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Don't Go It Alone: Important Advice for Cannabis Entrepreneurs

The pioneers of cannabis industry had to figure out everything on their own. Happily, that’s no longer true.

May 17, 2019 4 min read

Opinions expressed by Entrepreneur contributors are their own.

Great leaders acknowledge that one of their principal challenges is to recognize their own knowledge gap. This isn’t the strong suit of many entrepreneurs who thrive on their inherent self-confidence and facility for risk. But building a business in the cannabis industry requires a special kind of intellectual humility. There’s still much to learn.

Once recognized, what’s the next step? Anyone working in this space can attest to the challenges (as well as immense opportunities) that cannabis presents. A great idea is a starting point, but It’s essential for cannabis entrepreneurs to consider one crucial piece of advice before launching their venture: Don’t go it alone.

The cannabis category is still young and developing, and new ideas and strategies continue to emerge regularly. Many people think they have come up with a silver bullet for the cannabis industry. they spend months working on business plans, sometimes even trying to raise money before talking to prospective customers. I often counsel entrepreneurs to think creatively about who they can work with to validate their hypothesis, and get real feedback from people who have been there already.

Related: M&A Is Coming to Cannabis. And That’s a Good Thing.

The cannabis industry is still in its infancy but there has been enough development on all sides of the industry that entrepreneurs now have customers, advisors and partners who they can speak to. Why not take advantage?

This was not always possible. Only a few short years ago early-stage cannabis startups could not plug into a knowledge network with specific expertise in the challenges and obstacles that are often unique to the cannabis industry. Companies were forced to forge their own paths, which often led to crucial mistakes and inefficiencies that sunk otherwise smart concepts.

Fast forward to today. Cannabis businesses are growing by leaps and bounds, and have undergone successful trial-and-error periods that can present case studies for new entrepreneurs. Lessons have been learned. For the first time new companies can tap category experts for help and guidance that was rarely available to early-stage companies in the recent past.

Related: How to Start a Cannabis-Focused Branding and Design Business

Startups need to develop their mentor network and find professionals with experience to answer key questions that will certainly influence their company’s future. The specific questions vary depending on the business you’re starting (a dispensary vs a software company), but some examples include:

  • What problem am I solving for the industry?
  • Is there a need for a specific “cannabis solution” or does the solution exist outside of the industry?
  • What barriers to entry exist/can I set up to protect my business?
  • Where can I find investors willing and able to invest in cannabis businesses? What kind of resources should I avoid?
  • What products, services and technologies are available to me so that I don’t need to build facilities or equipment from scratch?
  • How does the labor market look in the cannabis industry? Will I face staffing challenges as I grow beyond my current scope?

To avoid the pitfalls of building a cannabis business, find an advisor, partner or even potential customer willing to help you answer these questions.  Players in the cannabis industry are, for the most part, willing to share their stories with those willing to listen.

Let me be clear: by no means has our industry already been commoditized with simple “plug-and-play” models that just need capital and time. There are still plenty of new worlds for the right kinds of entrepreneurs to discover.

But entrepreneurs are often aggressive risk-takers prone to running into battle without their knowledge armor fully plated. The cannabis business in particular attracts new players drawn to the adventure and rocket-like potential of the industry. they often lack the information base to help them grow to their potential.

Isaac Newton is credited with perhaps the greatest quote about mentorship:  “If I have seen further, it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.” While the giants of the cannabis industries are still emerging, there are enough entrepreneurs with broad enough shoulders to help carry many a cannabis entrepreneur. Find one. 

The general rules of entrepreneurship still apply. Stay scrappy, smart, nimble and willing to pivot — and don’t go it alone.

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