Thomas Hobbes famously stated that life can be “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short.” Hobbes could have well been predicting the state of the 21st century cannabis industry, with all its brutishness and nastiness. But we hope this article puts us in solidarity with you and other cannabis business owners, mitigating the solitude, and we hope our advice results in your experience in cannabis being neither poor nor short.
1. BUDGET FOR THE UNKNOWN
Do not forget to budget for the “Oops, we forgot about…” In our prior article we emphasized understanding the revenue and expense cycles of the particular verticals you operate within (grow, processing, retail, etc.) and to pull them together into a pro forma. Almost every significant expense line will have unanticipated situations come up.
Let’s say you are designing an indoor grow and you are ready to install all your lighting and air management equipment. Your electrician says you need to upgrade the electrical capacity to handle all the equipment you identified. This could easily be a $50,000 additional expense.
Or, as another common example, labor expenses are often underestimated and can drain your cashflow before you start monetizing your crop. If, for example, you are delayed in planting your crop or processing by only a few months, your payroll budget still needs to cover the people you already hired. When doing your pro forma, and before you give any rosy scenarios to investors, it is best to add an additional six months of payroll expense as a “contingent payroll cost” (aka cover your assets (CYA)).
Another consideration for extraction operations: You will be working with highly tuned pieces of equipment that do wear out. A failed compressor, pump or chiller can easily take your machine down for a day or two—which is precious processing time. Budget cash to purchase extra key components to keep on hand—items that may otherwise have to be ordered or reconditioned before you can again get up and running.
2. VERIFY ALL INPUTS INTO YOUR DECISION MAKING
In our prior article we warned against trusting experts; you can apply that idea to your actual decision making.
Everybody is eventually wrong at some point in their cannabis journey. We’d even go so far as to say everybody will be wrong in a very big way at least once. “Everybody” not only includes you, but less intuitively, this lesson includes everybody else internal and external to your core management team. Be very careful of internal and external sources of expertise that advise by assertions. Assertions are dangerous, because if they are delivered with a sense of certainty you may just believe them if you trust the person providing the assertion. People who operate by assertion usually know less than they assert (a term for this, coined by authors Peter Boghossian and James Lindsay in their book “How to Have Impossible conversations,” is the “Unread Library Effect).
All information going into your management team’s decision making needs to be verified and re-verified. One of your best management skills is that of a highly skilled journalist. Such journalists try to have more than one source for their information—they corroborate the information they receive.
3. DON’T AVOID BORING ADMINISTRIVE TASKS
Paperwork and administrative activities can become boring. It takes a special individual to be wired for the constant battle of fighting back against burial by paperwork. It is all boring until the moment there is a problem—then suddenly an existential crisis makes paperwork the opposite of boring. Crisis can include compliance issues around licensing, track-and-trace systems, accounting, payroll, insurance of all kinds, property taxes, payroll taxes, income taxes, warranties, standard operating procedures (SOPs), contracts of all kinds, on and on and on.
When companies start out, they necessarily put paperwork related to some of those areas on the back burner. They say: “Why do we need SOPs? It is just me and my buddies. We’ll get to that later.” Or, “Insurance in cannabis is so expensive, we’ll probably never need it.” Well the fallacy of that position has again been cast in the spotlight given all the recent fires in the Western states. How many times have you heard someone say they are operating on a handshake deal? How many times do you think these deals work out? Answer: practically never.
One of the most valuable individual(s) you will add to your team is someone with administrative skills. These will be dedicated individuals or key management members who take on the admin duties. Consider them the frontline workers of your company. The company will not exist in the future if all the administrative stuff is not complete. Don’t let the avalanche of paperwork bury your business.
4. STOP ADVOCATING FOR FEDERAL LEGALIZATION RIGHT NOW
There is incessant talk about federal legalization needing to happen immediately. But we believe that when federal legalization does come, the floodgates of competition will open. Especially if you are a small or mid-size cannabis company, you need as long a runway as possible to get on solid footing and to make yourself a survivor, either as a contender to buy other firms or as a target of a purchase. Each state has struggled with getting legalization correct. While you are dealing with these challenges, you don’t need an overlay of federal challenges to your survival.
So, what do you advocate for? Advocate for decriminalization, not federal legalization. Advocate for the repeal of IRS Tax Code Section 280E.
Finally, we should all be advocating for the expungement of past criminal records related to cannabis on principle alone.
5. WHAT KIND OF BUSINESS STRUCTURE SHOULD YOU BUILD?
This is the kind of question that can be hard to ask yourself, especially if you have your heart set on only being in retail or being “the best grower” ever or geeking out permanently with your buddies extracting oil and distillate and hoping to scale to stay in business. Our admittedly biased opinion is that you have to build some kind of vertically integrated intrastate business.
We don’t have the perfect template, but we define a vertically integrated cannabis business as one in which you are in at least three verticals. For example, you have a grow, a processing division and a retail outlet. Or maybe you have a grow, a distribution business and an intellectual property licensing business. The idea is that each business has its own revenue cycle (see our previous article) and the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. With multiple opportunities to capture margin, why risk everything on one market segment?
Say you own a grow operation and you can wholesale your flower at $1,500 per pound. Let’s assume you don’t have any commission charges for distribution. Now, if you owned a retail shop, you can sell that same pound of flower, broken down into 1/8ths for double or triple the $1,500. You also could create and sell your own oil and distillate without the tolls charged by contracting such services.
We can go on and on with examples, but the important idea is to think through what the long term game plan is. As we noted above, we believe federal legalization will be an extinction event for most cannabis companies. By being vertically integrated and managed well you will become a target for purchase by a much larger firm; or you become a target for investment allowing you to scale your dream. Long-term, there will be standalone firms in each vertical, we grant that outcome. But the standalones will be so large they will basically be part of oligopolies in each vertical. They will serve their purpose, but they won’t create much diversified value. We believe more value will be created per dollar invested in a vertically integrated company than a vertical one only and vertical integration will increase your survival odds.
6. BE AWARE OF WHIZ BANG TECHNOLOGY
Automation, smart devices, artificial intelligence, sensors, remote controls, etc., are all great ideas, and in a perfect world you would have an unlimited budget to try out all these productivity- touting applications. However, balancing the appeal and benefits of technology with your financial bandwidth is essential. As is exploring any technology’s long-term viability. Choose your initial equipment wisely. Do your due diligence and talk to actual people who are running the equipment you are looking at to learn about benefits and any specific issues with the equipment.
We offer these lessons as the result of our own learning curve. Cannabis is susceptible to the “shiny object syndrome” in that it is easy to get distracted by activities and business deals that are not core to your long-term success. This industry is a slog. The more the slog you endure, the stronger and deeper you build the foundation of your business and elevate your chances for success. As we noted in our prior article, we touched upon the concept that a chain of objective successes is the result of a multiplication of probabilities. And learning from others is the cheapest way to increase any and all of your objectives’ probability weightings.
Loren Picard is CEO at High Desert Flower Inc. in Oregon.
Andrew Olsson is vice president at High Desert Flower Inc. and is the co-founder of Engineered Extracts LLC, also in Oregon.