we're going to lose that, but we need to supplement it and complement it, so when we can't be together in person, we can still get that same feeling that we're in the room together.

Technology is advancing quickly to be able to do that. There was an interesting story about Starbucks recently and how they had put their whole mobile app together and order ahead and pick it up and everything. It was okay. Some people were doing it but not as much of an adoption as they'd hoped. It is now massively being adopted.

Matthew: Yes, it's true. It's a very good app too, I will have to say. The first time, I was like, "Why would I want to order ahead?" Now, I'm like, "Why wouldn't I?" It's crazy in that way. By the way, did you know there's more than three sizes of drinks at Starbucks? There's tall, grande, and venti, everybody knows that, but there's a secret fourth one. Did you know that?

Kim: I didn't. What is it? Can you share?

Matthew: I forget the name of it, but more than one person has told me like, "This isn't on the menu, but you can order it, and it's even bigger." That made me think, Kim, how big does a drink have to be before it's ridiculous? If someone ordered that fourth size that just seems huge, what if Starbucks, as a joke, made it 30% bigger than they were expecting? At what point would they say, "I want it big but not that big"?

Kim: [chuckles] I think they do. It's the craft that you can buy. I think I'm going to start moving in that direction because, after my third cup of coffee, I probably do need the gallon size.

Matthew: It's a big gulp.

Kim: It's a big gulp. I was going to say, they're probably taking a chapter out of the 7-Eleven book. That's the point is consumer behavior sometimes needs a push to get to a place that we go, "Oh, yes, for sure. Why wasn't I doing this before?" Like the Starbucks app, unfortunately, this is a really devastating push, but I think what we're going to find is that we don't feel like we need to be in a room together as Arcview members to make really good decisions and to support this industry and to bring capital to these companies that not just need it but we want them to be here.

We want them to be here, long-term, because they're changing our health and wellness in this country and in the world, to be honest with you. We need to be there, and we need to fund them now. We can't wait to see how they survive because they're not going to, right?

Matthew: Yes. Do you have any ideas on, once it's federally legal in the United States, how that might change things? I know it's just a hypothesis, and we're just subjectively going out into randomness here and we don't know, but how do you think that would change things?

Kim: I don't know if it's all that random, to be honest. During the Great Depression, one of the things that pulled that out was alcohol prohibition being lifted so the federal government could start making tax money on that, and that really filled the coffers and got the country back on track. Could that happen with cannabis? Maybe. If it becomes federally legal, think about the barriers to entry that absolutely just evaporate.

Banks now to fund, this Care Act, we'd now be able to apply for as an industry. I think the black market or illicit market would be diminished dramatically because if you could go to your local store and buy cannabis with showing your ID like you do alcohol, I don't know about you, but I don't really buy alcohol on the street anymore. I'm over 21. [laughs] I have it available pretty much anywhere I need to find it, and the price, it's a true market system. Prices will come down. I think there's just so much benefit, obviously, for that happening, and I think in this state that we're in right now, it makes a lot of sense.

Matthew: I do wonder about, will big brands become more prominent then, in a federally legal environment? I know they're in Southern California and really all of California, some brands do have an identity where they've taken off, but I wouldn't say on a national level, I see that yet, whereas if it's federally legal, do you think that's going to happen, we're going to have a Coke and Pepsi-type situation or a Dr. Pepper in the cannabis space, people want one brand they can get everywhere and have it be predictable?

Kim: I think here, we were going to see a little bit of everything, and it's the build versus buy analysis that all the brands will do. Coke isn't just coke. Coke has a lot of brands that are underneath the Coke umbrella. I think you're going to see the same thing here, just like you do with craft beer and Budweiser. There's a market niche for each of these types of products and brands and even just a provincial brand in California. That's [unintelligible 00:36:08] started. They wanted to be identified as the cool hobby in California, and they didn't want to lose that.

I think we're going to see big brands stepping in. I think they're going to keep the brand names of the companies that they're going to want to acquire for a while and build those out nationally or globally, for that matter. That's the other tipping point, is that the World Health Organization and others, I forgot which governing body it is, but they've got Schedule I on cannabis too.

If we can get that done, globally, look at what the market then can do. I think brands are going to do both. They're going to try to come up with their own products and then they're going to also scoop up good, solid companies. Again, get your house in order right now, making sure you're doing the right things because they're looking, trust me.

Matthew: Great suggestion. Kim, I'd like to ask a few personal development questions to help listeners get a better sense of who you are. With that, is there a book that's had a big impact on your life or your way of thinking that you'd like to share?

Kim: Interesting, Matt, I've been listening to your show for a long time, and some people are really smart, and they've got great books that they can recommend. I have one that's really near and dear to my heart and actually one that I've recommended to my staff at almost every company I've started. It's a Tony Hsieh's book and it's called Delivering Happiness.

Matthew: That's very good. I've read that. Excellent.

Kim: You know what, pick it up right now, because I started rereading this last week, just because, and it is such a parallel to what we're dealing with right now, what he went through at Zappos, and really focusing on not just profits but the passion of the business and the purpose. What he had to go through, my gosh. He had Y2K, he had the dotcom bubble burst, no venture money at all, real estate going in the toilet.

He had all these things happening at the same time, and he just believed that he was on the right path. He really believed in his employees, his customers, and his vendors, and he treated them all very equally. The customer success that he does is just incredible and the focus there. That's what I believe too. You start really focusing on the customer, and all of a sudden, things start to really happen because you're listening.

Matthew: There is those famous stories around Zappos where they said you can talk to any customer as long as you want, and there's stories of talking hours with customers just about anything random.

Kim: Delivering pizza. They do all kinds of great stuff. They even do tours, still, at their facilities in Las Vegas, and the employees get to decide what the inside of that tour looks like. They do crazy stuff. They'll dress up the popcorn machine as a robot. One part of the staff might be all dressed in Dracula gear that day. It's fun but they also just keep their eye on the prize. He was early in the cultural revolution of companies, and I think we've all followed, and there's still more to go. I really appreciate them.

Matthew: A tour sounds fun, I have to check that out.

Kim: I need to go to. I haven't been.

Matthew: What's the most interesting thing going on in the cannabis field, apart from what you're doing in Arcview? If you had to jump into something else, just out of pure interest and passion, what would it be?

Kim: This essential claim in the cannabis business has really gotten me thinking of how that could be really expanded on, I would say, from an industry perspective. To me, data, I'm a data junkie. Everything I do is based in data and analysis.

I think we've got a huge opportunity with the data we're collecting, the consumer behaviors, the tools that we have right now. If I wasn't doing what I was doing, I would certainly be in the data and the science side of this industry, because I think we're just-- We've not even scratched the surface. I don't even think we can even say that. We've identified that there is a surface, and I think there's just so much that we're going to be able to do. Because this is essential now, we can start using that to our advantage to learn more and to find out more.

Matt: Here's a Peter Thiel question for you, what is one thought you have that most people would disagree with you on, a controversial thought you have?

Kim: Let's see. I don't know if it's controversial at the moment, but I always thought this before, which is, a crisis creates opportunity. A lot of people put their head in the sand, and they retrench when a crisis is happening, and I think that you need to step out, and you need to really look at what's going on, and you need to control what you can control. This world, COVID is here and yes, we're at home and yes, we need to take care of ourselves and our families, but there are so many opportunities out there to start a business, build a business, recreate a business, and we need to embrace that.

We need to stop running scared sometimes and start moving in the right direction and forward. I think the Rockefellers made their most money during the Depression or something along those lines. Then also Isaac Newton invented calculus during the bubonic plague. Let's stop running scared and look at crisis and create opportunity from it.

Matt: Well-said. Kim, as we close can you let accredited investors know how to reach out to Arcview and also let startup founders know how to reach out to our Arcview so they can connect?

Kim: Yes, for sure. Hit our website arcviewgroup.com. We have areas of the site that are designated for both founders and potential members. Send us just some quick information about you. We've got a team really on standby. In fact, we just launched our chatbot. We're able to literally live chat, and it is someone there. We've got a few people in our membership team who will answer questions and engage you right there.

The other thing we have is called Arcview Access, which is now this weekly web series that we're doing, that allows both members and nonmembers to get education, to listen to things going on in the industry. We've got some amazing guests and celebrities and talent that are coming on to impart words of wisdom, and we're collecting all of this and creating a library and adding more so that we can really deliver to our customer not just happiness but real information to make real decisions.

Matt: Kim, thanks so much for coming on the show and educating us. That was really helpful to get a snapshot of what investors are thinking about and what startup founders are thinking about. Thank you and good luck with everything for the rest of 2020.

Kim: Thank you so much, Matt, and please take care.

[music]

Matt: If you enjoyed the show today, please consider leaving us a review on iTunes, Stitcher, or whatever app you might be using to listen to the show. Every five-star review helps us to bring the best guests to you. Learn more at cannainsider.com/itunes. What are the five disruptive trends that will impact the cannabis industry in the next five years? Find out with your free report at cannainsider.com/trends.

