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Commercial cannabis growers are notoriously tight-lipped when it comes to their growing methods, but not Ryan Douglas. Today this master grower shares all the secrets you need to take your grow to the next level (including what not to do).
Learn more at https://douglascultivation.com/about
[00:54] An inside look at Ryan’s new book, From Seed To Success
[1:35] Ryan’s background as CanopyGrowth’s expert cultivator when the company was still named Tweed
[3:01] How Ryan helped CanopyGrowth get its start as one of Canada’s first and largest licensed growers
[6:05] How Ryan went about choosing the best genetics to grow at CanopyGrowth
[7:42] The efficiencies required for a large commercial grow
[11:37] The most common mistakes commercial growers make and how to avoid them
[14:33] Ryan’s advice on how to approach a commercial grow and determine what needs to be done on a high level
[17:22] How to determine a reasonable budget for your commercial grow
[19:02] Best hiring practices for commercial grows and what to look for in staff members
[20:34] How to mitigate pest issues
[26:34] The best type of lights for indoor grows
[27:57] Where Ryan sees commercial cannabis grows heading over the next 3-5 years
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 cannainsider.com. Now, here's your program.
Often, commercial cannabis growers are tight-lipped about the best practices that used to grow world-class plants and customers want and to bring in profits. Today, commercial grower Ryan Douglas is going to pull back the kimono and share all the secrets you need to take your grow to the next level. Ryan, welcome to CannaInsider.
Ryan Douglas: Hi Matt. Thanks for having me on, it's a pleasure to be here.
Matthew: Give us a sense of geography. Where are you in the world today?
Ryan: I'm in Florida on Vero Beach, so it's about two hours north of Miami.
Matthew: Okay. Can you tell us a little bit about your new book, From Seed to Success?
Ryan: Sure. This is basically a guide book for anyone from any industry that's interested in launching a commercial cultivation operation. It's basically set up as a step-by-step guide for not only planning and designing but also executing and expanding a successful commercial cannabis grow operation.
Matthew: Okay, so it's not just for someone that's about to launch one, it's also for people that currently have a commercial grow too?
Ryan: Exactly, exactly because there's as many companies looking to expand as there are looking to start from scratch.
Matthew: Yes. This is important stuff. I want to dig into this, but before we do, can you just give us a little background about how you got into this business, what you were doing prior, and so forth?
Ryan: Sure. My background, my training is actually in traditional horticulture. Before even touching cannabis on a commercial scale, I was a greenhouse grower of ornamental and edible crops for about 15 years across the US. Then as cannabis slowly became decriminalized, I started looking to transition basically the crop I was growing, but keep the same line of work.
What I found is that 90% of the techniques and principles used for cultivating flowers or vegetables or herbs are directly applicable to cannabis. As cannabis became more and more at least decriminalized, then I became more interested in entering that that line of work. I was lucky enough to land a job as the head grower for a company called Tweed, which is today known as Canopy Growth Corporation in Canada.
Matthew: Yes, gosh, that's one of the biggest success stories in the cannabis space now publicly traded. It's one of the biggest, and we had CEO Bruce Linton on when it was called Tweed. There's a throwback for listeners that want to go back to those original-- That was a long time ago. That seems like it seemed like cannabis 1.0, so I'm glad we're going to hear some of the Genesis here. Most people have heard of Tweed that now became Canopy Growth, but what were you doing when you first started with them? How did you set up a-- That's an enormous grow I imagine. What was that like?
Ryan: That was exciting. Bruce hired me over a dinner one night in Ottawa back in 2013 and I just never looked back. That was a really exciting ride. At the time, I was a cultivation manager for a small dispensary in Maine. I was thrilled to be working with cannabis legally, but compared to the greenhouses I'd been operating, it was a relatively small grow area. Almost immediately, I started looking for something that would be much more challenging, but still in the cannabis world.
I read that Tweed was looking for a head grower and I just followed the typical paths of landing a job through reaching out with a resume and phone interview, and then I landed the in-person interview with Bruce in Ottawa and we took it from there. You're right, it was a massive undertaking because we were one of the first licensed producers in Canada. I think we were the seventh.
We not only had consumers that were waiting to purchase product, but we also had Health Canada, which was the entity responsible for regulating the program. They wanted to have some licensed producers actively growing and selling cannabis. There was never a dull moment for the first couple of years at work there.
Matthew: Okay. Bruce goes big. He likes to go big. How many plants were you growing?
Ryan: Yes, so at that time, we were restricted by the amount of grow rooms that we had licensed. The way that Health Canada set up the program is you received a cultivation license, which gave you permission to cultivate, but you had to have individual grow rooms okayed by Health Canada. At the time, at the beginning of that program, it was a relatively slow process.
Our goal initially was to set up six rooms of about 2,000 square feet each, and you would stick about 500 plants in each of those rooms. The short term immediate goal was to grow with 3,000 plus plants that we could load up half a dozen grow rooms and that was actually the foundation of the cultivation program at Canopy.
Matthew: Okay. Eventually, it moved into a Hershey factory in Ontario or something like that. Did I get that right?
Ryan: Yes, that's where we started. When they hired me in 2013, the company didn't have a license so part of my job was to help the group identify a facility that would be appropriate for building out into a commercial cultivation facility. What they found was a former Hershey chocolate factory in Smiths Falls, Ontario, which had been empty for seven years. It was huge, there was plenty of space. There was a lot of electrical power, a lot of water, and it was actually the idea of location. Because it had sat empty for seven years, the price was right on point, so that's how we ended up there.
Matthew: Okay. How did you pick the genetics to grow?
Ryan: Well, at the time the regulations prohibited us from acquiring genetics from any source that was not already licensed to grow them. At that point in Canada, for several years prior, they had a medicinal cannabis program for home growers. With the new program is basically licensed to large commercial growers, but we had to acquire genetics from those home cultivators.
It was so while I was busy, designing the facility and hiring the team, and planning production, we had people that were reaching out to these licensed home growers to see if they'd be interested in selling their genetics and then seeing what they had and in what quantities. Once these folks reported back with their findings, then I was able to select what I thought made sense to really launch the cultivation program with.
Matthew: Okay. Are you just getting cuttings from mother plants then? Is that what was happening?
Ryan: We had more luck finding seeds. The risk with starting from cuttings from other plants is that you bring in everything that's on that plant. There's a high likelihood of either a disease or an insect coming, hitching a ride with that plant. Since we had just built a brand new custom-designed facility for cannabis, really didn't want to start off with two strikes against us by inviting in potential problems. By starting from seed, we eliminate that risk to some extent.
Matthew: Okay. Yes. What kind of efficiencies are required for a grow that large?
Ryan: Those six grow rooms, relatively speaking, it wasn't that big, but my goal was to design a production facility that had the capacity to really expand relatively quickly and relatively seamlessly. From the get-go, there was a couple of systems I put in place that would really increase the efficiency, but also would support a much larger expansion. Just quickly, two of those were the environmental control system and a fertigation system.
An environmental control system, what that does is it allows either the owners or the head grower to view on one screen, monitor everything that's happening in the production facility, and make changes as well. With the click of a button, you could look at a grow room and see how the HVAC equipment, the dehumidification equipment is functioning. If the lights are on, how many lights are on, if the fans are moving, carbon dioxide levels, and it lets you adjust those so you can do that remotely or on-site.
The second piece of equipment was a fertigation system. Fertigation is simply the adding of fertilizer to irrigation water. Watering irrigating plants is a task that happens just about every single day in a production facility, and the amount of time it takes to fill a tank, measure, fertilizer apply the fertilizer empty of the tank. It seems like a pretty straightforward process, but it can consume 10% of a person's workday. You multiply that day after day, week after week for years and you're spending a lot of money on labor on that one task. By automating the irrigation we free up the labor and it ensures that we have a relatively lean production program in the future as they expand as well.
Matthew: Okay. What about harvest cycles then? Do you have a different harvest period for different rooms to make it easier on yourself or how does that work?
Ryan: Yes, so really the most efficient way to set up a production facility is to that have a perpetual harvest cycle. Whether we're talking about an indoor grow up or a greenhouse, if you were to load up that facility all at once and harvest it all at once, you need a really big space to dry it, a really big space to process it. You need a lot of people all at once to do the trimming. Then once it's done, you don't need that empty space, and you have to let all those people go. It's much more efficient to harvest smaller quantities but do so regularly. Really just about every two weeks is ideal.
Matthew: Okay. Did you use trimming machines or trim by hand or how does that work?
Ryan: Yes, so we did both. Initially, we started out by hand. Once you get into really big volumes, that really eats into your labor costs. Towards the end of my tenure there, we automated the trimming.
Matthew: Gosh. Can you tell us anything about the drying and curing process?
Ryan: Yes. It's a critical step because it's actually possible in a week or 10 days to ruin all of the previous couple of months of work if the drying process isn't done correctly. It's simply a balance of the correct temperature and the correct humidity and slowly allowing the moisture to leave the plant. If it's too hot and too dry, and it's done too quickly, it can negatively affect the quality of the flower and it can destroy some of the active ingredients, the cannabinoids or terpenes that the plant has.
