What it’s like to Run One of The World’s Largest Dispensary Chains |Interview with the CEO of Native Roots
We sat down with Ryan Brown, the CEO of Native Roots. Native Roots is one of the largest dispensary chains in Colorado and the world over. Ryan gave us his backstory and an inside look into what its like running and expanding a massive cannabis business. He gave us his marketing secrets, industry predictions, and his favorite cannabis products.
Listen to our Interview or Read Below
What Did your Journey Into Cannabis Look Like?
I did not start in the cannabis industry in 2012, when medical became a real thing in Colorado. I was pulled into the industry by a high school friend. He was one of the founding leaders of Native Roots in 2014 when the company became much bigger. There was more investment and there was the desire to significantly scale.
Starting in about 2015, as the operation did scale, it ran into complexities like every single business does in scaling. At the time I was working in consulting and was wanting to get more engaged in something where I owned the outcomes rather than supported the execution on behalf of somebody else. I had the lucky accident of having my high school friend say, ‘you have to come engage with us and help us grow in the right way.’
So, at the beginning of 2015, I joined the team as chief revenue officer (which was a nice made-up title) but ultimately I was focused on helping put some structure around the organization and the way it worked. In 2017 I took my current role and I’ve been riding the roller coaster ever since .
We’ve Heard Horror Stories of Cannabis Industry Startups, Did You Walk Into a Situation That Needed a Ton of Fixing?
No. When I joined Native Roots it was the deepest collection of people with the most passion around what they do that I’ve ever worked with in my life. People from all sorts of backgrounds, I think we even had a PhD that was trimming cannabis.
So, no, it was a purely passion based team with a variety of skills across a huge number of disciplines. Though, it wasn’t necessarily organized in some of the ways that help a business use resources most effectively.
I spent some time with the owners and the executive team and worked with them to help craft and take the vision and ultimately make sure that we had the right tools and people in place to execute those goals.
Native Roots is One of The Biggest Dispensaries in Colorado, What are Your Expansion Plans?
Native Roots wants to continue to grow significantly. We’re working on growth on a few different fronts. We’ve got some in-state work that we’re doing to continue to grow and scale our retail portfolio. We have a wellness brand of retail stores now – so we’ve got a wellness store that focuses exclusively on the non-THC cannabinoid-rich products. We have some of those operations now operating in Colorado Springs and are continuing to scale that business.
This year and beyond we’ll continue to open up excellent high-quality retail locations. With the signing of the public company ownership bill (HB-1090), that opens up the opportunity for Colorado companies to scale and to have resources to scale which is a significantly important thing. It’s been a disadvantage that Colorado companies have had for a long time.
Outside of that, we’ve been scaling a Canadian retail arm as well. We started in the great prairie province of Manitoba and have scaled to two stores operational with a couple more coming this summer. We were just awarded an opportunity to open another so we’ll scale that business. We do have expansion targets throughout the country. We’ve got a bunch of target states that we like a lot and have applied to or actively applying for right now.
The expansion strategy of organically applying for licenses and winning them is it’s an interesting thing because the regulatory environment changes on short notice. But we’re actively pursuing 4 States and we’ll continue to seek out great markets where we think that the Native Roots brand story wins.
Maintaining your Brand Story Throughout Different States with Different Rules and Cultures Sounds Difficult. How do you Manage?
The most important thing is to start with a really solid basis of who you are as a company, what your purpose is as an organization, and why you exist. Kudos to the owners and executive team – the organization cares a ton about creating a really meaningful purpose. Making sure we’ve got the right supports in place to have exceptional people that work in the organization, are recruited into the organization, and then thrive in the organization. Those things are key and if you slack on any of those items, it’s impossible to maintain your identity and authenticity as you grow a business.
In General, How do you Maintain a Thriving Dispensary?
The most important part is to stay really close to your customer and have the customer lead in terms of the experience that’s going to be most meaningful and the product selection that’s going to be most meaningful. Make sure you’re investing deeply in the talent support.
