Commercial real estate took a dive last year as companies began to work from home, but changing regulatory environments have opened doors to a new industry in need of property: cannabis. Growing rapidly at both the medical and adult use levels, cannabis businesses have been eager to move into vacant buildings, quickly buying up space as more states adjust their laws regarding cannabis.
Cannabis businesses cannot go at it blindly, however. Legal cannabis firms of all sizes – from the smallest startup to the biggest enterprise – will face regulatory challenges, traceability requirements, process control standards and, ultimately, the right technology to keep them moving forward in this promising industry.
Use data to keep track of plants, patients and regulations
As a highly regulated industry, cannabis companies could be investigated at any time. Regulatory authorities may, at the very least, request proof that they are compliant with state restrictions. Cannabis enterprises will only be able to quickly and easily provide that proof if they have immediate access to accurate historical data. With that information, they can generate the necessary reports at a moment’s notice and maintain a reliable audit trail.
Historical data is also useful for both growers looking to evaluate why certain plants are more successful than others and for sellers looking to improve their customer experience. By tracking everything from mother plants to clones, growers can build a strong genetics profile and gain a powerful competitive edge. Historical data also aids sellers, who can use it to enhance their digital storefronts and keep track of customer information, shopping history and other details that could improve the e-commerce experience.
In addition to customer details, sellers must also keep track of patient information when selling in a medical-only environment. Prescriptions need to be carefully managed to ensure that patients only receive products that they have been approved to purchase and use.
Utilize process control to foster scalable and repeatable processes
Process control is another vital component that every cannabis grower, manufacturer, processor and distributor must possess. They need scalable and repeatable processes to prevent steps from being bypassed, ensuring that every finished product matches the same high-quality standards. If there are no stopgaps in place, steps could be missed if employees are rushing to meet a deadline or simply think that a particular test or check isn’t needed. Those kinds of mistakes can be hugely detrimental to any cannabis company and may waste product, diminish profits and turn off customers.
Similarly, visibility and control over inventory is a top priority for any business, but it reigns supreme in the cannabis space. Managers should always, at all times, know where the product is as it moves throughout the warehouse, or risk costs and waste. By directly tying scanners and barcodes to the right technology, organizations can ensure that all product is accounted for and easily located using real-time data.
Build a foundation for scalability
Cannabis businesses don’t have the time to manually keep track of these aspects, and it wouldn’t even be possible as they grow and expand their operations. As they evolve, so too will the list of software requirements that are needed to operate smoothly, reliably and efficiently.
Cannabis processors have traditionally invested in seed-to-sale technology, relying on barcodes to track products throughout their lifecycle. While it is critical for cannabis enterprises to keep a strong level of control over lot tracking, this type of software is very limited. Cannabis firms would therefore be better served by an ERP solution with a single data source that provides centralized, real-time access to vital business information.
ERP technology can also help cannabis businesses better manage their production schedule, material requirements planning, accounting, purchasing, inventory management and document generation. The key, however, is to choose the right technology, avoiding ERP solutions that rely on customizations and bolt-ons, which will impede an organization’s ability to scale. Cannabis businesses should instead use technology that makes all of its features, enhancements and extensibility available to all customers, ensuring that every user has access to the same benefits.
The cannabis industry saw close to $15.5B in deals across VC, private equity, M&A and IPOs in 2020 according to PitchBook data. Early and growth stage capital has been a key enabler in deal activity as companies seek to innovate and scale, taking advantage of trends towards national legalization and consolidation. Entourage Effect Capital is one of the largest VC firms in cannabis with over $150MM deployed since its inception in 2014. Some of their notable investments include GTI, CANN, Harborside (CNQ: HBOR), Acreage Holdings, Ebbu, TerrAscend and Sunderstorm.
We spoke with Matt Hawkins, co-founder and managing partner at Entourage Effect Capital. Matt started Entourage in 2014 after exiting his previous company. He has 20+ years of private equity experience and serves on the Boards of numerous cannabis companies. Matt’s thought leadership has been on Fox Business in the past and he has also recently featured on CNBC, Bloomberg, Yahoo! Finance, Cheddar and more.
Aaron Green: How did you get involved in the cannabis industry?
Matt Hawkins: We’ve been making investments in the cannabis industry since 2014. We’ve made 65 investments to date. We have a full team of investment professionals, and we invest up and down the value chain of the industry.
