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Building a Cannabis Brand ... Straight

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With all the changes in Colorado and Washington state regarding marijuana smoking and possession, I was guessing there's a veritable hematoma burgeoning of small business and entrepreneurial activity in that industry. I was right (for a change).

One might imagine a small, smoke-filled office full of "Jeff Spicoli's," toking on all manner of spliffs, blunts, bongs, chillums and the like; urgently ordering delivery pizzas, as they plot the rise and dominance of the cannabis sector in America.

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Jeff Spicoli from "Fast Times at Ridgemont High": The classic 'Stoner' ...
if there ever was one

Well, though there are certainly those 'budding' entrepreneurs smoking like chimneys, 'one' would be wrong to assume that they are all riding Puff the Magic Dragon's tail.

And now for something completely different: There are two young ladies in Denver, Colorado who are quietly building a small empire especially designed to help the cannabis business sector build their brands and increase business. Though they both admit to smoking weed occasionally, I get the strong impression that Olivia Mannix and Jennifer (Jen) DeFalco spend the preponderance of their waking hours straight and focused on their business goals--which just happen to involve marijuana instead of toothpaste.

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Cannabrand founders Jen DeFalco, left and Olivia Mannix, right

Photo Credit: F4D Studio

Cannabrand is these ladies' real-world extension of what they strongly believe is an enormous opportunity: the rising cannabis industry's need for Branding, Marketing and all the ingredients like strategy, website, graphic and creative development.

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Photo Credit: Jordan Garner

Working ... not partying

As you can certifiably see from the photos above, there's no evidence of toking, Doritos or red eyes in the Cannabrand' workday.

Note to Reader: I am the father of a daughter and while I will strive for objectivity, my opinions, observations and everything I write here should be viewed in that overarching, helicoptering and loving context. I was not in favor of complete and total legalization. That however, might be changing.

Both 25 years old and filled with the superb, youthful exuberance that entails, these gals met while at the University of Colorado at Boulder. Boulder's a great town to meet and make a friend, they chime chirpily. Jen is the creative mind behind Cannabrand, enjoying the 'imagineering' for clients and Olivia is more strategic and overall business-oriented. They make a highly-complimentary pair of 'entrepreneuresses.'

"Going to college in Boulder," Jen DeFalco told me, "a lot of our friends smoked pot, of course. But we wanted to try and take the stigma away from cannabis. We see cannabis as a healthier alternative to alcohol." Olivia Mannix chimed in, "Most traditional agencies won't associate themselves with cannabis and we wanted to take advantage of that and provide our branding, marketing and website development services." Serving an under-served market seems to be these ladies' clear strategy.

Mannix, who's an unrepentantly passionate skier had a personal, defining, medical moment involving weed or more specifically, cannabis edibles. "I had blown out both knees skiing," she told me painfully, "and the Percocet the doctor gave me didn't help and made me feel worse. When I ate some (cannabis-laced) watermelon tarts, I felt much better and was in less pain."

DeFalco started a newspaper--of all things--in her neighborhood at age 10 and then went hawking it door-to-door. Mannix was selling makeup door-to-door at age 13; both early jobs were harbingers of their entrepreneurial thrust later.

Hailing from Wilton, Connecticut, Mannix told me they're both concerned about this new law working out well for all those concerned. "It's a lot cleaner because people can grow and use it openly and not hide it," Mannix told me. DeFalco concluded, "It'll be handled a lot like alcohol is restricted to prevent kids from getting it or adults getting it for them. We're totally against driving on alcohol, drugs or cannabis. We're really against that."

Alan Katzker is the founder of Boulder Elevated Events and a Cannabrand client. Katzker is really amped up and hard-charging about the Mannix/DeFalco service he's received and seems utterly genuine to me. "I absolutely love Jen and Olivia ... love, love, love," he gushed. "They helped me re-brand and built a great website for me. I'm very impressed with them--they are cutting-edge and real pioneers." In a key supporting act for his satisfaction stated above, Katzker has connected the Cannabrand' ladies with a friend of his who is a very successful "cannabis entrepreneur" and that represents the most powerful form of marketing known to man, WOM (Word of Mouth).

