There Will Never be a Day Like the One You Just Had. Things move so incredibly quickly in this business that we typically liken them to dog years. The fact that Airfield has been around for a decade truly feels like it’s been 70 years instead of 10, so much has changed. We began to serve medical patients knowing that we’d be able to serve adult-use recreational customers some day, but we had no idea it would take so long to change and then move so rapidly. We’ve gone through multiple changes and iterations of our business, trying new things constantly working to improve our outcome and service. If you don’t like staying nimble and keeping on your toes, ready to pivot your plans sometimes monthly, don’t go into cannabis.
As part of my series about “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started Leading a Cannabis Business” I had the pleasure of interviewing Marc Matulich, founder and CEO, Airfield Supply Co.
Marc Matulich is the founder and CEO of Airfield Supply Company, one of California’s largest single-site, vertically-integrated cannabis retail dispensary and product businesses. Originally founding Airfield as a medical dispensary in 2010, Matulich was a pioneer in the medical marijuana retail market and has since expanded the business post-adult-use legalization to drive consumer adoption across in-store retail, e-commerce, and delivery. Matulich rebranded the company Airfield Supply Co. in 2015 in order to serve the then forthcoming adult use market.
Previous to the COVID-19 pandemic, Airfield welcomed 1,500 customers to its dispensary each day, 350 of whom had never been there before. With pandemic restrictions still in place, Airfield is limited to 1,300 customers in-store each day, which prompted Matulich to pivot to ambitious and successful delivery, curbside pick-up, and contactless ecommerce solutions.
Following a passion for bringing sustainability to the industry, Matulich leads Airfield’s house-grown craft flower brand Jetfuel Cannabis, which is available throughout California. In his role, he is responsible for business strategy and growth across cultivation, product development, in-store retail, e-commerce and delivery fulfillment. A leader in the cannabis industry for the past decade, Matulich holds a degree in Business Economics from University of California Santa Barbara.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you share with us the story about what brought you to this specific career path?
I was brought in to the cannabis industry by my passion for the plant, and a belief that cannabis can change the world for the better. I actually began growing my own supply in a closet while I was taking my undergraduate degree in business economics at UC Santa Barbara.
When I graduated in 2005, I could see the cannabis landscape clearly in terms of the possibilities. Being a regular user, it was evident to me that cannabis was going to come online in California in a big way. I put together a business plan to open a medical marijuana dispensary and in 2010, while working as a project engineer for a commercial construction company, I opened South Bay Healing Center (SBHC) which would evolve in 2015 into Airfield Supply Company. I’ve always been confident that this is the industry for me, and I’m gratified to have been proven right.
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?
Working in cannabis means that there is a new, interesting story every day! But one specific memory that comes to mind is January 1, 2018 — the first day adult-use cannabis sales were legal in California. It was a moment that had been so long in coming, to finally be able to open our doors to anyone 21+ and not just those who went through the costly and time-consuming efforts to obtain a medical card, was a really powerful moment and experience to be a part of. We had hundreds of individuals waiting, and thousands throughout the day, literally wrapping around the building and down the street, to be a part of it. The shared positivity and sheer spectacle of it is something I’ll never forget.
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?
Maybe not the funniest ‘haha’ moment, but at one of our early 4/20 events we first realized the incredible demand we would be facing on a daily basis later. After a few hours of managing long lines and large purchases we realized all the sudden that we did not have ANYWHERE NEAR enough product packaged and ready to go. So, without really thinking about it, all of us who could jumped on the processing scales and started frantically weighing out and labeling additional product to sell. We literally spent one of our busiest and most exciting days ever frantically tucked away, running around like crazy people, trying to keep more product on the floor every 15 minutes than we sold. It was a battle, but we did JUST ABOUT make it! I’ve never been more thankful to be vertically integrated. Lesson? Prep more than you would ever think you need.
Are you working on any exciting projects now? How do you think that will help people?
Yes, we have a lot going on, including the upcoming introduction of Airfield Getaway Bags, which are themed travel bags containing a mixture of “destination-inducing” edibles, capsules, sublingual’s, topicals, and flower-based products. It sounds simple, but it’s a huge product and technical lift and something we know consumers will love.
We also have a number of exciting news around product collaborations, non-profit partnerships, sustainability initiatives and roll-outs planned for Q4, none of which I can give too much away about yet so you will have to stay tuned.
And of course, in keeping with our founding as a medical dispensary, we are also excited to expand our compassion programs for those who might not otherwise be able to afford cannabis to help them with pain management. Keeping true to our origins is paramount to me and we have some very exciting news just around the corner.
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?