I had been in private equity for 25 years and I kind of just fell into the industry after I’d had an exit. I started lending to warehouse owners in Denver that were looking to refinance their mortgages out of commercial debt into private debt, which would then give them the ability to lease their facilities to growers. I realized there would be a significant opportunity to place capital in the private equity side of the cannabis business. So, I just started raising money for that project and I haven’t looked back. It’s been a great run and we’ve built a fantastic portfolio. We look forward to continuing to deploy capital up to and through legalization.
Green: Do you consider Entourage Effect Capital a VC fund or private equity firm? How do you talk about yourself?
Hawkins: In the early stages of the industry, we were more purely venture capital because there was hardly any revenue. We’re probably still considered a venture capital firm, by definition, just because of the risk factors. As the industry has matured, the investments we make are going to be larger. The reality is that the checks we write now will go to companies that have a track record of not only 12 months of revenue, but EBITDA as well. We can calculate a multiple on those, and that makes it more like lower/middle-market private equity investing.
Green: What’s your investment mandate?
Hawkins: From here forward our mandate is to build scale in as many verticals as we can ahead of legalization. In the early days, we were focused on giving high net worth individuals and family offices access to the industry using a very diversified approach, meaning we invested up and down the value chain. We’ll continue to do that, but now we’re going to be really laser focused on combining companies and building scale within companies to where they’re going to be more attractive for exit partners upon legalization.
Green: Are there any particular segments of the industry that you focus on whether it’s cultivation, extraction or MSOs?
Hawkins: We tend to focus on everything above cultivation. We feel like cultivation by itself is a commodity, but when vertically integrated, for example with a single-state operator or multi-state operator, that makes it intrinsically more valuable. When you look at the value chain, right after cultivation is where we start to get involved.
Green: Are you also doing investments in tech and e-commerce?
Hawkins: We’ve made some investments in supply chain, management software, ERP solutions, things like that. We’re not really focused on e-commerce with the exception of the only CBD company we are invested in.
Green: How does Entourage’s investment philosophy differ from other VC and private equity firms in cannabis?
Hawkins: We really don’t pay attention to other people’s philosophies. We have co-invested with others in the past and will continue to do so. There’s not a lot of us in the industry, so it’s good that we all work together. Until legalization occurs, or institutional capital comes into play, we’re really the only game in town. So, it behooves us all to have good working relationships.
Green: Across the states, there’s a variety of markets in various stages of development. Do you tend to prefer investing in more sophisticated markets? Say California or Colorado where they’ve been legalized for longer, or are you looking more at new growth opportunities like New York and New Jersey?
Hawkins: Historically, we’ve focused on the most populous states. California is obviously where we’ve placed a lot of bets going forward. We’ll continue to build out our portfolio in California, but we will also exploit the other large population states like New Jersey, New York, Arizona, Massachusetts, Michigan, Ohio and Illinois. All of those are big targets for us.
Green: Do you think legalization will happen this Congress?
Hawkins: My personal opinion is that it will not happen this year. It could be the latter part of next year or the year after. I think there’s just too much wood to chop. I was encouraged to see the SAFE Banking Act reappear. I think that will hopefully encourage institutional capital to take another look at the game, especially with the NASDAQ and the New York Stock Exchange open up. So that’s a positive.
I think with the election of President Biden and with the Senate runoffs in Georgia going Democrat, the timeline to legalization has sped up, but I don’t think it’s an overnight situation. I certainly don’t think it’ll be easy to start crossing state lines immediately, either.
Green: Can you explain more about your thoughts on interstate commerce?
Hawkins: I think it’s pretty simple. The states don’t want to give up all the tax revenue that they get from their cultivation companies that are in the state. For example, if you allow Mexico and Colombia to start importing product, we can’t compete with that cost structure. States that are neighbors to California, but need to grow indoors which is more expensive, are not going to want to lose their tax revenues either. So, I just think there’s going to be a lot of butting heads at the state level.
The federal government is going to have to outline what the tax implications will be, because at the end of the day the industry is currently taxed as high as it ever will be or should be. Anything North of current tax levels will prohibit businesses from thriving further, effectively meaning not being able to tamp down the illicit market. One of the biggest goals of legalization in my opinion should be reducing the tax burden on the companies and thereby allowing them to be able to compete more directly with the illicit market, which obviously has all the benefits of reduced crime, etc.
