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User-Generated Data Brings Revenue: It’s Time for the Users to Get Some

By Dr. Markus Roggen, Amanda Assen, Dr. Tom Dupree
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You generate the product, you should benefit from it too.

If you are not paying for the service, you are the product. This pithy phrase is often heard in discussions about social media’s use of personal information and user-generated content. The idea can be traced back to a 1973 short film that critiques television’s impact on culture and politics. Although about television, the quote, “you are the end product delivered en masse to the advertiser,” still rings true when talking about major online corporations.

We have all seen it with big corporations. In the first three months of 2021, of Facebook’s $26.2B revenue, a whopping $25.4B was from advertising sales. However, the space for an advertisement to be delivered en masse to the public is not the only thing purchased from Facebook. Access to personal information such as your search history, likes and posts are also purchased by companies to determine which advertisements they should target you with.Access to user-generated data by advertisers has sparked privacy and ownership concerns regarding large internet platforms. The idea of being surveilled all the time is uncomfortable, and many large corporations like Facebook have royalty-free and transferable licenses to your posts.

Similarly, many websites in the cannabis industry gain value from information submitted by consumers. As an example, the website Leafly provides over 1.3 million consumer product reviews that are often used for purchasing decisions. These reviews play a role in attracting more people to websites that operate with a similar system to Leafly, and in turn advertising space to reach those people is sold. According to their About page, more than 4.5 million orders for advertising space are placed with businesses on Leafly each year, generating annually about $460 million in gross merchandise value. So, the users work for free to attract an audience to these websites for the advertisers, and the websites make money from advertisers.

Can we empower users with ownership of their content, data and participation in profits?

Frustrated social media users exclaiming “We are the product!” does nothing to change our reality. It is unlikely we will change how big corporations like Facebook work, but can we ensure users receive some of the benefits in our own cannabis industry? Many of these websites, especially those for medicinal cannabis, are designed to genuinely help users. Can we further increase this feeling of having a transaction with the websites rather than feel like we are being sold to advertisers? The world of NFTs may offer some guidance.

An NFT (or non-fungible token) acts as a digital certificate of authenticity. Unlike cryptocurrencies (like Bitcoin), each NFT is unique, so it cannot be exchanged or multiplied. They are kept on a blockchain system, which is a growing list of computationally secure ledgers. The blockchain allows proof of ownership to be established for the person with the NFT, and prevents others from being able to tamper with or claim ownership of the artwork, game, tweet or cat picture it is assigned to. Although non-exchangeable, NFTs can be traded on a digital marketplace, like how a physical piece of art can be auctioned.

While NFTs and cryptocurrencies are certainly not without controversy and flaws, an NFT-like system that provides users with proof of ownership for their data and grants them control over what is done with it may be the way of the future for websites in the cannabis industry. Just like Facebook, when it comes to sales, online display advertisements are some of the top revenue generators for websites in the cannabis industry that utilize user-generated content. With an NFT-like system, users could be granted a royalty for their content, which would obligate websites to give a portion of their profits to the users when their content is sold to an advertiser. Users may be able to have a portfolio of their generated content, have some control over who can access their content and who their personal data can be sold to.

Websites that are more focused on cannabis for medicinal use often pride themselves on being more patient-focused and professional – no pothead puns or crass logos. An NFT-like system might be especially beneficial for these companies, as it would further increase the emphasis of trust and respect for users. In this case, an NFT-like system could be used to assign ownership of reviews to individual website users. Since these reviews attract new people to these websites, when access to a user’s data is sold to advertisement companies, then a portion of that revenue is given to the people who created the reviews. The estimated amount of revenue that reviewers help to bring into the company can be calculated and distributed accordingly. While this may seem like it would cause a significant loss of revenue for the websites, the increased trust that would come with this system would likely promote more users, generating an overall increase in revenue and credibility. Users could become more engaged and spend more time writing reviews, increasing web traffic considerably. Advertisers would be more attracted to the larger audience and the prestige of having their advertisement on a well-respected site.

An NFT-like system could hold large internet corporations accountable.

The new normal is corporations on the internet making money from the content created by users. In return, users receive none of the monetary benefits and have their personal information shared with hundreds of businesses. An NFT-like system, although theoretical, may be able to empower users to hold large corporations accountable for what is done with user-generated data. It is unlikely we can change big companies like Facebook, but if adopted early, this may be plausible in our cannabis industry. This in turn may not only give more ownership to the website users, but could also benefit the websites, and the advertisers. Overall, the product should be the website and the services it provides. An NFT-like system might help promote this and could make users who generate value for the website partners in business.

Buyer Beware For Distressed Cannabis Assets

By Joanne Molinaro, Geoffrey S. Goodman, Ronald Eppen
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The legalized cannabis industry remains a budding market in the United States. As the legislative dominoes started to cascade from state-to-state across the country, entrants of all categories—operators, investors, lenders, and retailers—were willing to stand in line for their tickets.  However, signs of fatigue, caused largely by the continuing murkiness of regulatory guidance and investors’ waning appetite for reading the legislative crystal ball, were already surfacing towards the end of 2018 and continued its slide downward into 2019. From March 2019, market capitalization for the 33 biggest cannabis stocks was down 45% by the end of 2019, falling from $54 billion to $30 billion and projected revenues dropped a whopping 17% as well.

