Recruiting, Now and Then — When we started LeafLink, candidates were hesitant to get into the cannabis industry, thinking it could be a blemish on their career. We used to hide our industry to access high quality talent. Now people are emailing us daily to get jobs at LeafLink; the industry has turned a corner.
I had the pleasure of interviewing Ryan Smith. Prior to co-founding LeafLink, Ryan successfully founded and exited two companies, one of which he sold to an NYSE public firm. Ryan brings his experience creating and managing B2B firms and online marketplace investing in a highly-regulated space to LeafLink as Chief Executive Officer. LeafLink, the cannabis industry’s standard platform for orders, sales and relationship management, has raised $14 million in investor capital. The platform went live in Colorado in March 2016 and now has more than 2800 retailers placing orders for over 950 brands across 16 territories. In 2016, Ryan was the first CEO of a cannabis-facing company to be listed on Forbes’ 30 Under 30 list. In February 2018, LeafLink was the first company in the cannabis space to make Fast Company’s 2018 list of Top 10 Most Innovative Companies in Enterprise.
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 have always been fascinated by marketplaces. When I was a kid, I would sell things around the house on eBay. My parents used to joke that if something was missing it was probably in my PayPal account. I started LeafLink in 2016 with my co-founder Zach Silverman, who was at eBay at the time, because we saw an opportunity to leverage our joint passion for marketplaces in the emerging cannabis industry.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?
In the cannabis industry they say every year feels more like seven, so there’s been a lot we’ve worked through as a team. One of the things we get more excited about every day is not only how we’re growing but how the industry is growing with us. Rewinding about 18 months ago, I remember going to a sales meeting with a retailer in San Francisco, before cannabis was fully legalized in California, and when we sat down the first thing the CEO of the chain said was, “Don’t be worried, but we may have a police raid at some point during this meeting.” Since it was during the time of random raids and shutdowns in California, it was definitely interesting to kick off a client meeting that way. We knew the shop we were working with was operating legally, and they’ve grown to be a leader in Northern California, but exciting to see how far the industry’s come since then.
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 starting out and doing research in the space, just as we do now, we met industry professionals that were incredibly passionate about the plant and its products. In those early meetings there were discussions about the many chemicals/compounds and states that exist for cannabis products. For example, I remember one meeting where a new client discussed this powerful new technology they had created to produce rosin jam. That was one of the many conversations at the time where we were just writing down everything clients said so we could educate ourselves afterward, learning as much as possible to serve the LeafLink community.
Are you working on any exciting projects now?
Everything we’ve built at LeafLink, beginning with our core marketplace, has all come from client needs. When we first started the company we took a few ideas and then with client feedback built the first version of LeafLink’s platform. Since then we’ve stayed close with our clients, working together as partners on solutions we know they need. Aside from managing orders and purchasing, we know there are significant challenges around moving money and products in our space. Over the last several months we’ve begun exploring solutions around financial and shipping options that we’re looking forward to building out and bringing to the LeafLink community of nearly 1,000 brands and 2,800+ retailers.
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?
Although I believe we are far from having achieved “success;” there is definitely far more to do than we’ve done, and one story comes to mind that helped us set our path. When we started LeafLink, Zach and I had no connections in the cannabis industry and were just curious to learn. Through a family friend I met Brett Harwood, a parking and real estate entrepreneur, with whom we shared the concept for LeafLink. He mentioned his cousin Andy, who lived in Colorado, was well connected in the industry and thought we should connect with him. We flew out to meet Andy who introduced us to Keef Cola, with whom we worked closely to build our software and who eventually became our first client.
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 industry is young and dynamic, which means it’s also very tight-knit. We build a lot of our marketing around tapping that strong network to generate referrals and word of mouth — which also traditionally create the best customers. Right now, over 50% of our demo requests come from word of mouth or referrals.
Can you share 3 things that most excite you about the Cannabis industry? Can you share 3 things that most concern you?
- New states (we now call them territories, like Puerto Rico and Canadian provinces) coming online every month
- Momentum for inter-state commerce
- Institutional investors in public cannabis companies (in Canada) signal a growing maturity of the industry and will require solid performance from those companies
- The United States is falling behind Canada and other countries with federally legalized programs. As a capitalist nation we should be encouraging entrepreneurship and new business in the cannabis industry.
- International markets aren’t as far along as press releases imply, i.e. some of the international “shipping” that’s being promoted is only a few grams of cannabis.
- Beating ourselves yesterday; it’s important we continue to improve as a team while continuing to move faster.
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. Warm Industry — Our clients are incredibly engaged and have built very warm relationships with our team, but specifically our Product team. We’ve built out a Retailer Insights Board, and when one of our first Product Managers joined he said he was “shocked” at how willing our clients were to speak with him. In his earlier, more traditional industry, he said it was a constant game of whack-a-mole to get product feedback.
2. Build Together Mentality — Our industry is growing rapidly, maybe faster than any other, with new brands, retailers and technology entering the market every week. Regardless, there is an underlying, unifying, mentality around furthering legalization in new territories. The industry gets together every year in DC for NCIA’s Lobby Days to educate Capitol Hill.
3. High Level of Instability — We’re at a place in the industry where our clients’ bank accounts are getting shut down spontaneously. Others are using only cash to do business, creating considerable instability for these growing businesses.
4. Challenging Regulations — Every state has its own regulations that we have to learn to make sure our product makes sense there. Some states require different documents and testing associated with wholesale purchasing, other states have different tax structures to calculate along with orders.
5. Recruiting, Now and Then — When we started LeafLink, candidates were hesitant to get into the cannabis industry, thinking it could be a blemish on their career. We used to hide our industry to access high quality talent. Now people are emailing us daily to get jobs at LeafLink; the industry has turned a corner.
What advice would you give to other CEOs or founders to help their employees to thrive?
We’ve found success by not only bringing in great new LeafLinkers, but also giving them a high level of ownership on their teams. More and more, we’ve begun thinking of each of LeafLink’s teams as their own startup within a startup. The majority of our executive team have founded their own companies or been a first hire at other startups so our trust level is extremely high on their ability to execute. There are few things we won’t try once and that level of operation has helped us grow quickly in new ways, pursuing new opportunities.
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. 🙂
In the mindset of the cannabis industry, I would want to inspire more cannabis research and legalization. The way I see it, there can only be benefits from more research into the effects of cannabis and the regulation that comes with legalization.
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Thank you so much for joining us!