Green: Do you foresee 280E changes coming in the future?
Hawkins: For sure. If the federal illegality veil is removed – which means there’ll be some type of rescheduling – cannabis would be removed from the 280E category. I think 280E by definition is about just illegal drugs and manufacturing and selling of that. As long as cannabis isn’t part of that, then it won’t be subject to it.
Green: What have been some of the winners in your portfolio in terms of successful exits?
Hawkins: When the CSC started allowing companies in Canada to own U.S. assets, the whole landscape changed. We were fortunate to be early investors in Acreage and companies that sold to Curaleaf and GTI before they were public. We are big investors in TerrAscend. We were early investors in Ebbu which sold to Canopy Growth. Those were huge wins for us in Fund I. We also have some interesting plays in Fund II that are on the precipice of having similar-type exits.
You read about the big ones, but at the end of the day, the ones that kind of fall under the radar – the private deals – actually have even greater multiples than what we see on some of the public M&A activity.
Green: Governor Cuomo has been hinting recently at being “very close” on a deal for opening up the cannabis market in New York. What do you think are the biggest opportunities in New York right now?
Hawkins: If it can get done, that’s great. I’m just concerned that distractions in the state house right now in New York may get in the way of progress there. But if it doesn’t, and it is able to come to fruition, then there isn’t a sector that doesn’t have a chance to thrive and thrive extremely well in the state of New York.
Green: Looking at other markets, Curaleaf recently announced a big investment in Europe. How do you look at Europe in general as an investment opportunity?
Hawkins: We have a pretty interesting play in Europe right now through a company called Relief Europe. It’s poised to be one of the first entrants to Germany. We think it could be a big win for us. But let’s face it, Europe is still a little behind, in fact, a lot behind the United States in terms of where they are as an industry. Most of the capital that we’re going to be deploying is going to be done domestically in advance of legalization.
Green: What industry trends are you seeing in the year ahead?“We’re constantly learning from other industries that are steps ahead of us to figure out how to use those lessons as we continue to invest in cannabis.”
Hawkins: Well, I think you’ll see a lot of consolidation and a lot of ramping up in advance of legalization. I think that’s going to apply in all sectors. I just don’t see a scenario wherein mom and pops or smaller players are going to be successful exit partners with some of the new capital that’s coming in. They’re going to have to get to a point where they’re either selling to somebody bigger than them right now or joining forces with companies around the same size as them and creating mass. That’s the only way you’re going to compete with companies coming in with billions of dollars to deploy.
Green: How do you see this shaking out?
Hawkins: That’s where you start to look into the crystal ball. It’s really difficult to say because I think until we get to where we truly have a national footprint of brands, which would require crossing state lines, it’s going be really difficult to tell where things go. I do know that liquor, tobacco, beer, the distribution companies, they all are standing in line. Big Pharma, big CPG, nutraceuticals, they all want access to this, too.
In some form or fashion, these bigger players will dictate how they want to go about attacking the market on their own. So, that part remains to be seen. We’ll just have to wait and see where this goes and how quickly it goes there.
Green: Are you looking at other geographies to deploy capital such as APAC or Latin America regions?
Hawkins: Not at this point. It’s not a focus at all. What recently transpired here in the elections just really makes us want to focus here and generate positive returns for investors.
Green: As cannabis goes more and more mainstream, federal legalization is maybe more likely. How do you think the institutional investor scene is evolving around that? And is it a good thing to bring in new capital to the cannabis market?
Hawkins: I don’t see a downside to it. Some people are saying that it could damage the collegial and cottage-like nature of the industry. At the end of the day, if you’ve got tens of billions of dollars that are waiting to pour into companies listed on the CSC and up-listing to the NASDAQ or New York Stock Exchange, that’s only going to increase their market caps and give them more cash to acquire other companies. The trickle-down effect of that will be so great to the industry that I just don’t know how you can look the other way and say we don’t want it.
Green: Last question: What’s got your attention these days? What’s the thing you’re most interested in learning about?
Hawkins: We’re constantly learning about just where this industry is headed. We’re constantly learning from other industries that are steps ahead of us to figure out how to use those lessons as we continue to invest in cannabis. We all saw the correlation between cannabis and alcohol prohibition. The reality is that the industry is mature enough now where you can see similarities to industries that have gone from infancy to their adolescent years. That’s kind of where we are now and so we spend a lot of time studying industries that have been down this path before and see what lessons we can apply here.
