By Abraham Finberg, Simon Menkes, Rachel Wright No Comments
Although Rhode Island is the USA’s smallest state, it has traditionally taken an out-sized dislike for cannabis and its users. It first banned cannabis in 1918 and, up until recently, had some of the strictest mandatory minimum sentences for large-scale possession, sentencing those with more than 5 kg (11 lbs) to 20 years’ imprisonment and fines of between $25,000 and $100,000.
Rhode Island’s Change of Heart
These days, however, the Ocean State has turned over a new leaf. It legalized medical cannabis in 2006, and on May 25, 2022, legalized adult use sales as well. Starting in December 2022, Rhode Island residents could purchase cannabis from five of the six medical cannabis dispensaries across the state which have also been approved to sell to adults.
Over the course of 2023, the state is expected to issue licenses for an additional 28 dispensaries, including a portion reserved for social equity applicants and worker-owned cooperatives. At the same time, 33 cities and towns across Rhode Island voted to determine whether cannabis businesses would be allowed in their jurisdiction. 25 of these municipalities ended up approving these measures.
Like many retail-legal states, Rhode Island has enacted social equity support for cannabis licensees. The state is divided into six retail license zones, and within each zone, one retail license will be reserved for a social equity applicant and one for a worker-owned cooperative. In addition, the state’s cannabis legislation provides for a $1 million fund to help support the social equity license recipients. Funded by all fees collected from adult-use cannabis businesses, this assistance fund will provide grants, promote job training and workforce development, and administer programming for restorative justice. The legislation also establishes a process whereby individuals may have their misdemeanor or felony convictions for cannabis possession expunged.
How Tax-Friendly Toward Cannabis is Rhode Island?
The Ocean State still has a way to go to be considered a truly cannabis-friendly state. For one thing, the state is forcing both individuals and corporations to conform to Internal Revenue Code section 280E which disallows deductions and credits for expenditures connected with trafficking in controlled substances under the Controlled Substances Act, schedule 1 or 2. This means cannabis companies will only be permitted to reduce their sales by cost of goods sold when determining their taxable income on their state tax returns unless they decide to take more aggressive tax positions. For example, with a conservative IRC 280E tax position, a cannabis dispensary would only be allowed to deduct the cost of the product purchased and the cost to transport the product to the dispensary, while disallowing such significant expenses as rent and payroll. All cannabis businesses must forgo expense deductions related to selling, general and administrative expenses, as they are disallowed under the tax code under this traditional method. Rhode Island has also disallowed cannabis businesses from taking an R&D tax credit as a result of conformity with federal tax law.
In addition, Rhode Island is requiring retailers to collect 10% state cannabis excise tax plus 3% local cannabis excise tax from its customers, along with the standard 7% sales tax. Good news: sales tax is not calculated on the excise tax collected (unlike California, which does impose tax-on-tax). Medical sales are subject to sales tax but not to excise tax, and excise tax is not charged on cannabis accessories. Excise tax, like sales tax, must be remitted to the state by the dispensary on or before the 20th of the following month.
Rhode Island has taken a big step forward from its anti-cannabis past by legalizing adult use sales and by supporting equity applicants as well as the expungement of past criminal convictions for many of those victimized by the war on cannabis. While Rhode Island’s excise taxes are not the worst we’ve seen, the state’s support of 280E will make it a lot harder for cannabis businesses to thrive.
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.
Federal regulations have made compliant credit processing in the cannabis industry difficult to achieve. As a result, most cannabis retailers operate a cash-only model, limiting their ability to upsell customers and placing a burden on customers who might rather use credit. While some dispensaries offer debit, credit or cashless ATM transactions, regulators and traditional payment processors have been cracking down on these offerings as they are often non-compliant with regulations and policies.
Two companies, KindTap Technologies and Aeropay, are addressing the cannabis industry’s payment processing challenges with innovative digital solutions geared towards retailers and consumers.
We interviewed both Cathy Corby Iannuzzelli, president at KindTap Technologies and Daniel Muller, CEO at Aeropay. Cathy co-founded KindTap in 2019 after a career in the banking and payments industries where she launched multiple financial and credit products. Daniel founded AeroPay in 2017 after a career in digital product innovation, most recently at GPShopper (acquired by Financial), where he oversaw the design and development of over 300 web and mobile applications for large scale Fortune 500 companies.
Green: What is the biggest challenge your customers are facing?