Have a suggestion for an awesome guest on CannaInsider? Simply send us an email at feedback@cannainsider.com. We'd love to hear from you. Please do not take any information from CannaInsider or its guests as medical advice. Contact your licensed physician before taking cannabis or using it for medical treatments. Promotional consideration may be provided by select guests, advertisers, or companies featured in CannaInsider.

Lastly, the host or guests on CannaInsider may or may not invest in the companies or entrepreneurs profiled on the show. Please consult your licensed financial advisor before making any investment decisions. Final disclosure to see if you're still paying attention, this little whistle jingle you're listening to will get stuck in your head for the rest of the day. Thanks for listening and look for another CannaInsider episode soon. Take care. Bye-bye.

[music]

[00:44:43] [END OF AUDIO]

Ep 299 – Cannabis Deliveries Surge in the Wake of the Coronavirus…

tim conder blackbird 1

With COVID-19 keeping people at home, cannabis delivery is booming.

Here to tell us more about it is Tim Conder of Blackbird Logistics, one of the industry’s leading software and operations companies.

Learn more at https://myblackbird.com 

Key Takeaways:

  • Tim’s background in cannabis and how he came to start Blackbird
  • An inside look at Blackbird and how the company facilitates the movement of cannabis products across the supply chain
  • How Blackbird fits in with its parent company TILT Holdings
  • Ways in which cultivators, dispensaries, and brands can benefit from Blackbird
  • How payment is being handled for home cannabis deliveries amid COVID-19
  • Recent changes Tim has seen in cannabis delivery and where he sees it heading in the years to come
  • How customer behavior is different than usual and the products people are ordering most
  • Tim’s advice for cannabis companies trying to navigate COVID-19
Click Here to Read Full Transcript

Matthew Kind: Hi, I'm Matthew Kind. Every Monday, look for a fresh new episode where I'll take you behind the scenes and interview the insiders that are shaping the rapidly evolving cannabis industry. Learn more at cannainsider.com, that's, C-A-N-N-A insider dot com. Now, here's your program.

With COVID-19 leaving many at home, the cannabis delivery business is booming. Here to tell us more about it is Tim Conder, CEO of Blackbird. Tim, welcome to Canna Insider.

Tim Conder: Thank you, I appreciate it.

Matthew: Give us a sense of geography. Where are you in the world today?

Tim: I'm in Reno, Nevada.

Matthew: Okay. What is Blackbird on a high level?

Tim: Blackbird is a supply chain company that operates in the cannabis space. We facilitate movement of cannabis product through the supply chain, both digitally and physically.

Matthew: Okay. Can you share a bit about your background and journey and how you got into the cannabis space and being a CEO of Blackbird?

Tim: Yes, absolutely. I worked as a bicycle messenger in San Francisco and moved back to my hometown of Reno, Nevada to start a bicycle messenger company in 2009, right after the 2008/2009 meltdown or financial crisis. I moved back with the thesis that, while bicycle messenger services in larger markets like San Francisco were suffering due to the advent of email, that a relationship-based service could thrive in a smaller market like Reno, Nevada.

I started that business in 2009, and it still operates today, almost 11 years later. In 2015, we saw an opportunity to pivot that business, which was called Bootleg Courier Company, into the cannabis space and start providing our unique brand of services around last-mile and on-demand delivery to cannabis operators. In 2015, when the medical program got on its feet here in Nevada, we launched Blackbird, which was a last-mile delivery company for both wholesale and retail cannabis operators.

Matthew: That's really cool. I hear Reno's really becoming a hotspot for people from California that are moving out of California for a bunch of reasons, some regulatory, some tax, some lower cost of living. Can you talk about that a little bit?

Tim: Yes, absolutely. I mean, Reno is within close proximity to the San Francisco Bay Area. The cost of living is definitely less expensive than San Francisco. Really, its proximity to the Silicon Valley as well as its cost of living, have contributed to a pretty significant uptake in technology companies settling in this area, either initially or expanding into this area. Apple has a campus here, Tesla has, I think, one of its largest campuses in the world here. Yes, I think it's become really a hotbed for technology startups because of the cost.

Matthew: Okay. Can you give some context of how Blackbird fits into the parent company, TILT Holding so we can get a picture there?

Tim: Absolutely. Blackbird was purchased by TILT in January of 2019. TILT was really an amalgamation of lots of different types of cannabis operators and ancillary companies servicing cannabis operators initially. What has evolved in today, is a group of technology and innovation companies under one umbrella that service cannabis operators globally. The two assets that underpin that goal are: Blackbird and Jupiter Research. There are other companies that were part of the initial business combination that have integrated into Blackbird now as well.

Matthew: The geographic footprint for Blackbird is Nevada, well, Nevada, I'm always corrected, and California, correct?

Tim: Yes, from an operations perspective, that's correct. We offer our services, operational solutions, statewide in Nevada and statewide in California, but our technology platform is utilized in all 33 regulated cannabis markets in the US as well as Canada, Jamaica and Puerto Rico.

Matthew: When I say Nevada, that's an immediate tell that I'm not from Nevada, right?

Tim: [laughs] It's an immediate tell that you're from the East Coast.

Matthew: Okay. But I'm actually from the Midwest.

Tim: We'll close yet.

[crosstalk]

Matthew: Okay. Just so we're really clear, can you go over how a dispensary, a brand, and a cultivator might work with Blackbird?

Tim: Yes, absolutely. We put cultivators, brands and manufacturers in the same category, we call them wholesalers. Essentially, what a wholesaler will do to utilize Blackbird is, they would use our software to create and manage their inventory, both at their own facility or when they're moving that inventory between facilities; either to another wholesaler or onto a retailer.

They would use our operational services to actually move that product from one facility to another. For example, if a cultivator has 100 pounds of flour that they want transported to a manufacturer, they would already have that inventory created in the software and they would create a shipment to the next location. Blackbird would come pick that product up, transport that product physically and then digitally, the product would be transferred from the Cultivator A, the originating facility to Manufacturer B, the destination facility.

Like I said, both digitally and physically that product is moved.

Matthew: Just curious, how is that transport done? Is it like an unmarked van or something? Or how does that work?

Tim: Yes, pretty much exactly. I mean, we use all sorts of different Ford Transit vans. Secure transport, so that's, they have cages in the back and they are GPS-tracked, alarms and all the bells and whistles that both Nevada and California regulations require.

Matthew: Okay. How many dispensaries are using Blackbird right now?

Tim: Roughly a thousand. I mean, we deliver product in Nevada and California to 100% of all licensed dispensaries. We know that because our software, in order for us to even contemplate making a delivery to either a wholesaler or retailer, we create that entity within our system and validate that they have an active license in the State in which they operate. We can cross-reference that against the State database. We currently deliver wholesale product to 100% of the dispensaries, like I said.

Internationally, Blackbird services- has retail clients at roughly about a thousand.

Matthew: Okay. I noticed Deliveroo and some other food delivery services are starting to move to total contactless where you just drop off, if you sign anything. How is payment handled for people that are doing home deliveries now and do you see that evolving at all?

Tim: Currently for us, it's a cash only business, is related to home delivery. We're always looking for long-term payment solutions because we don't want our drivers to carry very much cash; we require them to return to the facility to offload the cash that they have. It's an encumbrance to our business that we've been looking for solutions for the past five years.

We've found some solutions, but none have ever stuck. Most of the solutions that we've found have had some problem; either it's too complex and we can't get everyone that we need to, to adopt, or the solution goes away. We had that early on, we had a payment, a credit card processor, and we required all of our transactions to be done via credit card, and then that processor closed its doors. We had to deal with the fallout of that.

We've been very diligent and deliberate about onboarding a new solution. There really is no great fit for us currently, which is why we're currently cash only.

Matthew: Do you see something like a stable coin or a coin that mimics the performance of our national currency that could be sent between phones as a possible option down the road? Or do you think we're not even closely to that?

Tim: Everything is a possible option. What I would say is, we're trying to really go the direction of normal e-commerce environments. Until something like that is widely adopted outside of cannabis, will it makes sense for cannabis? It just becomes another thing that we're beta testing, right? It becomes another thing that's wrought with issues and problems that we have to solve for. One thing that I think all cannabis operators can probably identify with is, there is no shortage of problems that we already have to find solutions for. Introducing a new technology or concept that just creates more problems is just not something that's tenable for our business.

Matthew: You mentioned you support about a thousand retail environments. How many brands do you support?

Tim: Several thousands. Many wholesalers have a number of brands underneath their wholesale license umbrella. We work with a number of wholesalers and those wholesalers represent near 2,000 brands.

Matthew: How much has sales been this year and how would you compare it to let's say Q1 from 2019?

