Nontraditional marketing will be more important than you think — because Facebook and Google are very tricky when it comes to advertising cannabis products, you won’t have access to channels that most new businesses rely on for growth. From the start, you need to have a marketing plan that doesn’t rely on these paid channels and a unique hook to get consumers excited about what you’re doing (beyond the fact that it’s in the cannabis space).
As a part of my series about strong women leaders in the cannabis industry, I had the pleasure of interviewing Ashley Lewis and Meredith Schroeder of Fleur Marché.
An elevated cannabis shopping experience for women, by women. Fleur Marché is for everyone out there who is curious about cannabis, but not sure where to start. The Sephora of cannabis, Fleur Marche is a beautifully-designed e-commerce platform that curates only the most premium CBD products and provides an experience that is intuitive, delightful, and easy for beginners. Created by former goop directors who have a history of building wellness experiences for women both on and offline, Fleur Marché is the intersection of exceptional CBD products, education, and community in one trusted space.
Co-founder and CEO Ashley Lewis is a seasoned brand strategist with a proven record of translating concepts into revenue-driving businesses. Before Fleur Marché, she launched the wellness business vertical at goop, overseeing the launch and roll out of goop’s acclaimed vitamin line as well as the growth of its clean wellness shop (it was there that she first became obsessed with CBD). Prior to that, she was at ClassPass where she launched the Los Angeles business as the LA GM and subsequently oversaw the business development function, working on partnerships with Nike, Reebok, Sweetgreen, Outdoor Voices, and others. She began her marketing career at Mattel as a brand manager on the Barbie Global Brand Team, working on the fashion & beauty business. Ashley has an MBA from the Stanford Graduate School of Business and a BA in Communications and Political Science from the University of Pennsylvania.
Co-founder and CCO Meredith Schroeder has extensive merchandising experience in building and scaling retail platforms for female consumers and is a veteran at curating and building fashion brands for women. Prior to Fleur Marché, Meredith ran the fashion business vertical at goop, encompassing the buy strategy for third-party contemporary and luxury brands, and served as the lead merchant on goop’s own private label brand. Under her management, goop’s fashion business was the largest vertical, inclusive of RTW, Activewear and Accessories, growing over 3X in revenue within two years. Before goop, Meredith was deeply entrenched in retail businesses spanning mass retail (Macy’s), vertically integrated wholesale businesses (BCBG), e-commerce fast fashion (Nasty Gal), and concept luxury retail stores (Maris Collective).
Built on an ethos of quality and transparency, Fleur Marché has a stringent vetting process for its featured brands, each one of whom submits sourcing and testing documentation to verify the quality and purity of its products. The result: consumers can trust that every brand and product sold on Fleur Marché is thoroughly tested and safe.
Feel good, be WELL.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit more. Can you tell us a bit about your “backstory”? What led you to this particular career path?
Neither of us ever thought we’d be working in cannabis. We were each stereotypical victims of bad pot experiences in our younger years — one of us encountered the proverbial “bad brownie,” the other had some traumatic experiences trying to figure out how exactly a bong worked — who since had sworn that we’d never smoke weed again. Years later, as executives at goop, where we were immersed in the world of alternative wellness, cannabis found its way back into our headspace and shockingly to each of us, we each ended up experimenting again. Ashley was first introduced to CBD as she began to evaluate it as a potential product to sell and work with in product development. Meredith rediscovered it in a dispensary in Aspen that her husband dragged her into when she found herself with horrible period cramps and no Midol (or wine) in sight. We realized that cannabis was a completely different thing than we remembered. Not only had it evolved in terms of quality and format, but also in terms of function — gone were the days of just smoking to get high, suddenly you could eat a gummy to go to sleep, use a lotion to ease sore muscles or add some CBD infused oil to your coffee to manage stress. We essentially rediscovered cannabis, and specifically CBD, as a veritable wellness tool that was helping each of us in pretty meaningful ways. But, at that point in 2017–2018, most mainstream consumers still weren’t really aware of that. At goop, we were up close and personal with women who were pretty adventurous in their wellness choices…until you said the word cannabis. They had the same preconceived notions that we did, so we set out to help change that and, in the process, help women discover a new way to feel better.