Iannuzzelli: Our customers include both cannabis retailers and their end consumers. As long as cannabis is illegal at the federal level, normal payment solutions such as debit and credit cards cannot be accepted for cannabis purchases. This has resulted in heavy cash-based sales and unstable, transient work-around ATM payment solutions that can be ripped out with little notice, disrupting the entire business. The lack of a mature payment network to support retail payments for cannabis purchases is a huge challenge for all stakeholders. Cannabis retailers bear the high cost and safety issues of operating a heavily cash-based retail business. Consumers encounter several friction points that require them to change their behavior when purchasing cannabis relative to how they purchase everything else.
Muller: Our cannabis business customers have faced a constantly changing and, frankly, exhausting financial services environment. From the need to move and manage large amounts of cash, to card workarounds, added to the disappointment from legislation around the SAFE Banking Act, these inconsistencies have acted as a roadblock to their potential growth and profitability. Aeropay is in the position to be a stable, long-term, reliable payments partner ready to help them scale their businesses. We believe these opportunities are limitless.
Green: What geographies have got your attention and why?
Iannuzzelli: KindTap’s focus is on the U.S. market where federal policy has created the need for alternatives to traditional payment networks. KindTap is available in every U.S. state where cannabis is legally sold. In terms of our distribution channels, KindTap’s digital payment solution was brought to market during the COVID-19 pandemic when curbside pick-up and delivery became critically important. These channels are where the exchange of cash at pick-up posed the greatest security risk to employees and customers. Our early integrations were with e-commerce platforms focused on delivery and pick-up orders, and our integration partners have strong customer bases in California and the northeast. So, while KindTap can provide its “Pay Later” lines of credit and “Pay Now” bank account solutions anywhere, we have heavier penetration in those regions.
Muller: California, for its established tech culture and how it plays into the cannabis industry – your product simply has to live up to their tech standards to be heard. Also, Chicago, our headquarters, with its newly emerged commitment to financing the cannabis industry and bringing with it a more traditional business approach. In Chicago, you have to have elevated standards of professional practices in any industry you enter. And of course, we love to watch emerging markets like New York and Florida as they head towards adult-use and what shape cannabis and payments will take.
Green: What are the broader industry trends you are following?
Iannuzzelli: We continue to see a strong transition from cash and ATM transactions over to digital payments. Since KindTap has a fully-integrated payment “button” on e-commerce checkout screens, the adoption rate of end consumers to that one-click experience is quite strong. We are also seeing trends of more “express lines” in the retail environment – for those KindTap users who paid online/ahead – and faster/safer delivery experiences to people’s homes since there is no longer the need to collect any payment upon delivery. We are firm believers in the delivery/digital payments combination and a strong increase of that trend as more states allow for delivery.
Muller: The cannabis industry is starting to normalize payments and mirror traditional online and brick-and-mortar. With bank-to-bank (ACH) payments, cannabis businesses can now offer modern customer shopping experiences including pre-payment for delivery orders without the need for a cash exchange at the door, offering the option to buy online pickup in-store and contactless in-store QR scan-to-pay customer experiences. With these familiar and customer-driven options now available, we are seeing widespread adoption, as well as meaningful increases in spend and returning customers.
Green: Thank you both. That concludes the interview!
About KindTap: KindTap Technologies, LLC operates a financial technology platform that offers credit and loyalty-enabled payment solutions for highly-regulated industries typically driven by cash and ATM-based transactions. KindTap offers payment processing and related consumer applications for e-commerce and brick-and-mortar retailers. Founded in 2019, the company is backed by KreditForce LLC plus several strategic investors, with debt capital provided by U.S.-based institutions. Learn more at kindtaptech.com.
About AeroPay: AeroPay is a financial technology company reimagining the way money is moved in exchange for goods and services. Frustrated with the current, antiquated payments landscape, we believe there is a better way to pay and a better way to get paid. AeroPay set out to build a payments platform that works for all- businesses, consumers, and their communities. Learn more at aeropay.com.
Federal regulations have made compliant credit processing in the cannabis industry difficult to achieve. As a result, most cannabis retailers operate a cash-only model, limiting their ability to upsell customers and placing a burden on customers who might rather use credit. While some dispensaries offer debit, credit or cashless ATM transactions, regulators and payment processors have recently been cracking down on these offerings as they are often non-compliant with regulations and policies.
