Cassandra Farrington , Co-Founder & CEO, Marijuana Business Daily
A former VP at Citigroup, Cassandra considers herself a fugitive of Corporate America. She saw a nascent industry that lacked reliable, unbiased news coverage, was underserved with regard to connections between the business individuals, and needed a repository for industry-wide business data.
Cassandra heads up the cannabis industry leading daily news website Marijuana Business Daily and its family of content resources for the B2B cannabis marketplace, including the internationally recognized family of MJBizCon conferences. MjBizDaily was co-founded by Cassandra and her business partner in 2011. It is now the most established ongoing business to business news organization serving the cannabis industry.
[00:00:01] You're listening to Thinking Outside the Bud where we speak with entrepreneurs investors thought leaders researchers advocates and policymakers who are finding new and exciting ways for cannabis to positively impact business society and culture. And now here is your host Business Coach Bruce Eckfeldt.
[00:00:30] Welcome everyone. This is thinking outside the but I'm respectful on your host and our guest today is Cassandra Farrington who is Co-founder of Marijuana Business Daily. She's also the CEO. We're going talk a little bit about that. We're gonna talk about MJBizCon which is the big marijuana business event which was in Las Vegas a couple of weeks ago a couple months ago. Now we're going to learn a little bit about that. And we're a little bit about the history of the marijuana industry and how MJ Business Daily has been a key part of that. And we're going to hear about the story there. So with that Cassandra welcome to the program.
[00:01:02] Thank you so much. I'm glad to be here.
[00:01:04] So I always like to start with just kind of hearing the story of how you got started in this space.
[00:01:09] What got you interested in it and then let's talk a little bit about the history of objectives. Daly at the conference and I know there's some fascinating stories from that. But but let's learn a little bit about you and how you got into this.
[00:01:20] Yeah. So my both myself and my business partner we are traditional business to business media professionals. That is where we grew up in our careers and where we were looking when we entered the cannabis space back then in 2010 when we started investigating this industry we already had a a media company up and running that was completely focused on business to business information for professionals in really niche markets. And we had a we had a list of criteria. If we're going to launch into a new market it has to be of a certain size that has so many actual companies not just solo entrepreneurs has to be growing at a certain rate things like that and living here in Colorado looking their way out and seeing all these dispensaries pop up. We thought well that's a really interesting angle to take on this that there are all of these people who are very well versed in this industry but not necessarily in how to run a business. And the type of business information that can really help an industry thrive. And we thought well we don't know this industry at all. Neither one of us had a background in cannabis but we definitely had this other background in this information side of it. And so we brought those skills into this industry. And yeah everything's kind of grown up since then.
[00:02:36] And what industries were you in at the time like you where you're basically a sort of a publishing content platform. What industries where you focused on before you got into cannabis.
[00:02:44] Yeah. So we had a subscription how to run a subscription website better be a fan club whether it be a paywall for a publication much like us. You know we were kind of looking at teaching ourselves how to do our own jobs better but also sharing that information with others who had similar needs. So that was one of them. The other one that we had up and running at the time was called which test one all about A B marketing testing and how to improve your conversion rate on your marketing piece or your your website or your car or whatever that is. So those were the two we had up and running and we definitely had grander designs to turn this into a you know several publication family of things because that's where we had come from. She and I both come from you know a newsletter publisher back in Washington DC was where we had both that really cut our teeth. And you know they had a family of a hundred of these things that all used the same back office parenting and and media type you know support services a jar customer service all of those back office services were shared across all of these publications. And you know when you have you know a subscription website or a subscription newsletter that you may be charged you may only have a thousand subscribers but each one of those is paying a thousand dollars a year for it. Now we got a nice little microcosm of a business model. You multiply that across 100 share of the back office expenses and you got a great business model.
[00:04:09] So that's what we were looking to replicate. I love this. I've just I've seen this come up so many times in the cannabis space where people have no experience and expertise running a particular business model outside of the cannabis space you know in other markets in other industries and then kind of pivoting and applying it to this burgeoning cannabis base that that has so many kind of open spaces be it it's you know it's a great way to kind of enter it is to take what you know how to do and know how to do really really well and apply it to the cannabis market.