Weedmaps is a local Colorado success story and has been described as the "Yelp for marijuana dispensaries." It started out as a kind of early Internet directory for legal medical marijuana dispensaries for sick patients, which has positioned it well for the new recreational user market. "I met Jen and Olivia at an Edible Events function," Barry Bard, who works at Weedmaps told me, "it's so cool to see other young people starting their own businesses."

And the Cannabrand gals aren't just branding, marketing and promoting their clients' businesses, they're also promoting their own enterprise with policy-type, op-eds on their Cannabrand Tumblr blog.

In an effort to paint a more complete picture of these two young ladies, I asked them a few questions regarding Colorado and the mesmerizing 'gold rush' activity there around cannabis.

1. Do you think Colorado's cannabis legalization will lead to higher drug addiction in CO? Why?

Jennifer DeFalco responded:

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Photo Credit: F4D Studio

"I do not believe in the slightest that Colorado's cannabis legalization will lead to higher drug addiction in Colorado. First off, cannabis is not a physically-addictive substance--it's even reported to be less addictive than caffeine. If you're asking if it's a gateway drug, I'd have to disagree with that theory. People who choose to alter their minds with hard drugs would probably also choose to experiment with marijuana and alcohol, regardless. So, do I think that consuming cannabis influences the average person to use and abuse hard drugs later down the road? No."

2. Do you think Colorado's cannabis legalization will lead to more DUI's and DUI deaths in CO?

Jennifer DeFalco responded: "I do not think that Colorado's cannabis legalization will lead to more deaths or DUI's in CO. Since cannabis is much safer to consume than alcohol (one cannot overdose and die from marijuana), I would argue that if cannabis consumption replaces alcohol consumption, you will see a decline in fatalities - including those related to traffic. A recent study reported by PBS even cites that the rate of traffic-related deaths drops by about 9% in states after they legalize (medical) marijuana."

3. Do you worry about cannabis legalization in CO making it easier for young people to get and start using cannabis?

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Photo Credit: F4D Studio

Olivia Mannix responded: "No, regulating cannabis--if anything, will make it more difficult for young people to get a hold of it, because with regulation comes restriction. My friends who grew up in Boulder said it was easier to get marijuana than to get alcohol in high school, because alcohol is regulated. Now that cannabis is regulated, it will be more difficult for teens to get a hold of it, because it's slowly distancing itself from the 'black market.' Marijuana regulation will also reduce teens' exposure to harder drugs now that it will be off of the illegal market (where hard drugs are found). The federal government has stated that teen marijuana use has decreased since it has been regulated."

4. What do you think of recent reports that CO food stamp cards are being frequently used to withdraw cash from cannabis dispensary ATMs to buy cannabis?

Olivia Mannix responded: "I have heard conflicting reports, and believe that these claims are false. SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) cards, cannot be used to withdrawal cash, they can only be used when purchasing food from authorized supermarkets."

Of course, this nation's eyes are upon Colorado and Washington state as the forerunners and a bit of an experiment in legalization. Screw-up, and America will be done with the idea perhaps forever. Succeed and most of the USA could look like Amsterdam within a few short years. What I've learned in the writing, research and conversations is this: Colorado is way ahead of Washington state because they had more experience with the medical marijuana legalization first, and, the industry people in Colorado are all aware that a misstep could be 'game over,' so are laser-focused on doing this right.

"State regulations are promoting compliance amongst owners and operators in Colorado. There's no reason to break the rules," said Joe Tremolada, who's a cannabis industry veteran experienced in the creation, financing, growing and distribution areas of this growing field.

Troy Dayton is the co-founder and CEO of The Arcview Group, a San Francisco-based, membership, investor network. According to Dayton, Arcview is "the Shark Tank of the cannabis industry" and doesn't invest their accredited-investor members' money directly but gives them the parade of potential companies to invest in and offers them deal-flow; investment advice and market research are Arcview's core products. Dayton and Arcview, like the ladies at Cannabrand, are placing big bets that the Colorado legalization--past the pre-existing medical marijuana usage--will succeed. Both have staked their businesses on this industry winning big.