KindTap Technologies, LLC operates a financial technology platform that offers credit and loyalty-enabled payment solutions for highly regulated industries typically driven by cash and ATM-based transactions. KindTap offers payment processing and related consumer applications for e-commerce and brick-and-mortar retailers. Founded in 2019, the company is backed by KreditForce LLC plus several strategic investors, with debt capital provided by U.S.-based institutions.
We interviewed Cathy Corby Iannuzzelli, co-founder and chief payments officer at KindTap Technologies. Cathy co-founded KindTap after a career in the banking and payments industries where she launched multiple financial and credit products.
Aaron Green: Cathy, thanks for taking the time today. How did you get involved in the cannabis industry?
Cathy Corby Iannuzzelli: I’ve been in the payments industry for a long time. I was doing some consulting a few years ago for a client in Colorado and that gave me exposure to the issues in cannabis like the fact that you couldn’t have real payments in cannabis. Then, a close family member with health issues turned to medical cannabis when nothing else seemed to work. I was amazed by the difference it made in her life. At that point, I put those two things together and I said, I need to focus on helping this industry get a real cannabis payments solution because I thought it was ridiculous that you had an industry of this size and importance that had been abandoned by the payments industry.
Aaron Green: Can you highlight some of your background prior to entering cannabis?
Corby Iannuzzelli: Throughout my career, I’ve been a banker, I’ve been a payment processing executive and I’ve been a consultant. So, I’ve kind of done it all in the payments and financial services space.
Aaron Green: Why is it that most dispensaries only take cash?
Corby Iannuzzelli: In the US, even though cannabis is legal in many states, it’s still illegal federally. There are big banks and card networks like Visa, MasterCard, etc., who are national, even global companies and frankly, the executives of those companies don’t want to end up in jail for violating national laws. So, they have put cannabis dispensaries on what’s called a “prohibited merchants” list. This means you cannot accept Visa, MasterCard, Discover, American Express, or similar payments as a cannabis business and so it’s forcing the industry to a cash-based solution.
About the only thing you’re seeing that’s not cash in dispensaries are ATMs. But if you think about it, ATMs are machines where the consumer goes and pulls cash out and pays upwards of $5 or more in fees for doing that. They then hand that cash back to the dispensary who then has the costs of having to deal with that cash. The industry is just stuck in a cash-based business until federal legislation changes.
Aaron Green: I’ve been to some dispensaries where they accept credit cards or debit cards. What is going on there?
Corby Iannuzzelli: I’ve heard reports of consumers who’ve been able to use a credit card or a debit card in a dispensary. Sometimes the processor who sold that solution to the dispensary says, “Oh, it’s compliant, I guarantee you it’s compliant.” But if you dig in, that’s not the case. And eventually, Visa or MasterCard figures it out and shuts it down. In some cases, it’s outright fraud where the processor who sold the payment terminal to the dispensary is misrepresenting it as say a doctor’s office rather than a dispensary. There’s no merchant category code in the payment networks that says this is for processing dispensary payments, so they pretend it’s something else until they get shut down.
When they do get shut down, I’ve heard of cases in Las Vegas where it was basically 100% Visa or MasterCard one day and 100% cash the next day. It completely disrupted the whole business. It’s not just the retail store, but the inventories and everything else throughout the business.
There have also been some cases where you’ll see something called a cashless ATM. In a store, they call it a debit card transaction. It’s really a cashless ATM where the consumer is making what looks to the ATM network like a cash withdrawal in $10 or $20 increments, but the consumer is getting a receipt instead of cash, and they’re turning around and handing that receipt back to the dispensary who then makes a change because the cashless ATM only dispensed in $10 or $20 increments.
Now ATM networks are looking at these cashless ATM transactions to see if they are compliant. Do consumers know the fees that they’re paying? Are these transactions coming in and looking to the network like real cash when it’s not? Cashless ATM transactions are probably the most common thing you see, but that’s being called into question after the Eaze incident where a large company was misrepresenting its terminals. The federal government stepped in and called it bank fraud and the individuals behind it, the executives, are in jail. Since then, the networks are looking at this and saying, what about these cashless ATMs? Are those transactions within our rules, or is there something funny going on here?
Aaron Green: So, to summarize here: you’ve got federal regulations at the national level that says that cannabis banking is not allowed so major institutions are not offering it. Yet you found a way through the regulations and compliance issues. I’m curious can you pull back the curtains a little bit and tell us how you came up with a solutionhere?