On the flip side, if it's done too slow, or the temperature is too cold, and the humidity is too high, the crop can easily begin to rot in the drying room. It's a question of finding the balance between temperature, humidity, and airflow. Generally, a crop should be dried within about 7, maximum of 10 days from the day it's harvested.
Matthew: In your mind, what are the most common preventable problems commercial growers could avoid but don't?
Ryan: There's a couple, probably the biggest two, I think are especially for startups, selecting a really complicated grow method. There's lots of different ways to grow cannabis. What I find, oftentimes, are groups that are new to the process, they do a lot of reading and investigating and they find that certain ways of growing produce the most amount of product, grow the plant the fastest, and have the least likelihood of disease or insect infestation, which is great, but there's some really advanced methods of growing, which are inappropriate for startups.
If you think in a new facility, you've got a new cultivation team, you likely have new genetics, everything is brand new. If you start with the most advanced, most difficult method of growing, it has a very low margin for error. Because most startups in any industry are not pretty, you really want to eliminate potential risks or things that could go wrong.
There's methods of growing called Deep Water Culture, or Aeroponics. Basically, the plant is suspended in water or it's suspended in the air and the roots are misted by a nutrient solution. There's so many valves and tubes and pipes, and there's so many variables that have to come together just perfect for that crop to get pulled off that it's really risky for a startup to go that way. Probably one of the biggest mistakes I see is that companies from the get-go, elect a very advanced, inappropriate method of cultivation to start with.
Probably the second mistake I see right behind that is selecting too many genetics to start with from the get-go. I've had clients that have wanted to start between 50 and 100 different varieties from seed to launch their cultivation facility. That's extremely unlikely. Even a world-class skilled grower is going to have a very difficult time pulling that off. I tell people to start with maybe five or eight, maximum of 10 varieties because if you can't launch a cultivation facility successfully and quickly doing it with five varieties, you'll never do it with 50.
Matthew: It sounds like there's a lot of biting off more than you could chew because you don't know the level of difficulty when you're doing it for the first time?
Ryan: Yes, and there's a lot of excitement. Especially if you're new to the industry, there's so much technology and information and equipment, everything sounds good. There's a tendency to want that implemented all at once so you have just the best, most efficient production facility but, if you're not from the industry, you really need a consultant or a head grower that can really point you in the direction of what's necessary and what is inappropriate at the moment.
Matthew: Well, that's a good point. If you are the business owner or master grower, lead grower, what are the things you should be thinking about at a high level when you're creating a commercial grower for the first time? How do you organize your thoughts about what needs to be done?
Ryan: From the get-go, it's probably a good idea to start at the end with the end product. We really want to determine what is it that we're going to sell. If we're growing dried flower for sale at a dispensary, that's going to dictate how we grow that crop. In a dispensary, you walk in and you've got dozens of varieties behind a glass counter. The visual appeal is very important, it actually makes up a big part of the sale process. If we're growing dried flower for sale at a dispensary, we're likely going to be growing indoors because that gives us the most amount of control over the crop and it results in really the best-looking product.
If we're growing for an extracted product, if we're going to sell oils or vape pens or edibles, then the visual appeal of the flower doesn't really matter because the consumer never sees it. We're growing the flower as a source of biomass from which we extract the active ingredient. In that case, actually, outdoor growing or greenhouse growing might be appropriate.
We want to start by looking at the end result and then once we determine what our final product is, then we work backwards from there. We look at the regulations to see if the regulations dictate that we have to grow in a certain way. For example, in Canada, when we started in 2013, we were only allowed to grow indoors. Now, eight years later, we've got people growing indoors, outdoors, in greenhouse, so we were don't look at the regulations.
Then probably the last part of that is really look at the climate. Even if you decide that growing outdoors makes sense, if you're in New Hampshire, you've got a really small window of time to make that happen. Whereas, if you're in Southern California or Arizona, you could have two or three crops during the course of the year just because the weather is different.
Even before we look at growing the plants or the technical stuff, we really want to look at the bigger picture things like the end product, if there's any regulatory prohibitions, and then also. what makes sense in that certain geography or climate.
Matthew: Just like Zillow lets you browse for properties to buy or rent online, there's a company doing the same thing in the cannabis and hemp space. 420 Property lets you browse cannabis and hemp real estate and even businesses that are for sale. Get started for free at 420property.com. That's the numerals four, two, zero property.com. Now back to your program.
Ryan, how do you orient people in terms of budget? I know different projects have different budgets but is there any general guidelines you can help listeners with?
Ryan: Yes, so that's a critical piece of the puzzle because what I have found is that if you don't have a budget, then everything is too expensive. The risk is that you have a lot of these companies that sell turnkey solutions, specifically for the cannabis industry. HVAC systems that have the capacity to remove lots of water, which is the case with any kind of cultivation site, there's a lot of evaporation and transpiration. You have companies that offer turnkey solutions in terms of fertigation systems like I was speaking about before. These may be a little bit more expensive upfront, but what you get as a result is really low risk and limited downtime, and you give yourself the greatest likelihood of launching your facility on time successfully.
In terms of budget, if you're doing 10,000 square feet, you really want to have a couple of million dollars at your disposal. Anything larger than that, then you're looking at raising upwards of close to $10 million. What I tell clients in the beginning phases, if you're going to build something from scratch, if you're building an indoor facility, plan on spending about $250 a square foot to build that site out. If you're doing a greenhouse, plan out about $75 a square foot. Anyone can do the math on that as you approach 10,000 square feet or more, then we're definitely in the several millions of dollars.
Matthew: Okay. How about hiring? How do you pick staff that can really make an impact?
Ryan: Well, that's another key element to really establishing a successful cultivation program. Two things, I would say one on the head grower. The head grower in my opinion is arguably the most influential person in determining whether that business is a success or failure. I tell people to look for someone that has at least 10 years of experience. Not necessarily with cannabis, but at least with commercial plant production experience because they already come to the table with years of experience with facility management, production planning, and people management.
Sometimes if you hire for cannabis knowledge, what you get is someone that knows a lot about cannabis but doesn't necessarily know how to plan production or manage a team or orchestrate all of the nuances of a facility. As far as the head grower, I say look for someone with experience. You want someone that at least has a decade of experience growing anything but on a commercial scale.
Then for the rest of the team, you really don't need someone that has experience in the cannabis industry. Whether they're plant technicians or trimmers, you really just want to look for the same kind of characteristics that you would want when you hire anyone for any kind of job. That's really someone that has a track record of showing up on time, someone that can learn new skills quickly, and probably more importantly is someone that's really passionate and interested to get into this industry.
Matthew: You talked a little bit about pest issues and how a pest can get hitch a ride on cuttings of a mother plant, but how do you mitigate pest issues when they do get in? Because invariably, it seems like they do get in and you want to minimize the opportunity, but how do you deal with it once pests are inside a grow?
Ryan: That's a good point because that's the best way to look at it, not to be too naive. We need to anticipate that we're going to have pest and disease problems because every single monoculture in the world is attacked by something and eventually, it's going to happen. Of course, prevention is always less expensive and more efficient than curative measures, so we can prevent introducing diseased material into our grow up by either starting from seed or if we do accept cuttings or genetics from another grower, we could put that through a process of micro-propagation or tissue culture.
In the process of duplicating plants through tissue culture, you actually eliminate any disease that's inherent in the plant. It gives you an opportunity to really start fresh or at least establish a stock plant or a production system that's really clean at the base. Then during the course of growing, it's all about really maintaining schedules in terms of scouting the crop for potential issues, but then also either applying organic-based pest control products or releasing beneficial insects to really keep any potential outbreaks under control and really mitigate the damage that they might cause in the event of a crop failure.
Matthew: Can you talk a little bit about what actually is happening in the tissue culture process that you mentioned?
Ryan: Unfortunately, I can't get too specific because even I don't understand how that works. It's much more common in traditional agriculture. There's dozens of crops that are duplicated that way. Basically, traditional asexual propagation involves the taking of cuttings or clones. You have a mother plant, you cut off a shoot that's about four or six inches long, you stick it into a substrate, and two weeks later you've got roots and now you've got a genetically identical clone to that mother plant.
With tissue culture, it's somewhat of the same process, but you need much less plant materials. Really just a fraction of a centimeter of material is sufficient in order to start the process of propagating a new cutting. If you look at a standard mother plant, it could probably generate one or 200 cuttings every couple of weeks. With tissue culture, you could literally generate 10,000 cuttings from one plant at the same time.
Matthew: Wow. You mentioned a little bit about the automation you set up at a Tweed or Canopy Growth, but I'm interested in what kind of technology you think has the most positive impact in terms of making sure the automation is working correctly and managed correctly. Is there any names of products or anything that you could throw out there in terms of the best practices in terms of software or automation systems?
Ryan: There's so many out there. Really the most important thing I would direct people to look for is any kind of technology that helps you create the optimal growing conditions for the plant. That means really guaranteeing just a few factors and that is light intensity, temperature, humidity levels, and airflow, carbon dioxide to some extent too. If we can provide those four or five basic growing needs for the plant and have it right inside of those optimal ranges every single day, whether it's the lights on or lights off-cycle, then that makes growing a lot easier. If the plant is healthy, there's much less risk of insect or disease infestation.