Our mission was twofold — first, we needed to convince women to shed their long-held stigmas about who uses cannabis (stoners) and why (to get high), and instead introduce them to CBD, something that could help them with the daily wellness needs that plagued them most (namely: sleep, anxiety, pain, and skincare). Then, we needed to give them an elevated, beginner-friendly, beautiful platform where they would feel comfortable going to discover and learn about the wide range of CBD products available to them. Finally, we needed gain their trust by only offering the very best CBD brands and products available. And thus, Fleur Marché was born.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
The most interesting challenge since starting the company has certainly been the fact that the first 10 months of our company were spent growing 3 babies, instead of the 1 we had planned on. Right before our official launch, we both got pregnant…within 3 weeks of each other. In that time, we pulled off a pretty sizeable pre-seed fundraise, built and launched a website, created a makeshift warehouse from which we shipped every single order, took our business on the road for in-home trunk shows across the country — at 6 and 7 months pregnant we were a pretty hysterical sight, lugging suitcases full of CBD on and off planes, up and down 4-story walkups, in and out of cars — and figured out how to build a brand name that people were talking about. The key lessons were really 1) don’t do that again and 2) if you are determined and passionate enough, you really can do anything. Even now, looking back at that time and what we were able to accomplish feels like an impossible feat, but while we were in it, it was just one foot in front of the other. We had no option but to keep pushing forward and, in the moment, we really weren’t thinking about how hard it was (save for a healthy number of laughing and crying fits), just that we had to get it done.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
We definitely dove headfirst into the fundraising process before we fully understood what we were doing. After we figured out roughly how much money we thought we needed, we leaned on smart friends in VC to recommend the right investment vehicle and a framework for thinking about our valuation. Then, armed solely with those numbers, we went out and started having investor conversations. Our relative lack of understanding of the ins and outs of raising money for a startup was apparently quite obvious because in one of our very first conversations, the potential investor ended the call by politely declining to invest and recommended that we find ourselves a copy of “Entrepreneurship for Dummies.” It was a cringeworthy moment, but one that still makes us laugh. It was a good lesson about balancing our excitement and eagerness to get out there and start “breaking things” with the proper amount of research and preparation. It also taught us about resilience and our own ability to figure things out — after that conversation, we went on to raise a pretty meaningful amount of money from over 20 investors. ☺
Do you have a funny story about how someone you knew reacted when they first heard you were getting into the cannabis industry?
Our parents took a minute to sell the concept to for sure, especially in the early days when there was a lot of confusion between CBD and THC — most folks couldn’t really distinguish the two. But, any funny looks, reserved judgements, or second guesses were out the window once they started trying the products. The proof was in the pudding — better sleep, less pain, more calm…what’s not to like?
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?
Our very first investor believed in us almost before we believed in ourselves. Drew Baker, founder of LA-based creative agency Funkhaus, had worked with several cannabis brands and agreed to let us bounce ideas off him in our earliest stages of concepting what the company would be. One day, out of the blue and without us asking, he offered to give us our first check. And it was this show of confidence (and cash infusion) that gave us the guts to actually step off the ledge and give it a shot. He was the first person outside of ourselves or our families (who are completely biased) who helped confirm that we were on to something and that we were the right people to execute. PLUS, he was willing to put his money where his mouth was. We love him forever for that!
Are you working on any new or exciting projects now? How do you think that will help people?
We’re currently working on the most exciting project we’ve tackled since starting the company — the launch of our own product. As a CBD marketplace, we’ve spent the past two years evaluating other brands, learning about our customer and how she shops for and consumes CBD, and identifying the gaps in the current CBD market. Our product line is specifically designed to deliver on all the pain points that continue to frustrate CBD consumers and to make CBD feel more mainstream and approachable. As a company, our mission is to offer products that fuel the next generation of changemakers (both their minds and their bodies). We are lucky enough to be part of a generation of young people whose vision for the future and energy to drive change feels like a volcano just waiting to erupt. Our product is meant to support the dreams of these entrepreneurs, activists, and doers by making sure that they always feel their strongest, most focused, best rested and most energized.
Despite great progress that has been made we still have a lot more work to do to achieve gender parity in this industry. According to this report in Entrepreneur, less than 25 percent of cannabis businesses are run by women. In your opinion or experience, what 3 things can be done by a)individuals b)companies and/or c) society to support greater gender parity moving forward?
In terms of gender parity, it’s really about normalizing the concept of cannabis with more interested and curious female consumers, regardless of how they might choose to engage with it. Until recently, the cannabis industry was so male-dominated that there wasn’t a way for women to break in, either as operators or consumers. That’s all changing with new companies and brands who understand the value of the female consumer and who are building products and communications strategies specifically for her. The way to accelerate growing female participation in the cannabis industry is simply to get more women interested and invested in cannabis as something that’s relevant to their lives. At Fleur Marché, for example, we’re focused on converting the woman who has only ever seen cannabis as one thing — a way to get high — and who either isn’t interested in that or hasn’t historically enjoyed that. We work to help her understand that there are many different types of cannabis and many ways to consume it, so that you can really tailor your experience to whatever it is you want or need. For us, the goal is to help this woman feel comfortable and excited about engaging with cannabis openly and frequently — whether she’s a stay-at-home mom who needs an alternative to wine, an overworked executive trying to kick her sleep aid habit, or a menopausal Boomer who finds herself in constant pain. There are also other excellent female-run, female-focused companies out there working to normalize the stoner persona and let women know that it’s totally ok and, in fact, awesome if you just like to get high. We just need more of this kind of work all around. More companies thinking about how more women can engage with cannabis, more products developed to serve female users, and a wider spread appreciation for just how important women are to the long-term growth of the cannabis industry.