Corby Iannuzzelli: Well, we came up with the solution by stubbornly refusing to believe that cannabis payment processing could not be done in a compliant manner. We just said, “there is a compliant way to do this, let’s figure it out.” We took the same components that are out there for the financial services and payments industry and reassembled them in such a way that we do not violate any rules. We do not use any of the Visa, MasterCard, Discover or Amex rails, we built our own network. We have direct contracts with the merchants and direct contracts with the consumers. We control everything and all the funds flow through regulated financial institutions. So, we designed something that looks and acts to consumers and retailers the way Visa and MasterCard look and act when a consumer goes to make a purchase, but they run on a separate set of payment rails and in compliance with banking regulations and state regulations. When you’re looking at the problem from a different perspective, sometimes you can come up with a better answer.
Green: On the consumer side, what does that user experience look like?
Corby Iannuzzelli: Our product is completely digital. The consumer experience starts with integration at the online checkout. When it’s an e-commerce shopping cart and somebody is placing an order, they will see a button called “Pay with KindTap.” The first time they click that button they’re automatically brought to our integrated web app where they do a quick and easy application for our digital revolving line of credit product. If approved, they instantly go back to the checkout screen and their first purchase will just happen immediately, with flexible payment options over time. If the consumer decides they don’t want our KindTap credit and would rather have a pay now-product where we pull the funds from their bank account, then the consumer can do so. So, there is no physical card per se, it’s integrated like PayPal or Affirm at the point of checkout online. For the consumers who use KindTap credit, there is a mobile app where they can see their transactions, view statements, pay their bills, etc.
Additionally, there is a loyalty program for all purchases – KindTap credit or through the consumer’s bank, because we feel very strongly that a lot of the reasons consumers choose to pay with one card over another is the points and the rewards that they get. So, we’re providing loyalty rewards with KindTap so that consumers can get rewarded for that spending with KindTap and it’s better for the retailers.
Green: On the retailer side, what does that experience look like and what is your business model?
Corby Iannuzzelli: We are not going store by store doing integrations, rather, we’re integrating with various software, delivery and e-commerce providers. That gives us broad reach and ability to expand rapidly in various state markets where cannabis is legal. Once a merchant says “yes, I want to be a member of the KindTap Merchant Network,” then we work to get them set up on our platform in a matter of days. The merchants receive continuous support from our success team, marketing co-investment and a depth of analytics reporting. We made the entire process and ongoing operations streamlined and frictionless for both merchants and consumers.
Aaron Green: What are the benefits of moving from cash to credit type of payments?
Corby Iannuzzelli: On the retail side, there are the obvious benefits of not having all the security, safety and theft issues associated with operating a physical cash business. Consumers very often don’t carry cash anymore, except when they’re making a cannabis purchase. There are a lot of hidden costs to retailers because payments are not just about moving money from the consumer to the business.
“I really am optimistic that with so many scientific breakthroughs we’ve had that we’re going to be able to figure this out.”Payment options – or lack thereof – can shape where people shop, how much they spend and what they buy. It’s a proven science how consumers make impulse purchases. If you’re a cash-based business in cannabis, and you’re trying to get somebody to make an impulse purchase, and they walked in with $100, then you can’t get them to spend more than $100, no matter how creative your marketing is! The consumer is limited by how much cash they have in their bank account or in their pocket at that point in time. So, it’s really about the upsell that comes with the bigger basket sizes that retailers experience when you move from a cash-based business to credit and suddenly, the merchant doesn’t have to deal with long lines of consumers on payday when the store was beyond slow two days before. Now the consumer can spread purchases with the thinking, “I’d rather not be the one standing in that line on payday. I’m going to go Wednesday [instead of Friday] because I have KindTap credit so I can budget and manage my cash flow throughout the month rather than around my paydays.”
So, we think that the lack of an efficient and effective payment system for cannabis is holding back sales. We all focus on how much the industry is growing. KindTap thinks about how much faster it could be growing if it was supported by a decent payment system.
Aaron Green: What are some other cash-only markets you are looking at?
Corby Iannuzzelli: We are laser-focused on the cannabis ecosystem and bringing a compliant credit and loyalty-based digital payments solution to cannabis merchants and customers and rewarding those stakeholders for accepting/using KindTap. Additionally, we are planning to extend the KindTap Merchant Network so that consumers can use/earn our loyalty points with other goods and services they’re purchasing that are adjacent to cannabis or that are important to the cannabis consumer. That’s the direction we’re going.