I would say any technology, any equipment, or any software that helps the grower to better control the grow environment is going to be well worth the investment.
Matthew: One that probably sends you text messages or something. If it happens in the middle of the night you get alerted, right?
Ryan: Exactly. When we set up Canopy Growth, I was the first call on that list of phone numbers. When something went out of range, it would immediately call my cell phone until I picked up and acknowledged that there was a problem. Then if I couldn't remedy the issue from my computer at home, I'd run over to the production site and really dig into what was going on.
Matthew: Does that happen often or is that a rare thing? Like carbon dioxide level, too high, that's gone outside of range or something like that?
Ryan: Or maybe an HVAC system that has shut off, but the lights are still on, so you can literally see the temperature rising as the minutes go by. That's why I lived three minutes away from the production site when I moved to Canada because I knew I would be dedicating a lot of time there. To answer your question, it is common especially with new facilities as you're commissioning the equipment and trying to get all this new stuff to work together, but it's less common once you get going.
Matthew: I imagine if you're doing an indoor grow, you have to have alternate energy source like a natural gas backup or something like that or generator?
Ryan: Exactly. Exactly. It would be unlikely that a production plant, the size of Hershey's, that you would have a generator that would allow every single piece of equipment to continue running. You really have to identify what are the most critical elements in a grow operation to keep running in the event of a power failure.
Matthew: A lot of people, it's like the Hatfields and McCoys with lights. People have their preferences and they get angry at people that have other preferences. What kind of lights do you like for indoor grows?
Ryan: For indoor grows with a relatively low ceiling height or those indoor grows that are multi-tier, LED lights work really well because they have a really thin profile and they can get really close to the plant. If you're growing in a grow room with a low ceiling height, you know that these plants are typically cultivated on benches that are about two feet tall, the plants grow another three feet so you have five feet already. Then if you've got a short ceiling height, you can't have a light that's going to generate a lot of heat because you're going to burn the tops of your plants and there's nothing that you could do, so low ceiling height or multi-tier growing, I think LEDs work really well.
If you've got a high ceiling or if you're in a greenhouse environment, then I still like a lot of the HIDs because they're just so powerful. They can really penetrate the crop and they have a carrying power. If you're in a really high ceiling indoor grow-up or a really high gutter on a greenhouse, then these HID lights they're going to reach the plant and do the work that they need to do.
Matthew: Where do you think commercial grows are going and how are they going to evolve in the next three to five years?
Ryan: Well, I think that we need to anticipate that growers will come under increasing pressure to really minimize their carbon footprint. On the one hand, it's great that we've got more and more states and countries that are legalizing cannabis cultivation, but we don't want our legacy as an industry to be that we've created this energy-consuming hog in a sense.
I think as we look to the next three to five years, we should anticipate as responsible growers that we'll need to do more with less, which means that we need to continue producing cannabis but doing so using less electricity and less water. I think we're going to see a lot of technology that's going to allow indoor growers to do that, but I also think new projects and expansion projects are going to be looking to greenhouse production because it's a much more environmentally friendly way of growing cannabis.
If we look at every other crop that's grown in the world, we're the only ones that do it indoors. If they can do it successfully outdoors with something like tomatoes that has such a small profit margin, then we can certainly learn how to do that successfully with cannabis, given that some of these markets are commanding $4,000 a pound wholesale.
Matthew: You're seeing a lot more adoption then of the greenhouses in Canada it sounds like?
Ryan: Well, those are my recommendations. It's hard to say on a whole if new businesses are going more indoors or outdoors, but my recommendation to clients more and more is to look at greenhouses because they're less expensive to build, they're less expensive to operate, and in three or four years in the event that there's some very strict regulations regarding electrical and water consumption, if you've built a really expensive indoor grow up, it's going to be even more expensive to retrofit that thing to comply with the new regulations. I honestly think greenhouse is the future of large-scale cannabis cultivation.
Matthew: For people that are interested in your book and they're on the fence like, "Hey, am I going to read this book or am I not." Tell us what's the biggest benefits from reading your book?
Ryan: The person that could benefit the most is someone that is not from the cannabis industry but recognizes the business opportunity. What my book is going to help these folks do is really avoid the typical starter mistakes so they end up spending less and they come to market much more quickly.
Matthew: Okay. Makes sense. Let me ask you a few personal development questions here, Ryan. Is there a book that's had a big impact on your life or way of thinking that you'd like to share?
Ryan: Yes. For a long time, I always wanted to be an independent consultant. There's a book that I read that actually helps show me the way, showed me how to become a consultant and how to be the kind of consultant that I wanted when I was a Head Grower. It's a book called Getting Started in Consulting by Alan Weiss.
Matthew: Okay, and it worked.
Ryan: Yes. I can owe a lot of my success to that book.
Matthew: Okay. What do you think the most interesting thing is going on in your field?
Ryan: I think that kind of piggybacks a little bit on my previous answer in terms of really lessening our carbon footprint. Greenhouse and outdoor growers of cannabis, we can't rely on the pest control products that other growers can use, like pesticides or fungicides. We've got to get much more creative in growing these commercial crops by doing it in a very clean organic method.
What's exciting to me is seeing the way that growers are using, I would call biological agents, so beneficial bacteria, beneficial fungus, beneficial insects, in a way that prevents their crops from being exposed to potential disease, but also prevent or mitigates the potential damage from a crop failure. I'm excited to see in the next few years more and more companies implementing these products and really replacing pesticides with the use of organic methods and products to protect their crops.
Matthew: I feel geothermal's a big opportunity, especially in some of these environments with huge temperature swings, because you can be pulling the Earth's temperature into your grow and then the HVAC system just does the final last part instead of all the energy. It doesn't have to take everything to this extreme temperature that we can-- The Earth's temperature is at 50, I think once you go down 15 feet or 20 feet, and so if you could pull that temperature up into the grow and the HVAC has to consume a lot less electricity. Is there something I'm missing about that or is it just not widely thought of or is it difficult to implement?
Ryan: No, no, that makes a lot of sense. If you're in an area where you can take advantage of that principle, then I recommend it. I mentioned before that I'm from the traditional horticulture world and vegetable growers and ornamental flower growers, oftentimes, you'll have businesses that build these greenhouses right next to a power plant, or right next to an industry that generates heat as a waste product. When you look at places like the Northern states of the US, a large part of their operational expense is going to go into heating a greenhouse.
If you are connected to an industry or facility that generates heat as a waste product, then it dramatically drops your operating expenses in the same way that geothermal heat would. So if you're in an area where you can take advantage of that, I absolutely recommend it.
Matthew: What is one thought you have that most people would disagree with you on?
Ryan: I get a lot of pushback when I tell groups that their head grower should be the highest-paid person in the company. Like I said before, I think he or she has the greatest influence on determining whether that cultivation business is a success or a failure because the business makes money from growing plants. If your head grower is not a professional, skilled, experienced person, then you're raising $10 million or $20 million to bet on something that's very unlikely to pay off in the end. I always tell clients to find the best grower that they can afford and anticipate paying six figures and up for the right person.
Matthew: Okay. That makes sense. Ryan, as we close, tell us again the name of your book and how to purchase it.
Ryan: Sure. The book is called From Seed to Success: How to Launch a Great Cannabis Cultivation Business in Record Time, and both the paperback and the Kindle version are available on Amazon.
Matthew: Great stuff. Well, thanks so much, Ryan. This has been really helpful and informative and I know there's a lot of listeners out there that are looking for ways to improve their grows and also how to create an effective grow out of the gate. You mentioned you do consulting, are you still doing that?
Ryan: Absolutely. Anyone is welcome to reach out to me through my website at douglascultivation.com. I have a number of free resources for people that are thinking of getting into the business, but they're also welcome to contact me directly and I'd be more than happy to speak with anyone about their cannabis project.
Matthew: All right. Well, thanks again Ryan, and all the best to you in 2021.
Ryan: Thank you, Matt. It's been my pleasure.
Ryan: 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 firstname.lastname@example.org. 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 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 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.
[00:37:09] [END OF AUDIO]
Ep 333 – Iconic Cannabis Company Harborside Taken Over and Moving in a New, More Profitable Direction
The end of federal cannabis prohibition is on the horizon as we enter a new, more mature phase of growth for retailers and growers.
Here to tell us more is Matt Hawkins of Harborside and Entourage Effect Capital.
Learn more at https://shopharborside.com
[1:20] An inside look at Matt’s work as Chairman of Harborside and Managing Partner of Entourage Effect Capital
[3:56] How Matt’s background in private equity has helped him make Harborside a success
[8:14] The potential for reverse takeovers in cannabis over the next few years
[11:41] Why Matt urges cannabis companies to “be more humble and get deals done”
[14:16] What would happen to the cannabis market if we eliminated 280E, a regulation that prevents cannabis companies from deducting normal business expenses
[17:15] What the new administration in DC could mean for cannabis
[18:32] Vertical integration versus specialization and which will gain more popularity as the cannabis landscape continues to shift
[23:55] Why Matt predicts the first national cannabis brand will either be in the edible or liquid categories
How do you find real estate for cannabis businesses? Here to answer that question is Ryan George of 420 Property, the Zillow of cannabis.