It also doesn’t feel right to have a conversation around gender parity without also having a conversation about the racial inequities that continue to cast a pall on the entire cannabis industry. The impact of the War on Drugs on Black lives has been one of the most glaring cases of racial inequity in our country. Between 2010–2018, Black people were 3.64 times more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession than White people, despite comparable usage (https://www.aclu.org/report/tale-two-countries-racially-targeted-arrests-era-marijuana-reform). The result is an inordinate number of Black men and women incarcerated for offenses that have since become legal. In many states, those arrests preclude them from legally participating in the cannabis industry even after they’ve served their time. The result is that White entrepreneurs and business owners in the cannabis industry continue to profit unfairly from the growing opportunities in cannabis, furthering the wealth and race gaps in our country. It’s a problem that desperately needs attention and support from cannabis companies large and small. Fleur Marché is a member of Cannabis for Black Lives, a group of cannabis companies dedicated to galvanizing support for Black led organizations and communities, amplifying Black voices in the industry and offering financial support and resources. And while we see this as a great jumping-off point, we know that we have much more to do, at the very least in helping to galvanize support and participation from other members of the cannabis space. From investors to brand partners to other retailers, we’d like to see 100% participation from all sides of the cannabis industry in service of this effort.
You are a “Cannabis Insider”. If you had to advise someone about 5 non intuitive things one should know to succeed in the cannabis industry, what would you say? Can you please give a story or an example for each.
- Payment processing could be the biggest barrier to getting your business off the ground — many new brands and businesses in the cannabis space think they can just build a website and start selling product. WRONG — cannabis is not federally legal and, while hemp is federally legal, many financial institutions remain confused about the laws, so it’s very difficult to find a bank and payment processor who will allow your eCommerce store to process payment. Companies that just put up a site and try to ignore this will eventually be shut down.
- Nontraditional marketing will be more important than you think — because Facebook and Google are very tricky when it comes to advertising cannabis products, you won’t have access to channels that most new businesses rely on for growth. From the start, you need to have a marketing plan that doesn’t rely on these paid channels and a unique hook to get consumers excited about what you’re doing (beyond the fact that it’s in the cannabis space).
- Supply chain can be complicated and nuanced. It’s an incredibly fragmented industry — and what the supply chain model looks and operates like in the various sectors isn’t like any ole CPG product. Be prepared for a steep learning curve, intense license requirements, and cash to invest in doing things properly, above board. Whereas in other industries cutting corners may be the norm, there’s really no room for it here.
- From the regulations to the science (and everything in between), there is still a ton of misinformation, and it’s hard to get to the core truth of things. With so many companies entering the space and no federal regulation in terms of product quality or safety, there are a variety of ways that brands are ensuring quality (or not) and a variety of different beliefs in terms of what how and if what forms CBD is or is not effective. To be effective in this industry, it’s important to do as much research as possible and be as informed as possible about how and why you’re making the choices you do in terms of product development, ingredient choices and quality standards. At Fleur Marché we’ve worked hard to streamline some of this work for the consumer by developing clear and rigid vetting standards to ensure that the products we offer are high quality, effectively tested and efficacious. We adopted our strict vetting process based on our past experience with product development in the supplement space — it’s very similar to the standards generally applied to any other botanical product that goes to market. We require a full panel suite of testing to show the product is free of toxic chemicals, heavy metals, and microbiological contaminants, in addition to complete with COAs from end-to-end (extract-to-finished product). We also require GMP certification (or equivalent) to ensure manufacturing practices are up to snuff. Lastly, in service fo full transparency, we post COAs for each product on our site, and expect our brands to do the same.
- Despite the fact that cannabis is an exploding industry, so much more education is still needed to get mainstream consumers comfortable. Consumers are more confused than ever about CBD, CBG, CBN, THC, the list goes on — especially with the rush to market we experienced largely in 2019 and 2020. The general lack of awareness of the science behind the therapeutic (and recreational) benefits of these cannabinoids is still a major problem, and barrier to entry. Gimmick-y products (a CBD sports bra is the perfect example) entering the space has created confusion on the efficacy of cannabinoids, and something most brands will have to fight to penetrate the noise.
Can you share 3 things that most excite you about the cannabis industry?
- Federal legalization is on the horizon! To date, 35/50 states have legalized medical marijuana and 15 states have legalized recreational use. And the incoming administration will be MUCH more friendly to cannabis than the outgoing one. President-elect Biden has already made promises to stop incarcerating people for consumption and possession, which is a big step in the right direction. Plus, there are bills pending in congress that target expungement of marijuana-related offenses and that give cannabis companies more access to banks and financial growth instruments. While none of this means that broad scale legalization is imminent, we’re closer than we’ve ever been before.
- The cannabis investment markets are opening up again. We predict that 2021 will be a big year for cannabis investment. After the boom and bust of 2018 and 2019, cannabis had a great year in 2020 as an essential good and business during the pandemic. In 2021, we expect to see a ton of consolidation, and a lot of growth with key companies being able to make a bigger impression on consumers nationally vs. being relegated to state boundaries.
- We’re still at the very beginning! Though cannabis has been around forever, were just now starting to make headway in terms of it being destigmatized and available to the general population. There is just SO MUCH OPPORTUNITY in terms of product innovation, medical research and the types of people and businesses who can benefit, both directly and indirectly, from a thriving, legalized cannabis industry.
Can you share 3 things that most concern you about the industry? If you had the ability to implement 3 ways to reform or improve the industry, what would you suggest?
- Social inequities — We mentioned above the serious issue of social inequality that faces the cannabis industry. Put again, more succinctly, it is the responsibility of every White-owned cannabis company to do their part in working to rectify this issue. Whether it’s partnering with organizations working to elevate Black voices, funding Black cannabis entrepreneurs, helping with national and local expungement efforts, or even launching internal DEI programs. There is so much to be done that companies of any size can participate — it does the whole industry a disservice to have the racial disparities that are so bluntly apparent in cannabis; it’s each of our responsibilities to improve the situation and push hard for reform.
- Timeline of legality — While we’re obviously very optimistic about and excited for national cannabis legality, and while it feels closer than ever, it’s still unclear when exactly it’ll be achieved. This creates a host of challenges for cannabis operators in terms of building and growing healthy businesses that are deemed legitimate, curbs potential for participation from mainstream investors (many VCs, for example, have “vice” clauses that bar them from investing in cannabis companies) and perpetuates the social issues discussed above. While we don’t have any brilliant reform ideas, our suggested improvement and plea to our national government would be to LEGALIZE CANNABIS NOW!
- Confusion about hemp CBD legality — unlike THC-based cannabis, the federal government has already legalized hemp-based CBD nationally. Unfortunately, the FDA has taken a contrary — but not altogether clear — stance with regard to ingestible CBD products not expressly approved by the department. The resulting confusion about CBD legality has really set the industry back in terms of investor confidence, CBD companies’ ability to market their products, and their ability to broker wholesale deals with large scale, national retailers. Again, the much-needed improvement here would be for the FDA to either take a clear stance or get out of the way.
What are your thoughts about federal legalization of cannabis? If you could speak to your Senator, what would be your most persuasive argument regarding why they should or should not pursue federal legalization?
- Very much in favor of legalization! For all the reasons noted above PLUS a few more:
- Cannabis has proven medical benefits that have now been recognized on both an international (United National, World Health Organization) and local (35/50 US states have legalized cannabis for medical use) scale.
- We’re wasting valuable state resources — namely police and prosecutors’ time — not only by focusing on victimless cannabis-related “crimes” but also by perpetuating the growth of a black market.
- Conversely, legalization would drive job growth and increase tax revenues, as proven by the states that have already legalized both medicinal and recreational use.
- Legalization only increases the safety of cannabis products for consumers by allowing the government to regulate and standardize growing, testing, production, distribution and advertising standards.
Today, cigarettes are legal, but they are heavily regulated, highly taxed, and they are somewhat socially marginalized. Would you like cannabis to have a similar status to cigarettes or different? Can you explain?
No — treating cannabis the same way that cigarettes are treated would be a step in the wrong direction. The trajectory of public understanding of tobacco and its risks has been one that went from positive to negative thanks to education and research. Thus far, we’re seeing the complete opposite trajectory for cannabis: the more we learn and understand about cannabis, the more positive benefits are surfaced. Cigarettes have been proven to cause cancer and lead to death whereas no research on cannabis indicates these kinds of life-threatening dangers, or anything close. On the contrary, current research shows numerous medicinal and therapeutic benefits that have already been proven and many for which more research is still needed. But all in all, the outlook is extremely hopeful in terms of cannabis’ potential to help people. While we believe that cannabis should certainly be regulated, as it can have negative effects when used improperly by consumers who aren’t educated about its risks, we believe those regulations should be more akin to those applied to the alcohol industry.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
“The best way to get started is just to get started.” An advisor said this to us early on and it helped light the fire that pushed us to start building our website. It’s advice that we still reference quite frequently — whenever a project feels daunting and certainly whenever we find ourselves unchartered territory. It reminds us not only to always keep moving forward and pushing into things that scare us, but also that we’ve figured out how to get something off the ground a lot at this point, and that once we take those first steps, it all gets much easier.