[00:04:36] So you mentioned when you got involved in the cannabis market you really had no well I guess what was your particular kind of knowledge or experience with cannabis. Give me a sense of what your state was when you got involved really.
[00:04:47] None whatsoever. You know we we recognized that this was a that medical marijuana had been approved and I think at that point 10 to 12 states I can't remember exactly how many we had at that point and that there was going to continue to be a real industry a real market around this this plant. So we didn't actually you know we just truly saw it as this industry meeting this type of business information that it didn't have and so we moved into it from you know filling that gap on the business side.
[00:05:18] Yeah that's great. And we'll talk a little bit about the conference and where the conference had and it's quite incredible where the conferences at this day and age or where we're at recently but sort of connect the dots for a little bit for what was your first step into the markets. You had this experience in terms of doing the newsletters and monetizing newsletters. What was your first move in terms of getting into the cannabis market. What did that look like.
[00:05:39] We hired a full time business reporter to go out and figure it out and that person is Chris Walsh. He's been with us since honestly the day we opened the doors on MJ biz and has really guided the content side of this of what we do here both not just on the website and Jay biz daily but also through the conference content and the special reports that we do in the annual research route that we do. He has been the guide behind all of that content side. Yeah he had studied several industries through his journalism career airlines and some other things as well. And so just knew what it was like to cover an industry. And again know so we went out and recruited him to come join us and and help us get this thing off the ground.
[00:06:23] And at that time so this was 2010. I think if you if I remember what you mentioned what was this day to day just at that point like how much were you covering how like what was your sort of subscriber or audience space what does that look like.
[00:06:34] So we started and and I and my business partner and I started noodling on this idea in 2010 we actually got it launch got Chris hired all that sort of thing was May 2011. And yeah he just went out started networking started finding sources started passing his business card around and we just started putting out some initial information and just like you would in any other thing that you start you know you kind of put up a Web site and you start pushing that information out to people who might be interested in it and finding other groups that are potentially doing similar things but not competitive. So finding partnerships to start spreading the word about what you're doing and what they're doing and being mutually beneficial there and you know just being good neighbors and in the community. And meanwhile you know Chris without knocking on a lot of doors and getting a lot of them shut in his face honestly because you know strangely enough you know right when we started this in 2011 shortly thereafter was when the landlord letter started hitting in California and Colorado started working toward implementing its regulations on its medical marijuana market for the first time and creating that initial seed to sale model that forced a lot of shotgun marriages between you know a dispensary over here and a cultivator over here who suddenly had to have a seed to sale program through their entire business model and a lot of those didn't work out to be honest and so there was a lot of transition going on in the marketplace at that time so people really didn't have the time to either the time or the inclination to either share their own business stories and honestly a lot of them wanted to just keep their heads down if they were interested in the information but they were not necessarily willing to speak up and be a source and become findable.
[00:08:20] So those were some of the challenges we worked through in the early days. So you know we had a slow growth at the start. I remember we're going to win we've got 2000 and you know it took us two to three years. I want to say it was in 2000. So we launched in May 2000 and 11 and I want to say it was the fall of 2013 when we finally hit about 5000 subscribers. Yeah you know it's just kind of skyrocketed since then.
[00:08:46] It's funny I always find that these overnight successes always take a while.
[00:08:51] Nothing really over a couple of years of hard slogging you know getting you know clawing and scraping you know each individual subscriber each attribute to a customer and then and then all things shake off.
[00:09:01] Absolutely. So let's talk a little bit about the business model and how it's kind of evolved over time so how did you monetize in the beginning and then how is that changed or how is it pivoted over over the years.
[00:09:11] Yeah. So our early on we were funding the publication through proceeds from our other business lines so we we self-funded it and you know but from those other activities that we were already doing our first actual moneymaking activities for MJ is we did a series of reports one on the Colorado regulations and markets one on you know if you're interested in investing in the space it was a very early stage book about that and you know again like a 50 page special report sold for about 50 bucks. So it was very much dribs and drabs at that point. And then we launched the trying to think which one came first in the fall of 2012. So again as I mentioned 2011 we launched things started trending down and we were starting to think OK what else are we going to put Chris to work on for a while and like he was actually down to about half time spending half of time on this publication and spending half his time looking at other launch ideas. And then in the spring of 2012 for whatever reason things really started to feel like we started getting more news flow and getting more traction on the subscriber base. So you know we kind of said let's see. And one of the things that we had heard from our subscribers is that from our subscribers necessarily but from our our sources and just from the people we were out there in the marketplace talking he was we need a place where we can get together and talk business we know and meet each other we'd like the people here in Denver knew each other and the people of San Francisco know each other and the people out in Portland Maine know each other.
[00:10:38] But people in Portland Maine had never had an opportunity to really get to know the people in San Francisco and share business information and figure out if they were partnerships to be done and things like that. The only events at that time were things like Kush Khan and the high times Cannabis Cup and so these very consumer side festivals which are great for what they are but are not a place where you can bring a business partner or a prospective business partner and say hey look at this industry it's going to be great. You know it's not a not a good way to showcase at that time what the potential of the cannabis industry was. So we we decided to kind of put a lot on the line and host a executive meeting was kind of how we were thinking of it and think of it much more as a conference not as a full trade show. So we found a space here in Denver. We scheduled it for the week after the legalization vote here in Colorado and Washington for that same week actually end of that week. And I also think that that just the conversations around that upcoming vote were part of what got things moving in a better direction.
[00:11:42] So we had that conference and it was a smashing success. Of course the fact that those two ballot initiatives had passed the record of Colorado and Washington certainly fed into that. But we exceeded our expectations with what we were looking to bring in in terms of attendees. And it was exactly that type of environment that people had been looking for. So it turned out better than than we could possibly imagine. And so you know we were kind of off to the races from there we launched the fact book shortly thereafter just riding this premium report about this is the state of the cannabis industry. I mean these are the benchmarks that you should be looking at if you're a dispensary or if you're a cultivator or you know these are kind of the nationwide trends and where you should be aspiring to get your costs in your years and a lot of information for startup companies things like that. And then this is we're now into about mid 2013 and the Cole Memo hit and we already had our second conference planned that was planned for outside Seattle in again in November that same week in November. And within two weeks of the Cole Memo heading in we had sold that conference out two months in advance so it just all the way fire marshal capacity so how big was the first one and how big was the second round.
[00:12:53] What was the growth.
[00:12:54] Well our first one clocked in at 400 to astounding. It was amazing at the time. One hundred and two cannabis professionals gathering together in Denver and then the second one we had suspected to be you know how how big is this going to grow. I'm not going to go more than 50 percent. So we actually the space that we could accommodate about 700 people. And like I said sold it out and I'm sure we could have ended up over 1000 if we had had the national capacity. So you know a as an early stage entrepreneur it's always tough to turn away paying bills pounding down your door.
[00:13:29] Please let me give you money but you know how that is what it was. It was a good position to be a very good physician a good problem to have.
[00:13:38] And it certainly created a I think it started it helping create an ethos or something about the event where it became you know very thought after and something that you had to be at break because it was the it was the place. So continuing down that front you know the following year in that time period 2013 Nevada authorized dispensaries and we kind of had a sense at that point that this was going to become much bigger not just a conference but really much more of a trade show that there was the demand for that. And there are a possibility for us to really take advantage of that opportunity. And there's no better place for a trade show than Las Vegas.