Tim: They've been good. Because we're publicly traded, we can't be too forward-looking but I would say that we are experiencing growth and we have been experiencing steady growth. When we combined with the other technology companies under the TILT banner, and those companies were Baker Technologies and Brightside, we saw just some attrition through that process. We've had some lumpiness in our revenue but have really completed the integration of those three technology companies under Blackbird and are really starting now to ramp up our revenue.

Matthew: How would you say the cannabis delivery business has changed since the Coronavirus has come on the scene and everybody's at home?

Tim: It's night and day, I think. I like to use Nevada as a microcosm. Nevada initially was going to allow dispensaries to remain open for online pickup order submissions, but reversed that decision only a couple of hours or days later, I can't remember. I think it was a couple of hours later to require that all cannabis purchases be done via delivery.

We essentially saw a market that in Nevada does like 60 million in monthly revenue, go from an in-store and delivery model to a delivery only model overnight. You can imagine-- It was very chaotic. We saw basically an immediate 600% increase in our volume. We've been really-- No business can scale 600% overnight, it's just not feasible. I'm proud of our team and how rapidly they were able to scale and now we have scaled to meet that demand and have been scaled for the past couple of weeks, and are actually taking on new clients and more orders as we speak.

Matthew: I imagine there's a lot of people that have never done a delivery before, for whatever reason, they just like to go to a retail environment. They're navigating it like a Zoom meeting for the first time. A lot of these things are firsts. Has that caused any hiccups?

Tim: Yes, for sure. It's a new process that people have to get used to. Cannabis is a heavily regulated product. It is more complex to get a cannabis delivery than it is to get a food delivery. The expectation has been set by companies like Uber Eats and Postmates that when you place an online delivery, you get it 30 minutes later, and that's just not reality with cannabis.

Blackbird, I think, does a good job of trying to get that to be as close to reality as possible. Because of the demand, we actually moved from same day, two hour, on-demand delivery to next day, but we'll be reintroducing same day deliver probably as early as next week. I think, together with our partners, we have done everything we can to meet the needs of our customer base and their customer base.

Yes, it's a little bit-- People have to get used to it a little bit. They have to pay in cash, they have to show their ID, they have to sign state paperwork, but all in all, I think that the service has been very well received by the significantly expanded base of customers and patients. I would just say, we're all doing our best to meet people's needs during a very, very uncertain and scary time.

Matthew: Does the software make a suggested route? Like if you have 30 deliveries to do in a day, does it say, "Okay, these are all, it would make sense to go counterclockwise around the city", or something like that?

Tim: Yes, absolutely. Our in-house software, it manages not only the compliant movement of product but also our drivers and routes. Yes, absolutely does that.

Matthew: What are people ordering? Is it different than usual? What can you tell us about that?

Tim: I would say that the product mix is not different than-- Is not out of the norm, but the basket size is significantly larger. Our pre-COVID-19 basket size was about $120 and our current average basket size is $139. We're definitely seeing higher, larger, more expensive orders. Most like-- It's probably pretty reasonable, right? People are expecting that they may not be able to get a delivery or want a delivery for the next week or longer. They're ordering to be more efficient with their own time or money.

Matthew: Have you seen cannabis brands react and adapt to this? Are they thinking more like, people are nesting, how can I give them products that would allow them to feel comfortable? What are they thinking? Are they thinking out loud to you at all and giving you any feedback about their thoughts?

Tim: Yes. I think that's a really interesting question. I think that, so far, the most adaptation that I've seen from cannabis brands is on their marketing. Rather than picturing young people out at the beach, they may be marketing pictures of people at their homes. I haven't seen any brands pivot. Personally, I haven't seen any brands pivot completely to new products or comprehensive marketing strategies, but we've definitely seen some of those more nuanced adjustments to individual marketing efforts.

Matthew: You picked a great business to be in by the way. This is so valuable for people. I get that the fourth essential or fifth essential product is cannabis, and now, cannabis delivery. Since we're such in a chaotic time here, when you sit down at your desk every day, do you realize like, "Oh, yes, right, this is like emergency measures going on"? What reminds you as you sit down at your desk like, this is a unusual time?

Tim: Gosh. What we've always tried to do at Blackbird is really just support to the best of our abilities the partners that we work with and the customers that we work with within the cannabis space. One thing that is become very, very prevalent is this fear of uncertainty and what the future holds for cannabis operators. I think a lot of them have seen a dramatic decline in their business. Despite being determined an essential business, I think, nationwide and globally, people are watching their expenses as they deal with uncertainty around employment and their own financial future. While we saw pretty big initial increase- or while cannabis operator saw initial increase in demand, I think there has probably market-wide seen some decrease or fall off in purchasing habits.

That's what's really hitting me over the head every day, is the decisions that cannabis operators are having to make about their businesses in real time as it relates to the employees that they have, the states in which they operate. They are faced with very tough decisions, and because we work so closely with brands and retailers, we hear about those decisions and we talk to people as they're struggling to find their footing.

Matthew: If you could wave a magic wand and change one thing about the cannabis industry in California, what would it be?

Tim: I would change the cash component. It's been, probably- the biggest burden on our business is handling cash, and I think a huge burden for the state, honestly. If we could find some resolution or solution around banking, a widespread solution, I think that would greatly benefit the industry as a whole and specifically California just because of the number of operators and the big numbers that we're seeing in tax revenue and purchases.

Matthew: How do you see home delivery evolving over the next two to three years?

Tim: I think it follows market trends outside of cannabis. I mean, Target, for example, is predicting, I think, that 10% of their revenue in 2020 will come through e-commerce and 85% of that will be done through the last final delivery.

I think that as cannabis becomes more and more commonplace throughout the country, and as people get used to purchasing legal cannabis, they will probably start making their purchases much in the same way that they make other purchases. Rather than going into the retail dispensary and waiting in line with 20 to 50 other people, they'll purchase online and all walk-in for pickup or they'll place their orders for delivery just like they do with their groceries; they do through Amazon, they do for their food. I just think it starts to follow market trends and consumer behavior in a similar fashion outside of cannabis.

Matthew: So if you put on your crystal ball or you take a look through your crystal ball here, which no one has, so this is totally subjective wild guess, when do you think the first commercial drone delivery to a residence will be, west of the Mississippi, because, I think, east of Mississippi, those states are going to be way behind the west states. So, first commercial delivery, when do you think, five years?

Tim: [laughs] I think five years, and I think it'll be Amazon but I think what cannabis will be well behind that. For example, in the California State Regulations, it specifically disallows drone delivery. So I think [laughs] cannabis being a regulated product will probably be the last thing to be delivered by drone.

Matthew: Seeing as you're in Reno there and Tesla has a large presence, their big factory and offices there, how about an autonomous car delivery?

Tim: Yes, I think maybe that's closer than drones, maybe not, I'm not sure. I think the landscape in Reno probably makes that hard. It's not a city with a type of tight streets and grid layout, it's spread out and there's a lot of seasonality here with snow and rain and things of that nature. So, I don't foresee it happening anytime soon but I wouldn't take it completely off the radar.

Matthew: Tim, I'd like to ask a few personal development questions to help listeners get a better sense of who you are personally. With that, is there a book that's had a big impact on your life or way of thinking that you'd like to share?

Tim: Oh, that's interesting. Yes, there's been several, I think. I found, from a business perspective, good reads like the Steve Jobs' book and the book about Disney and its creators. So, definitely, there are a lot of great books that I like to read from a business perspective. Then from a personal perspective, I think, anything around philosophy is always really interesting, personally, for me and provides a lot of perspective, not only on business but life in general.

Matthew: Okay. Is there a market segment you consider very desirable for people looking to get into this up-and-coming industry, where tech meets cannabis, because, I feel there's a lot of people sitting at home right now that are like, "I want to invest in a skill set that I know will be useful that when I'm done, I will be marketable." I see, obviously, technology, software, logistics is big in cannabis. So, those two roads are coming together. Is there one tech skill you think in particular that you feel is in short supply that you would be interested in hearing from people that have those skills?

Tim: I think that probably where I have seen where there has definitely been a shortage in the past is really data driven analytics that relate to marketing. I think there are companies that are dipping their toe in there, companies like Philo, that they're interesting and up-and-coming. At a whole, the cannabis face has been less data-driven, at least initially, than probably other more robust and mature markets. I would say data analytics is where I would focus.

There are companies that are definitely doing good work, I don't mean to say that there aren't, but cannabis operators have been operating from a place of like, "Well, this worked for me last time, it should work for me this time", but they're anecdotal and gut decisions rather than data-driven decisions.

That's something that Blackbird has always looked to solve. There are a lot of cool, up-and-coming companies that are also looking to solve for some of those problems, but that's where my focus would be.

Matthew: Here's a Peter Thiel question for you. What is one thought you have that most people would disagree with you on?

Tim: I think one thing that we have always- has been always part of our thesis at Blackbird is that software and operations together are more powerful than the two independently. That is something that has definitely been contested both internally and externally. Some even [unintelligible 00:26:49] of my team feel we're trying to do too much, but I very strongly believe that the two go hand in hand and that they create a large amount of benefit for the partners and customers that we serve by pairing the two.

I always liken it to Dominos, right? Dominos is a technology company that happens to make pizza, we are a technology company that happens to facilitate delivery and transportation for cannabis operators.

Matthew: Great insight there. Tim, in closing can you tell manufacturers, cultivators, retailers how they can reach out to Blackbird if they're interested in learning more about what you do?

Tim: Yes, absolutely. They can visit myblackbird.com and see all the things that Blackbird is today and will be, going forward.

Matthew: One more thing, your parent company, TILT, which we mentioned, is a publicly traded company. Is there a ticker symbol or anything people can look up if they're interested in that?

Tim: Yes, absolutely. It's a T-I-L-T or T-L-L-T-S, and they can find more information at tiltholdings.com.

Matthew: Great. Well, Tim, thanks so much for coming on the show and educating us. You're doing some great work out there in Nevada and California, and good luck.

Tim: Absolutely, [crosstalk]

Matthew: In this crisis crisis.

Tim: Yes, thank you so much for having me. Please stay safe and healthy.

[music]

Matthew: If you enjoyed the show today, please consider leaving us a review on iTunes, Stitcher or whatever app you might be using to listen to the show. Every five-star review helps us to bring the best guests to you. Learn more at cannainsider.com /iTunes. What are the five disruptive trends that will impact the cannabis industry in the next five years? Find out with your free report at cannainsider.com/trends. Have a suggestion for an awesome guest on Cannainsider? Simply sends us an email at feedback@cannainsider.com, we'd love to hear from you.

Please do not take any information from Cannainsider or its guests as medical advice, contact your licensed physician before taking cannabis or using it for medical treatments. Promotional consideration may be provided by select guests, advertises or companies featured in Cannainsider.

Lastly, the host or guests on Cannainsider may or may not invest in the company's entrepreneurs profiled on the show. Please consult your licensed financial advisor before making any investment decisions.

Final disclosure, to see if you're still paying attention, this little whistle jingle you're listening to you will get stuck in your head for the rest of the day. Thanks for listening, and look for another Cannainsider episode soon. Take care, bye-bye.

[music]

[00:29:44] [END OF AUDIO]

Ep 298 – Cannabis Banking Solved? Businesses Flocking To This Financial Platform

dan roda abaca

Banking is one of the thorniest problems for the cannabis industry in the US. Here to tell us how he’s creating a solution to this problem is Dan Roda of Abaca.

Learn more at https://www.goabaca.com 

Key Takeaways:

  • Dan’s background in law and how he came to start Abaca
  • An inside look at Abaca and how it’s providing a safe banking platform for US cannabis businesses 
  • What dispensaries can expect when using Abaca
  • The current state of merchant processing in cannabis and how Dan believes that will evolve over the next few years
  • The most common questions clients ask Dan
  • States that Abaca is currently operating in and where Dan sees the company expanding
  • Abaca’s capital-raising process
  • Where Dan sees the cannabis financial services market heading in the next 3-5 years and some emerging trends to keep an eye on
Click Here to Read Full Transcript

Matthew: Hi, I'm Matthew Kind. Every Monday look for a fresh new episode where I'll take you behind the scenes and interview the insiders that are shaping the rapidly evolving cannabis industry. Learn more at cannainsider.com. That's C-A-N-N-A insider dot com. Now, here's your program.

Banking is one of the thorniest problems for the cannabis industry in the United States. Here to tell us how he's creating a solution to this problem for cannabis businesses is Dan Roda of Abaca. Dan, welcome to CannaInsider.

Dan: Hey, great to be here.

Matthew: Give us a sense of geography. Where are you in the world today?

Dan: I am currently working from home. My house is in downtown Little Rock, Arkansas which might not necessarily sound like a hot spot for tech and cannabis but that's what we're here to talk about today.

Matthew: What is it like to live in Little Rock? I think most people just don't know.

Dan: It's a great community. I've been here for about 10 years which means I'm one of the folks that actually moved here by choice. Which might surprise some but I came from the northeast where we had a lot of traffic and other things and it's been really great. Quality of life is very high, cost of living is low and we passed a medical cannabis measure a few years ago. As a card-carrying patient I'm here to tell you that things in Arkansas are pretty well complete now that we have that going.

Matthew: You feel like you can get out and enjoy nature and do some things that you just couldn't do in the northeast?

Dan: Absolutely, and I spend a whole lot less time sitting in traffic.

Matthew: Tell us what is Abaca on a high level?

Dan: Sure. We are a Fintech company that enables banks to serve the cannabis industry.

Matthew: Can you share a bit about your background and journey and how you got into the cannabis space and started Abaca?

Dan: Don't hold it against me but I'm an attorney by trade. I was in solo practice in 2016 when Arkansas passed its medical marijuana measure. At the time I realized that this was an area that had always interested me both on an intellectual basis and on a personal basis. It was an area of law I endeavored to learn as much about as possible very, very quickly. I was privileged to represent several groups of people who were looking to get into the industry in some form of fashion.

Arkansas, like a lot of states where there is a limited license cannabis market you have this rush to get into the market during the open application period. That was a very busy time here in Arkansas. It seemed like everybody you knew was working on some proposal, some application to hopefully get into the industry. Like I said, I had the opportunity to assist folks on several. At the point in that business planning process where we would come to banking and cash management and finance, everybody drew a blank. Most people were unaware that there was potentially even going to be a problem with banking. Those that knew about it just said they intended to operate all in cash.

I realized very quickly there was this banking problem in cannabis that it was also very misunderstood but that it was, in fact, a solvable problem. Here in Arkansas we were the 23rd or 24th state to pass some legal cannabis measures, so obviously we could look to what other states were doing before us. We found out about some of the pioneer and credit unions in Colorado and elsewhere that had begun serving the cannabis space. We looked at their approach and applied some technology to certain aspects of it and Abaca was born.

Matthew: There's still dispensaries that are doing everything in cash, that don't have a bank account. What's going on there? Do they not know or do they just choose to stay in cash? Because I feel like there's maybe some knowledge deficits in terms of what people think they're able to do in that space or maybe they just want to stay in cash. I'm not sure what are your thoughts there?

Dan: I would say in most cases in our experience that that is a business decision. There is a very common misconception and you certainly see it reported in media a lot, especially in new states after they pass some form of legal cannabis. That narrative goes something like the industry is entirely unbanked and you'll have to do business in cash. Most people in the industry, however, realize that that is not reality. That what is the case is in fact that there are a handful of banking options available in just about every legal cannabis jurisdiction but that it is a high compliance endeavor that comes with a cost.

It comes with a cost in terms of a time commitment and often comes with a monetary cost as well for these businesses. In most of these places where people are electing to operate in cash anyway it's purely a business decision. It's not what I would necessarily advocate obviously, but at the end of the day people can operate their business how they see fit.

Matthew: Just so we're clear Abaca is not a chartered bank but more of a technical bridge. What do you mean by that? What does that mean?

Dan: What they would call us is a Fintech bank or a neobank or a bank enabler. In that we are a tech company that sits between charter financial institutions and the niche customer base that they serve. This is not a new concept. People all across the country the last several years have been getting bombarded with commercials for things like Chime and Simple, which are both Fintech banking products that target primarily millennials. Millennials who don't want to go into a traditional bank branch but still need things like a deposit account to have their paycheck direct deposited into and a debit card so that they can transact online.

Much like how those Fintech companies are simply empowering banks to speak to that market in the language that it understands, we empower banks to speak to the cannabis industry in a language it understands and more importantly we enable the cannabis industry to speak to banks in the language that banks understand. We are a technical company that bridges the gap but we always are very clear with our customers. Your bank accounts are with our chartered financial institution partners, you get a signature card that shows your account number, that the account is titled to your business. Here's the address of the bank if you ever do need to go there for any reason.

However, everything you need to do as a practical matter, as a business owner can be done through our tech, through our web banking or by calling our people. We replace that contact. We are almost your concierge cannabis banking service within the banks that we work in. What it all comes down to is our ability to perform the compliance tasks that are required by the regulatory guidance in a more efficient manner than you could with just having people on the task, just by hiring a bunch of compliance officers. That was maybe a long-winded response but that is how we do it.

Matthew: All the touchpoints are through Abaca and not through the banking partner. I'm familiar with Chime and there's a few in the UK too, like Monzo and now Revolut that have really taken off. People don't even realize that they're not the bank but they do such a good job, I think because man, let's be honest, these are brick and mortar institutions that have been doing everything the same for decades just resist evolving, creating good user interfaces and banking the way people want to bank. They still say, "Do it this way, do it our way, do it the slow way, do it the painful way." A lot of unnecessary steps and so forth.