Learn more at https://www.420property.com
[1:43] An inside look at 420 Property, the world’s largest hemp and cannabis real estate marketplace
[2:06] Ryan’s background in cannabis and how he came to start 420 Property
[8:51] “Green zones” and where to find them
[10:06] Why both businesses and investors are choosing Ryan’s platform as the place to buy and sell cannabis and marijuana businesses
[11:36] The most active locations on 420 Property, including cities in California and Oklahoma
[15:15] Key considerations when selling a cannabis property and how to get your listing noticed
[18:20] Practical advice for buyers on what to look out for when searching for a cannabis property
[20:50] Where Ryan sees the cannabis retail space heading in the next few years
Matthew Kind: Hi. I'm Matthew Kind. Every Monday I 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 om. Now here's your program. How do you find real estate for the cannabis businesses? Here to help us answer that question is Ryan George of 420 Property. Ryan, welcome to CannaInsider.
Ryan George: Hey, Matt. Thanks for having me.
Matthew: Give us a sense of geography. Where are you in the world today?
Ryan: I'm in Northern California. Specifically, I'm at my home office in Sacramento.
Matthew: A lot of people from the Bay Area moving out there?
Ryan: Oh, my. It is one of the hottest housing markets in the world right now. It's amazing. Just to see home values rise as fast as they have in my immediate neighborhood is just amazing to see. Over the last year, we've seen homes go up over 20% in my immediate neighborhood.
Matthew: Oh my gosh. Yes, that's nuts.
Ryan: I was telling a good friend of mine that is currently shopping for a home in the Bay Area, what's going on up here and we were discussing, if I were to buy my house today for the prices that they're currently getting, I would say, "Forget it." I'd move somewhere else. It's just amazing the prices that people are paying for homes in the Sacramento area.
Matthew: Wow. It's an amazing time. We'll get into more about this type of thing later on in the show, but give us an update on what is 420 Property on a high level, just to give us an orientation, what that is?
Ryan: 420 Property is an online real estate and business listing platform. We've often been called the Zillow of Cannabis. I'll admit it's not my favorite analogy, but for the purposes of an elevator pitch, it gets the point across pretty quick.
Matthew: Tell us a little bit about your background and journey, how you got into the cannabis space, started 420 Property, and so on.
Ryan: I grew up around the real estate business and inevitably began working in various capacities in real estate at a young age. About 2010, I was a commercial property leasing agent and had a client that was pretty evasive on what their business was, and eventually it came out and they came clean what they were going to be doing, which was a cannabis testing facility in Sacramento.
I had some suspicions on what they were going to be doing because of how specific their requirements were, can't be near a school, can't be near a church, and so forth. Once they came clean, my journey of trying to track down a cannabis property began. Being a millennial, I'm very good at using the computer and finding things online, I just could not find anything that could help me find a cannabis property. I went the old school route of just picking up the phone and calling everyone I possibly could.
I ran into roadblock after roadblock and objections from the landlord and when it wasn't objections from the landlord, it was objections from the localities or it was prohibited either by the local ordinance or the landlord was open to it but he had a bank loan on the property and couldn't afford to get a hard money loan or pay off the property in the event that their mortgage servicer found out and called no do.
I remember spending a lot of time on that specific deal, even though it wasn't a very large deal and I didn't stand to make a lot of money on it, but it almost became an obsessive game to find cannabis compliant properties. They ended up finding a property through a friend, but I still had that experience of how awful it was to try to find a cannabis property. This is back in 2010, '11, '12 era where it's still the Prop 215 days. At that time, the only luck I was actually having finding cannabis properties was on Craigslist under a term I believe it was garden-friendly or 215-friendly or 420-friendly.
What was on there was really dilapidated buildings or sheds in the back of people's homes or rural residential acreage. After that client was able to find the space, they invited me to come work for them at the lab. I left my position at the leasing company and started my career in the cannabis space as the business development manager for Halent Labs in Sacramento, which now has since merged with Steep Hill Labs out of Oakland, which was the first ever cannabis testing lab in the nation.
I'll say that that time at the lab was and is my most valuable cannabis industry experience. The Prop 215 era really was the wild West. I had a front-row seat to the emerging cannabis business at that time and it still is, still full of energy and new ideas. At that time, I was looking around and saw the need or the necessity for cannabis in the space and no one was really looking towards that area. Everyone was looking at mostly plant touching things. The ancillary side of the business hadn't really started to blossom. That's about the time I registered 420 Property.com, the domain name and cannarealty.com, and several dozen other cannabis-related real estate domains.
Surprisingly, 420 Property wasn't the first business that I had pursued in the real estate cannabis space. I initially pursued Canna Realty as the first real estate brokerage that focused solely on cannabis. It went well for a very short period of time and then it didn't go well. Being in Sacramento, California, there was a point in time where the unincorporated area of our city allowed cannabis businesses.
At that time we had over about 120 brick and mortar dispensaries in the county, and they were opening up and shutting down just as fast. I had a viable pool of customers in my backyard, and then the county issued a moratorium against those businesses. The number of dispensaries I believe dropped down to nine locations. At that time I decided to shut down Canna Realty and took a little bit of a sabbatical from the cannabis space for a few years. Then you fast forward to about 2015 and that's when I really started to get back into the space and started framing out what is now 420 Property.
Matthew: That makes sense. As just your own personal need you saw the opportunity there.
Ryan: Yes, absolutely. I remember thinking at one point, well, during my calling around. It was thinking of, "How great would it be if there was just a place I can go where all the properties are cannabis-friendly?" You don't have to feel out the other party like, "Hey, how does your client feel about a certain green business?" At that time it was still very taboo and it still is to some extent especially when you're dealing with landlords and trying to feel them out like, "Hey or--"
Back then, you didn't want to just come out and say, "Hey, are you opening a cannabis business?" Because you didn't want to have your reputation tarnished with your constituents in the real estate space, but now you can call somebody up and say, "Hey, if your property is in the green zone, can we put a business there?" It's either a yes or no question, but back then it was a little dicey, like, "Hey, how does your client feel about a particular green business that's new and emerging?"
Matthew: Talk about the green zone there and what that means. I know earlier you said it can't be close to a church or a school, but for people that aren't familiar with exactly what you're talking about, can you just help them understand that?
Ryan: Zoning in properties are one of the most important things or zoning with properties is one of the most important things in the cannabis space. There's not a one-size-fits-all answer. It's going to come down to what the locality or a municipality that issues the cannabis licenses has to say about the property requirements. Sometimes there's only state requirements, sometimes they're state and local requirements, but just generally cannabis buildings can't be near schools, churches, parks, public places where there's going to be kids.
Specifically, a green zone can refer to-- Some cities have designated out areas on their zoning maps, where you can put a cannabis business ahead of time. You go down there, you see what their green zone map is, or where you can locate, and then you have to try to find a property in that area.
Matthew: Who are the participants on the platform in general?
Ryan: We have a lot of different types of users with different goals of using the platform. Everyone from real estate agents or business brokers specializing in the cannabis space, investors looking for opportunities in the cannabis space, land and property owners looking to capitalize on the cannabis space or the increased premiums that a cannabis tenant's willing to pay. Then entrepreneurs in the cannabis space looking for real estate business assets or financial resources that they can find on our platform.
Matthew: Do you keep track of how many transactions have been there so far or how many leads or what are some key performance indicators?
Ryan: Yes. We don't really publicize the number of actually closed transactions or sold versus leased listings. What I can tell you and your listeners is that we've seen nearly 7,000 transactions to date on our platform that have come on and come off. That doesn't include the 3,000 that are currently being actively advertised on the platform. Of that 7,000, that equates to about 5 billion in market value. Our users have reported a very, very high success rate on 420 Property compared to any other real estate listing website out there.
Matthew: Where are most of the properties located?
Ryan: Well, most of our properties are located in California, which is arguably the largest cannabis market in the country. I would say, second to California is Oklahoma at the moment because Oklahoma has very low barrier to entry for the cannabis space. Then from there it would be Michigan, Oregon, Washington as where most of the listings are at this time. There's a few scattered throughout the country.
We're expecting New Jersey and Arizona to be the next two big markets. I'm still undecided on what is going to end up happening in the state of Illinois. That has the potential to be a very big market for us. It's a very big cannabis market in general, but I don't know how many licenses or how many businesses are going to be in that market altogether.
Matthew: Is there anything, anything besides real estate that people list on 420 Property?
Ryan: Oh, absolutely. Let's just kind of start with real estate. We have various capacities of real estate. We have real estate that's for sale, for lease, or sale-leaseback transactions that are on there. Then real estate in the cannabis space, depending on the local municipalities, what their requirements are.t i, could either be in the green zone, or it could be just a regular piece of real estate that you get a conditional use permit from the city. It's pre-approved with that conditional use permit to have a cannabis business there. You still have to go through the licensing process to get a operational permit or operations license.
