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WA: The Business Of Legal Marijuana Is Growing Up

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Katelyn Baker

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Sales of legal marijuana in Washington State since the opening of the first legal store have officially topped $1 billion, with more product sold every year since legalization. While many wondered what the effects of legalizing marijuana would be, with those kinds of sales, one outcome is already sure: business is thriving.

The local businesspeople who saw the economic opportunities in this brand-new market from the beginning also discovered a chance to shape an industry from the ground up. And what they've built may surprise you. Many legal cannabis stores are not spinoffs from the 1960s-style drug paraphernalia stores full of dark corners and marijuana leaves; they're carefully designed businesses aimed at a new, legal clientele.

The owners of The Evergreen Market, which has stores in Renton and Auburn, saw a business opportunity unlike any other when they first won licenses in the state lottery to open stores.

Eric Gaston, one of the co-founders of The Evergreen Market, had a career as a defense attorney for twenty years, running his own firms, before opening a cannabis store. He took this professional background and asked a couple of friends, Jeff Anderson and Arne Nelson, other dads from Issaquah, if they wanted to take on this new entrepreneurial project together.

"I knew that I had some blind spots in business," Gaston says. "So I recruited friends of mine that had different skillsets to bring to the table and we decided to combine our collective knowledge base and create a brand."

Branding a product that's been selling on the black market for years might sound like a strange course of action, but many in the industry are following the lead of other successful businesses and seeing this as an integral first step. Gaston says it was thanks to Jeff's background in retail that they took the leap. "Jeff felt it was very important early on to meet with a branding company to try to drill down on who we wanted to be from the beginning," says Gaston. "That was probably the most important decision we made."

With stores selling cannabis products all over the state now, different businesses need to figure out how they want to stand out. For The Evergreen Market, this meant deciding to focus on education as one of the core tenets of their business, which they hoped would help them build a broad customer base.

"In each of our stores, we have a literal library and knowledge bar with experts there who can answer questions from curious consumers, which is so important for a nascent industry," Gaston says.

Knowing how cannabis use has been stereotyped and marginalized while it was illegal, the founders wanted their store also to celebrate this newly legal product, and to welcome customers of all kinds, to challenge that stereotype from before.

Through their initial branding work, the team behind The Evergreen Market learned that the store's design itself would be important to their image as a business.

Today, the shop in Auburn is notably open, light and full of natural textures and bright colors. The products are split into various departments, from edibles to flowers to concentrates, and at each station customers are welcome to browse the products and ask questions of one of several employees that are always on staff.

All of those decisions were purposeful, says Gaston. "If you have someone who's never been into a cannabis store before and they're nervous or treated poorly or come into a dirty or dark store, that person probably isn't coming back. And what we need for our industry to grow is to activate new customers."

This intense focus from shop owners on the business side of the industry is perhaps what's behind those ever-increasing sales numbers here in Washington. They know that they're in on the ground floor and that as the industry grows, these shops will face even more competition, here and in other states, so if they want to succeed long-term, they need to lay the groundwork for a strong business now.

Entrepreneurs like any other

While those in this brand-new industry are still overcoming some stereotypes, for the most part, their lives are similar to those of entrepreneurs in any industry.

For Anderson, who started his career owning a retail store then starting his own ecommerce site, that means spending a lot of time with Excel. "I'm the numbers guy. I was an Econ major at University of Washington," he says. "I do the basic bookkeeping, check the mail, pay the bills, look at the budget and make sure our operations are running smoothly."

Anderson also spent the past year doing a lot of the work any business starting from scratch needs to do, like putting together employee handbooks and writing up standard operating procedures. He gains a lot of support for this work from a group he belongs to for entrepreneurs.

For Gaston work often means lots of meetings: one every week with the social media department, one with the retail trade group he helped co-found to represent the retailers of the marijuana industry, and sometimes with lawmakers in Olympia to help them understand how the retail business is going.

Anderson says there isn't too much difference running this retail business than the others he has before except that instead of his friends being bored when he talks about work, they are always wanting to know what's new around the office. "I try to make small talk at dinner parties, but my friends almost always have a laser focus on cannabis and what's new. There's definitely a genuine interest in what we're doing," Anderson says.

Gaston has found interest in his new line of work from surprising places as well. "My daughter is taking a DECA class at her high school," he says. "When she asked the teacher if it was all right if they designed a model app for our store as a group project, the teacher asked if I would come in and talk to the class about being a small business owner."

As a small business owner in one of the fastest-growing industries in the state, he's sure to have a lot of wisdom to share.

News Moderator: Katelyn Baker 420 MAGAZINE ®
Full Article: The Business Of Legal Marijuana Is Growing Up
Author: The Evergreen Market
Contact: The Seattle Times
Photo Credit: The Evergreen Market
Website: The Seattle Times