Ideas are easy, but actually implementing them is difficult. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve encountered start-ups that have a great idea but just cannot seem to make it reality. You can’t skate by on a concept, especially in cannabis. When it gets down to it, there’s a physical product you’re selling. This seems especially pertinent when I see a tech start-up mentality for certain cannabis companies when in the end it’s a CPG industry like no other.
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 Zachary Pitts.
Zachary is the CEO and founding partner of Ganja Goddess, a premium online shopping, delivery, and lifestyle brand that caters to cannabis consumers across the entire state of California. Working as a leader in legal cannabis since 2007, Pitts also founded nationwide hemp-derived CBD company CBD Goddess, the New York Times Magazine-acclaimed Ganja Goddess recreational storefront in Seattle, and infused edibles brand Ganja Goddess Foods. A passionate cannabis advocate, he works closely with elected and appointed officials at the city, state, and federal levels and has founded or directed numerous industry associations.
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’d like to say it was my “high-minded” advocacy and belief in the healing power of cannabis that got me into this space. Truthfully though, I was a bit aimless at the beginning of the Recession in 2007–08 and was scrambling for a job, vaguely hoping to work in urban planning or development (not exactly hot careers during the mortgage crisis). As a side hustle, I started to help Tara Wells (now my business partner) grow cannabis and make edibles to sell to medical dispensaries in Los Angeles. It was a small operation, but we kept getting more and more demand.
I can’t pinpoint when exactly it happened, but it seems like suddenly I was working full time growing, baking, packaging, and distributing our products. When we started receiving requests for our edibles outside of LA, we came up with a plan for a delivery service that covered all of California, launching Ganja Goddess in 2011. Tara had always been turned off by the experiences she had in those old school medical dispensaries, so a central tenet of our company has been to connect with those outside of mainstream cannabis culture. Women and older adults are just as interested in cannabis, particularly as part of a wellness lifestyle, so we’ve worked to create an appealing platform by focusing on compassion and education.
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?
Early on in our delivery operation, I took a long customer service call from a young man with stomach cancer. The pain he suffered was excruciating; he could barely eat and had trouble merely standing most days. We spent 45 minutes in a detailed discussion on how to coordinate with his caregivers and how to experiment with edibles, flower, concentrates, and tinctures. It was incredible how much cannabis transformed his life, as it was the only thing that allowed him to eat or even feel like he was alive. By the time I got off the call, I was crying uncontrollably. I think health can be a complicated journey that is different for every person, and it’s easy to get lost in your own journey while ignoring others.
Cannabis culture often focuses on the fun of recreational cannabis while forgetting the health benefits. Among our customers, 78% say they use cannabis at least partially for medical purposes. Recalling this man’s journey helps remind me of the importance of changing the perception and culture behind cannabis. It can be safe and enjoyable, but it also is a life-changing medicine.
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?
In 2015–16, California was scrambling to advocate for local and state licensing. In LA, we had come together to make a relatively strong cannabis delivery organization (Los Angeles Delivery Alliance, or LADA), but we were just beginning to move beyond the city and talk to the state. A Sacramento-based delivery organization was interested in coordinating with us, and they had substantial experience in the State Capitol. I invited them to a ritzy networking event in the Hollywood Hills right before a major trade show in Anaheim. I didn’t think they’d come (they didn’t RSVP), but we were planning on having some meetings at the trade show and wanted to make sure they felt welcomed.
The party was thrown by someone trying to start a cannabis brand for bodybuilders, so there was already an odd mix of stereotypical Hollywood types and health gurus that NorCal people love to roll their eyes at. All the delivery operators were being pitched by cannabis brands as well, so I ended up smoking a number of different cannabis products including a concentrates brand that was significantly stronger than I expected.
I was much higher than I would normally get when the Sacramento people showed up with their lobbyist (she had specifically flown to LA solely to meet me in person at this party and discuss plans). They were not pleased when I sat down with bloodshot eyes and could barely follow what they were saying. I spent what felt like an hour (but was probably less than 10 minutes) trying to look composed and have a coherent conversation before giving up and awkwardly saying we should connect another day.
Our organizations merged two years later, but I imagine it would have happened sooner if I hadn’t made such a bad first impression! We all have our “I acted silly while high or drunk” stories, but I definitely abstain from smoking cannabis during networking events now.
Are you working on any exciting projects now? How do you think that will help people?
Pre-COVID, Ganja Goddess was enjoying significant growth, but the pandemic caused our business to explode. Cannabis delivery is definitely having its moment. People are avoiding stores and using delivery services for most of their retail buying. Plus, cannabis is the perfect drug for dealing with the isolation during lockdowns. It helps with stress and anxiety, it’s great for chilling at home, and it’s a much healthier alternative to alcohol.
We recently decided to expand operations in California by taking on investors, and the changes we have planned for our platform and logistics are going to take cannabis e-commerce to the next level. Right now, about 15% of Californians consume cannabis. Everything we’re doing is about expanding that baseline of who regularly enjoys this plant to the rest of California. The negative stigmas surrounding cannabis consumption are already receding, and we want to do everything we can to expedite the cultural change.
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?
My father is someone I am particularly grateful towards. Obviously, parents can be a substantial part of how most people become who they are. My father had an evenness to his effect that I appreciate and try to model, but I also enjoyed his insight. Whenever I had a particularly troubling issue in business, it was always helpful talking with him. The fact I was working in cannabis made him nervous at first, but his lessons on how to manage and treat people were invaluable. On a more personal level, he fostered an environment of support, even when I was an adult. Whether it was pursuing my dreams in cannabis or starting a family, he supported me in whatever I did. I do not take that for granted, and I am forever grateful.
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?
Cannabis marketing innovation has been largely driven by our exclusion from traditional marketing platforms. We cannot use social media or Google ads, so we’re forced to be creative by necessity. The steps we take in marketing or advertising don’t really make as much sense if you do have access to the major ad platforms, and since a lot of it is direct and personal community outreach, I don’t know if it would scale to larger businesses in other industries. I am proud that we were one of the first companies to convince mainstream publications and billboards to host our ads. Perhaps because of our focus on older demographics and women, we have always emphasized education and customer service. This has fostered a loyal base and a great relationship with our customers built on trust and appreciation. As a result, a majority of our new customers come from word of mouth.
Can you share 3 things that most excite you about the Cannabis industry? Can you share 3 things that most concern you?
What excites me:
- Being part of an important change in the moral compass of our country and how society treats cannabis.
- The joy of helping people discover the health or just plain fun of using cannabis.
- To be in an industry where most are still in a start-up phase (even those of us that have been around for more than a decade). While there has been a decent amount of capital poured into the cannabis space, we’re not competing against billion-dollar companies (yet).
What concerns me:
- The slow pace of change in the federal government. It’s infuriating and states still regulate cannabis way beyond valid consumer and worker safety concerns.
- Consolidation by corporations with traditional capital once federal legalization comes (which does not stop me from supporting full legalization). This industry has largely been built by people willing to take risks and discover incredible new ways to be an entrepreneur.
- The voices of cannabis business operators are often too fractured and disjointed to be effective in convincing lawmakers to do the right thing. If we’re going to get more even-handed regulations and get it quickly, we need a unified voice that advocates for all operators.
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.
- Ideas are easy, but actually implementing them is difficult. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve encountered start-ups that have a great idea but just cannot seem to make it reality. You can’t skate by on a concept, especially in cannabis. When it gets down to it, there’s a physical product you’re selling. This seems especially pertinent when I see a tech start-up mentality for certain cannabis companies when in the end it’s a CPG industry like no other.
- It’s always more stressful than you imagine. This isn’t unique to running a cannabis company, but despite being intimately familiar with perhaps the most effective anti-stress treatment known to mankind, I still constantly fret over the business. There were periods where we didn’t know if we would get a license or if we had the funds to pay the licensing fees, taxes, and compliance costs. There are many people that depend on you for a job, and it is a responsibility that does not come lightly. I’ve definitely come to rely on my “testing new samples” time during those hardest days!
