Our first live event was here in Vegas nearly a year ago, so it was interesting to return to Sin City just as excited, but less nervous and with a much better sense of what to expect: reunions with colleagues and industry friends, illuminating panel discussions, and the opportunity to gather intelligence from high level people in all state markets. Oh yeah, and some parties.
But first things first: Wednesday morning in the MGM Ballroom. As usual, MJ Unpacked kicked off with a keynote presentation from BDSA. Co-founder and COO Liz Stahura took the stage to deliver some data-rich insights. Since everyone has been predicting federal legalization “sometime in the next year or two” for the past several years and it hasn’t happened, maybe we shouldn’t have been too surprised to learn that BDSA’s five year forecast does not anticipate change at that level. But Stahura emphasized the positive momentum across the country on a state-by-state basis, with their updated map showing sixteen states where adult-use cannabis sales are in full swing, and three additional states that are about to open sales. She also put a positive spin on the stagnation we’re seeing in mature markets: “The growth torch is being passed from mature markets into new and emerging markets.”
Stahura also talked at length about the continuing rise of big companies. Nine of the top ten brands that BDSA tracks are MSOs. But we were happy to hear her say that there’s hope for the little guys. In Stahura’s view, smaller brands are driving innovation and thus playing an exciting and vital role that shouldn’t be underestimated.
Perhaps unsurprisingly given the current market, The Couch Cushions: Finding Money in a Tight Capital Market drew an engaged crowd. The panelists discussed the challenges of finding investors in a beleaguered economy, but all four had words of encouragement.
Megan Klein, who is both an investor and the founder of Little Saints, had extensive experience in brand development before coming into the cannabis industry. She invited brand owners to reach out to her over the course of the conference. “I’d like to be helpful to the other brands that are in the audience today,” she said. “I believe we can come up with creative funding solutions and I’m open to questions.”
Wendy Berger, who is a board member of Green Thumb Industries and the CEO and president of WBS Equities, went on to give practical advice on how to approach an investor like herself. “Be yourself in these pitches,” she counseled. “It can be humbling, but for a true entrepreneur that’s part of the journey.” She also advised people to be realistic. “Please don’t come to me with a unicorn valuation,” she said.
Moderator Dr. David Cunic, CEO, UCS Advisors & Investor Relations, closed out the discussion with laughter by asking the panelists to describe their worst pitch session and Megan obliged with a story about accidentally offending MC Hammer (who did not invest in her company).
After a much-needed lunch hour chatting over salmon, spare ribs, roasted veggies, and salads, the panels resumed, alongside the venture summit downstairs. In addition to fueling up with food, we snagged some free samples of CBD sugar from the Azuca booth—always a favorite stop for us. An air of anticipation and assiduity filled the hall as exhibitors bustled to set up displays for tomorrow’s brand experience.
At the freshly-set up Seed Talent booth, co-founder and CEO Kurt Kaufmann shared that he’s here for his third MJ Unpacked. (We love a repeat customer.) “Our goals are to continue to grow our user and customer base to connect with brands and retailers across the country, particularly the Southwest and western part of the United States,” he told us. “We’re really excited for a great show.”
On the other hand, Leila Braimah and Eden Taylor-Wineera had just set up a booth for their very first MJ Unpacked. And they traveled far to do it. “We’ve come all the way from Australia just so we can show our software to the people,” Leila Braimah, customer success manager for Blakthumb, told us excitedly.
Panels resumed on the Main Stage, and Is Cannabis Recession Proof? Best Ways to Prepare Your Store for an Economic Downturn stood out for the panelists’ frankness and willingness to address negative factors in the industry.
Wanda James, co-founder and CEO of Simply Pure, is a big name, with fourteen years of industry experience and, perhaps unsurprisingly, a dynamic stage presence. She pointed out that anyone selling a federally-illegal drug is not “anything proof.” The other panelists agreed with James’s assertion that succeeding requires a tremendous amount of business acumen and constant vigilance due to ever-changing regulations and tax structures, but that business skills alone are not enough. A successful cannabis company needs to have both a distinct identity and a true purpose
The busy day went by quickly between all of the networking opportunities, the venture summit, and panel discussions. By 5 p.m. we were feeling tired, but eager to meet and reconnect with more people over drinks. Fortunately, an oxygen bar sat in the hallway, ready to hook up to anyone’s nose and provide a fresh dose of clean, botanical oxygen. Just a five-minute session left us feeling reinvigorated and ready for more action on the floor.
We closed the night out with a lively cocktail mixer. Reunions, new connections, and a whole lot of putting the face to the email address or LinkedIn profile took place. Booths and displays were set up and ready for tomorrow, and we shared our excitement over refreshments and good conversation.
“Our goal here is to make our brand well-known among established brands and continue to help the industry as an ancillary business,” John Hartsell, co-founder and CEO of DIZPOT told us. “This type of conference is the right idea for our industry. The crowd here is curated, it’s for people that are on the same trajectory for growth.”
Notable quotes from Day 1 panels:
- “It’s all about staying in the lane you developed.” – Luke Anderson, co-founder CANN
- “I hear people say the illicit market is our biggest competition, but the legacy market should be our inspiration,” – Dennis O Malley, Former CEO, Caliva, and COO, The Parent Company
- “Word of mouth really can’t be underestimated,” Kika Howze, Co-Founder & CMO, Gorilla Rx Wellness Co
- “Are we recession proof, hell no? But can smart operators do well during a recession? Yes. But you’ve got to come up with something better than ‘buy weed here.’” – Wanda James Co-Founder & CEO, Simply Pure
- “Y’all, I could do a whole college course in what not to do in cannabis.” – Wanda James, Co-Founder & CEO, Simply Pure
- “This is a phenomenal time for our industry. Challenging does not mean bad.” – Wendy Berger, board member, Green Thumb Industries, CEO and president, WBS Equities
- “The ones who win are going to be the ones that find their identity.” – Eric Block, CRO, Wana Brands
- “From an education component, I’m not seeing many education hooks in bringing people into your store. There is no great technology to educate my grandmother or my mother.” –Alex Bitz, VP of IT, Native Roots Colorado
- “If you have a piano but don’t have a great piano player, then it doesn’t work. Many people are missing out on the functionalities of these platforms because they don’t have good players.” – Andreas Neumann, Chief Creative Officer, Jushi Holdings