Aaron Green: Today people can receive gas points for spending with their credit card. Now with KindTap, you can spend to get cannabis points?
Corby Iannuzzelli: That’s exactly right.
Aaron Green: What in either cannabis or your personal life are you most interested in learning about?
Corby Iannuzzelli: Personally, I am most interested in seeing breakthrough technologies in climate change. We’re going to need to correct this situation and I’m reading about collecting carbon dioxide from the air and burying it in the earth and things like that. I really am optimistic that with so many scientific breakthroughs we’ve had that we’re going to be able to figure this out. Certainly, it’s going to take a lot of smart people and a lot of investment, but I really look forward to watching them do their stuff and hopefully taking us out of this nightmare situation that we’re heading into if we don’t make some changes.
Aaron Green: Thanks Cathy, that concludes the interview.
Bespoke Financial was the first licensed FinTech lender focused on the legal cannabis industry. Founded in June of 2018, Bespoke offers four types of lending products: Invoice financing, inventory financing, purchase money financing and a general line of credit. With just over two years of originating loans to clients, they have benefitted from being a first mover in the cannabis lending space.
George Mancheril is the founder and CEO of Bespoke Financial. He has over fourteen years of experience in finance, with a special focus on asset-based lending, off balance sheet financing of commercial assets and structured credit. Following a stint with Goldman Sachs, he worked at Guggenheim Partners Investment Management’s Structured Credit Group in Los Angeles where he worked on structuring esoteric asset financing for a variety of commercial assets including airplanes, container leases and receivables.
Since 2018, Mancheril and his team at Bespoke Financial have deployed over $120 million in principal advances without any defaults and across eleven states. We sat down with Mancheril and asked him about the history of his business, how it’s been received so far and how the past few years of financial activity in the cannabis sector might shape the future.
Cannabis Industry Journal: What is Bespoke Financial in a nutshell?
George Mancheril: Bespoke Financial is the first licensed FinTech lender focused on the legal cannabis industry. Bespoke offers legal cannabis businesses revolving lines of credit that address the top problem in the industry – lack of access to non-dilutive, scalable financing to capitalize on growth opportunities and improve profitability. Due to the federal illegality of cannabis, traditional banking institutions cannot work with our clients even though these operators are working within the legal regulatory framework of their state. Bespoke solves this problem for businesses across the cannabis supply chain along with ancillary companies affected by the lack of access to traditional capital markets.
CIJ: How does your company help cannabis businesses?
Mancheril: Bespoke Financial offers 4 lending products – all are structured as a revolving line of credit but each allows our clients to access capital in a unique way based on their specific needs. Our Invoice Financing product, allows businesses to borrow capital against their Accounts Receivables in order to manage general business expenses, particularly if the borrower’s business growth is slowed due to a long cashflow conversion cycle. Inventory Financing and Purchase Money Financing allow our clients to finance payments to their vendors, which helps our clients achieve economies of scale by increasing their purchasing power. Lastly our general Line of Credit allows for the most flexibility for our clients to utilize our financing by either financing payments made directly to vendors or drawing funds into the client’s bank account to manage business expenses.
CIJ: I know the company is only a few years old, but can you tell me about your company’s success so far?
Mancheril: [Clarification, Bespoke was founded in June 2018 so we’ve been around for 3 years but we now have over 2 years of originating loans to clients.] Bespoke Financial has benefitted by being a first mover in the cannabis lending space as the first licensed lender specifically addressing the financing needs of cannabis operators, starting in early 2019. Over the past 2 years we have developed and refined our proprietary underwriting model to identify over 50 active clients spanning the entire cannabis supply chain. Since inception, Bespoke has deployed over $120 million in principal advances without any defaults to date and expanded our geographic footprint across 11 states. Our growth and success highlights our company’s expertise in structuring financing solutions which address the unique capital needs of cannabis companies.
CIJ: Can you discuss how the recent M&A activity, current and recent market trends, as well as the pandemic has affected your company’s growth?
Mancheril: The cannabis industry overcame a variety of challenges presented by the COVID-19 pandemic, ending the year with record sales in both new and existing markets. The support from state and local governments, evidenced by the industry’s essential business designation and the easing of regulations, coupled with increasing consumer adoption of cannabis combined to increase the industry’s demand for capital throughout the pandemic. Bespoke was well positioned to partner with cannabis companies across the supply chain and was proud to help our clients thrive during this pivotal period.
Coming into 2021, the cannabis industry and investors shared a very positive outlook for the future based on the previous year’s experience and expectations of material easing of federal regulation. While M&A activity in the industry has increased over the past 6 months, the overall consensus has been that both the frequency of exit opportunities and the corresponding valuations will continue to increase as federal decriminalization opens new sources of capital and materially changes investors’ valuation assumptions. In general, we’ve seen cannabis companies focused on both capitalizing on the increasing opportunity presented by the industry’s organic growth and maximizing the benefits of future regulation changes by utilizing the resources and capital currently available to increase revenue, expand into new markets, and work towards profitability. All of these factors have further compounded the industry’s demand for financing and we expect to see continued growth in our lending activity in line with the industry’s growth.
CIJ: Who has been your most successful client?
Mancheril: We have a handful of cases studies and client success stories here on our website. One of the most exciting growth stories we have seen has been our client DreamFields whose in-house brand, Jeeter, is now the #1 pre-roll brand in the state of California. Prior to working with Bespoke, the brand was not ranked in the top 25 but was able to grow sales over 1,000% within the first year of working with us and achieve the #1 spot in their product category.
UPDATE: Late in the evening on May 15, the House of Representatives passed the HEROES package, voting 208-199 (with 23 abstentions). The bill now now heads to the Senate where its fate is more uncertain.
On page 1,066, those in the cannabis industry will find a very exciting addition: the Secure and Fair Enforcement (SAFE) Banking Act. For the uninitiated, the SAFE Banking Act would ensure access to financial services for cannabis-related businesses and service providers.
Currently, federally regulated financial institutions face penalties for dealing with cannabis companies due to the Controlled Substances Act. The bill, if passed, would eliminate the possibility of any repercussions for doing business with cannabis companies.
The impact of this bill becoming law would be widespread and immediate for both the cannabis market and banks looking to invest in the cannabis industry. With banks given the green light to conduct business with the cannabis industry, there is no doubt that many financial institutions will rush to the opportunity. Cannabis businesses will benefit greatly, no longer having to deal with massive quantities of cash and gain access to things like loans, bank accounts and credit lines. Furthermore, cannabis companies will benefit from the rush of banks getting in the game, leading to a competitive and affordable banking market.
It is no secret that cannabis businesses have had a cash problem for decades now. Given the coronavirus pandemic, CDC guidelines dictate minimizing the handling of cash and encourage payment options like credit cards. Cannabis businesses dealing with large quantities of cash puts them, their employees, their customers and even regulators at risk.
According to Aaron Smith, executive director of the National Cannabis Industry Association (NCIA), the cash problem is a serious, unnecessary health risk. “On behalf of the legal cannabis industry, we commend the congressional leadership for prioritizing public health and safety by including sensible cannabis banking policy in this legislation,” says Smith. “Our industry employs hundreds of thousands of Americans and has been deemed ‘essential’ in most states. It’s critically important that essential cannabis workers are not exposed to unnecessary health risks due to outdated federal banking regulations.”
In fact, it was the NCIA and a handful of other industry organizations that lobbied Congress last week to include language from the SAFE Banking Act in the HEROES Act, citing the known fact that cash can harbor coronavirus and other pathogens, along with the “personal proximity required by cash transactions as reasons for urgency in addition to the other safety and transparency concerns addressed by the legislation.”
The SAFE Banking Act was already approved by the House of Representatives. In September of 2019, the bill made a lot of progress through Congress, but stalled once it made it to the Senate Banking Committee.
The HEROES Act will be debated by the House of Representatives prior to a floor vote. If it passes the House, it moves to the Senate, which is about as far as it made it the last go around. However, because the banking reform is included in coronavirus relief legislation, there is a newborn sense of hope that the bill could be signed into law.