There have been several people, including employees, who have greatly contributed to the success of Airfield Supply Co. Notably, my parents have been great supporters. In 2010, they lent me the startup capital that I needed to get off the ground. I had 25,000 dollars of personal savings and a 25,000 dollars loan from them. Looking back, I cannot believe that I got started with only 50,000 dollars. It would be impossible to enter the market on that type of budget today. I had to continue working my day job in construction management for the first year and a half because I couldn’t afford to take a paycheck during that time. My mom even helped out by making some of our edibles in the early days. When we relocated in 2015, I also received significant support from my former construction employer. Airfield would not be what it is today without the contributions and support of those people.
This industry is young, dynamic and creative. Do you use any clever and innovative marketing strategies that you think large legacy companies should consider adopting?
Our chief marketing officer Chris Lane came to us last year having been the global head of brand for Fiverr, the wildly successful gig-economy startup. We worked with Chris originally in 2015 when we rebranded from SBHC to Airfield Supply Co. and he’s really helped us explore the conceptual territory that our name suggests, from the idea that cannabis offers the opportunity to take a journey to the look and feel of our store evoking the glamor days of travel, to the tagline, “High is a Place.” We always try to reinforce that, while we may be selling cannabis, we’re actually selling an opportunity to enhance your life. That concept needs to be as authentic as possible both so that our business succeeds but moreover, so that our customers are served as well as possible. We have a great time building that experiential approach to marketing, and pushing the boundaries of how we engage potential and current customers.
We’re located near the San Jose Airport here in California and, before the pandemic, we regularly served 1,500 customers in our dispensary each day, 350–450 of whom had never been there before. Since March 2020, we’ve been limited to allowing far fewer customers in our store so we’ve ramped up our expansion of eCommerce and delivery and marketing support behind those on-demand services. We already had four vehicles, many of them Teslas, before the pandemic. We bought eight additional units to enlarge our delivery fleet. We also launched mobile pre-installment with Treez Pay to institute their touchless, contactless pre installment system, which essentially ushered in cannabis’ ‘Amazon moment.’ Our customers can now use a one-click solution to order and pay for purchases which are then delivered in a safe, contactless way. We’ve also instituted a terrific curbside pick-up system to better serve customers in their cars.
I think that we’re the first cannabis dispensary to get approved for a takeover campaign Superbowl ad in the San Francisco Chronicle, which we did to cheer on our hometeam, the San Francisco 49ers, this January.
We are also working to bring our brand values to life, currently with a coalition around waste in cannabis packaging, looking for solutions and mitigation. Again, the details aren’t yet ready to release, but suffice it to say that this will be a wide-ranging and ambitious effort. We’ve had a lot of positive responses from the manufacturers we’ve approached about putting a stake in the ground around this issue. It’s difficult because California’s regulations are changeable and it has actually happened that just when you’ve finished spending a small fortune to comply with the most recent childproof packaging regulations, they get changed again and you have to start anew.
All of this supports our core conviction that we’re much more than just selling you a product. Airfield is here for your good moments and your bad ones, it’s here to support you and the community in which you live, and it’s here to build collaborative and collective strength in the cannabis industry, which is still battling in California for a variety of reasons but which will someday soon be a mighty economic driver on the level of the tech revolution or the media industry.
Can you share 3 things that most excite you about the Cannabis industry? Can you share 3 things that most concern you?
Cannabis excites me because:
1. It is poised to become an immense economic driver and employment machine. Just as alcohol sales helped to mitigate the damage of the Great Depression, so too can cannabis act as an extremely effective tool at combating the economic woes of the current Recession. I cannot wait for its power to become nationally understood and unleashed.
2. Leaders come from all backgrounds, and our industry must do even more. The cannabis industry is nascent, meaning that there is opportunity for anyone to participate at the highest levels and for them to forge a new path that will welcome and normalize their success — whatever their background, race, orientation or gender. It’s our job as an industry to maximize opportunities for everyone.
3. Cannabis has the ability to replace traditional opioid treatment that addict and kill. No one has yet been proven to take a fatal dose of cannabis; the worst thing that can happen is that you eat too much ice cream and fall asleep. I can’t wait to see all of the many health applications that we’ll be able to discover once cannabis is off the Schedule 1 list and federally legal.
Cannabis concerns me because:
(My point of view on this is strictly relevant to the situation in the state of California.)
1. California cannabis is heavily taxed. Taxes from seed to sale inhibit success and the acquisition — and distribution — of wealth. We are thankful to be able to run our business from very humble beginnings to decade-long continued growth due to incredibly conscious management, and many of my colleagues have been able to fund-raise, but what about that small business person who is unable to do either? Should they be precluded from taking part in and innovating within this industry? I don’t see why not. Again, this inhibition is robbing us of tax monies that would provide essential relief to our state during the pandemic and Recession.
