The motivation driving America’s new wave of cannabis entrepreneurs

Like contestants on a TV talent show, entrepreneurs are now acutely aware that a strong personal brand and ‘the journey’ they’re on can be crucial when it comes to people investing in their company, using their service or paying for their product. Everyone seemingly has a reason for going into business and very few now seem ready to admit it’s to make piles of cash.

There are many different theories about what it is that drives so many people to turn their hand to entrepreneurship. Some prominent business leaders, such as Richard Branson, believe that entrepreneurs are problem-solvers who require motivation beyond pure profit.

"If you’re driven only by the pursuit of wealth and fame, you’ve got your priorities in the wrong order, and you don’t stand much of a chance of making it in the long term," writes the Virgin Group founder. "On the other hand, if you boldly put purpose over profit, the latter will follow the former. I’m convinced of that."

Others may point to the element of control entrepreneurs are able to have over their lives, their desire for power or a thirst for risk-taking. Whichever way you look at it money is rarely the only factor in play, however it is almost ever-present.

One of the fastest growing sectors in the US, the legalised cannabis industry, has presented entrepreneurs from California to Colorado with the opportunity to make vast sums of money. Opening up shop in an almost untapped industry, which crucially, is not subject to the market pressures of big business, has proven to be rather lucrative for those brave enough to take the plunge.

Yet despite these obvious benefits our recent investigation into the industry has unearthed an eclectic mix of entrepreneurs, fuelled by a variety of genuine hopes and strongly-held beliefs.

Social impact

Roy Bingham, a serial entrepreneur who moved into the sector after seeing the strong business case, is founder of Boulder-based BDS Analytics – a cannabis industry analytics firm. He sees the role of the industry and the shift in legislation as key in bringing an end to the pain and suffering being caused by the much-maligned global war on drugs.

Read: Cannabis industry entrepreneurs and ever-changing regulations

"I was an economics student and from that standpoint I can see the war on drugs as a completely failed exercise. The legilsation was based on complete nonsense when it was introduced, only to be made worse by Nixon – everything he did should be undone. None of it has worked.

"We’ve seen millions of lives destroyed by possession of tiny amounts of marijuana. I think about myself, someone who went to Harvard Business School and has an MBA, imagine if I went to prison for that – how would I get my life back together and carry on my career? It would be very difficult. Now imagine being someone from the ghetto in Chicago with no qualifications, for example, who goes through the same thing. It would be impossible. We’re in a preposterous situation. Legalisation is a step in the right direction."

Rolling with the trailblazers

Outside of the social benefits, another common driver for participation in the industry is a passion for disruption. There’s an immense pride felt by many entrepreneurs at not just the hard work that has gone into making it a viable place to do business, but also at the almost unprecedented levels of innovation taking place.

"Being based in the industry feels like you are working with true pioneers of our generation, people stepped out and took a risk to get us where we are today. A lot of people went to jail and suffered the consequences for what they believed in – but look at where we are now," notes Keegan Peterson, CEO of payroll and human resources platform Wurk.

"There’s new people joining the industry all the time but there are also those who have been around for a long time, when you meet them it makes you feel really proud. That’s what’s so cool about this, when there is a cause to get behind everyone steps up. It’s very community driven. It’s also very unique, I’m surprised places like Harvard aren’t studying what’s going on as it’s so different from anything else out there. Just look at innovations like seed to sale tracking, that’s genuinely ground-breaking and not going on anywhere else."

The drive to stay relevant

One of the more unusual reasons for entering the industry can be found in Quantified Vapor founder, Mike Klodnicki. His product, a vaporizer with scientifically-backed accuracy to record consumption levels, was not only struggling to attract investors while positioned as a nicotine business, it was also running the risk of being taken off the market. He quickly realised that he needed to pivot in order to remain relevant.

Read: Inside America’s cannabis industry

"There’s a lot of regulatory pressure in the nicotine industry right now. There are big regulations from the FDA looming over the horizon. They will make it near-impossible for a new company to enter the nicotine industry, in terms of vaporizers at least. It will also make it difficult for existing companies to go through what’s required to stay on the market. This means we’ll probably see a lot of consolidation," explains Klodnicki.

"While there are of course regulatory issues to deal with in the cannabis industry, it’s not nearly the same sort of thing going on at the federal level. So there’s actually less regulations and more funding options here for us in the cannabis industry, it’s offering us a chance to grow."

Cultural awareness

For others, such as Natasha Irizarry, co-founder & CEO of Stashbox – a subscription based lifestyle product service, the end goal is breaking down barriers. "If we can help make this industry become more approachable, to not just women but anyone who may feel uncertain purchasing over the counter, then that would be success for Stashbox," she explains.

"There’s still a stigma around the industry, both in terms of working in it and being a customer. It doesn’t have to be like that. We started Stashbox to help people in general understand more about cannabis and the products available, but businesses can’t do it all. It would be great if the government put more money into producing independent research so there’s a great understanding of what it really all means."

With over a billion dollars of sales taken in Colorado alone last year, numbers which are expected to dramatically rise in 2016, there’s undoubtedly a lot more change on the horizon. If the enthusiasm, passion and good intentions of these cannabis industry entrepreneurs are at all representative of the wider market, then we can rest assured that the growth of this sector is in safe hands.

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