I can see why this is something cannabis businesses want. Pretty much every touchpoint is through Abaca though. You open the account through you, you log in to see your debits and credits through Abaca. You really only have the chartered bank to go to in event that you want something that Abaca couldn't provide for. Is that what it's for?

Dan: Yes, you've nailed it. I'll use the Chime analogy again because of their advertising. I think a lot of people are familiar with their product now. If you scroll down to the fine print on Chime's webpage you will find out the name of the bank that is actually holding your account but all of your interactions are through the Chime app. Likewise, all of your interactions with your Abaca account are through our web banking and our people.

Matthew: If someone's just curious like, "Hey, is this going to feel just like a bank website I'm familiar with when you log into your Abaca account?" If I was looking over your shoulder what would I see?

Dan: It is a pretty normal web banking interface. The first thing you might notice depending on where you do your normal everyday banking is that our web banking perhaps has fewer features. However, this is by design. Our web banking only allows you to do certain things that are authorized within the bank's compliance protocols and forces you to follow certain procedures.

We call this proactive compliance. It is intended to let's say guide the business owner to help us help them remain in compliance and keep their account open and also do this at a lower cost than some of the original pioneers in this field who use what I'll call the manual approach and have a lot of human compliance interaction.

We try to let our technology guide the way. Really the goal at the end of the day for us and for our customers is to keep their account open. The last thing we ever want to see is any reason why a bank would have to close a customer's account but there's regulatory guidance that spells out a number of situations in which they would. By being proactive, we are able to help keep our customers in good standing and keep their financial services operational.

Matthew: Okay, and how many clients are you working with now?

Dan: We've got about 60 different operators who are on the platform now. However, we're privileged to work with a number of MSO's. Some of those were working with in multiple states and through a number of locations.

Matthew: How does Abaca make money then in this relationship? How does that work?

Dan: Typically, if you're a bank that wants to serve the cannabis industry, what you would do would be to hire a tech company. Pay them a monthly compliance fee, consulting fee, software or service fee, whatever it is. Then the bank would turn around and charge money to the customers. As is normal in the cannabis industry there is typically a fee to hold an account. A monthly fee, like a subscription.

There are also typically fees upon deposits. We operate similarly but we switch the paradigm a little bit. For the banks that we work with, we come in and we do all the compliance work. Instead of the bank going out and charging the customer, ultimately, we are the ones who go out and find the customers and the monthly fee that they pay is to us which we then share with the banks.

We sit in the middle. At the end of the day, for the customers, the pricing is typically comparable. We try to be mindful and we certainly don't want to be an impediment to our customer's businesses but there are of course a lot of compliance tasks to be completed. There's a lot of work to be done and so there is, of course, a fee associated with this service.

Matthew: If I'm a dispensary or a cannabis business listening right now, and I'm just trying to get my head around, what the cost might be to get on board, is there any way you can orient me so I could understand what those costs might be?

Dan: Sure. Typically, we take an upfront application fee. That can range between $1,000 and $1,500 typically depending on a number of owners to the business. We need to do individual vetting on each owner of the business in great detail. In some states, especially limited license markets, you end up with very complex ownership groups. Well, that requires more homework on our part on the front end in order to get you approved.

Then there is also a monthly fee for having the service, which ranges for ancillary cannabis businesses as well as hemp and CBD businesses on the low end can expect to pay $250 a month for the account. A dispensary that does a good amount of volume can expect to be paying more like $1,500 a month.

Matthew: What's the state of merchant processing and banking? I mean like accepting credit cards, accepting debit cards. I see ATMs a lot in dispensaries but then there's also these standalone solutions so you can use your credit card occasionally here and there. I really don't know what the full landscape is of possibilities in terms of merchant processing and using credit cards. Can you talk a little bit about that?

Dan: Sure. It's wild and it changes pretty rapidly, but there are a number of different options that you'll encounter out in the marketplace today. I'll preface this by saying most people that you talk to will generally agree on one thing and that is that the four major card brands, Visa, Mastercard, Amex, and Discover. Generally speaking, in what they call the card brand rules, the rules documents that each of those brands push down the chain to those that process transactions with their branded cards.

The card brand rules generally are construed at least in the United States to prohibit direct cannabis transactions. Most people will agree on that. However, beyond that, a lot of people in this space have trouble finding other common ground. There are some that will tell you that the only legitimate method for electronically transferring funds at cannabis businesses is to do so via an app base to direct bank transfer method.

There are others who have launched since ATMs as you've noted are commonly seen in dispensaries and are in most cases viewed as permissible. Although, sometimes banks will want to vet the owner of the ATM and who's servicing it, that sort of thing. We have seen some technology like the cashless ATM come about and be used in dispensaries. That's a workaround that has had some stability over the years. Cannabis consumers are probably familiar with this.

They use their debit card at the point of purchase and enter in a pin but the transaction is actually rounded up to an even dollar amount that shows up on their statement as an ATM transaction. We see those.

We also see often dispensaries using credit cards. If they're doing that they're doing one of two things. One is what they would call in the payments industry masking. Although, a more common word for it would simply be lying. That is where you claim that your business is a pet shop or a bakery and it's really a dispensary. Well, that'll work for a little while and then one day, the credit card company will do some due diligence and realize that is not what's going on here and shut you down.

You see that a lot especially in very big recreational markets where a store especially that does a bunch of tourist traffic, their customers aren't going to notice if one day there's a payment card method and the next day, there isn't.

In a smaller market, where your customer base is more regular, that thing would be noticed and you've got some reputational risks there as well. The other thing that we see every once in a while is a workaround method where a gift card or an E-Wallet is loaded using a credit card transaction. Sometimes the funds are held like a gift card balance. Sometimes the funds are held in some obscure cryptocurrency and this somehow settles for the merchant

[unintelligible 00:16:17] card was a popular method that worked like this for a while. It worked until it didn't work. If you were one of their big customers like Planet 13 or reef dispensaries in Vegas, I suppose you'd still be fighting it out in court because that is what's happening right now. When that solution stopped working, it ended up being a big interruption for all who were using it.

There's an interesting court case going on in the Southern District of New York right now where those parties are fighting it out over some proceeds. Some other proceeds appear to be missing. Those workaround methods can be tempting but that they can have problems.

Right now, at Abaca we are not directly doing any of these payment processing methods, but if our customers want to use one of them, we do our due diligence on it. We vet it to see to make sure that no masking has occurred and that it appears to be permissible. The business risk of the stability of the system is ultimately going to be the merchant's choice whether they want to take that on or whether they want to operate all in cash.

It's wild. It's rapidly changing. There's a feeling out there that if the SAFE Banking Act, for example, were to pass that, this would immediately change overnight. Based on our conversations with large payment processors and with the card brands directly, we don't actually think that's the case either. This hodgepodge, wild west scenario on the payment side likely to persist for a little while.

Matthew: What questions do you get asked the most by clients and potential clients?

Dan: The cost is obviously going to be the first thing to come up. I think people recognize there is a cost associated with cannabis banking or really any financial service in cannabis that might be above market compared to what you could expect to pay for that financial service if you, you know manufactured widgets. Certainly, that's something that comes up. We need to make sure to educate the customer on why, what you are actually paying for there. Why there is a cost associated with this.

After that, depending on the market, in new markets, we often just get asked, "Well, how do you do this? How is this even legal?" Which is fun for me as a lawyer. I get to go nerd out about the little bit of regulatory guidance that exists and how a handful of [unintelligible 00:18:39] around the country have begun to follow it and how our tech helps them follow it as well. It's one of those things where there are varying degrees of education and so it's always been my mission to set the story straight.

Matthew: Okay. In what states are you currently operating in now and where do you see yourself expanding to?

Dan: Sure. We formed the company in Arkansas after our medical cannabis measure passed here several years ago. We're banking the vast majority of the operators here. We're also in Oklahoma. We're in Illinois. We're in North Dakota, thanks to some of the MSO's that we work with. We are in Missouri actively pursuing with a new Parker bank. The business of the several hundred new licensees there that's going to be a very active market, we think.

Those are the five states we currently operate in. We are looking at expanding into more into the Upper Midwest from Illinois East into Michigan, Ohio and maybe into the Northeast. The current situation with Coronavirus is having some interesting impacts and some legalization measures. On one hand you've got a conversation that is advancing more rapidly as marijuana businesses are deemed essential in many states. Certainly, that only enhances public perception of the utility and benefit of this industry.

At the same time, in a state where there was a ballot measure and you had people planning on spending the summer gathering signatures, like they were planning to do for the adult-use measure here in Arkansas, well, there probably aren't going to be big events and music festivals and things you could go to, to gather those signatures.

If you look at states like New York that were going to advance recreational cannabis measure legislatively, well, they've got other legislative priorities now. Governor Cuomo has his hands full and has said that that's off the table for the budget for now. We're still heavily looking at the Northeast especially, but some of that might be driven by the timing of when legalization, especially adult-use legalization happens in these markets.

Matthew: Okay. Dan, where do you see the cannabis financial services market going in the next three to five years? Are there any kind of emerging trends you think we should have our eyes on?

Dan: It really depends what the federal government does or does not do. Like I said, in response to the previous question, we've seen some interesting behavior where states have deemed the cannabis industry essential in the event of a shutdown. That would certainly seem to advance the conversation nationally and point us towards some federal relief. The different types of federal relief that have been contemplated, in my view, have different effects. If something like the SAFE Banking Act or the STATES Act were to pass, we believe those are half measures.

They're good. They represent progress. You will see a few more banks come in, especially on the depository side. I think you'll see a few more banks coming in on the lending side as well. The major credit card brands are still going to stay out because you'll still have a situation where cannabis is legal in one state and illegal in another, and technically, illegal under the federal law as well. That'll probably be enough to keep Wall Street and high finance out as well, which is becoming an increasing problem for the larger operators, especially now as we go into what could potentially be a prolonged recession.

We believe that it will take something more wholesale, like a complete de-scheduling of cannabis, in order to see a complete democratization in financial services available to this industry. I'm not the kind of person who places bets on what the government will or will not do, but those who do a lot predict that that's the kind of change that wouldn't come until after the next presidential election. Of course, others reasonably theorize that our president could wake up on any day and decide to de-schedule cannabis on a whim. It really remains to be seen and depends largely on what happens in Washington.

Matthew: Okay. Where are you in the capital-raising process?

Dan: We raised a seed round early last year. We had participated in the CanopyBoulder accelerator, which is a great program, and CanopyBoulder invested in our company. We were also invested in by Welkin Capital out of New York and AFI Partners out of Seattle, both great groups that invest in emerging cannabis tech. They invested in our seed round last year. Like any company, we will probably be, again, looking to raise capital in the future, but happy to say we're not raising capital right this second.

Matthew: What was your experience like at CanopyBoulder? Could you just talk about that a little bit?

Dan: It was awesome. That's a great organization with just an incredible network. For our company, we were forming a cannabis tech solution in a state that heretofore had not had a cannabis market. We're basing a lot of assumptions on what we think the market is going to do, while being able to go and spend some time in the country's most mature cannabis market and get in and have conversations at a high level with operators and investors and others and really refine our approach and our solution was very, very beneficial.

This was the fall of '18 that we did that program, and spending the fall and winter in Boulder didn't hurt either. It's just beautiful. My wife came out just about every weekend while I was doing that program and we would go out into the mountains. One of my dogs came with me. We had a good time.

Matthew: Great. Well, Dan, I'd like to ask a few personal development questions to help listeners get a better sense of who you are. With that, is there a book that's had a big impact on your life or way of thinking that you'd like to share?

Dan: I've always been a big Hunter S. Thompson fan. It's hard to narrow it down to one book. There's a mantra that I abide by. This was my mantra when I was a lawyer in private practice and it is still my mantra in advising cannabis businesses. That is, as Hunter S. Thompson would say, "Never give the bastards a reason." That's always stuck with me.

Matthew: Okay. What's the most interesting thing going on in the cannabis world or the financial world, besides what you're doing?

Dan: To me, the most interesting thing going on in the cannabis financial world is maybe what is not going on, and that is with respect to the massive federal stimulus program that was just passed, the CARES Act, in response to all of the economic damage being done by the necessary shutdowns going on across the country, in states and cities.

Yet, this is a massive, unprecedented is the word we hear thrown around a lot, massive, massive appropriation of capital to small businesses and medium businesses across the country, and yet this emerging sector that did 15 billion in legal revenue last year, and again, as we discussed earlier, was declared essential in a number of states across the country, even during their shutdown, this industry is getting left out. It is not only just as susceptible to economic swings as any other industry but, in fact, it's an industry that needs to be supported more than ever right now because of its essential status.

We've got people in communities risking their health to go out and participate in these cannabis businesses, and the government tells them, "Yes, go ahead and do that and put your life on the line, but will we extend you a favorable small business loan like we would if you were in any other kind of small business? No, we won't."

That's been a challenging thing. The paycheck protection program and these other programs are applicable to hemp and CBD businesses in some cases. That's nice, but for the vast majority of cannabis businesses, especially the plant-touching ones, they're getting left out of the stimulus conversation there, which is really disappointing.

Matthew: What's the one thought you have that most people would disagree with you on?

Dan: I touched on this a little at the beginning, but I would disagree with the notion that there is, in fact, a cannabis banking problem. Not only is the industry banked, and in every legal market, there are at least a handful of institutions, whether dealing direct with that institution or through a Fintech intermediary like us. There are a number of options for operators and there is, as we discussed, a cost associated with this.

I think there are some out there that believe that if the SAFE Banking Act were to pass, for example, that this cost would go away and Bank of America and Chase and Wells Fargo would be taking their deposits, no problem. I'm here to tell you that that is not the case. You don't need to look any further than the gaming industry, whether we're talking about casino gaming or these new sportsbooks that have been authorized by state law and a bunch of states in the northeast.

Those industries also have a very difficult time finding banking because they're high compliance and they're cash-intensive, and those that do, often are faced with monthly fees and fees for depositing all that cash, just like cannabis businesses are. I object to the notion that there's a problem because the private sector, some enterprising banks, as well as companies like ours, have solved the problem, and I object to the notion that much is really going to change if something like the SAFE Banking Act were to pass.

Matthew: Any epiphanies about yourself or society as we move through the tail end of the coronavirus here?

Dan: The thing that I keep wondering is which of these changes in behavior that we're undergoing right now are going to be temporary and which are going to become permanent. I can't help but think that we are going to see a permanent shift towards e-commerce, towards delivery, towards contactless payment, towards also running businesses out of your home. I think any ordinary person, even if society is 'reopened' here in a month and these stay-home orders are lifted and these travel bans go away, I think most average people are still going to be at least a little bit agoraphobic.

I like the fact that I get my groceries delivered now. I used to enjoy going to the grocery store and picking some good steaks out of the butcher counter and things like that. You know what I think, I'm probably just going to get them delivered and let the butcher use his judgment on which steaks to send me. That seems safer. What does that mean in terms of shifts for the cannabis industry? We're already seeing a shift towards delivery and an increased demand for cashless payment options, despite the risks that we discussed earlier. I think that persists. I think that remains.

I think you see delivery and other things like that take root, and I think you see more homebound businesses. I think you're going to see people looking to operate things like online CBD stores out of their house in a greater rate this year than even last year where there were a number of people across the country who got into that business.

Yes, it'll be interesting, but that's my prediction. That's what I'm seeing in consumer behavior now. Just from my own personal feeling, I've had my groceries and my cannabis delivered this week, and I don't expect to stop.

Matthew: [laughs] Okay. Dan, as we close, how can listeners both accredited investors, maybe that are interested in investing in Abaca and also potential clients who need banking solutions, how can they reach out to you and learn more?

Dan: Sure. Anybody can go to our web page, goabaca.com, G-O-A-B-A-C-A.com. If you'd like to find me personally, connect with me on LinkedIn. My username on LinkedIn is Daniel J. Roda.

Matthew: Got it. Well, thanks so much for coming on the show. This is really, as I mentioned, into a thorny problem in most people's minds, but it sounds like you have an elegant solution here. I wish you all the best.

Dan: Thank you. I appreciate you having me on. I hope my dogs weren't too much of a distraction for everybody.

Matthew: No problem. Thanks, Dan.

[music]

Matthew: If you enjoyed the show today, please consider leaving us a review on iTunes Stitcher or whatever app you might be using to listen to the show. Every five-star review helps us to bring the best guest to you. Learn more at cannainsider.com/itunes.

What are the five disruptive trends that will impact the cannabis industry in the next five years? Find out with your free report at cannainsider.com/trends. Have a suggestion for an awesome guest on CannaInsider? Simply send us an email at feedback@cannainsider.com. We'd love to hear from you. Please do not take any information from CannaInsider or its guests as medical advice. Contact your licensed physician before taking cannabis or using it for medical treatments.

Voice-over: Emotional consideration may be provided by select guests, advertisers or companies featured in CannaInsider.

Voice-over: Lastly, the host or guests on CannaInsider may or may not invest in the companies or entrepreneurs profiled on the show. Please consult your licensed financial advisor before making any investment decisions.

Voice-over: Final disclosure to see if you're still paying attention, this little whistle jingle you're listening to will get stuck in your head for the rest of the day. Thanks for listening and look for another CannaInsider episode soon. Take care. Bye-bye.

[music]

[00:32:38] [END OF AUDIO]

Ep 297 – Cannabis Trend: Hotels Are Finally Saying Yes to Cannabis

matthew singer tokr

While hotels have prohibited cannabis use for years, it’s now considered a benefit many guests are demanding.

Here to tell us about it is Matthew Singer of tökr, an app that creates a personalized cannabis experience based on individual preferences.

Learn more at https://www.trytokr.com 

Key Takeaways:

  • Matthew’s background in cannabis and how he came to start tökr 
  • An inside look at tökr’s premium cannabis delivery marketplace
  • How COVID-19 is affecting the cannabis environment in California and beyond
  • How the hotel industry’s stance on cannabis use is changing in the US
  • Ways in which boutique hotels are leading the charge for on-site cannabis use from trusted vendors
  • Cannabis consumer behavior in hotels and what’s trending right now
  • Matthew’s opinion on California’s black market problem and what needs to be done to fix it
  • Why brands have a hard time telling their story in dispensaries and how tökr is working to solve this
  • Where tökr currently is in the capital-raising process
Click Here to Read Full Transcript

Matthew Kind: Hi, I'm Matthew Kind. Every Monday, look for a fresh new episode where I'll take you behind the scenes and interview that insiders that are shaping the rapidly-evolving cannabis industry. Learn more at cannainsider.com. That's C-A-N-N-A insider.com. Now, here's your program.

We've been told for years that hotels don't like cannabis consumed on site, but that's changing and now considered a benefit for many hotel guests and for hotels themselves. Here to tell us more about it is Matthew Singer of tökr. Matthew, welcome to CannaInsider.

Matthew Singer: Thanks, Matt. Really excited to be here today.

Matthew K: Give us a sense of geography. Where are you in the world today?

Matthew S: Practicing safe distance. I'm at home right now in my apartment in Marina del Rey, California.

Matthew K: Okay. What is tökr on a high level?

Matthew S: tökr is a highly curated non-plant touching cannabis e-commerce marketplace and delivery platform.

Matthew K: Okay. Can you share a bit about your background and journey in how you came into the cannabis space and started Tökr?

Matthew S: Absolutely. Actually, started my career working in finance for RBS. In 2009, markets crashed and I was laid off with thousands of coworkers and quickly realized I'd never worked for a big company or a big corporate company ever again. I packed my golf clubs, my snowboard and drove from New York to Colorado. My first job in Colorado was a cloud communications technology company called Telesphere. We started with 20 employees that grew to over 200 in less than three years and was then acquired by Vonage, which is a publicly-traded telecom company.

Shortly after that acquisition, actually left Telesphere with my COO and mentor to help start a company called PlayerLync. If you've ever watched the NFL players and coaches are actually allowed to use tablets on the sideline to review film and communicate with the booth upstairs. We close 28 out of 32 NFL teams in our first year and quickly started to work with the NBA, NHL, and MLB to help teams communicate on and off the field and really get rid of paper playbooks and go digital.

At that same time, Colorado became the first recreational cannabis market. My friends started brands like Keef Cola, Cheeba Chews, incredibles, and cultivations and dispensaries like Native Roots and Herbal Cure. I quickly just realized from studying the market and being in Colorado that there just wasn't a really good resource for the curious or a new consumer. Everything was just still so much stoner-focused. With marketing being so restricted and cannabis, Facebook paid digital, Google, there wasn't really a good resource for premium brands to reach their target audience, and then on the flip side, the new consumer to have a safe place to learn about cannabis and how it can help certain aspects of their life. I quit my job and dove head over right into building tökr.

Matthew K: Great. We're in a difficult environment now in some ways, but a great environment and another area for cannabis businesses that are doing well. It's the best of times and the worst of times as they say. How is COVID-19 affecting, would you say, your business and then the larger ecosystem as a whole?

Matthew S: COVID-19, obviously, cannabis in most States, especially California, has been deemed essential. During the global pandemic, we've been okayed to continue to operate business and continue to get people our medicine. For the long tail of the future of cannabis, that really is going to help federal legalization in the cannabis space.

Matthew K: Okay. Just so people are clear listening, what tökr's role is consumers shop on the tökr platform and then they buy from a local licensee that delivers the cannabis. Is that correct?

Matthew S: Yes, tökr is actually the marketplace. That's where you're going to shop. Then California rules and regulations actually do not allow a cannabis delivery to be done by a non-licensed holder. We've actually partnered with-- our first depot is here in LA, mid-city Los Angeles. When an order comes into tökr, that depot partner license holder receives our order and then they handle the last mile, everything from transaction to actually bringing the product directly to the customer.

Matthew K: Okay. I remember going to cannabis conferences and events five, six years ago and the hotels having just really, really extreme language about not smoking cannabis in the rooms, but that's changing a little bit. Can you talk about what hotel's official answer is about cannabis and then what's allowed?

Matthew S: It really just comes down to culture. Cannatourism especially in California is huge. People know that California has legal recreational cannabis and these hotels really want to be ahead of the times. Our first mover, we definitely on tökr are not screaming, "Light up a joint in your room." That's certainly not allowed. We make it really clear that you can't smoke a joint in your room and you're still going to get that $200 fine that all California hotels do still implement. We push people to go on a hike or walk around the city or learn about Koreatown and then go sample all the amazing food there.

That's like I said, that the smoking fine is still going to be enforced and we like to actually feature more discrete products like a microdose edible or a cannabis beverage, vapes, and tinctures. It's a really good introduction and safe place to start for somebody coming to town visiting that might not be using cannabis. Hotels again, they want to be at the forefront of culture. They know people are doing this. People have consumed cannabis in hotel rooms for a very long time and now they can just offer a safe introduction to how to actually purchase these products as opposed to going to an illegal dispensary that they found on an illegal delivery service online.

Matthew K: Well, illegal delivery service, but what about legal ones like Eaze? Why did they look at tökr and say, "I want to order on tökr versus Eaze because tökr is endorsed by this hotel. I feel more comfortable about it," what's the thought process there?

Matthew S: We've had success in this area because our menu, the products we offer really fit the type of consumer that are staying at these high-end boutique hotels. We certainly aren't going limit-- the hotels can't really stop other delivery services from entering that property, but we actually are putting marketing in hotel rooms so consumers can really learn about how to safely and discreetly purchase products and not be recommending a guest to, like I said, go to one of these illegal dispensers that are just still really, really around here in California right now.

Matthew K: Why don't you talk about that a little bit? The illegal environment or the black market is just enormous in California and it obviously eats away at the legal market. That's just something that's still, it's not talked about that much. A lot of people say, "I buy for my friend or this or that," and it's just, "Why should I pay 30 to 40% more?" There's all these different dialogues going on, but how do you see the illicit market?

Matthew S: Yes, no doubt. This is definitely one of the biggest concerns in the cannabis industry right now. It's one of the primary issues that led to the downturn in the industry at the end of 2019, well before COVID-19 struck the economy. With that said, it really depends on whether we are talking about it in the short or long term. The long term, the economy in this country is just it's not set-up to tolerate a black market for a product that is available in locations that are paying taxes and so readily accessible.

We're really talking about the reality on the ground today, not in a mature cannabis industry because we're just not there yet. I can't give you a timeline on when this will take place, but the regulators will definitely get their act together and find a happy medium to start to incentivize the traditional market transitioning into a regulated environment.

Matthew K: You mentioned that you tried to encourage people in hotel rooms to maybe get like a drink or an edible, but what are the most popular things that they're ordering right now?

Matthew S: I'd definitely say a low-dose or microdose products, whether it be an edible from Pantry or Cuba or beverages from Cann and Artet. Microdosed low-THC products are just a really great place to start your cannabis journey and not overmedicate and then you might not want to ever try it again if it sends you to the moon.

Matthew K: Just circling back to the illicit market for a second, is it becoming confrontational at all between the regulated and the unregulated market where maybe they're starting to turn each other in or really pushing the politicians to get involved and to crack down on illicit market and in Southern California or California in general?

Matthew S: Obviously, for the sake of my own business and the health of the industry, I want everyone to be playing by the same rules in a regulated environment, but I refuse to view people as the enemy in this situation. A lot of the people that are still operating in the traditional market, they paved the way for legalization.

Demonizing these people, it's just a lack of understanding how we really got to where we are today. It's more failure of regulators, not of the people. Sacramento just made it so painfully difficult to even enter the regulated market, let alone thrive. A lot of people have just had no other option. Until we sort through the environmental factors, calling the unregulated market the enemy I just think misses the mark.

Matthew K: Okay. How are brands doing with this huge thriving black market? How does that impact them?

Matthew S: Struggling brands are definitely struggling and because of the traditional market over taxation, they struggle because a regulatory environment was just not really created to allow them to succeed. The struggle with brands and the traditional market, it's pretty endemic of a much larger problem. Like I said, having set people up to succeed, I don't have a crystal ball on when this is going to happen, but I definitely have complete faith that this will change.