This last year we went through an activity to help the entire organization have more of a customer-focused lens. The activity helped our staff have a better line of sight to the fact that it doesn’t matter what role you have in the company, you’re ultimately impacting a customer’s experience that’s going to either consume product that we make or consume product that’s sold through our stores. Making sure that they all have that perspective changes engagement internally.
You have to have people that are willing to speak up when things are working well and willing to say when things aren’t. You have to be willing to listen to ideas – if you’re not then your business is going to slowly decline or struggle.
What are some of the biggest hurdles that you’ve had to face in the industry?
I’ll start with the international piece that presented a whole level of complexity. The US and Canadian cannabis relationship is impacted by a treaty that dictates that international commerce. Engagement in business that was once considered illegal is still not allowed. Though there are rules around that. Making sure that we’re completely and fully aboveboard, how we approach that business and putting the care and effort into structuring it and supporting it in the right way has been complicated.
We got there, but it was a big hurdle.
Other hurdles – Honestly, things as simple as effective communication, engagement, and management of people can be tricky. Making sure you’re focusing on the right things is immensely harder when you can’t just drive to the person’s location.
I wanted to talk about the environment and what Native Roots is doing to make the industry more sustainable?
It’s super important and it’s something that we take extremely seriously. The impact that we have on the environment as an industry is real. We need to make sure that we are helping to mitigate that impact, reduce it, and ultimately make sure we’re just being friendly to the earth that we’re pulling all this amazing product from.
What we have done is we’ve put together a really a cross-functional group within our own organization that focuses on sustainability measures. That group just recently rolled out a recycling program through our stores. They are exploring such things as ways to reduce our energy load out of our cultivation facility through the implementation of things like LED lights. Being able to compost and utilize some of the waste by-products of the cannabis production and grow process has also been a core focus.
Along with a huge number of other things, frankly, like trying to have more carpooling to the facilities and corporate events. You’ll see us out there for bike to work day.
Additionally, our organization cares a ton about the local community. More broadly we’ve got a robust corporate social responsibility program that we’ve implemented over the past three years. Each of our local operations (primarily our stores) that are satellite sites all over the state have the objective of having a local partner that they can support through volunteerism or funding to support local nonprofits and charities.
Organizationally we’ve got a few partners that support things like at-risk youth and folks that could potentially medically benefit from from cannabis. The Chanda foundation is one, Denver Urban Scholars is another. Our list of folks that we support through the store functions and activities is pretty significant as well.
I think because of the origin of this industry in general – which was largely a grassroots led effort to ultimately manifest the legislative environment that created this regulated industry – there’s so much passion around staying deeply engaged in the community, maximizing the positive impact of this product, and helping lives. That may or may not sound cliché but I think every company in some way shape or form that’s been successful or is going to stand the test of time or has a population of staff that are excited to show up to work, have that as a core fundamental part of their reason for being.
We recently went down to Colorado Springs and you guys have a Gas and Grass station down there. Talk to us about where that idea came from and some crazy marketing ideas that you’ve tried?
I cannot take credit for that idea. That was a combination of our owners and some folks within the organization. It was a combination of wanting really good real estate that had access to traffic and ultimately doing something fun. This industry is fun and it’s a unique way to engage a population that is still warming to the fact that this industry exists and that there’s real value to people’s use of the product. This is just a fun way to engage and a good real estate opportunity at the same time.
There are a lot of restrictions around marketing, but there are still a lot of fun ways to market your business in cannabis. We love to partner with organizations to deliver fun new innovative products that have a meaningful impact on the community. For years we would sponsor the 420 concert when typically Method Man and Redman would perform. We’ve done strains with artists like GriZ and some others. Most recently we’ve rolled out a commemorative joint in collaboration with The Fillmore called the Mammoth – this year is their 20th anniversary of operation and they were initially called The Mammoth.