[00:14:18] And so once we once we had something of some green territory some blue sky territory in Nevada because they were authorizing dispensaries and you know it was an area that the industry could support and that's something that we have really tried to stay focused on is that wherever we host our events it's somewhere that the industry feels like they can kind of get behind and support. We made plans to move it to Las Vegas had to upsize the venue after the end of that second conference in Seattle where we had sold it out. We realized that we didn't have nearly enough space. So that's when we moved to move it to the real. And that was another kind of the bank moment because moving or hosting an event in a traditional conference venue comes with very high price tags on the organizer side. Give us a sense like what was the upfront kind of investment that you had to make to really were we were committing to minimums over a million dollars between food and beverage minimums and rental space and room guarantees that we had to give to the venue that we would fill so many rooms things like that. We were we were making a seven figure bet.
[00:15:22] It's a big night. It was a big not small business at the time so it was one of those like are we going to do this are we not. And yeah let's go. Be bold. Yeah.
[00:15:33] That's great. And so you're you're in Vegas at that point and things. Things grew. I went to this last one in Vegas. Well I guess it's been a couple of months now but it was pretty spectacular. What were the actual numbers and 2018 for the conference.
[00:15:45] In 2018 we had twenty seven thousand six hundred delegates at the event and over a thousand exhibiting companies that were just absolutely films that central hall of the Las Vegas Convention Center and the growth trajectory has been insane and amazing.
[00:16:02] It's like as you were talking about there were 400 the first year that 700 when we first moved to Las Vegas there was thirty three hundred people that first year. So we went from seven hundred to thirty three fifteen and then to fifty five and then to almost 11 and 18 the following year. At that last not the one just passed with the one before was our first time in the convention center. And that was just another whole sea change I think for the industry to kind of see and understand what a convention center event looks and feels like. Yeah it just takes it to a whole nother level. Yeah. And so now people are not just bringing their business partners but they're bringing you know people who have access to tens of millions of dollars of Masters bankers all sorts of people. Absolutely. And when those kind of people walk into the convention center and they're looking at that huge show floor and they're seeing all those people they can say oh yeah I can write your check for ten million dollars. And do you have room in your raise for another five because I'd love to give it to you. So we've gone from I can't I can't even get my head around like you're showing me the high times Cannabis Cup event and saying you want a million dollars to OH HERE PLEASE CAN I TAKE MY MONEY PLEASE.
[00:17:15] Yeah. SO YOU'RE A phenomenal growth. I'm sure there's been some challenges in that.
[00:17:20] Tell us some of the challenges you faced or dilemmas that you were in as you went through that growth process where where was it hard. Where were the big parts.
[00:17:27] So I'd say across the board I know that I'm not alone as a cannabis entrepreneur and this is absolutely the hardest thing has been keeping up with the pace of growth. It's the the changes you're having to rewrite your business plan. And it feels like you know several times a year just to keep up with what is new and what's happening and making sure that you're taking the best advantage of the best opportunities because there are so many of them out there you know filtering through everything that's going on to get to a place where you can really focus in on the things that you're going to be really great at. That is incredibly difficult.
[00:18:07] We did talk about how right after we launched you kind of the industry went south and we were trying to figure out how to keep the lights on for a while that was an interesting time. And another thing from from the early days touching back on how and and I didn't have a background in the plant itself when we first started we were getting a lot of pressure from some of the advocacy side some of the social entrepreneurs who had really brought the industry along to where it had come to that point. Yeah I'm saying hey you know in your publication in NJ biz daily you need to be saying why the Colorado amendment needs to pass for recreational legalization why the why the Washington state amendment needs to pass and we kept saying no that's not we're not here as advocates. That's not what we're doing the best way we can help this industry grow is by giving it this foundation of really sound fundamental business intelligence that both you as advocates as well as entrepreneurs and social entrepreneurs and people from all stripes can start to understand that this is a real industry that is what's going to give it the foundation that will help it bring in the people and the critical mass that will get all those other things done. We are behind that cause but we're just taking it from a different angle. But if we had we did have to resist that pressure to become more advocacy oriented which would've been counter to really our journalistic mission would have undermined our ability to speak authoritatively to the industry as it continued to grow.
[00:19:38] And I think that's really important I mean I get a lot of companies studying not just cannabis companies any company but any company on IRS situation it's you know everything look shiny like you want to fight you see all these opportunities and angles and ways that you could you could kind of monetize thanks and I think you know being you know being clear staying clear on what your purpose is what your kind of value proposition is what your role in the market is going to be and sticking to that.
[00:20:01] You know even if there is you know very appealing very sexy opportunities to go off and do something else you know if it's not going to be on purpose if it's not gonna be on target or for the model and the role you want to play that's going to hurt you long time and I think I think your success has shown that is that by sticking to that you've been able to kind of play that role the market very well.
[00:20:20] Let's talk about where you think this market and kind of industry is going I mean the show in Vegas was pretty spectacular. I mean do you see this just continuing to grow is there do you think this is going to kind of fragment out into different types of conferences are you looking at. Curious about kind of locations and timeframes like where where do you see this this kind of organic organizing and structuring this industry a little bit from trade show content community point of view what are your thoughts on where this is going.
[00:20:48] Yeah that's an interesting question. There's no question that there will continue to be a big annual gathering of the cannabis industry and that is going to remain enjoyed this column that's absolutely where we are focused on making sure that that remains as compelling and useful and as it has been to the industry to date. We are also looking at ways to make sure that Bitcoin remains a accessible and it because it is getting very large and people who have niche interests can start to feel lost in a show that is getting as big as it is. So we are working very actively on creating more opportunities for people to connect one to one with like minded people and create specialty content tracks and other things like that. We now have three MJ biz con shows. So there's the big one in Las Vegas which is that seminal annual gathering point for the entire cannabis industry in New Orleans. In June we host MJ biz context which is really all about the future of the industry and the future of your business in the industry. So it's more of a thought leader type event with a lot of actionable intelligence about how to take advantage of where this industry is going and make sure that you are future proofing your business. As this industry continues to grow as quickly as it is so that's happening and then we are also actively working on the international front as the International Cannabis space just continues to mushroom. We have an event in Toronto that is specifically called MJ is called International and all about that international picture. We're also hosting a conference symposium in Denmark this year in May for just a one day event for European cannabis professionals to gather and learn about everything to do from everything that's going on over there. And then on the other side of things we're all we've already launched and have up and running an entire hemp business media information and things like that.
[00:22:47] So yeah so we are continuing to provide as much as we can and as the industry grows even within our editorial department we have focused down on specific beats so we have editors and reporters really focused on the cultivation side on the extraction and science side and all these other specific areas of the industry so that we can you know remain relevant to everybody and we continue to partner with all kinds of industry organizations as well to make sure that both we keep our pulse on what the audience needs as well as having additional distribution points but making it accessible to people without them having to feel like they're having to go 100 different places to find the extraction information for example that is relevant to them.
[00:23:32] That's a good idea and I love that you're getting into the international market I'm just sort of seeing what's happening with that kind of global cannabis market and global cannabis industry.
[00:23:39] It's especially I mean obviously it's complicated somewhat in the US here just because of our federal laws but talked about talking to other organizations like where else do you get insights to kind of make these decisions or see you like well where you know whereas the next sort of you know either initial this market or content area or geographic focus. Tell me a little bit about how you collect data collect information and insight and to make some major decisions on how to launch these different conferences or content programs.
[00:24:05] Yeah. So honestly I in a lot of ways I feel like we have our own internal research department which is our editorial team.
[00:24:12] These are people whose full time job is to be out there with their boots on the ground talking to the entrepreneurs who are closest to each of these niches who are leading the way in creating best practices and recreating those best practices as things change and bringing those insights back into our collective knowledge pool. And yes we share all that with the industry but it's absolutely been a huge business benefit for us that we have we have that direct line of access to those people who are are really the ones who are out there moving those needles moving those those wagons forward.
[00:24:48] Yeah yeah I think that being good at interacting with your sort of with your customers but the industry collecting that data and kind of doing doing that strategic analysis is key. It's kind of that situational awareness and making making movies based on an insight. Absolutely. Tell me a little bit about you mentioned Chris was one of our first hires many years ago. I'm assuming you've got more than that now. Doing a little bit about the organization structure and what has that been like for you as one of the co-founders as CEO. What have you had to kind of change evolve adapt to this kind of growing company where are you at now in terms of size how many people it's all of it.
[00:25:24] Yeah. So we are we've crossed 60 people toward the end of last year you're here now. We're now definitely in that mid range territory of the. Of the hundreds. And you know once you cross 50 people in an organization in the United States that changes all kinds of things that well you know the law and administration of the company. So we've been going through those changes really over the last several months. And yet it's been a it's been a journey for sure. We have a lot of very dedicated people who love what they do and they love who they do it with. And we have needed to continue to supplement that passion with people who have more experience at running these mid-sized companies and bringing in more administration and just keeping things on an even keel as it gets bigger while trying to keep that entrepreneurial spirit and independence going. And you know it's a day by day change right. Everybody gets that.
[00:26:22] We need more structure of course as we grow that we have to layer or it's not going to be as flat of an organization as you get to that size.
[00:26:29] No question that I've simply had to let a bunch of stuff go and turn it over to my very competent team who I know have my back and you know is everything being done exactly the way I would do it. No no. But at the same time I'm not having to do it all and there's no way I possibly could. And that's been an important learning lesson for me just to maintain my sanity and to and to keep you just keep a pulse on my old work life balance and understand that I can't do it all. Yeah yeah.
[00:26:58] Good. Thank you for sharing that. So we're just about a time here. I guess my last sort of question general question is you know given that you kind of see so many of the opportunities or you see the industry and where things are going for folks that are kind of on the sidelines you know in other industry is thinking about getting into the cannabis space. Any particular area or strategy that you would advise or suggest that they think about what's the best words of advice that you have for those folks that are interested in getting it.
[00:27:24] Well that's that's a good question. You know there are certainly some key areas of the industry that are growing quickly. Know the science side of it the science knowledge is is advancing rapidly. And I think there's going to be a lot that can be done on the business side and with business ideas to make that science more accessible both to companies and to consumers whether it's for medical or for more of an adult use or recreational use perspective. So that kind of thing is going to definitely be growing quickly. We've already talked about how the international scene is exploding so rapidly. So you know anybody with international business experience knows is sorely needed right now in the industry. The hemp side of things especially with the farm bill finally getting a print of the rider to the farm bill which fully legalizes hemp.
[00:28:11] That is a game changer for the hemp industry and I do see hemp and the traditional marijuana side of things coming closer together and they're going to have to figure out how to play nicely in the sandbox together. And I think that's going to be a very interesting story to watch. And there's going to be some interesting career opportunities and business opportunities associated with that side of the industry. Know somebody asked me at this con you know is it too late to be getting into this. Look at the size of the show.
[00:28:42] You don't know is it too late to be giving into pet food you're getting into you know plastic.
[00:28:49] No you just have to have a really good business plan and be really dedicated to it. And it's never too late.
[00:28:55] Yeah no I agree. I agree. I think there's there's still so much change going on in this industry that a lot of room for innovation a lot of room for you know people doing new things and taking new approaches to stuff.
[00:29:05] So Senator this has been a pleasure. If people wanna find out more about you about MJBizDaily about the conference what's the best way to get more information.
[00:29:13] You bet. So we're easily findable at MJbizDaily.com and information on the conferences of mjbizdaily.com/mjbiztalks/ and all the conferences can be found there and we'd love to have you join the community.
[00:29:26] Yeah great. I'll make sure that those links are in the show notes people click through. Again thank you for this. I'm looking forward to the next conference. Make sure we get a chance to see each other in person well there and I look forward to staying in touch and hearing how things go.
[00:29:40] Love it. Thank you so much Bruce. Take care.
[00:30:12] You've been listening to Thinking Outside the Bud with Business Coach Bruce Eckfeldt to find a full list of podcast episodes. Download the tools and worksheets and access other great content. Visit the Web site at thinkingoutsidethebud.com. And don't forget to sign up for the free newsletter at thinkingoutsidethebud.com/newsletter.