To stay competitive in a growing industry, you have to carve out your space and determine early on what makes your business unique. With so many new retailers entering the market, you need to know your clientele and know how to cater to them. The relationships you build with your customers will always set you apart from your competition.
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 Hunny Gawri.
Hunny Gawri is the owner and CEO of The Hunny Pot Cannabis Co., the first legal cannabis retailer to open its doors in Toronto, Canada earlier this year. Since the store’s opening, with the help of his team, Hunny has built The Hunny Pot into one of the city’s most recognizable retail brands, helping to define the cannabis retail landscape in Canada and positioning himself as a leader in the industry.
A serial entrepreneur, Hunny has worked in many industries, from tech to real estate, and is drawn to new challenges in emerging markets. He is passionate about responsible retailing, customer education, and the future of the cannabis industry.
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?
Before entering the cannabis retail industry, I wore many hats as a retail owner and real estate broker. When I graduated from high school, I started my journey as an entrepreneur by opening a pair of cell phone shops right out of high school. My passion for entrepreneurship then led me to real estate, where I became a broker at one of the top brokerages in Canada and eventually started a brokerage of my own. From there, I opened an indoor kids playground with my family. I’ve always had a knack for entrepreneurship, and was able to pursue several different paths as a result. That’s what eventually led me to the newly legalized cannabis industry.
After cannabis was officially legalized in Canada, there was a lengthy discussion about how retail would be rolled out across the country. For the province of Ontario, it was decided that a lottery system would determine who would receive a retail license. Anyone could enter, and the licenses would be distributed across different regions in the province. I knew this was not just something you could “win”, but an opportunity to do something meaningful in an emerging industry, and to do it the right way.
I took the plunge and entered the lottery. Despite not knowing if I would get a license, I was excited by the prospect of building something new, in a completely new industry. After receiving the license, I knew I had to put together a strong team of people who were equally excited about creating a unique and influential brand in a soon-to-be growing industry. As a team, we developed a plan to ensure we opened on time, and once our doors were officially open, we were able to hit the ground running.
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?
It’s been interesting to see how welcoming the cannabis industry and community is. Having worked in many different industries, it’s rare to come across the kindness we’ve experienced since opening The Hunny Pot. People have been incredibly friendly, helpful, and supportive, wanting us and the retail industry as a whole, to succeed.
Everyone is passionate about what they do, and that’s reflected in the quality of work they’re doing to move the cannabis industry forward.
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?
When we were first getting started, we took a lot of basic aspects of our business for granted. From setting up a bank account and getting a credit card, to figure out email marketing, we thought these would be the easiest things to get out of the way before we opened. It’s funny how difficult it was to find banks and businesses that would work with us, given the industry we were entering.
Despite being a legal business, we had no idea how hard it would be to set up basic business services. We were lucky enough to find great people to work with, but it was more of an uphill battle then we had initially expected.
We realized, someone will eventually work with you, you just may need to search a little harder than you normally would.
Are you working on any exciting projects now? How do you think that will help people?
Right now, we’re opening our second location in Burlington, Ontario! We’re incredibly excited to grow The Hunny Pot brand and this second store is just the beginning of our plans for expansion.
By expanding The Hunny Pot brand, we’re able to provide new communities with access to safe and regulated cannabis. We’re able to educate new audiences on responsible consumption and better inform consumers on the products available. With more stores, we’re able to better promote responsible retailing and lead by example in the industry by extending our reach.
We’re also working on implementing several environmental initiatives over the next year, including introducing biodegradable shopping bags, installing a rooftop bee farm, and selling merchandise that’s sustainably made in Canada. Our goal is to run a sustainable business and encourage other cannabis retailers to do the same.
We’re expecting 2020 to be a big year for The Hunny Pot, and the cannabis industry in Canada as a whole, with lots of exciting changes and developments on the horizon.
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?
This is a tough one. I don’t believe there’s just one person I can attribute my gratitude towards. Before opening the store, I ensured I hired the best and brightest to be a part of our team. I know I’m not an expert in everything, so I wanted to make sure our legal, communications, marketing, branding, and management teams were ready to go for our open. Your team is the sum of all parts, and I owe it to every individual who put in work around the clock to help open this team. We would not be here today without them.
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?
In Canada, the marketing of cannabis is highly regulated. As a result, cannabis retailers have needed to get creative with building their brand and connecting with their audiences. Taking into consideration the rules and regulations around the promotion of cannabis, the best way for Canadian cannabis retailers to attract new customers and build brand recognition is through earned media, engaging content creation, a strong social media presence, and word-of-mouth, grassroots marketing.
This means creating a memorable customer experience and building relationships in-store, while also finding creative ways to reach new audiences outside of the store. This includes strategically partnering with other brands and organizations for events and product sponsorships, hosting cannabis education workshops, and contributing to charitable community initiatives. All of these actions help to positively position a brand and familiarize people with it.
It also means telling your story through different channels. When The Hunny Pot first opened, one of our main focuses was on building meaningful relationships with local and national media who were eager to cover cannabis. We knew that the best way to reach diverse audiences and share our story was through earned coverage in large national outlets, but also smaller-scale trade publications. We partnered with a public relations agency to help communicate what The Hunny Pot was all about and collaborated with writers interested in telling stories about the cannabis. We were able to effectively build brand awareness while still respecting cannabis marketing rules.