2. California’s illicit market is still unfortunately flourishing. Legal compliant businesses like mine have to compete against a barrage of illicit dispensaries, marking a hugely unfair playing field and endangering California cannabis consumers who may not understand the difference. There needs to be a much lower bar to entry for retail ownership and a greater effort by the state and counties to squash illicit dispensary activity.
3. The lack of interstate commerce limits success. California traditionally supplies 80% of the cannabis consumed in the U.S. Of course, that’s not legal, but it’s a fact. California has always grown and dispersed its crop across the nation. With no interstate commerce laws in place for legal businesses, the industry is unable to earn our full potential and is awash in flower that it can’t place. There are so few dispensaries in California — less than 600 — that there is no legal outlet for the industry’s production.
Can you share your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started Leading a Cannabis Business”? Please share a story or example for each.
1. There Will Never be a Day Like the One You Just Had.
Things move so incredibly quickly in this business that we typically liken them to dog years. The fact that Airfield has been around for a decade truly feels like it’s been 70 years instead of 10, so much has changed. We began to serve medical patients knowing that we’d be able to serve adult-use recreational customers some day, but we had no idea it would take so long to change and then move so rapidly. We’ve gone through multiple changes and iterations of our business, trying new things constantly working to improve our outcome and service. If you don’t like staying nimble and keeping on your toes, ready to pivot your plans sometimes monthly, don’t go into cannabis.
2. Even Something as Simple as Processing a Transaction can be Exhausting.
Because we don’t have access to federal banking, our industry has to be very complicated with its finances. It’s been particularly glaring during the pandemic as the cash is actually physically dirty and puts our employees and customers at risk when they handle it. We have been successful in expanding installment options, but it’s a constant source of effort.
3. Cannabis isn’t as Glamorous as Some Make it Appear.
This industry is growing at the speed of light and keeping up with it requires that you be down in the trenches with your sleeves rolled up doing whatever is necessary to make it work each day. When the pandemic first began and demand was at the highest point I’ve yet experienced, I spent days in the stock room with other members of the executive team literally filling bags with delivery and pickup orders for customers.
4. Growing Well is Hard, No Matter the Size.
While perhaps the thing many people have had experience with prior to starting a business, I remain surprised at the variables and challenges of raising thousands of plants on a daily basis. We have an incredibly talented cultivation team led by our Chief Cannabis Officer Noah Sweeters, but cannabis is a very reactive plant and responds sensitively to its environment. We work hard to keep our plants happy and growing productively and it’s something we take great pride in.
5. Good Is Definitely Never Good Enough.
I’ve heard a lot of people ask, did you just open the doors and sit back and wait for the customers to pour in? But, that’s not anywhere close to the truth. Rather, this remains an extremely competitive industry for retailers and you must stay on the front foot, anticipating your customers’ needs sometimes even before they seemingly know them and meeting them just a step ahead. We really saw that in March during the start of the pandemic when we couldn’t have the number of guests in the store we were accustomed to and had to immediately change course to meet them where they were — at home. I don’t think we’ll ever turn back from that. It was always going to happen, we were always going to scale a really robust order and delivery system, but the pandemic just kicked that into instantaneous overdrive. I’m always looking for the next way to improve. I don’t believe there is an end to that search.
What advice would you give to other CEOs or founders to help their employees to thrive?
Give them a chance to succeed. Our employees are our brand ambassadors and we try to treat them with the greatest respect and reward them fairly and well. Particularly since the pandemic began, we recognize that our public-facing workers are front-line heroes. We gave everyone who interacts with customers a temporary 20% raise immediately and allowed employees to make personal decisions about their working schedules to best suit themselves and their families. We also offer a matching 401k, which is fairly rare in this world. As soon as the pandemic began, we started ordering in food so that everyone at work had a free meal and had one less chance to be exposed to the virus when trying just to buy some lunch. We rely on our drivers and budtenders and cultivation experts — the whole big team — to bring our values to life and keep our customers returning and in order to keep them, we are constantly innovating to support and reward them.
You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂
Normalizing cannabis. I’m looking forward to the next 10 years when cannabis applications are found across the board in remedies, food and beverages, topicals, pain relievers, anxiety applications, and more. This plant has so many ways to make us healthier and happier. The human body is literally filled with thousands of cannabinoid receptors that interact with this plant. By mischaracterizing it for so many years, we missed out on decades of learning the full breadth of its power. Something that affects the general population in a positive, healthful way that promotes happiness and compassion — why wouldn’t we want to embrace it?
What is the best way our readers can follow you on social media?
I’m fairly private, but our @airfieldsupply account on Instagram is something I’m truly proud of. Our team does an amazing job capturing the brand and the values of our customers through that content. Check us out!
This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for joining us!