I asked Dayton why he was so sure. "We're not talking about making a new substance available," he told me passionately, "we're talking about a product that already exists and is widely available. It's so much safer than alcohol or pharmaceuticals. There will be a net public-safety benefit out of this. The 'X-Factor' net benefit out of this is, for instance, I'm not a big cannabis consumer, 'but when I do,' I find it really helps me relax and I can see the 'big picture.' I have ideas and wonder about things that are really productive." I have found this too, back in the day, that it's not all "wow ... man" and couch-potato inactivity. Key point: The start-up funding and access to life's-blood capital so climacteric to economic success will have to fast materialize for the cannabis industry or it risks inertia. Arcview alone, seems to be leading the charge in this essential monetary component.

Recently, CNBC did a great documentary entitled, "Marijuana in America: Colorado Pot Rush" which features many of the leading proponents of Colorado's new law.

Mason Tvert is the Director of Communications for the Marijuana Policy Project (MPP) and seems so much more than that. CNBC calls him "the hero" of the push to legalize weed in Colorado and there's much to support that claim. Tvert doesn't come on strong and apparently prefers the 'get more flies with honey' method of discourse. I asked him why he had chosen the life path of pot policy and legalization--did he have some connection with a medical weed user or what? "I was harassed by law enforcement in college and while I'm not a big smoker now, I do enjoy it once in a while. The MPP is the largest marijuana policy organization and my primary concern now are the optics: how legalization is portrayed in the press and by its opponents. For instance, anti-legalization people often claim that teen use is up, when teen use has actually gone down." What about further restrictions for children, parents and so on? "At some point, we need to trust sensible human beings to make the right decisions."

When Tvert tells me that he's focused on other states now that his work in Colorado is done, I ask him what his informed bet would be for the next state to topple and legalize? "It's very likely Alaska will be next," the "Don Draper of pot" said. And he should know.

As I digest all the information, quotes and strategies I've heard and learned, there are some strong pros and cons on both sides of the future possibilities for Colorado, cannabis and ultimately Cannabrand's success:

Cons
**The possibility that children might have expanded access to marijuana. This is a potential nobody in their right mind wants and especially for parents, has caused a groundswell of concern.

**If the newly legal users use it in irresponsible ways--and drive--there will be a corresponding and tragic increase in DUI's and DUI-related deaths.

**If the overall ambition of new users and previous users smoking more is horribly reduced and has a smothering effect on the economies of the two states in an already depressed economic environment, then the frequent pro-legalization argument about increased tax revenues and economies of scale goes right out the window. The converse will be true.

Pros
**Contrarily to the above point about access by children, sick children (as young as six years old or younger) might now have expanded legal access for much-needed help for their pain and illnesses. This is something the parents, ironically, have been trying to get done for sometime now. So this seems very positive and good.

**If pot users can resist the need to drive and a reverse-correlation can develop, where weed users can just know they shouldn't get into a car and drive when stoned ... this law will be almost home free.

**If it proves true--that the experience both Troy Dayton and I have had--wherein smoking pot actually increases idea generation, a 'thinking-outside-of-the-box' imagination and stimulates a kind of entrepreneurial drive and special zeal, well then, the GDP, small business sector and overall economy of Colorado will certainly soar.

That's a lot of 'ifs,' I know.

So, nobody knows what will prove true; least of all me. But if what I'm hearing from the people I've heard talking is accurate, then I feel strongly that Colorado will succeed and the law will be there to stay. And that's from a guy who was strongly against the idea in the first place.

Meanwhile, Jen & Olivia keep working to expand their cannabis clients' businesses ... and their own. They're always brand-building. This week, they're launching the Cannabrand Shop, a website specially designed to sell their own and their clients' products and merchandise.

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In my three decade journey to discover what makes entrepreneurs tick, I'm zeroing in on the old maxim, "Do what you love and love what you do." If this is the essential entrepreneurial element, then Olivia Mannix and Jen DeFalco are on their way.

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