Green: Okay, great. So that concludes the interview!
As if the cannabis industry doesn’t regularly go through enough rapid change, with COVID-19, cultivators, processors and dispensers of all sizes are trying to do more with less. Lower operational headcount and unpredictable production volume, along with a rapidly-changing supply chain – make eliminating manual steps a necessity. Labels include barcodes or various barcode symbologies to help companies manage inventory, identify products and ultimately ensure that the right products get to the right customers at the right time. By eliminating manual steps in your labeling environment, you can address these issues through automation, scalability, efficiency and accuracy: benefits that will last through the pandemic and position you well for the recovery period.
Automation of many kinds is being implemented from seed to sale including barcode label printing automation. Integration of labeling software and seed to sale traceability systems including METRC, BioTrack, Leaf Data and others enables streamlined barcode label data population and high-volume label printing to counteract the decreasing operational headcount and eliminate manual touchpoints.
Print automation can be defined as “a centralized technology that replaces the manual process of triggering a print job within a labeling environment.” Look for a labeling software solution that allows you to:
Completely automate your label printing process
Print to a greater number of printers
Initiate printing directly from any business system
By integrating your label printing system with your seed to sale traceability system, you can expect to minimize errors, increase print speeds and maximize your ROI. Your business system already holds the variable data such as product names, license number, batch or lot codes, allergens, net quantity, cannabis facts, warning statements and more. By systematically sending this data to the right label template at the right time, labeling becomes an efficient and cost-effective process.
One of the most important considerations for cannabis cultivators, processors and dispensers is to invest in solutions that can grow and pivot quickly as the business changes. Whether you are responding to temporary requirements or changes, or your business needs to scale up quickly to respond to a spike in demands as a result of COVID-19 or to prepare for coming out of this pandemic. Whatever your needs are, think about short-term and long-term goals for sustainable business solutions. Scalability includes:
Printing to a greater number of printers
As needs and automation requirements change, and your printer inventory has the possibility of increasing, make sure your labeling design software can be licensed per simultaneous user, with cost-effective, multi-user networking licenses. That way, you don’t run the risk of paying for more printers as you grow or going over budget with each additional printer.
Print documents and labels from the same application
If you use the same data for your documents (like order receipts, bills of materials or packing lists) and labels, moving document printing into your label design software makes sense logistically. An advanced label creation and integration software enables label and document printing standardization by allowing multiple database records to be on one file. That means when new documents or labels come into your database, your software can seamlessly integrate.
Efficiency and accuracy
In a time where responding to the changing market needs to happen very quickly, where costs are being scrutinized and when errors cannot happen – you need to set up your labeling environment to have high levels of accuracy and control. With increased accuracy you will reduce waste, eliminate returns due to mislabeled product, efficiently track product and gain more efficiencies that will save you money and time.
Cutting manual steps out of the process
Removing manual steps in your printing process is a sure-fire way to gain efficiency and accuracy in your labeling environment. Look for labeling software features that allow you to add variable data from a device to your labels automatically, which limits the human interaction with your labels and in turn helps minimize human errors. Other efficiencies include:
Increased print speed within your labeling environment
Reduced label waste
Collection of data from several devices such as:
On-demand color labeling
On-demand labeling is specifically helpful in the cannabis labeling world because of all the regulations you must comply with. Each state has its own regulations, which means each label throughout the cannabis supply chain must be compliant with whichever state they are located. With on-demand labeling, cannabis companies print labels as needed and make changes as they go without the risk of wasting obsolete pre-printed label stock. This is beneficial as pre-printed labels often have large minimum order quantities. On-demand labeling also helps companies maintain better control of their own branding and graphics.
With on-demand labeling, label information can be populated by using pre-approved label templates in order to save you time with the variations of cannabis labels. This gives you the ability to print the specific label you need without having to waste your pre-printed label stock, or spend time switching out your pre-printed label stock in your printer.
Cannabis cultivators, processors and dispensers are faced with many obstacles during these challenging times due to COVID-19 – ensuring workers are safe, keeping operations at 100% capacity with potentially fewer people, creating contingency plans that may be changing daily. In an environment that is changing very quickly, consider how labeling solutions can evolve. You may also need to lean more on your partners than you ever have in the past.
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