- If you don’t say something to the regulators, no one will. Early in the rule-making process with the Bureau of Cannabis Control (BCC), the staff would release proposed rules and ask for comments. I read hundreds of pages with a fine-tooth comb and found errors both small and big. For instance, in the initial draft, someone mistakenly thought that 1280×1024 was a camera resolution (they intended to use 1280×720). I pointed this out, and it was corrected, but I was the only one to notice and make a public comment. I may have waited too long to tell the BCC though, as cities struggling to draft their local ordinances would sometimes copy and paste these draft rules. I still occasionally find cities with ordinances demanding a non-existent camera resolution of 1280×1024. Even for larger issues, I would make public comments or meet with regulators and say things that were obvious and commonly discussed in the cannabis advocacy echo chamber but were totally new concepts to state bureaucrats. If you have constructive feedback, you might be the only one who actually communicates it to our government!
- Don’t be afraid to enforce professionalism. In the early days of the medical market in California, the laws were so unclear that it was difficult to know whether you were in or out of compliance. Both the lawyers and police weren’t totally certain what was legal and what wasn’t. This environment tended to bring out a very casual way of doing business that could make operating difficult. We used to have vendors try to sell us cannabis without scheduling a time they’d be coming, with no invoice and improper documentation, which would cause huge issues in tracking purchasing and inventory. We had one particularly paranoid concentrate manufacturer try to schedule a meeting at a gas station instead of our dispensary and refused to give me his full name (something we needed to verify his medical status). We finally had enough of the unprofessionalism and started enforcing standards on everyone doing business with us. I was surprised how quickly the growers and distributors we worked with reformed and stepped up to the challenge, and I marvel that it took me so long to put more stringent requirements in place.
- Don’t be afraid to push back against what is considered proper business. For the same reasons there was a more unprofessional crowd in the early days of medical cannabis, there was also a certain drive and creativity in cannabis that allowed for some amazing innovation. I’ll find myself occasionally doubting whether we can compete with new cannabis companies founded by traditional corporate types attracted to the “Green Rush.” I have to remind myself that what I see as obvious blunders due to a poor understanding of the market, or how easy it is to make quality cannabis products, comes from being immersed in cannabis my entire adult life. Cannabis regulations have always been heavy handed to the point of crushing anyone who isn’t nimble and adaptive. Traditional capital partners will never quite understand why so many of the legacy businesses continue to beat the newer and often overfunded rivals. It isn’t a question of old vs. new. There are a lot of young cannabis companies that are doing awesome in California and elsewhere. This is more about having confidence in experience and intuition.
What advice would you give to other CEOs or founders to help their employees to thrive?
When we have gone through significant changes, whether responding to what the market is demanding or updating our operations to remain compliant to new regulations, there is often some form of pushback from employees. It can range from uncertainty to full opposition. It’s important to always listen and understand why employees may be apprehensive about the change. Each person has a perspective that is valid and insightful, and when you listen to a range of opinions, you will often find a way forward that is more effective. This is also why representation matters in your hiring and promotion practices. Prioritizing communication and diversity makes your business stronger!
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. 🙂
To step away a bit from cannabis, I’m a bit of an urban planning nerd. I put a lot of weight into the built environment and how the structures around us influence our lives. An ideal city in my mind is something that has efficiency for its residents (environmental and economic), that cultivates creativity in art/business/culture, promotes healthy living, and most importantly facilitates positive social and civic development. The cities that fulfill some or all of these requirements do exist, but they tend to not be found in the United States. I could write thousands of words on the subject with way more detail and supporting arguments, but I think the simplest thing we need to change about U.S. cities is density. We need people living, working, and recreating in closer proximity than the usual American suburbs allow with a human level scale to our development and infrastructure. This means fewer suburbs but also fewer skyscrapers. It means more affordable housing and more efficient transportation, but fewer car commutes.
Going back to cannabis, the movement I’d like to see is our society simply accepting and welcoming the plant, so that every adult who has tried a beer or a glass of wine has also at some point smoked a joint. Because, hey, a world that’s high is a world that’s happier and healthier!
What is the best way our readers can follow you on social media?
Social media has been a hurdle because our Facebook and Instagram accounts are constantly being shut down due to inconsistent cannabis policies. Twitter is the best way to follow our company (@goddessdelivers), and we also have a Ganja Goddess Blog with lots of interesting and fun content.
This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for joining us!