For us it’s about not doing the same darn thing. I love the publications that are out there that cater to a cannabis specific audience. There’s some real value there too. It’s really difficult to reach a broader audience in this industry. Having unique creative ways to engage the population is key and it’s where we devote the lion’s share of our time and effort and energy.
Often times we find that word-of-mouth, great product, and extremely high-quality retail experiences are more valuable than any singular advertisement we could place.
What is your relationship with the plant, do you consume cannabis?
I do consume cannabis. I would say I’m a multi-faceted consumer. I have a hard time putting my mind to sleep so I tend to find that cannabis is awesome for allowing my mind to slow down a little bit so I can sleep well. That can come in all sorts of forms, I like some of the chocolates out there that have that specific intent, I like some of the pill based forms that have that and I actually like some of the vape products that do that.
I tend to find flower for me for sleep is not as effective, it’s kind of a daytime activity. But I consume flower I’ll consume edibles, and I’ll consume vapes. If I had to default to anything it’s probably vaping.
If you can find non-additive added vape product, completely uncut product – that’s great. We just recently released a product called Spectra which has both co2 oil version but then also a live resin version in packs and then multiple other form factors. It’s not harsh on the throat and I can meter the dose that I want. Thumbs up. It comes in all sorts of strains .
I’m Always Looking for Good Sleep Products, What are your Favorites?
There are a couple that I’ll mention. We’ve got a product called Opulse Sleep, it’s a pill based formulation. I love the ‘Snooze’ pill for sleep. 1906 [New Highs] has a Midnight Chocolate I like that one a lot as well. Those are my two primary ones. There are plenty of other reasonably good ones out there as well, but those are the ones I tend to default to.
What are your predictions for one year five year and ten years in the cannabis industry?
Maybe I’ll work backward. I think in ten years there is an extremely high likelihood of federal legalization of the industry in general. I think at that point there will probably still be state specific programs but I think there will be less barriers around tax and business formation and ultimately being able to Bank.
I think in five years we’ll probably double the number of states on the adult use side and clean up most of the rest of the states in some way shape or form on the medical side. There may be some holdout states but I think the likelihood is low. Some of the very liberal states and very conservative states now have some form of a cannabis program whether it’s as little as decriminalized cannabis or all the way up to adult use.
In a year I think you’ll see the Colorado cannabis companies have the opportunity to continue to grow much more significantly. I think you’ll start to see Colorado cannabis companies having more of a national presence and the homegrown team here having the opportunity to really engage more in that competitive market that today we’re a little handcuffed from.
What are a couple of states that you’re really excited about right now in the near future and kind of move them forward?
I would say there are some states that have similar population bases to Colorado. States up in the northeast whether it be New York, New Jersey, Maryland, awesome states there. Some of the southern states have unique opportunities too. It’s funny to say, but I think Georgia is going to be an interesting cannabis market though it’ll take longer to get there.
Florida. Some of the Midwest states like Ohio and Michigan will be really great markets. Illinois if it does decide to go rec by tomorrow or if you’re listening you can pass your legislation tomorrow (good news: It Did! Read the News). That’ll be a really great market that will continue to significantly grow the industry as well.
Do you have anything that you feel we missed or that we wouldn’t have known to ask that you just want to share in general ?
Let me share a couple of things. Starting on June 10th we’re launching our Canna Coach program. We’ve got some of the most experienced budtenders in the industry and have a rich in-house training program. The Canna Coach program allows people to register to meet with one of our budtenders and have a one-on-one session to talk more specifically and dive a deeper into your needs around cannabis.
June 10th is when it launches and then shortly thereafter there will be online reservations at the various stores, both in Canada as well as Colorado.
We also have new flavors of our distillate pods that are coming out for our vape line, so that’ll be fun – try those.
Also infused caviar hemp cones are coming out here pretty shortly, so those will be super fun, very delicious. I’d say out of personal experience we did testing of this product and it is excellent.
For More on Cannabis Podcasting: