Ancillary services are a hot topic in the cannabis industry, as they are in many niche industries turning to B2B marketplaces to connect with specialized expertise and products.
Platforms such as Amazon Business, Flexport, SupplyHog and others have emerged to connect mainstream business sectors with the vendors and services they need, but things look a lot different in the cannabis space. The many disparate aspects of launching, running and scaling a cannabis business—and vetting dozens of service providers clamoring for your business—can feel like playing whack-a-mole blindfolded.
While a business consultancy can do some of the heavy lifting, there are reasons why this traditional “one-size-fits-all” approach is problematic. However, the rise of legalization is creating new avenues for founders in both established and emerging markets to take charge of their destiny and secure the services that truly meet their needs.
Understanding what’s available can help founders avoid pitfalls, from inadequate insurance coverage and predatory lenders to inexperienced service providers seeking to cash in on the “green gold rush.”
The Importance of Regulatory Knowledge
One reason B2B services look so different in the cannabis industry is because the industry itself is still rapidly evolving, as new state markets for medical cannabis and recreational adult use come online and states constantly amend their regulations. There’s also the sprawling scope of compliance requirements facing a cannabis operator, from securing tightly zoned real estate to building a facility with adequate security, to integrating into the state’s seed-to-sale tracking system.
It’s critical to engage with experts who are knowledgeable on the regulatory variances of the state (or states) where the business will operate. Someone who has experience interpreting cannabis regulations will know, for example, if you should have a real estate lease locked in prior to applying or if a particular state would prefer you move through the pre-opening process in a different order.
Another reason ancillary services are so important is that cannabis regulations aren’t standardized on the federal level or even state to state, which requires an especially deep, granular level of understanding of market trends and compliance demands. That can make the difference not only between a successful business launch and a swift nose dive, but also between a business surviving a major disaster or setback and becoming past tense.
Insurance and Lending Issues
Every business owner knows they need insurance, for example, but not every insurance broker knows what specific coverages to lock in to ensure a payout if a dispensary is vandalized or if a wildfire burns a grow operation to the ground. While federal legislation like the Clarifying Law Around Insurance of Marijuana (CLAIM) Act could one day make it easier for national insurance companies to serve legal cannabis businesses, currently criminal conduct exclusions can be used to keep plant-touching business owners from getting their full payout.
Not only does federal prohibition make it challenging for a cannabis business operator to find proper insurance coverage, access financial networks and establish employee benefits programs to keep industry jobs competitive, even seeking investment capital can leave cannabis companies exposed to unfavorable terms. Just look at the case of iAnthus, a multistate operator that claims to have been burned in a deal with Gotham Green Partners while looking for expansion funding.
So how can cannabis leadership locate and vet professional services, particularly in the critical startup stage when it feels like everything has to happen right away? That’s where the B2B marketplace trend comes in.
The Advent of Vendor-Agnostic B2B Marketplaces for Cannabis
While platforms such as Amazon Business have offerings for a variety of mainstream industries, they’re not tailored for cannabis. But there is a growing field of vendor-agnostic specialists helping cannabis founders make the right moves.
Necessity absolutely produced this particular innovation, which upends the traditional single-funnel consultancy model to instead create a village that can raise a variety of cannabis businesses. Vendor-agnostic consultancies are nimble and adaptable in a way that broad-scale platforms are not. And rather than being tied to a particular suite of products and service providers the way traditional business consultancies often are, the vendor-agnostic approach gives both consultants and cannabis founders much-needed flexibility.
In a cannabis B2B marketplace, a pool of inventory-tracking software vendors, for example, can be sorted to allow for easy comparison shopping based on whether the operator is a single-state startup looking for basic integration with the state compliance system, or an MSO that needs a more robust platform. And the customization extends from there—vertically integrated businesses versus standalone wholesale producers, plant-touching businesses versus other professional service providers and beyond.
As more and more industries specialize, it’s no wonder ancillary services are having a renaissance and replacing the traditional one-size-fits-all model popularized decades ago. But it’s also no wonder that the cannabis industry needs an especially unique approach to professional support for niche fields. The more this industry expands, the more founders and their B2B partners need to roll with their own solutions.
Founded in 2018, Bespoke Financial is the nation’s first fintech lender focused on the cannabis industry. Led by a premier team of experts in the credit, technology and cannabis industries, Bespoke Financial has financed more than $800M in GMV across the US cannabis industry and is on track to deploy $1B by end of year 2022 via their revolving lines of credit. Bespoke’s financing empowers cannabis companies to increase purchasing power, remove working capital limitations and accelerate growth in a rapidly growing industry. The company is backed by respected venture capital firms such as Casa Verde Capital, The General Partnership, Greenhouse Capital Partners and Ceres Group Holdings.
Bespoke recently entered into a milestone partnership with Blaze as the cannabis industry’s first tech-enabled B2B lending product available in CA & MA. Through this partnership, Bespoke and Blaze will be the first to bring “Buy Now Pay Later” to the industry. With just the click of a button, vendors can utilize this BNPL feature by paying directly within the Blaze platform via Bespoke’s financing with a 60-day repayment term on all vendor payments while minimizing dispensaries’ reliance on cash transactions.
We caught up with George Mancheril, co-founder and CEO of Bespoke Financial to learn more about trends in cannabis lending and their unique partnership with Blaze. George was the company’s CFO prior to taking the CEO position in 2019. Prior to Bespoke, George was a VP at Guggenheim Partners in California.
Aaron Green: What does it mean to be a fintech lender in cannabis?
George Mancheril:Bespoke Financial is a first mover in fintech lending for the cannabis industry, equipped with a robust network of investors, industry expertise and a multi-year track record solidifying our credibility in the space. We are focused on working with established cannabis companies who can use our financing to unlock growth, profitability, and success in the near- and long-term future.
Cannabis lenders must navigate a complex web of both cannabis and financing regulations, specific to each state, while trying to identify good borrowers in a nascent industry comprised of new companies. This has caused banks, traditional lenders, and institutional investors to avoid cannabis despite the unique growth opportunities and economic potential of the industry overall.
Green: What makes Bespoke different from other cannabis lenders in the business?
Mancheril: Unlike the few cannabis lenders active in the market, Bespoke Financial combines best-in-class technology and lending products designed to address the specific financing needs of the industry to better serve our clients. Our tech platform offers a simple interface for our clients to easily access financing, monitor loan balances, and manage payments. Bespoke’s technology allows us to service a broad array of clients in numerous markets across the US, offering our clients a reliable financing partner for their immediate and future needs.
Green: What markets do you serve in cannabis? Are you able to finance plant-touching operations?
Mancheril: Bespoke works with cannabis companies across the entire supply chain within 15 U.S. cannabis markets, with the vast majority of our borrowers being plant-touching operations, Our portfolio comprises cultivators, manufacturers, distributors, dispensaries, non-plant touching cannabis brands, ancillary service providers and CBD companies. Our financing options have helped a wide variety of cannabis operations overcome working capital limitations and capitalize on new growth opportunities and increase profitability.
Green: You recently announced a “Buy Now Pay Later” partnership with Blaze. What problems do dispensaries have that you are solving for there?
Mancheril: As broader economic activity slows in the US with the threat of a recession impacting both businesses and consumers, dispensaries face supply, demand, and fundraising challenges:
Consumer demand challenges:
Cannabis consumers in 2022 are significantly more price sensitive than recent years for several reasons.
High inflation over the past 1yr+ has reduced disposable income for consumers in the US.
Post-COVID return to normalcy has allowed consumers to spend disposable income on many goods and services which were largely been unavailable since the beginning of 2020 (ie travel).
Concern about a recession and slower wage growth has further reduced consumer spending.
Illicit cannabis has always been the main competition for legal dispensaries with little enforcement or curtailing of black-market activity to note in the US.
New cannabis consumers are gravitating towards smaller (but growing) product categories (edibles, concentrates, infused beverages, etc.) as opposed to just purchasing packaged flower. Dispensaries must carry a wide array of products and brands in order to better attract and service new and existing customers.
Supply side challenges:
Mature cannabis markets, such as California, have been saturated with over supply since Q2 2021 leading to inventory build ups and declining wholesale prices for cultivators, manufacturers, and brands (collectively referred to as suppliers). In this environment, suppliers are offering discounts to incentivize customers (i.e. dispensaries) who can:
Purchase larger quantities more frequently to allow suppliers to move inventory before the product quality degrades.
Pay COD for purchases as cashflow and capital are very important for suppliers during periods of economic stress.
Dispensaries without the financial means to conform to suppliers’ preferences will be at a considerable disadvantage as they will continue to have trouble sourcing popular products at the lowest possible cost.
Cannabis’ federal illegality has resulted in a much smaller universe of potential capital providers. Once a potential lender or investor is identified, typically the application process requires time and resources to complete which puts dispensaries in an especially disadvantageous position. Large MSOs, who tend to attract most of the available capital, can rely on internal finance teams to source capital whereas dispensaries are much more constrained and require a simpler, faster, and easier application process.
Our partnership with Blaze to offer B2B BNPL to dispensaries addresses these challenges and more. With access to our financing, dispensaries are empowered with:
Fast access to financing without a lengthy application process, entirely housed within the Blaze POS’ platform
Dispensaries on the Blaze platform do not need to seek out lenders or weigh various financing options.
No materials need to be gathered for the application.
At the click of a button, dispensaries gain access to capital which they are free to use as they see fit with no obligation.
Easy to understand financing
No obligation: dispensaries have full discretion to use our financing only when they choose.
No prepayment penalties or additional fees.
Increased purchasing power, enabling dispensaries to
Carry a wider array of cannabis products and brands to better service consumer needs.
Purchase a higher quantity of inventory from suppliers to qualify for volume-based discounts.
Pay COD for purchases to qualify for early payment discounts.
Offer lower prices to cautious consumers as a result of these discounts, thereby increasing sales and gross profit while strengthening their relationships with suppliers.
Green: Can you explain your decision to launch in CA and MA first?
Mancheril: While our ultimate goal is to offer B2B BNPL in all legal cannabis markets, we launched in CA and MA first because these states represent the largest and fastest growing markets in the US respectively. California was the first state that both Bespoke and Blaze launched in individually, so it was a natural starting point for our BNPL partnership. Massachusetts’ continued growth is compelling for any service provider and we believe our BNPL financing will be as successful addressing the needs and challenges in this newer market alongside those in more mature states.
Green: What trends are you seeing in US cannabis debt financing?
Mancheril: Since 2020, we’ve seen many MSOs increasingly rely on debt financing as opposed to equity capital. MSOs accounted for over ~80% of the debt raised over the past 2 years despite only representing a fraction of the broader cannabis market. Additionally, commercial real estate financing options for cannabis companies have increased over the same time period, driven by the growth of cannabis focused REITs. In general, by the end of 2021, we saw an increasing number of debt investors focused on higher yields participate in cannabis deals.
The recent macroeconomic volatility, increase in rates, and widening credit spreads in 2022 have slowed and slightly reversed the trends seen over the past 3 years. While banks and traditional lenders continue to wait for federal legalization, the vast majority of cannabis companies continue to have very limited access to debt financing options. Over the past quarter, we have seen debt investors leverage the recent illiquidity to negotiate higher interest rates and equity components in new debt deals, a trend we expect to continue until the broader economy strengthens or federal legalization gains traction.
At Bespoke, we empower entrepreneurs to grow their businesses without having to surrender control of their companies or visions. We are excited to continually be market leaders addressing this very vital need for cannabis companies of all sizes in all market environments.
Green: What trends are you following in US regulations and emerging markets?
Mancheril: The most recent headlines have been mixed for US cannabis regulations. Federal legalization is a huge point of focus with SAFE Banking failing (again) to survive the US Senate while the introduction of the revised CAOA offers a glimpse of hope. We believe federal regulatory changes will continue to be debated and discussed without any meaningful progress over the next 2 years but the current discussion of the CAOA revisions will provide the best insight on lawmakers’ priorities. On the local level, the list of states with adult-use sales continues to expand and we would expect to see a handful of new markets ushered in by voters in 2022.
Green: What would federal legalization mean for the cannabis lending industry? How do you stay ahead of the curve?
Mancheril: Federal legalization can occur in a variety of ways, including rescheduling cannabis (currently Schedule 1), descheduling cannabis entirely from the CSA, deferring to state specific regulation, implementing a national cannabis regulatory framework, or some combination of all of the above. The complexity of future regulatory changes makes the timeline for legalization difficult to forecast but we believe that the path forward will be comprised of multiple legislative changes over a number of years as opposed to a comprehensive reform addressing all the relevant points at once.
Based on the interests and goals of all stakeholders in this conversation, we believe that:
Cannabis de-scheduling or rescheduling is unlikely to occur before 2025
Any federal legislation which is approved will require long transition periods for new rules to be finalized, implemented, and adopted by relevant stakeholders (state regulators, courts, cannabis operators, financial institutions, etc.)
Federal lawmakers may allow for financial institutions to service the cannabis industry prior to de-scheduling through limited scope legislation like SAFE banking
Federal legislation will have a difficult time balancing deference to state specific cannabis regulation while enabling federal agencies such as the FDA and Treasury department to issue guidelines and rules for the broader industry. Too much federal agency interference will jeopardize existing & functioning cannabis markets while too much deference will impede vital oversight and consumer protection.
We believe interstate commerce will not be allowed immediately following federal legalization. Interstate commerce will benefit larger MSOs and states with mature cannabis markets (which are hampered by oversupply) at the expense of smaller single state operators and new markets. State governments are motivated to legalize cannabis in the pursuit of tax revenue and economic opportunity for their constituents, both of which would be significantly reduced for newer markets competing with out of state operators.
Regardless of which path federal legalization takes in the coming years, the net benefit for the industry overall will be clear. Setting aside the societal benefit from expunging criminal records for non-violent offenders and freeing enforcement agencies to focus on more serious issues, any progress towards legalization would significantly reduce the challenges that cannabis operators face today. Cannabis companies will see a reduction in operating expenses, a wider array of options for basic business services like insurance and marketing, and an increase in consumer demand as the stigma of illegality fades into memory. Allowing banks to service the industry would remove cash as the primary form of payment, entice larger pools of capital to enter the cannabis market, and in general de-risk the industry tremendously. Bespoke will continue in our role as market leader and cannabis industry advocate in this new paradigm by empowering our clients with even greater access to the capital and services vital to their continued success.
As your company grows, or whether you want to have certain documentation to make an application for licensure and/or for outside entities looking to invest, it is necessary to handle issues from a documentation standpoint. Learning how to handle situations with staff through proper employee manuals and how to establish and practice standard operating procedures can help businesses avoid common pitfalls with a little forethought.
Beginning with standard operating procedures (SOPs), there are many resources available to get assistance in crafting them. You can consult with individuals such as safety content producers, business consultants, lawyers, technical writers, and even borrowing SOP writers from other industries. I am aware of a Connecticut producer who tapped pharmaceutical SOP writers as consultants with the focus of establishing their standard operating procedures. I am not convinced that there is any proper person or method by which an entity may want to consider an SOP. As a threshold, however, it is important that a proper format is created, i.e., simple steps, hierarchical steps format or perhaps even a flow chart format.
One would want to consider the audience who will be reading the SOP and the information to impart to that audience. It is also important to consider SOPs that you want to update as practices evolve or change.
It is possible to create SOPs internally, and frankly, this may be the most recommended route. If the SOPs are being used for guidance and not just to support the license application process, this is particularly important. It is a time-consuming task and if created from the inside out, it can be most effective.
It is possible to get lost in the minutia by documenting every step taken within a particular process. I have seen SOPs number in the hundreds just for cultivation and processing operations. One particular entity in Colorado created over 63 SOPs within the past year. If you are writing your own SOPs, it is important to understand the scope and applicability, i.e. why a particular process is performed and how it is used, then the procedures and/or steps that are necessary to accomplish that particular process, clarify any terms that are necessary so that the reader is able to follow the steps throughout a particular outline, cover health and safety issues, address equipment and supplies and provide emergency procedures.