On Wednesday, March 25, the United States Senate approved an estimated $2-trillion stimulus package in response to the economic impact of the COVID-19 outbreak. The legislation, formally known as the “Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act” (or the CARES Act), was approved by the Senate 96-0 following days of negotiations. One of the most highly anticipated provisions of the CARES Act, the “recovery rebates” for individuals, will provide a one-time cash payment up to $1,200 per qualifying individual ($2,400 in the case of eligible individuals filing a joint return) plus an additional $500 for qualifying children (§6428.2020(a)). The CARES Act, which remains subject to House approval, also prescribes an additional $500 billon in corporate aid, $100 billion to health-care providers, $150 billion to state and local governments and $349 billion in small business loans in an effort to provide continued employment and stabilize the economy. The legislation further provides billions of dollars in debt relief on existing loans.
CARES Act – Paycheck Protection Program
Under the CARES Act, small businesses who participate in the “Paycheck Protection Program” can receive loans to cover payroll expenses, group health care benefits, employee salaries, interest on mortgage obligations, rent, and utilities (§1102(F)(i)). To qualify for these small business loans, businesses must employ 500 employees or less, including all full-time and part-time employees (§1102(D)). Eligible recipients must also submit the following as part of their loan application: (i) documentation verifying the number of full-time equivalent employees on payroll and applicable pay rates; (ii) documentation verifying payments on covered mortgage obligations, payments on covered lease obligations, and covered utility payments; and (iii) a certification that the documentation presented is true and the amounts requested will be used to retain employees and make necessary payments (§1106(e)). The CARES Act delegates authority to depository institutions, insured credit unions, institutions of the Farm Credit System and other lenders to provide loans under this program (§1109(b)). The Treasury Department will be tasked with establishing all interest rates, loan maturity dates, and all other necessary terms and conditions. Prior to issuing these loans, lenders will consider whether the business (i) was in operation as of February 15, 2020, (ii) had employees for whom the business paid salaries and payroll, or (iii) aid independent contractors as reported on a Form 1099-MISC (§1102(F)(ii)(II)).
What Does This Mean for Cannabis Businesses?
Due to the continued Schedule I status of cannabis (excluding hemp) under the Controlled Substances Act (CSA), cannabis businesses are not eligible to participate in the Paycheck Protection Program intended to keep “small businesses” afloat during the current economic crisis. Because federal law still prohibits banks from supporting marijuana businesses, financial institutions remain hesitant to service the industry, as anti-money laundering concerns and Bank Secrecy Act requirements (31 U.S.C. 5311 et seq.) are ever-present. As a result, even if cannabis businesses technically qualify to receive federal assistance under the Paycheck Protection Program, they will face an uphill battle in actually obtaining such loans.
Cannabis Businesses Are Also Precluded from “Disaster” Assistance
Moreover, the conflict between state and federal law continues to prevent cannabis business from receiving assistance from the U.S. Small Business Administration (SBA) under the Coronavirus Preparedness and Response Supplemental Appropriations Act (H.R. 6201). In light of the COVID-19 outbreak, the SBA revised its “Disaster Loan” process to provide low-interest “Disaster Loans” to eligible small businesses. To qualify for these loans, a state must submit documented business losses for at least five businesses per county. The problem, however, is that the SBA still refuses to assist state-legal cannabis businesses in equal need of small business loans. Specifically, in a 2018 Policy Notice, the SBA reaffirmed that cannabis businesses – and even some non “plant-touching” firms who service the cannabis industry – cannot receive aid in the form of federally backed loans, as “financial transactions involving a marijuana-related business would generally involve funds derived from illegal activity.” The 2018 Policy Notice clarified that the following business are ineligible to receive SBA loans:
(a) “Direct Marijuana Business” — a business that grows, produces, processes, distributes, or sells marijuana or marijuana products, edibles, or derivatives, regardless of the amount of such activity. This applies to personal use and medical use even if the business is legal under local or state law where the applicant business is or will be located.
(b) “Indirect Marijuana Business” — a business that derived any of its gross revenue for the previous year (or, if a start-up, projects to derive any of its gross revenue for the next year) from sales to Direct Marijuana Businesses of products or services that could reasonably be determined to support the use, growth, enhancement or other development of marijuana. Examples include businesses that provide testing services, or sell grow lights or hydroponic equipment, to one or more Direct Marijuana Businesses. In addition, businesses that sell smoking devices, pipes, bongs, inhalants, or other products that may be used in connection with marijuana are ineligible if the products are primarily intended or designed for such use or if the business markets the products for such use.
More recently, the SBA provided further clarification that cannabis businesses are not entitled to receive a cut of the federal dollars being appropriated for disaster relief because of the CSA’s continued prohibition of the sale and distribution of cannabis. Last week, the SBA reiterated that:
“With the exception of businesses that produce or sell hemp and hemp-derived products [federally legalized under the 2018 Farm Bill], marijuana related businesses are not eligible for SBA-funded services.” (@SBAPacificNW)
Consequently, because of the continued Schedule I status of cannabis under federal law, cannabis businesses will not be entitled to receive Disaster Loans from the SBA, regardless of whether they qualify as a struggling small business.
Resolving the Issue
While the federal government has been considering legislation, such as SAFE Banking and the STATES Act, to create a more rational federal cannabis policy, neither of these bills are likely to pass any time soon given the current COVID-19 pandemic.
At the end of the day, until Congress passes some form of federal cannabis legalization, these small businesses will remain plagued by the inability to receive financial assistance, as evinced by the Paycheck Protection Program.
The past year has been another strong year in cannabis. Investors continued to pour money into the burgeoning industry — surpassing 2018 investment totals in just 40 weeks — and new markets opened up for recreational and medical cannabis. And following the passage of the 2018 Farm Bill, CBD has proliferated and become one of the hottest health supplements in the country.
But as the year winds down, the industry appears to be poised for a more challenging shift in the new year, as once-heady expectations for some big companies don’t pan out and some states clamp down, rather than loosen up, certain regulatory hurdles.
Here are some financial trends to keep an eye on in cannabis over the next year:
Finding New Capital Investment Will Be Tougher
After an initial investment boom in recent years, cannabis investors are realizing not everything colored green turns to gold. With public cannabis companies not performing as well as hoped and restrictive tax laws still plaguing the industry, investors are growing more cautious when it comes to cannabis. Add in other macroeconomic trends that are pointing to a global economic slowdown, and 2020 is shaping up to be a tough year to find cannabis capital.
That’s not to say funding will completely dry up, but operators and business owners must be aware that investment deals that perhaps closed in a matter of days in previous years, likely will take weeks or months while investors dig deeper into books and perform higher levels of due diligence before inking a deal. This means cannabis businesses must carefully plan and watch their cashflow and pursue fresh capital or investment earlier rather than later.
Expect More M&A and Consolidation
With the green rush reaching a crest of sorts, reality is setting in for some smaller cannabis operators. Expect to see more consolidation with smaller dispensaries and cultivators being bought up and absorbed by the big kids. More limited capital and investment options coupled with continued regulatory and legal uncertainties mean unsustainable operating costs for independent and smaller operators, which means the only way to survive may be to sell to a larger player.
New Markets & Regulations
The new year brings new states opening up to recreational or medical cannabis sales, as well as newer or altered regulations in existing markets. Cannabis firms must keep an eye on these new markets and regulations to best determine whether they plan to expand or not.
How stringent or lenient regulations are written and executed will determine the size and viability of the market. One state may severely limit the number of licenses it issues, while others may not put any limit. For example, Oklahoma issues unlimited licenses to grow hemp at $1,500 a piece. While that sounds promising for smaller hemp producers, it also could potentially lead to an oversaturation in the market. On the flip side, a more restrictive (and costly) licensure structure could lead to a far more limited market where only the industry’s largest players will be able to compete.
Cannabis businesses also should keep an eye out for new regulatory hurdles in existing cannabis markets. For instance, California is raising its excise tax on cannabis beginning Jan. 1. That will result in higher costs for both consumers and cannabis companies. High state and local taxes have been a challenge industrywide because they make legal operators less competitive with the illicit market. Also, a proposed rule in Missouri could ban medical cannabis operators from paying taxes in cash. Such a rule would prove problematic for an industry that has had to rely on cash because of federal banking regulations.
Credit Card Payments
While cannabis businesses may face several new and recurring hurdles in 2020 on the financial front, at least one looming change should make business easier: credit card payment processing. Because of cannabis’ continued banking woes, dispensaries and other plant-touching operations have not been able to accept credit cards. Though federal banking limitations remain in place, in 2020 we will see payment processors introduce new, creative and less expensive ways to navigate current banking limitations that will allow cannabis sellers to take credit cards. Opening up payments in this way will not only make transactions and record keeping easier for customers and businesses alike, it also will attract consumers who don’t use cash.
While some of these trends may prove challenging, in many ways they are signs that the cannabis industry is shifting and maturing as we enter a new decade. Many hurdles remain, but the size and momentum of the industry will only continue to grow in 2020 and beyond.
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