Then from there we have all stages of cannabis businesses in various types. We've seen everything from applications for sale like applications that are in the process that aren't yet a license for sale, pay for licenses that are for sale, which is basically a piece of paper that says you can operate a license or operate a licensed cannabis business at a specific location. Then we've seen turnkey cannabis businesses for sale, as well as business assets, such as extraction systems or packaging equipment, or digital assets or proprietary information or intellectual property.
Matthew: Predominantly real estate?
Ryan: It's predominantly real estate and our second-biggest category is existing businesses for sale.
Matthew: That makes sense. How many people are browsing the site monthly or annually?
Ryan: We're seeing about 35,000 to 45,000 active monthly users.
Matthew: Wow. That's good. This seems like it's really solving a problem.
Ryan: We try to create a lot of value for our users and we're constantly striving to add more features or make sure that the listings are of the highest quality. We do a lot of moderation of the site. Surprisingly, people want to try to advertise product. By product, what I mean is finished retail products on our site. We stay 100% to our core of what we do. We don't allow any sort of products for sale or anything that's outside of our core business on the site.
Matthew: Let's say I wanted to list a property, how could I make sure that it really looks good and gets noticed because you don't want to get a fade into the background? How do you do that?
Ryan: I would say, first and foremost, you'd want to do some research on the property to make sure that it is a 420 Property and can be used for the specific cannabis use that is being proposed there. For example, just because it's in the green zone, you may be able to put a cultivation there or manufacturing there, but you may not be able to or want to put a retail store there. You want to check the property to see if they allowed use or the proposed use is allowed at that specific location.
Then from there, you'd want to check to see what the state and local licensing requirements are going to be for that property, find out the fees, processing times, operating tax, if there's one from the locality and the state or both. Then from there you want to look at the specific characteristics of the property, see if there's any value that a certain cannabis business might find appealing such as, is there a lot of power coming into the property? If so, how much power's coming in? Is the property have adequate water? Does the property have security characteristics that may be appealing to a cannabis client? If it's a retail space, is there enough parking?
You want to think of things kind of through the eyes of a cannabis business operator. Then from there, you'd want to make sure that it's priced appropriately. The biggest mistake that we see on our platform is because it's a cannabis property or cannabis is associated with the property, a lot of people that aren't in the industry think immediately that it's a gold mine. They will way overpriced the property or the business thinking that it's a $20 million property, when at the end of the day it's just a property in the green zone that is not really desirable by anyone, but it has some additional value, but not $20 million of additional value.
Matthew: That makes sense. Gosh, I've never heard of a seller thinking that a property is worth more than it is.
Ryan: Yes. We see it a lot.
Matthew: I've been guilty of that too. I think everybody is. It's like you're a child.
Ryan: Well, everyone's a little guilty of it outside of the cannabis space, but it's ultra inflated in the cannabis space. Like, "Oh, don't you know that cannabis is allowed here. It's got to at least add another 50% value in it." I'm like, "No." We don't really give that kind of information out on a case by case basis, because we're not licensed realtors, but that's the biggest issue that we've seen on the platform is people that'll put items on there that are ultra inflated in value or price.
Matthew: Anything additional the buyers should look out for? You mentioned electricity, water, location, price, anything else buyers want to look for to make sure it's appropriate property for them?
Ryan: Well, in any special use commercial real estate transaction due diligence is key. You're going to want to make sure that you have all of your basis covered. Specifically, you want to make sure that the zoning's correct. You want to make sure if there's a license associated with a property that the license is transferable and it's clean and what the processing timelines are for the transfer and what's required to get everything moved into your name.
I would recommend strongly to anyone trying to buy a piece of property works with a professional that is experienced in the cannabis space and that's seen numerous real estate transactions or business transactions within the cannabis space because there's a lot of nuances that aren't normal to your traditional real estate transaction.
Matthew: Sure. How do you monetize this? How does 420 Property make money on this platform?
Ryan: 420 property is what you would call a freemium service, meaning that it's free to use, but to access all the listings you would need to become a premium member which is a monthly subscription. From there we offer featured listings. It's free to add a listing onto 420 Property, but if you want the listing to be featured, get a little bit more exposure and to be viewed by everyone that doesn't have a premium subscription with us, that is what the feature listing would be for. That's $29 a month. We also offer additional marketing services such as dedicated email blast, social media boost, or guaranteed homepage exposure. Just really depends on what they have and how much their budget is.
Matthew: Okay. Which of those is the most popular?
Ryan: Definitely, the featured listing. I would say the second popular is the dedicated email blast. We just rolled out the concept of guaranteed homepage exposure, but that seems like it's going to be a pretty popular one for more expensive listings. By expensive listings I mean for the listings that are 10 to 100 billion.
Matthew: That makes sense. Looking ahead, how do you see the cannabis retail space I guess primarily out west evolving in the next three to five years?
Ryan: I would say as an entire landscape of our country, we're seeing a lot of momentum towards legalization on the federal level and we're certainly seeing a lot more states becoming more open to the concept of recreational cannabis in their states. As those states continue to pass laws that are allowing legalized cannabis, those businesses are going to need facilities to operate or processing facilities and facilities to sell.
Even delivery services need some space to operate in because most states aren't allowing home-based cannabis businesses. As the footprint of legal cannabis continues to grow, the need for real estate will continue to grow, and we'll be here to help them with every need that they have.
Matthew: Just a general California question, how does this thing seem like they're evolving there? Sometimes California seems like massive dysfunction but then again there's a ton of smart people there. What do you think is happening?
Ryan: California just because it was passed on like a statewide level like Prop 64, it was left up to each county or city to allow or disallow cannabis. We're seeing a lot more counties or cities becoming more open to the idea of cannabis sales in their area. It's a slow process. I think the biggest problem in California is the barriers to entry, which is giving a lot of black-market operators an opportunity to thrive.
Initially, they should have had lower barriers to entry for those that were Prop 215 operators that were able to make a living and give them some sort of ability to either pay their licensing fees over time or work with them in a way that it doesn't force them to the black market, help them become licensed viable businesses instead of basically pricing them out of the market.
Matthew: Yes, I've heard estimates that the black market's bigger than the regulated market in California. Is that what you hear or what's the size that you hear?
Ryan: This is just my personal opinion. I couldn't espouse any specific statistics, but I would say California is still the biggest producer in the nation of the black-market crop. I wouldn't say that that crop's been sold here. I would say most likely the Emerald Triangle is producing a lot of black-market cannabis and that cannabis is going to states that don't yet have legal cannabis in it.
Matthew: Yes, there's such an ideal growing environment up there. That makes sense. All right. I want to ask some personal development questions. Is there a book that's had a big impact on your life or way of thinking that you'd like to share?
Ryan: Actually, there's been a series of books. There's [crosstalk] oriental-- [laughs] Actually, I'll admit I'm not a big fiction fan. I have yet to read the Harry Potter books even though it's on my list of things to do. It's just very low on the priorities. It's a series of books by an author Jim Collins. There's four books that he's published in the series in total which are Good to Great, Great by Choice, Built to Last, and How the Mighty Fall.
Through these four books, the author and his research team take a deep dive into learning what sets great companies apart from mediocre companies. They also look at like why great companies that were once the leader in their space failed and how you build a great company that's built to last generations.
Matthew: It's a tough thing.
Ryan: There's companies that have been around for hundreds and hundreds of years and it wasn't by sheer luck. It was by design.
Matthew: What's the one or two nuggets that you think about the most from those books?
Ryan: There's one concept from the books. It's fire bullets, then cannonballs. The concept is derived from, you have to try a lot of little different things and then keep what works, and when you find something that works, you go all in on what works instead of going all in on one or two things that you haven't tried or tested out yet. I would say that's one of the bigger ones.
We try a lot of different things out on our platform and if it doesn't work, we trash it. We don't spend a lot of time or money on it. We just kick it to the curb and then once we find something that works, then we go full investment, full steam ahead.
Matthew: That makes a lot of sense. Apart from what you're doing at 420 Property, what do you think the most interesting thing going on in the cannabis space is?
Ryan: I find just all around the positive impacts that legal cannabis has made on communities to be very interesting. I mean, it was outlawed for so long and demonized for so long and now we have legal cannabis shops that are just as popular or just as abundant as Starbucks in California. [chuckles] We're creating tax revenue, creating jobs, and creating real estate equity. It's amazing to see along this journey from when I started the Prop 215 days to now.
Matthew: Wow. Now, final question here. Do you have a favorite comfort food?
Ryan: [chuckles] I'm a bit of a foodie and like many of your listeners, we've been in this COVID quarantine now and haven't had access to the ability to sit down in a restaurant. It used to be that my cravings were very generalized for, "Oh, I'm craving pizza." Almost any pizza would do within five or six pizza brands. Now, my cravings are getting very, very specific down to like the order. [chuckles]
To give you an idea of it, lately I've been craving just a good hamburger. In-N-Out will satisfy that craving for a little bit, but really what I've been craving is a hamburger from Hodad's in San Diego and a big cheese burger with fries, onion rings. Then they have, honestly, the best malted-chocolate milkshake I've ever had in my life. That's- [crosstalk]
Matthew: I'm salivating here. I'm having like a Pavlovian response to you describing this.