We also focused on our social media presence and sought to create a visually recognizable brand through the development of fun, unique, engaging content. We were able to connect with a community of people who were curious about cannabis and carve out a unique look and voice for our brand. Social media allowed us to test the digital waters and find out what kinds of content our community was excited about, experimenting with motion graphics and informational posts to determine what cannabis consumers responded to. Ultimately, we wanted to be compliant with the Canadian government’s rules, while still developing a strong, recognizable brand.
Can you share 3 things that most excite you about the Cannabis industry? Can you share 3 things that most concern you?
Right now, there are so many things to be excited about. The market is constantly changing and growing, creating new opportunities at every turn. New brands are being introduced across the province, showing that there’s not only a demand for more cannabis retail stores but also an interest in having an in-store shopping experience. Also, with recent changes made to the legislation, we’ll soon be allowed to sell products online and over the phone, for customers to pick up in-store. As legalization continues to evolve, we’re able to grow our business to better serve our customers.
As the industry continues to grow, and cannabis retailers become more commonplace, the hope is that there will be a reduction in the stigma associated with cannabis. Our goal has always been to create a safe and welcoming space for anyone to learn more about cannabis, and we’re hoping that can continue to be achieved with the introduction of more stores.
Another exciting thing happening in the industry is the introduction of new products to the market, including edibles, beverages, and topicals, and how these products will attract new audiences. These products are going to completely change how we educate our customers and share information, and will require our budtenders to become incredibly familiar with what kind of experience each product offers. It’s going to be a challenge, but one that we’re looking forward to tackling.
We are constantly having an internal conversation about how we can better work with our community to build a brand they can trust. With limitations to marketing online and offline, we need to be nimble and creative with how we communicate with our customers, which can be challenging day-to-day. We are always thinking about how we can make this whole experience better for the consumer.
The black market is also something that’s always on our minds. Not regulated, not enough education and far too accessible for underage individuals. As an industry, it is everyone’s responsibility to ensure the retail cannabis experience is a positive one, in hopes of encouraging consumers to buy their products legally. We must all operate responsibly to ensure all customers are of the legal age and receive an education on the products available in-store so they can leave more informed than they were before.
As much as it is something exciting, stigma is equally concerning to our industry. We are just a year into cannabis legalization, so we understand that eliminating negative perceptions of cannabis use will take time. We’re eager to collaborate with partners in other industries to help reduce stigma around cannabis and make it much easier to discuss, aligning our message with that of more widely-accepted brands and organizations. We will keep pushing this as a mandate for our team, but we urge partners to meet us half-way and listen to the great things happening in this industry.
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.
- The cannabis industry is incredibly fast-paced, but it will be a few years before it’s fully established. If you’re going to succeed, you’ll need to be adaptable and change with the industry. As new products, stores, and legal guidelines are introduced, all aspects of your business will need to change. You’ll need to be creative with how you display products, market your business, and build connections with your customers.
- To stay competitive in a growing industry, you have to carve out your space and determine early on what makes your business unique. With so many new retailers entering the market, you need to know your clientele and know how to cater to them. The relationships you build with your customers will always set you apart from your competition.
- When you first open, make sure you have more capital than you think you need. Everything in the cannabis business comes at a premium, and since the market is still new, it will be nearly impossible to have a firm grasp of your costs ahead of opening.
- Your business is only as strong as the team supporting it. Make sure you spend time hiring the best people and provide them with the tools and resources to keep learning and developing as they go. My business success could not have been achieved without our amazing team.
- The cannabis industry is incredibly welcoming, so don’t be afraid to ask questions to other business owners and get advice on the industry. We’re all here to help one another and make sure the industry continues to grow and thrive. The resources you’ll need are out there, you just have to find the right people to provide a bit of guidance.
What advice would you give to other CEOs or founders to help their employees to thrive?
I think it’s incredibly important to foster an environment for continued learning. In a new industry, no one has all the answers. We’re all learning on the fly and working hard to ensure our knowledge and experience is passed on to our customers.
Leaders need to show their employees that they are also part of that learning process. Asking questions and sharing new information will help everyone to grow and succeed together. For cannabis retailers and retail employees, this means listening and speaking to one another about what’s going on in the industry, connecting and building relationships with others who work in cannabis, and getting involved in conversations happening in the industry to stay ahead of the curve.
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. 🙂
Since opening, The Hunny Pot has been active in fighting stigma associated with cannabis use,creating a beautiful, safe, and welcoming space for those looking to learn more about cannabis. We continue to educate our customers, and take an active role in the community to demonstrate the positive aspects of cannabis legalization.
As the industry continues to grow, and as cannabis use becomes more common, the stigma will begin to fade, but we need to ensure we’re normalizing it whenever possible. We need to continue to educate others and address the concerns and misinformation associated with cannabis consumption in a positive and constructive way.
What is the best way our readers can follow you on social media?
Follow us on Instagram @thehunnypotcannabisco.
This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for joining us!