Has COVID Made Things Worse?

Against this backdrop, COVID-19 arrived on the scene. Surprisingly (or perhaps not), cannabis seemed to be somewhat insulated from unprecedented disruptions to supply chains and artificial nose dives in demand. Many operators noted a sharp uptick in sales as states implemented shelter-in-place orders. Ironically, the supply chain hurdles created by the lack of federal legalization rendered operators—even multistate operators (MSOs)—uniquely equipped to handle the supply chain woes that others were struggling to contain. Meanwhile, as more and more states slapped the essential label onto both medical and adult use cannabis, operators were permitted to run business as usual (under the circumstances) and legalized cannabis started to look a little more “normal” in the most abnormal of times.

Thus, for a moment, cannabis looked like it might be a counter indicator (or recession-resilient)—while others were going down, cannabis was going up. But, after this brief surge, sales settled down and states began reporting decreases from this time last year and the outlook for the cannabis industry remains unclear.

Is This An Opportunity?

Declining demand, coupled with the issues described above, spells cash-flow problems for cannabis companies – many of which are still relative “infants” compared to their consumer goods counterparts and thus may have yet to create a “rainy day fund.” However, liquidity issues can create opportunities for those who still have cash to inject. In the last year, 13 special-purpose acquisition companies (SPACs) have listed on exchanges with an eye towards “cheap cannabis assets.”Cheap cannabis assets (or distressed cannabis assets) can offer a lowered barrier to entry into what many still believe to be a bull market. However, investors should proceed with caution. While the assets themselves may bear bargain basement price tags as the world grapples with the current recession, the cost of entry is more onerous than many realize. It is thus critical for potential investors to do their pre-due diligence on the who, what, when, where and how of acquiring distressed cannabis assets.

Where Do Distressed Cannabis Companies Go?

Ordinarily, distressed companies requiring capital restructuring look towards the US Bankruptcy Code. Deploying the broad injunctive relief afforded by the automatic stay as both a sword and shield, ailing companies can focus on lining up debtor-in-possession financing while they prospect feasible long-term exit strategies (through a reorganization, asset sale, or some combination of the two). The other major advantage of a chapter 11 is, of course, the “free and clear” order—the veritable clean slate provided by a federal court to good faith purchasers of the distressed assets that allow buyers to proceed with very few strings attached.

These federal benefits are not available to adult use and medical cannabis companies (hemp companies can file for chapter 11). Indeed, some bankruptcy courts have shut the door on not just the operators themselves, but companies that have even tangential dealings with cannabis companies.  With federal legalization, that will likely change; however in the meantime, distressed cannabis companies must look to pseudo-bankruptcy proceedings that offer some of the benefits that a federal bankruptcy can.

Is A State Receivership A Good Restructuring Vehicle For Distressed Cannabis Companies?

The number one option for many distressed cannabis companies will be state receivership. Much like a chapter 11 bankruptcy, the receivership provides for a stay against actions against the company’s assets, i.e., the breathing space it needs to hatch a plan for rehabilitation or exit the game as painlessly as possible. The receiver will be empowered to run the business while ironing out its operational/cash issues or conduct an orderly sale of the assets, usually through an auction process, during which the secured lender will be afforded the right to credit bid. The costs associated with that sale may be charged to the sale proceeds. Thus, in many ways, the state receivership acts like a federal bankruptcy.

How Is A State Receivership Different From A Federal Bankruptcy?

There are two main differences that investors should be aware of between a federal bankruptcy and a state receivership.

As with anything else that’s up for sale, where there’s a will, there’s a way.First, the court appointed receiver (often handpicked by the company’s primary secured lender) will be calling most of the shots from an operational, transactional, and financial perspective. That receiver may not have the kind of operational know-how of running a cannabis company that a typical debtor-in-possession might, making any major transaction more challenging. Even if the receiver has some background in the cannabis industry, he or she will still have a steep learning curve when it comes to the company’s specific business.

Second, the laws vary from state to state on whether a receiver can sell assets free and clear of any and all liens, claims, and encumbrances without the consent or satisfaction of those claims. Accordingly, buyers of distressed cannabis assets will want to take a close look at potential successor liability risks on a state-by-state basis.

Can Anyone Buy Or Invest In Distressed Cannabis Assets?

While many industries offer pay to play options for investors and lenders, the cannabis industry may not be as welcoming. Many lenders eyeing potentially lucrative refinancing possibilities that include an “equity kicker” (e.g., warrants) should be aware that states and municipalities often require investors aiming to own or control a substantial portion of the company’s business to satisfy most, if not all, of the regulatory requirements for holding the various licenses for operating in the cannabis space. For those interested in MSOs, a deep dive into each applicable state or city’s licensing requirements will be necessary.  Similarly, many states have onerous disclosure requirements for owners or financial interest holders of cannabis companies. Failures to disclose can lead to license suspensions or even forfeitures.

These are just some of the hurdles potential investors and lenders may need to scale. But as with anything else that’s up for sale, where there’s a will, there’s a way.