Ryan: Oh, it's super good. It's walking distance to the beach . What is it? It's in Ocean Beach, San Diego. It's just a cool environment, walk-up window, grab your hamburger and fries to go and sit on the beach. It's just all around a good experience and that's specifically what I am craving right now.
Matthew: Well, now that you got everybody hungry, Ryan, please let them know how they can reach out to you and who can go to 420 Property. Who's the ideal person to go there right now?
Ryan: Well, anyone that's curious about cannabis real estate. We see a lot of users that end up on the platform just to click around and look at some of the pictures of cannabis farms for sale or big grows. It's fun to take a look at non-commercial images of cannabis cultivations and you're inside of an actual greenhouse. Someone is in there taking pictures to sell it off. If anyone's curious about taking a look at the platform, all you have to do is just open up any browser on your computer or mobile device and type in 420property.com and you're there.
Matthew: Okay. Great. Well, thanks so much for coming on the show, Ryan. We appreciate it and good luck with everything you're doing with 420 Property. I think you really picked a growing segment there. Best of luck to you.
Ryan: Thank you. I appreciate it. Thank you for having me on.
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 email@example.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 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.
[00:31:17] [END OF AUDIO]
Retail design and brand identity are pivotal to creating a successful cannabis dispensary. Here to give us some pointers is one of the industry’s top experts: Megan Stone of High Road Design Studio.
Learn more at https://www.highroadstudio.com
[00:46] An inside look at High Road Studio, an award-winning interior design, branding, and consulting studio for cannabis dispensaries
[1:20] Megan’s background in cannabis and how she came to start High Road
[4:08] How cannabis retail design has changed over the last five years
[8:02] The two big things you have to get right when creating a retail design
[8:51] The biggest mistakes Megan sees companies make in cannabis retail design
[12:26] The importance of leaving room for experimentation in retail design and how to do that in a safe way
[16:22] Challenges Megan encounters when moving from the design phase to the build-out phase and how she overcomes them
[20:58] What kind of budget you need to achieve a thriving retail environment and how to spend money for the biggest ROI
[31:40] Examples of brands that successfully resonate with their customers and what we can learn from them
[34:05] Where Megan sees cannabis retail heading over the next 3-5 years
Matthew Kind: Hi. I'm Matt 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 and CannaInsider.com. That's C-A-N-N-A-insider dot com. Now, here's your program. Today, we're going to learn about retail design and brand identity from one of the industry's top experts, Megan Stone. Megan, welcome to CannaInsider.
Megan: Thanks, Matt. I'm happy to be here.
Matt: It's been about give or take six years since you've been on the show, so I'm glad to have you back. Give the listeners a sense of geography and let us know where you are today.
Megan: Absolutely. I am sitting today in my home office in sunny, Scottsdale, Arizona.
Matt: What is High Road Studio on a high level?
Megan: We are pioneers of dispensary design. We provide, not only interior design services, but we also provide branding services to cannabis brands nationwide. Not just retailers, but we also work with a lot of product brands and ancillary companies, especially on the brand identity side. Those services outside of interior design include, everything from identity creation, packaging design, apparel design, and even interior graphics.
Matt: Can you share a bit about your background journey and how you got into the cannabis space and started High Road?
Megan: Absolutely, absolutely. I went back and listened to our first interview from 2015, and definitely dove into the same track record back then. I'll dive into here again today. I really got my cert in the cannabis industry over 10 years ago as a patient and consumer myself. I was living in Southern California. I'm a transplant from the mid-west originally, and had found myself out there after college, working around the time of the great recession. That was really my first foray into cannabis was on the consumer side.
On the consumer side, during the time when the industry was still very much nascent and quite frankly a gray-market industry. Fast forward a few years, about 2010, height of the recession, I put myself back into design school to change career paths and really pursue this passion for my career going forward. At that time, I was living in Orange County and the dispensary I worked for offer-- I wouldn't say work for. I was living in Orange County and the dispensary that I had started going to offered me a job as a bud tender.
I seized the opportunity. I was a student again, at the time, so it looked like a great part-time job to take on while I finish up my design degree. That job really has led me to where I am today. It was that introductory experience into the cannabis retail environment. Getting to play a role in interacting with the patients and seeing this industry at such an early level, that really turned me on and connected with me as someone in their new foray into a new career.
I worked for that dispensary for three years. I ended up becoming their general manager. We ended up with a couple locations. The owner ended up tapping me to provide some remodel services to our stores. That was truly what helped me first connect my passions for design and then my new-found passion for seeing this industry progress and move forward and be a viable business for people to pursue.
Once I finished school in 2013, that's when I started High Road and began this venture of transforming the cannabis retail world into something that's more respectable, more present in our communities, more understood by society, and quite frankly, a very successful business venture for any entrepreneur who pursues it and is successful in it.
Matt: That's a great background for what you're doing now. You've had boots on the ground, in the mud, understanding all the problems firsthand and that secondary, "Let's just jump into cannabis retailer design or dispensary design." Way back, even the last time we interviewed you, it's still kind of like the majority of retail shops felt more like head shops than what they've evolved into now. Can you just take us back to where we were five years ago when we spoke and how the retail experience has evolved since then?
Megan: Yes. 2015, for so many reasons feels like so many lifetimes ago. [laughs] Especially in the cannabis industry. In thinking ahead for our interview, I really reflected on this. There are so many things to add to the list of things that have changed and evolved and improved since we talked five years ago.
One of the main things is just the vast expansion of the industry, and the fact that we can sit here today and talk about a national landscape that is enormously adult-use compared to what it was when we last talked. Not to mention the spread of good, positive medical cannabis laws. The landscape is just completely different. With that growth in the industry, it has dramatically changed the consumer who's shopping in our stores.
Now, that we're really a retail industry that caters to truly your average-day customer or your average citizen, that has really changed the way people have to operate if they're going to be competitive and successful. Our stores in general just feel and operate a lot more like a normal retail business, a lot more like a coffee shop, a clothing store, a small restaurant. All of these things are so much closer to the lives of my clients than they had been five years ago.
Express ordering, we had begin to talk about in our conversation back in 2015, but that is something that has grown into the strong majority of a lot of people's businesses. Some of my clients report that express orders are 30% to 50% of the transactions that they process sometimes. Being able to see that trend in consumer behavior and store operations, definitely signifies the fact that consumers are maturing. They're becoming more comfortable in this retail experiences, being treated like a lot of other shopper journeys that they go on in the course of their weeks.
Product sophistication is also something else that has grown by leaps and bounds. This has so many positive impacts for store design, but also just store experience. I think everybody likes to be able to find variety, especially in this industry where we're serving such a broader base of consumers. New and novice consumers most often are looking for low-dose, mild ways of introducing themselves to cannabis.
When you walk into some of the stores in California or Michigan or Colorado, the variety, the sophistication, the ways of consuming cannabis is completely different than it was five years ago. That has really made it a big impact on how stores have to present this product, educate their consumers, how they sell things. It has had tremendous impact on what we have to do as designers and what our clients need to be good with in their day-to-day operations.
Matt: If you were creating a retail environment, what are the first two big things that you feel like, "Hey, if you're going to get a few things totally right, focus on these two as the big things to get right in terms of design elements or architectural design or just what you see?"
Megan: I would have to say that the two most important things that any retailer should focus on first, especially if you can only really choose two things or your resources are limited, is your brand and your space plan. Those two things alone can really impact all decisions that come forward in either a positive or a negative way.
Matt: I'm not really fluent in the vocabulary of design, but I know when I go in some place and I don't like the-- I don't know, is the feng shui, feng shui? I never know how to pronounce that. I'm just like, "Gosh. I just feel like there's something in the way here and I can't get around it. I feel like I have to pivot and roll away or something. It just doesn't feel right," or, "I'm crapped or this barista table is to high." I don't know.
I don't have the vocabulary to describe it, but I know something is out of place. Let's look at the flip-side of this. What are the most common mistakes you see in retail design where you go, "Oh, wow. This happened again? These are mistakes people make over and over and over again that are avoidable"?
Megan: When we're talking about clients on a limited budget, this is actually often times where we'll bring up one of our services called a Retail Audit. It's a concept of spending a little bit of money for a consultation so that you can get some direction on where to spend the rest of your money. If you're working with a limited budget, you can very quickly invest those dollars in the wrong area and then need to spend more money to correct and fix.
Matt: Now, is there anything that owners are convinced or the business operators are convinced they needed in a retail environment but are a bad idea? Like, for example, if I wanted a huge chocolate waterfall or for a toilet made out of gold? Would you shy me away from that? I’m kidding. Is there anything that you feel like, “Gosh, they're kind of putting so much focus on this, but that's not the most important thing. Maybe they should be looking at lighting, or drawing people deeper into the dispensary, or something else?”
Megan: Categorically, no, because it is a challenge that has a lot of different variables, and oftentimes can be solved with a really creative balancing of things. Architecture can be such a huge factor in what this answer can kind of be. What works in somebody's space might not ever work for another person simply because of the shape of the space that they're working with.
It's a hard question to answer, I wouldn't say that there's categorically something that we've run into often that owners think they want, and we end up talking them out of. I would say, in general, we always approach store design from a brand-centric position. Your brand is really your guiding compass on decisions that you're going to make all throughout the design process and all throughout the operations of your store.
That brand can really tell us a lot because that brand is going to tell us things about who you are and how you operate, and who you want to serve, and what your tone, your style, or your personality, your voice is. We usually use those things as the driving principles around the design decisions that we help our clients make.
Because brand is different for everybody, it can really play out differently. That's where there really aren't any hard knows in design, except around things like building codes, stuff like that. It's definitely more of a conversation and marrying all of the different variables from architecture to brand, to security and regulations and budget into a solution that works for a client.
Matt: It's kind of a hard balance here. Because after you create this awesome design and you feel really comfortable with it, there might be a temptation to think, to stagnate, or to not experiment with the design. How do you allow for room for experimentation within a design? I'm thinking now about all these retail cannabis companies that they've overnight had to move to more a grab and go curbside pickup as being a bigger portion of their business. It's like, how do they experiment to make sure that's optimized for the best customer experience? Do you know what I mean? How do they allow for that improvisation to happen?
Megan: That's always a challenge of-- I think in a lot of ways, the day-to-day life of a retail operator is a lot of improvisation that comes across to the average customer, as careful choreography. Operating these stores is no small feat and there's so many moving parts in any retail business, especially this one, for sure. You bring up a good point, with COVID. It's a great example of, I think the point you're trying to hone in on.
That is how do we approach design, something that has to be built, installed, and somewhat static in an industry where things are constantly changing, pandemic aside. That is really always a trick. I don't know if I can say any of our designs are going to last to 10 years because that's just the pace of how quickly this industry is changing, and then how differently clients, businesses change in general.
We're always, hoping that our clients are being forthcoming with their future plans and kind of looking ahead really in that three, five, seven-time year timeframe, which seems to go by very, very quickly for a lot of people. We're wanting to adapt or build in adaptability with fixtures. We want to think through the pieces of the design the pieces of the program, on the pieces of the architecture that would be very difficult to change down the road, should things dramatically be different.
We have a lot of conversations about this around payment systems because I think that's going to be the next huge catalyst in cannabis retail and the biggest thing that's going to-- I think it's going to be the next biggest catalyst and a big thing to affect the retail environment is in the forthcoming change to being able to pay with credit cards, being able to pay for this online before you get to the store.
We see that in markets here and there on a small scale, but we are far from having that be an industry-wide standard. We have to just really approach flexibility with space planning with fixturing, with the mix of permanent architectural improvements, and things that can adapt day-to-day and be changed out year-to-year if needed.
Matt: The payments and touchless payments and so forth really will be a catalyst. I saw that Amazon filed a patent for technology that allows them to ship you products before you've even ordered them. I'm thinking, "How in the hell do they do?" Like, "What is that algorithm like? How do they know what I'm thinking about? Is it my behavior online?" It's like, "Where's this going? I'm just going to think about something that's going to arrive?" I don’t know. Maybe.
Matt: Let's move on to the designs phase, and also the drawings. You have everything done in drawings, it's easy to change things then. When you finally get the go-ahead to move forward and do the build-out, is there typically some challenges you run into? I would imagine, when you're working with contractors and so forth, and what kind are the typical challenges, then how do you surmount those things?
Megan: If you've ever done anything construction related, even a simple update to your powder room at home, you will know that construction is full of surprises. We have to set the expectation with clients that the construction process is not a linear one, especially when our clients are doing tenant improvements, or they're remodeling an existing space, that is definitely something that somebody has to go into expecting.
If your contractor or if your architect, if your designer hasn't had that real-life conversation with you, if they told you that everything is going to go perfectly, and they're the person who will ensure that there will never be a hiccup, turn around and run, because nobody has that power. This is really where communication, some expertise, and a little humility go a long way in your project team partners. Good communication is essential for design, for construction, and for the completion of these projects successfully.
In construction, there are pretty industry-standard ways of a project team communicating during construction, because architects have to be able to get their job done on the permitting, the construction documentation, the health and safety side of what is going to get built. That's their liability and their department, but they're usually championing or representing a design put forward by a designer, if all of these aren't coming from the same person.
A designer has to make sure the architect is fully on board and understanding of the design intent behind what the designer has put forward. Understands why things are where they are, why things are the way they are, and is really on board with wanting to fulfill the client's vision through the design that they have paid for.
Then you have the contractor. The contractor's main job, really is to build something on time and on budget. They're not that design professional, although a lot of contractors do have a good eye for design. Not all but some do. They're really the ones swinging the hammers, running into the things on the field, procuring a lot of the materials that are going to be installed and put into the space. They have an incredibly important role. It's really that general contractor where you can really have a lot of benefit on your project and really see some difference in your bottom line. If you're able to get some really good project management and administrative support from that general contractor that you use.
Of course, with anybody designer, or architect, contractor. Cup of coffee, you tend to get what you pay for and often time the added cost upfront of a project manager, a full-time superintendent on your project that is nothing compared to how costly it will be if your project doesn't get done on time. If changes come up in the field that aren't addressed properly. If things don't get built right and they have to be ripped out because there was a breaking communication between the project team.
All of those things can go wrong and do go wrong. It really comes back to communication, making sure everybody's on the same page, and having a project team that can work with each other and understands their roles, and how they can play a big role in recovery during the construction phase.
Matt: Budget is such a big part of the process, if you get the design wrong it affects so many things downstream in terms of the look in the field of construction so when I'm talking to a business owner or an investor about it, I really tell them-- You don't want to cut corners here because it's going to affect everything downstream and those changes tend to be more permanent than temporary, and you can get the wrong feel for your dispensary. It can feel like a Foot Locker instead of an Apple store, but at the same time, you don't want to needlessly spend." What's the right balance, what can you tell us about budget and build-outs?
Megan: Budget is such an important and difficult area around what we do and it can affect so many things. As I've mentioned, in some of the previous questions, there are so many different ways to go about choosing how to spend money in a retail space. I think one of the most important and valuable things that a design partner can bring to the table is helping try and figure out where to spend that money in a way that you're going to have some return on investment.
You do need to come to the table and you do need to come into this conversation as a client with a little bit of education around what this process is going to take. Professionals have to be involved up front to design, to document, to permit, to bid, to source everything before anybody is really even swinging a hammer and showing up on your job site. That's not just the design team that's involved in that process there.
Really getting a feel for the consultants and the professionals, you're going to need is a good place to start. If you find that your budget is too limited to even hire a full-blown project team and you're really going to need to limit yourself to potentially just a contractor or a contractor and an architect depending on the scope of the improvements you want to make. That's a really important thing to know because it's going to be hard to include a designer in that process if your budget can’t even stretch that far.
That being said, a couple of hours with the designer and consultation can really help give you some creative ideas and show you some ways to spend a limited budget. However, for the businesses that are going into this with some familiarity and are prepared to put some capital into their space, and are really looking for how to do this right and how to plan this accordingly, and are prepared to really line up that capital to do so.
Then we really get into questions of business model and business strategy, and of course, at the core of that business strategy is usually the retail brand. Again, even in the budget process, we're really trying to learn about the brand because the brand will inform so much about the caliber of design, the level of sophistication of the environment, how people are going to shop it, how the business is going to operate it, and that can really help have that next layer of a budget conversation.
If you're going to be a luxury retailer, you are going to be in a different category of budget than somebody who is trying to be more of a local value-driven mom and pop shop potentially. Brand can really tell us a lot. Also if your brand voice lends itself to something edgier, less sophisticated, potentially more youthful, more industrial, that's going to be a very different level of fit and finish and build out than, again, somebody who's really going for a more intimate upscale refined shopping experience.
In general, design is certainly a factor and can drive a budget significantly, but it truly is the starting point and only one factor in the overall equation for the retail development. You have to consider your real estate first and foremost. You have to understand from an architect and a contractor's perspective what money is going to have to go into that property just bring it up to code. Just to bring it to what we call a Vanilla Shell, which would be a finished space ready for branding, fixtures, custom finishes, I wouldn't even say custom finishes, but just anything about builder-grade type finishes.
That can be a big impediment in and of itself because we've gone down the path with clients who were moving into older, more historic buildings, where, even though they've got a designer or an architect and contractor all engaged from the project from the get-go, everybody's been on-site, everybody understands the site conditions that we can see. We still had to go back and do some major redesigns because once construction started, and they were actually able to open up walls and begin really examining structure and what was there.
They had to divert hundreds of thousands of dollars to things like structural enhancements, code changes, fire safety things. Those were things that even with all the planning and professionals around them that they had, these were things that really couldn't have been found until you got started on the construction. Design is an important factor in the beginning, but a lot of things can shift and a good consultation and a good project team around you can really help guide you from start to finish and kind of what budget expectations can be.
Matt: Yes. I think about when we were talking five years ago.