The process that I can attest to as being fruitful is interplay between an employee who is actually responsible for a given task and a third party looking from a 1000-foot view. For instance, have the employee who completes a number of tasks within the organization provide a list of what they do on a general day-to-day basis. From that list, have the third party extrapolate what topics might be covered, often times borrowing from other well known standard operating procedures that are seen across industries and come up with a master list of the SOPs which are desired. It is important for the employee and third party to collaborate to finalize SOPs.
Employee guides or manuals provide information on benefits, when time sheets are due, paydays, holidays, vacation days, sick days and more. For employees, it helps mitigate risk by providing guidelines for conduct, discipline, and local practices in the states in which you operate. Employee guides are most effective when they are created to match your company’s needs. When it is tailored to your company, you are certain that the policies meet the laws of the places where your offices and employees are located. It allows you to provide input so you can ensure that you have developed policies that your company will follow. Unwritten policies are unwise as they may cause issues and can potentially lead to lawsuits. There are three types of multi-state employee guides: a guide with favored nations status, meaning that the most liberal laws in one location apply to the entire organization; an employment guide for each location in which you operate; or you can create one guide with a local practice section.
Creation of employee guides is a time consuming and arduous practice, but once completed, they help guide the relationship between employee and employer. Employees should review the employee manual and sign off upon receipt and review. This will serve to protect the employer in the future should an issue covered by the manual arise.
An effective employee guide might include (but certainly not be limited to) the following:
An “employment at will” disclaimer
An anti-harassment policy
An internal grievance procedure
Equal Employment Opportunity (EEO)
Paid time off (vacation, personal days, sick leave)
Unpaid leaves of absence
Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) (for employers with more than 15 employees)
Jury duty, military leave
Hours of work
Legally mandated language concerning pay deductions
Proper E-mail/Internet usage
Drugs in the workplace
Social media policy
There are many other policies that would be included in order to comply with requirements that might be mandated by a particular regulatory scheme i.e. security compliance. The guide should be a living, breathing document that evolves over time based on new knowledge, changes in laws and business fluidity.
Both standard operating procedures and employee manuals or guides are integral to the viability of a cannabis related business whether a hands on the plant license holder or an ancillary company. I encourage my clients to craft self-created content that they have invested their time and knowledge into, with some help where necessary. Purchasing forms online does not provide a workable format and will only lead to problems in the future. You get what you put in and creating these documents internally and from the ground up gives more control to the business.
There are a few business accelerator programs that currently exist in the cannabis space, but Greenhouse Ventures (GHV), based in downtown Philadelphia, seeks to fill a gap in helping ancillary businesses get off the ground. Through a ten-week, 90-hour curriculum, program, Greenhouse Ventures assists startups by increasing their business model sophistication.
“The program consists of three hour sessions, three nights a week, for ten weeks, covering topics such as general business development, go-to-market strategy, growth strategy, capital formation, legal & financial due diligence, fundraising, valuation, and exit opportunities,” says Tyler Dautrich, founder of Greenhouse Ventures. Business startups in the program are paired with industry experts who serve as mentors providing advice, guidance and strategic introductions.
The program culminates in a pitch event where the startups are given the opportunity to pitch potential investors and advisors in an effort to strategically advance their business model. According to Dautrich, Greenhouse Ventures’ overall mission is to increase the level of business sophistication of ancillary startups.
They differentiate themselves from other startup accelerators like Canopy Boulder and MJIC’s Gateway by using a curriculum-driven program. Participants in the accelerator work closely with GHV staff, industry services providers and industry experts to learn exactly what they need to secure capital and get their business to the next stage.
According to Dautrich, Greenhouse Ventures also differs from other accelerators because they are not an investment fund. “We do not invest any capital into any portfolio companies at this time,” says Dautrich. GHV does however invest $60,000 worth of services into each portfolio company and only takes an average of 5% common, non-voting rights, stock. “The goal is for the companies in the accelerator to validate some, if not all, their initial assumptions and prove that the company can progress without that capital infusion” adds Dautrich. “This serves as a great due diligence process for potential investors.”
The program successfully completed its pilot semester in December of 2015 with three ancillary businesses in the cannabis industry. The second semester will launch this Spring in the end of April and Greenhouse Ventures will be accepting up to 10 ancillary companies for its second semester. The application window is currently open for the spring semester.
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