Kate Douglas packages up marijuana-infused sour gummies at Wana Brands on Oct. 6, 2015, in Boulder. (Paul Aiken, Daily Camera)

‘The Mary Kay of MJ’: Startups add new facets to pot industry

BOULDER — Holly Alberti-Evans wants to help your parents get high.

The Massachusetts-to-Longmont transplant runs Healthy Headie Lifestyle, which dispatches consultants to private homes to demonstrate and sell vaporizers.

“We call it the ‘Mary Kay of mary jay,'” Alberti-Evans said.

Their typical client? Baby boomers.

“People over the age of 50 are canna-curious,” she said, often from using in their teens. “We’ve had people approach us and say ‘I haven’t consumed in 30 years.’ They don’t know where to find the product or what devices to use.

“And so we thought, Tupperware parties. Let’s show them what to use and how to use it.”

Healthy Headie is one of several local startups helping to mature the marijuana industry by targeting non-traditional tokers and providing support services for thriving dispensaries, grow operations and edibles manufacturers.

Startups help Colorado marijuana industry mature
Kate Douglas packages up marijuana-infused sour gummies at Wana Edibles on Oct. 6, 2015, in Boulder. (Paul Aiken, Daily Camera)

A new class of cannabis companies and consumers

Since recreational use of marijuana was legalized in November 2012, “the market for products has broadened,” said Nancy Whiteman, founder of edible manufacturer Wana Brands, based in Boulder.

Whiteman calls the new users “the white wine crowd” — people who aren’t heavy users but “just want to relax a little bit.”

It’s those clients that are turning to companies like Healthy Headie for their consumption needs.

A graduate of the first class of cannabis accelerator Canopy Boulder, Healthy Headie joined data analysts, human resource professionals and ad gurus in a 13-week spring “boot camp” for ancillary businesses.

Each company received $20,000 in seed money, for which Canopy took a 9.5 percent equity stake. Ten new businesses are now halfway through the fall “semester,” which culminates in a Nov. 18 demo day at eTown Hall.

“The whole reason we formed is to help mature the industry,” said Micah Tapman, Canopy’s managing director. “It wasn’t ready for investment.”

Tapman, a veteran of the tech space and Fortune 500 companies, said pot startups sometimes lacks the sophistication of the tech startup community.

“Tech guys, they have MBAs, they’ve worked for a Fortune 500 company,” Tapman said. “In the cannabis startup space, they are amazing people, but not necessarily amazing entrepreneurs.”

Somehow, though, they are making money.

Statewide, legal sales of recreational and medicinal pot products totaled $805 million in 2014, representing 30 percent of the $2.7 billion nationwide market.

Nationwide, recreational sales are up a whopping 74 percent from 2013, when they stood at $1.5 billion. Recreational sales began in 2014 for both Colorado and Washington states, likely accounting for the significant increase.

As of Oct. 1 in Boulder County, 25 retail facilities were licensed for recreational sales, according to the enforcement division of the Colorado Department of Revenue — six and half percent of the total licensed stores in the state.

The county also has 46 licensed recreational grow operations, 14 edibles manufacturers and one licensed testing facility.

“This is the green rush,” Alberti-Evans said, using a popular term for the surge in marijuana-related businesses that follows legalization. “Entrepreneurs want people to have the resources they need.”

Pot statistics hard to come by

One thing every business needs: Good data on what its customers want.

So far, that’s been lacking. But BDS Analytics, a graduate of Canopy’s spring class, will release the first-ever Colorado cannabis retail study in December.

“There’s a void in this industry, and that’s what we’re filling,” said BDS founder and CEO Roy Bingham.

Cannabis entrepreneurs are “data hungry,” he said. “They’re young and they aren’t used to making decisions without a bunch of information available.”

The biggest sales growth, according to Bingham, is in concentrates, extracts and vaporizers — evidence that users might be seeking healthier options.

“Vaporizers, concentrates and edibles” — which he said have also seen “substantial growth” — are “beginning to look like other health-care products.”

Donna Shields, a registered dietician and communications expert, said that as “non-traditional” users move into the space, they are seeking alternatives to the “highly sugared” offerings produced by most edibles manufacturers.

“The only thing available is candies, cookies and sodas,” Shields said. “But if you could give (consumers) another option that tastes good, they’ll buy it.”

Kristen Richey filling THC extract oil for Wan Caps XR at Wana Edibles on Oct. 6, 2015, in Boulder. (Paul Aiken, Daily Camera)

Passion, personal experiences motivate entrepreneurs

Shields used cannabis to supplement treatment for breast cancer, an experience that motivated her to found the Holistic Cannabis Network, an online training platform for health and wellness practitioners to become certified as holistic cannabis coaches.

“I managed through conventional means but (used) cannabis for managing pain and anxiety,” Shields explained. “That was the turning point for me.”

Many marijuana entrepreneurs share similar motivations for entering the space.

“I want to help out industries I care about,” said Adam Wascholl, an accountant specializing in the cannabis and agriculture industries.

Wascholl founded Green Thumb Accounting after advertising bookkeeping services on Craigslist and being contacted by a dispensary. He quickly realized that grow operations and retailers — barred from traditional banking — need help managing their complicated finances.

Dealing with a federally prohibited substance “creates more accounting headaches,” Wascholl said. Even filing with the IRS can carry extra fees because, without access to banking, companies have to pay in cash.

As a hopeful future farmer and grower, Wascholl feels a responsibility to promote the industry in the hopes of reducing those obstacles — even if it means that he’ll be out of a job.

“I want to support that, even if I’m not running the business.”

Others were drawn to the industry for the allure of building it from the ground up and moving it from a clandestine activity to an accepted enterprise.

“We have the ability to build something great,” said Andrew Foster, co-founder of Compliant Cannabis, which provides “seed-to-sale software” to track inventory and sales for retailers.

He and partner Connor Penhale followed several of their peers who moved from traditional nine-to-five jobs at tech companies for the chance to innovate in the cannabis space.

“It represents a really unique opportunity,” Foster said. “This is first and only time in our lives that we will see an industry that we can take from the horse and buggy days to the airplane.”

Boulder County marijuana stats

46: Licensed grow operations

25: Licensed retailers

14: Product manufacturers

1: Testing facility

Colorado stats

496: Licensed grow operations

385: Licensed retailers

143: Product manufacturers

17: Testing facilities

Shay Castle: 303-473-1626, castles@dailycamera.com, @shayshine.com

This story was first published on DailyCamera.com