Megan: Yes. It seemed like the only consideration for, not the only, but most of the mindset was like how much THC per gram can I sell? That was top of mind for everybody because everybody always wanted THC and now I'm hearing what you're saying in brand voice and things like that it's just wow. It's really come a long way and I don't always appreciate it, but it truly has.
Let's move on to brand and talk about that a little bit. If you were starting a brand from just nothing, let's just say your own brand, your retail brand, how would you start to think about it? You're going out for a walk and you're thinking, "What do I want my brand to be? How do I want someone when they walk out of the store, how do they want that experience to be, they’d love to think about it?"
Megan: I like to use the analogy that branding is a lot like naming a child and thinking about the human that you might want to rear. You get to in a lot of ways influence what that is, but after a certain point, that brand is going to have a life of their own and the peers of the brand are going to truly come to define what that brand is. Then the onset, you want to be asking yourself questions about who you are, but also who you want to be. Who you serve, and who you want to serve.
Again, things I've mentioned like your tone and your voice, your style, your values, considering what you do is also important. I think the cannabis industry went through a phase over the last few years where we kind of swung this pendulum of wanting our businesses to not have any reference to cannabis at all. We didn't want it to use a pot leaf, a green cross, we didn't want to use canna, we didn't want to use green.
We wanted to make our businesses cannabis agnostic almost for the sake of blending in with our communities, feeling normal, attracting a mainstream consumer, and rebranding what cannabis had always been in front of everybody. We're really starting to see the swing back to that and that's why I really say, thinking about what you do as you form your brand, I think you do have to make sure that you form a brand that can somehow be recognized and signify what you do. It is helpful to have some association, some reference, something that can make some sense to a consumer, especially in a landscape like cannabis right now, where competition is so wide and people are now exhausting this whole, "We don't have anything to do with cannabis." People are swinging back and wanting their brands to be a little bit more associated and a little bit more representative of the fact that "Hey, we do sell pot."
Those are a lot of the things that we get our clients thinking about at the beginning of the branding process. Because the goal isn't just to create a brand that our clients personally like, the bigger goal is to create a brand that's going to be successful in the marketplace, that's going to speak to the type of customer that you want to attract, that's going to represent your business in a way that serves your business's interests, which oftentimes truly are different from your personal interests.
Those are really the starting points for really crafting that brand identity. We use answers to those questions and the strategy behind them to build a visual identity system, choose a name, signify materials that work for the brand, ways of customer service that have to be reflected and accommodated in the design and the layout, and the fixturing. That truly is our starting point for everything that the business is going to need to grow into from there.
Matt: When you think about your client base and the ones that have done things well, where they take their brand and translate that well to online, in terms of social media and they're what you said earlier, the brand voice on social media, so it resonates in the same way as the physical location. Is there any that stick out in your mind and the way that they do that and how do they do that?
Megan: One that always sticks out to me, it's a client that we're just infinitely proud of for the business they operate, and who they've become is Maitri, M-A-I-T-R-I. You can find them on Instagram @maitrimedicinals. They're a brand based in Western Pennsylvania, and they've put a lot of effort into building their brand presence on social media, as well as in the community.
They've been heavily involved in many different community organizations. They've activated their brand in apparel and merchandising that has really taken off in the most viral way. They've done a great job. When you go to their social media platforms, you can't help but see it.
What's interesting about them is given the regulations in Pennsylvania, they're really only allowed to use their social media as an education tool. They can't talk about specials, they can't talk about sales. Everything that they post has to go through an approval process prior to it going online. There's a lot of strategy that they have to put into this to do it well. Again, you will instantly see how well they truly do it.
From their brand standard photography to the cycle they take of, not only talking about their staff and sharing personal stories about their own staffs' medical use of cannabis and how cannabis has changed their lives via their blog, but they also share everything they're doing in the community, all the ways they're getting involved. They've really helped make it be known that cannabis retailers can be a true pillar in their community and truly walk the walk and talk the talk when it comes to being a wellness-focused community-centric business.
Matt: Just as we evolved so much in the last five years since we talked, Megan, where do you think things are going in the next five years, so we can stand on the curve? I know you have no crystal ball, but I think it's much better than anybody who's listening as crystal ball. We're listening intently here.
Megan: The next five years. Oh my goodness. I think we're about ready to see some, some even bigger shifts than we've already been seen. I recently saw a quote from Jeff Bezos from, I think it was 1999, and he very succinctly in two, maybe even three, I don't even think it was three sentences, basically said, and I will paraphrase that, "By the year 2020 retailers either have to offer a damn good experience or a damn good product, or else they will lose their sales to a digital world."
That I think is the reality that us in the cannabis industry are soon going to truly begin grappling with in the way that so many of our retail peers in other industries have already had to start figuring out. I think that this is a good thing. I think that your average cannabis company is capable of being very highly successful in a digital world.
I think that the role that this now leads the dispensary to being able to play is going to allow for even more creativity and innovation because these dispensaries are going to have to be experiential brand centers and they're going to have to really showcase products in a way that puts them on a pedestal and shows them for all the beauty that they hold.
That I think is going to bring some really great opportunity to us as designers, both on the customer side of the retail space, but in putting some good creativity and some business-minded strategy behind how we develop the back of house for our clients. It comes back to that space plan and that brand that we've talked about at the beginning of our call. Those two things are going to continue to play such an important role in store development going forward.
The balance of these things is going to change. Space planning, I think in the future is going to be a lot less about accommodating really high volumes of traffic in the front of house and more about accommodating high volumes of order fulfillment through different channels in the back of house. Did I say that the wrong way around? [laughs]
Matt: No, you said it the right way.
Megan: I was like, "Did I say back of house or so?"
Matt: We're going to curbside online ordering and less through the front door, as you might think. Yes, exactly. That makes a lot of sense.
Megan: Or even delivery. Delivery is one of these things that isn't all as a guarantee. When we are interviewing clients and learning about their businesses, I would still say about half are allowed delivery, and half are still waiting for it to be permitted. That's another thing that can be a big game-changer if you've allocated space to really operate that
Matt: Good points. Megan, I want to turn to some personal development questions. Is there a book that's had a big impact on your life or way of thinking that you'd like to share?
Megan: Yes, there are two books that I feel still provide the undercurrent to how Meghan Stone operates. Professionally with what I do in retail design, I am always amazed with how much Paco Underhill's Why We Buy book has really influenced and provided such a basic core knowledge around so many decisions and ways of approaching and looking at the retail space and consumer behavior.
That is still the book that when I hire people onto my team, if they haven't read it, I buy them a copy so that they can read it. It's just a really great reminder of the fact that, at the end of the day, stores are about spaces that humans move in and make a purchase in. There's a lot of complexity around that. That's always a book that I like to circle back to and constantly reference in my memory.
Personally, I think my adult life has been most influenced by The Secret, the adaptation of the principles of the law of attraction that came out probably 10 or 15 years ago now. I feel like as a young adult, when I first started studying the law of attraction and the science behind how your thoughts truly create the reality around you. I feel like that was a personal game-changer for me and something that I constantly have to come back to in my adult life and remind myself of-- One of the things that every time I do, I'm always proven that it is a true science and something to never forget.
Matt: Great points. Boy, have you attracted into your life a lot of what you wanted, your business has really grown and flourished over the last five years. What about, what's the most interesting thing going on in the cannabis space besides what you're doing at High Road?
Megan: There's a lot of interesting stuff going on in cannabis. I think generally, just the extreme pace of development and I think the spread of adult-use cannabis is for all of us, who've been in this industry for a minute or longer, just a source of constant surprise. It's weird that we've almost gotten used to seeing states pass these measures on their own nowadays, whereas such a short time ago, the amount of lobbying, the amount of marketing, campaigning, political ambassadorship that had to be done to change public perception was nothing short of a small miracle.
Here in Arizona, we're getting ready to see our medical cannabis market transition into direct sales. Seeing it really happen in my own household and in my backyard is definitely keeping me and my local proximity pretty excited. This has been a medical market with limited licenses, but pretty liberal qualifying conditions. It's been one of the most interesting markets from that standpoint to just watch grow over the last few years even as it's only been medical.
The transition of seeing it go rack given the tourism economy that's here, the population growth that Arizona is going through, and the way that they've structured the recreational law to still keep it a limited number of licenses and a little bit of control over the spread of the industry, I think is going to be a really interesting thing to play out. That's just Arizona. I imagine that every state that passed laws back in November also has the same very interesting nuances and things to look forward to over the next five years.
Matt: Megan, as we close, can you just remind business owners, investors, the services you provide and how to find you?
Megan: Absolutely. High Road is pioneer and premier provider in the US of cannabis design services. Whether that's retail interior design or brand identity, packaging, and apparel design services. You can find us and more about our business and our past work on our website. It is highoadstudio.com and that is High, spelled H-I-G-H, of course. You can also follow us on Instagram @highroadstudio.
Matt: Well, Megan, thanks so much for coming on the show. Really appreciate it and I can't imagine what this industry is going to look like if we wait another five years before our next interview. Good luck to you in 2021 and all the best.
Megan: You as well, Matt. Thank you so much.
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