Matthew K: That's a tough one. I think maybe the only way it could change is they really just lower the difficulty level to let the black-market operators in because otherwise, what's their incentive to change any behavior? It's a very decentralized thing. It's hard to get rid of it and many people say, "Why do I need to get rid of it? It's like a farmer's market type thing. I can buy apples or almonds from my neighbor in the north Central Valley in California. Why can't I buy a flower from them?" That type of thing. It's a tough dialogue to have, how your behavior should be. It'll be interesting to see how that works out.

It may just be that convenience, like what you're doing ultimately drives adoption. Just like Jeff Bezos' strategy was initially to be the cheapest, but now, Amazon is just wants to be the most convenient where it just shows up the same day or the next day. You don't have to do anything, that convenience trumps everything. What are your thoughts around that?

Matthew S: No, I totally agree and look, people want stuff brought to their house, right? We consume whether it be Uber Eats, or Postmates, or Amazon, or Netflix. We just-- people don't want to leave. The retail space not just in cannabis, it's obviously just been struggling, and that's why our aim to go directly to consumer and bring products within 90 minutes to their house. That's definitely our number 1 focus right now.

Matthew K: Okay. You're in Southern California and you have a highly-curated platform. Do you get invited to any celebrity functions in LA to help with these, with cannabis experiences or anything like that?

Matthew S: [chuckles] We actually, we just worked with one of our brand partners, Cann, to sponsor Paris Hilton's 40th birthday party. Paris wanted to offer a variety of premium cannabis products to her guests. We were invited with Cann to really help be a part of that which was pretty cool.

Matthew K: What is it like participating in that environment?

Matthew S: It's showing proof the times we're moving ahead in cannabis. Cannabis is being socially accepted, whether you're at a party hanging out with friends, it's okay to consume, you don't have to be outside in the back in an alleyway. It's pretty open and like I said, socially accepted.

Matthew K: Okay. You've raised capital and I think you're continuing to raise capital. What's the environment like right now? What are investors-- where's their mind at?

Matthew S: It's definitely different than a year and a half ago. This was the green rush and a lot of people had some pretty fictitious evaluations and weren't able to hit their numbers. Now, you look at the end of 2019 during the downturn when public markets in Canada, people started to release their numbers and stocks are down over 40-60%. That was even before COVID. Investors are definitely looking for lean and mean business models and unit economics that can really actually hit their financial models.

Matthew K: Okay. Matthew, I'd like to pivot to a few personal development questions to help listeners get a better sense of who you are as a person. With that, is there a book that's had a big impact on your life or way of thinking you'd like to share?

Matthew S: I actually just finished The Cannabis Manifesto by Steve DeAngelo and he talks a lot just about the history of cannabis as medicine science and the consequences of cannabis and prohibition. He really touches on the future of cannabis as a regulated consumer product. Steve's worked his entire life for social justice and the legalization of cannabis. Definitely recommend this book to anyone looking to get into the space or that's currently in it.

Matthew K: Okay. Besides what you do at tökr, what's the most interesting thing you think is going on in the cannabis field?

Matthew S: I just think you have to look at COVID-19 right now. During a global pandemic, you have cannabis being deemed essential and that obviously has to really start to help the federal legalization process of cannabis. The challenging part about this right now, you have an essential business, but yet, cannabis operators and cannabis employees can't take advantage of the COVID-19 reliefs that are out there right now. I'm still being a federal illegal product. We are essential but can't receive any of the public funding that is out there helping many of the struggling businesses during this pandemic.

Matthew K: I've heard you mentioned that regulators are the problem a couple times. It seems like there's a theme here, it's getting in the way a little bit.

Matthew S: A little bit. They tend to do that sometimes.

Matthew K: What's one thought you have that most people would disagree with you on?

Matthew S: Oh, peter to a question. [chuckles] I'll relate it to cannabis. It's just the fact that tökr is really aimed after this new canna-curious consumer. As I started tökr almost three years ago, and even so now, everybody just kept telling me that it was just going to be too hard to continue to go after that new cannabis-- canna-curious consumer and more of that high-time stoner crowd. Well, it was what was going to continue to dominate for many, many years.

Matthew K: It is interesting because you look at who's doing dabs and how much they spend, and there is a tiny bit of the market that spends an outsized amount, but their preferences are already so dialed in. They know what they want, and they generally know where they're going to get it from, and they're not looking for new avenues as much because they're data-efficient auto already and pretty biased on their options where the canna-curious person's more open and open to suggestion and ideas of what inexperience might look like.

Matthew S: It's also just the lack of education that's out there. My mom, for example, my mom doesn't necessarily want to go into a dispensary and talk to a budtender. I've tried to do that and I've been recommended products that here's an edible, but it might be something that that budtenders used to using and they have a completely different tolerances as myself. It's going to be a bad experience and I might not ever want to use cannabis again.

That's why tökr is really after that canna-curious really being able to help them get a safe introduction on starting their cannabis journey and then being pointed towards brands that really can a fact-based help whether it's cannabis for sleeping or cannabis to help with pain relief. Really understand the products that are out there to help and safely navigate getting into the market without again, overmedicating and never wanted to use this product again.

Matthew K: All right. That is a problem. You could ask a budtender like, "Hey, will this 20-milligram cookie affect me as a [chuckles] first-time user of cannabis?" Some budtenders would say, "No, that's a pretty low dose."

Matthew S: I went into a dispensary and I was looking and I just-- I test the market and I asked the budtender, "What would you recommend for a vape pen?" They recommended ASCND by Kurvana. I said, "Okay, great. Why?" They said because it's potent and it hits hard. I said, "Okay, thank you." I said, "What would you recommend if I was a first-time consumer that was looking to try and vape?" They said, "Oh, well, I'd probably recommend the same thing because it's potent and it hits hard and you want to really get the experience."

To me, it's like that's just such a miss. I'm a new consumer and you're recommending something that you'd recommend to a person that's been using cannabis for however long. Again, that's just going to make me not want to return to cannabis. Meanwhile, there are so many amazing brands that are coming out right now that are really-- they know their target audience, they're building a fact-based products but the dispensaries because they might be maybe a lower-dosed item that that budtender a buyer might not want. Really have trouble having an identity in a dispensary.

Matthew K: Much better to stair-step up the affects than stair-step down because you can go up much easier than go down. This can be scary.

Matthew S: Actually, you can always take more.

Matthew K: If there's any entrepreneurs listening, that'd be some way to solve that problem where people can have an on ramp where they can feel comfortable with the dose they're taking and confident out of the gate instead of being scared it's going to be too much like some way to give them that certainty of a good experience. That's a big problem. So, anybody out there listening, please crack that one for all of us. Matthew, as we close, how can listeners learn more about tökr? If they have a hotel or some other property where they'd like their guests to partake on that platform, how can everybody find you?

Matthew S: Yes, so you can visit our website. It's www.trytokr.com, T-R-Y-T-O-K-R.com, and also, anybody can feel free to email me directly at Matt@trytokr.com, M-A-T-T@T-R-Y-T-O-K-R.com

Matthew K: Great. Well, thanks so much for coming on the show and educating us and good luck through this COVID-19 scariness. It will end at some point and we'll be back to probably a different world, but good luck to everything going on, and best wishes in the capital raise. I should mention for accredited investors, are you welcoming accredited investors for your capital raise still?

Matthew S: Yes, absolutely. Actually, we're currently halfway through our seed round, so we've closed two million out of four, and our lead investors are Meredith Capital Partners, Arcadian Fund, and Cannabis GrowthOp out of Toronto.

Matthew K: Okay, so accredited investors can reach out to you at that same email that you mentioned.

Matthew S: Yes, exactly. That'd be great.

Matthew K: Okay, well, thanks for coming on the show. Good luck to you and hope we can check in soon.

Matthew S: Matt, I really appreciate the time. Thank you for having me.

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Matthew K: If you enjoyed the show today, please consider leaving us a review on iTunes, Stitcher, or whatever app you might be using to listen to the show. Every five-star review helps us to bring the best guest to you. Learn more at cannainsider.com/itunes. What are the five disruptive trends that will impact the cannabis industry in the next five years? Find out with your free report at cannainsider.com/trends. Have a suggestion for an awesome guest on CannaInsider? Simply send us an email at feedback@cannainsider.com. We'd love to hear from you.

Please do not take any information from CannaInsider or its guests as medical advice. Contact your licensed physician before taking cannabis or using it for medical treatments. Emotional consideration may be provided by select guests, advertisers for companies featured in CannaInsider. Lastly, the host or guests on CannaInsider may or may not invest in the companies' entrepreneurs profiled on the show. Please consult your licensed financial advisor before making any investment decisions.

Final disclosure to see if you're still paying attention. This little whistle jingle you're listening to will get stuck in your head for the rest of the day. Thanks for listening and look for another CannaInsider episode soon. Take care. Bye-bye.

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