“I’m happy I never listened to them” weed brands reminisce on unlikely milestone

The cannabis industry has its fair share of challenges. Compliance and regulations are costly and hard to navigate. Banking is a never ending guessing game. The space is also saturated, leaving brands to perplexed about how to get noticed in a space that’s always moving. These challenges are magnified for plant-touching businesses like cultivators, processors, and retail establishments.

Despite hurdles, two founders of ancillary cannabis brands are celebrating huge milestones: ten years in operation. This is no easy feat, seeing as how the odds often seem stacked against those brave enough to attempt to tame legal weed.

RELATED: Americans reveal surprising opinions on growing pot at home

Celebrating ten years in the cannabis industry

Philip Wolf, founder and CEO of Cultivating Spirits, started out like many future industry operators: selling quarter pounds to Colorado medical dispensaries out of his backpack. When the Rocky Mountain state turned over into adult use, the entrepreneur set out to elevate his offerings.

ten years in the cannabis industry
Philip Wolfe speaks to Cultivating Spirits pairing event guests at the Claremont Hotel

Like many after it, the brand aimed to activate the “soccer mom” with weed pairings and lightly infused fine dining experiences fit for wine country. Over the years, Cultivating Spirits continue offering catered pairings and three-course meals, but Wolf also mentors in cannabis hospitality and the many nuances of the plant.

GreenState caught up with the Cultivating Spirits founder about the ten-year milestone and the mojo that made it happen. First, he credits going with his gut and ignoring input that didn’t align with the vision.

“Many investors would say this is how business will be done in this space, or let’s model cannabis around this industry. The truth is, the majority of them are wrong, and I’m happy I never listened to them,” Wolf shared.

Cannabis is unlike any commodity. Wolf believes there is no rubric or other business sector to follow. Those who entered the weed space in 2014 had to be prepared to chart their own course, and many didn’t make it.

Solid foundations lead to staying power

Cannador, one of the first luxury cannabis stash boxes, started with three SKUs in 2014. They now have 30. CEO Zane Witzel believes much of this success is due to product quality. Much time and money went toward ensuring the first products and those that came thereafter were made with care. They followed an excellent product with top-notch customer service.

RELATED: Pot brands are failing, but Edie Parker may have the secret to success

ten years in the cannabis industry
Zane Witzel with the Cannador

These tactics built a solid customer reputation, and the brand grew organically. However, Witzel explained in a recent interview that Cannador didn’t face the same challenges as those starting today.

“It might have been easier to start 10 years ago when there was less competition,” Witzel said, “but now you’ve got to have something that blows people away. In that sense, it’s harder, but it’s not like there are less opportunities to get started.”

Capital is one piece of the puzzle that helped many early founders get started; another was privilege. Wolf understands that being white and male gave him entry into the space when weed was in a legal gray area.

While he got a slap on the wrist for petty offenses, counterparts with darker complexions were pinned with heavy drug charges. It isn’t until recently that some regulators have made efforts to correct the ship with social equity programs, but many states are still falling short.

Weed entrepreneurs forged an unknown path

Privilege played a role, but hard work was also inherent in the success of both brands.
“When Cultivating Spirits started, no one knew how to regulate us. I would have meetings with chiefs of police and council members informing them of our operations,” Wolf described. “It was fairly free and clear of regulations with regs being determined in court cases which could either lead to confusion or creative operations.”

The freedom of saying sorry rather than asking for permission was a double-edged sword. The lack of regulatory oversight made getting sponsorship and funding next to impossible. Lenders and brand sponsors feared regulatory pushback or penalties, and with no clear guidance from regulators most refused to engage with the industry.

Ten years later, there has been some change, but that regulatory question mark still looms–it just looks different now. Instead of wondering whether sponsoring a weed event will bring federal repercussions, everyone is wondering when the DEA will respond to rescheduling recommendations.

A tale of hard work and resilience

For those just starting out, Wolf has a valuable piece of advice: “You need to stay flexible as you listen to the plant, listen to the consumers, and adjust the business accordingly.”

The entrepreneur believes that Cultivating Spirits lives on because he never attempted to force the plant into another model, he let it live wild and free and adapted the business around it. Witzel stands firm that only serving customers the absolute best solidified a place for Cannador in the volatile industry.

Now that they’ve made it ten years, many might be wondering how Wolf and Witzel will celebrate. For Cultivating Spirits, it obviously has to be a cannabis dinner. Wolf will also hold a personal ceremony, offering gratitude to the plant. Cannador will release a limited edition series of stash boxes handcrafted by woodworking artist Chelsea Van Voorhis to mark the occasion.

These entrepreneurs are a case study of how to enter a volatile space, walk through the fire, and come out the other side. The challenges they face are lesser than those in plant-touching industries, but that doesn’t mean the road is easy.

It is officially ten years since Colorado made its first legal weed sale, and the resilience of these two founders (and the employees who support them) is worth celebrating. Not everyone has a positive tale to tell after starting a weed business. When there’s someone who makes it, it’s time to take a moment and honor the good.


Cara Wietstock is senior content producer of GreenState.com and has been working in the cannabis space since 2011. She has covered the cannabis business beat for Ganjapreneur and The Spokesman Review. You can find her living in Bellingham, Washington with her husband, son, and a small zoo of pets.