We were fortunate enough to schedule an interview with Cassandra Farrington, recently named one of the top 50 women in the cannabis industry!
Cassandra is the CEO and cofounder of MJBizDaily, one of the most widely read cannabis industry news websites, and she also produces MJBizCon and MJBizNEXT, the cannabis industry’s two largest trade shows.
So, spark up a fatty and get ready to read some interesting stuff!
GH: Hey this is Mike Pensive for GetHigh.com and we’re here with Cassandra Farrington, the CEO, and co-founder of MJBizDaily and MJBizCon. Thank you for taking the time to speak with me today Cassandra.
CF: Happy to do it. Really pleased to be here. Thanks so much for inviting me.
GH: Sure. So how did you decide to start MJBizCon? Tell us the story behind it all.
CF: Sure, so the story of MJBizCon really starts back further than the story of MJBizDaily. Back when my business partner and I first met, we were both working at a newsletter publishing firm on the business to business side of their operations.
So, think really small, very niche topics like Satellite Week. You may only have a thousand subscribers to your information service product but those thousand subscribers are paying a thousand dollars per year for that product. So you have a nice little business model. If you have five or six of those strung together with a common back office support and publisher level support, you have a really nice little business model. That was the environment that we were in when my business partner and I first met.
She went on to do her own entrepreneurial thing during the dot com boom and founded an information product for online marketers called Marketing Sherpa. I had gone on to get my MBA and, uh, pursued a career with Citi, the big bank, in operational roles at the bank. After a number of years, I hit the corporate wall. Hit the glass ceiling to be honest.
My business partner had sold off Marketing Sherpa and said, “You know, I’m interested in doing something different again but I don’t want to do it alone. This time I’d love to do it with somebody by my side and I think our skills match really well.” She and I had stayed in touch over the years. She’s been a mentor and an advisor to me throughout my career. So I kind of took that leap, which I’d never expected to take, into entrepreneurship. So we went out to found another newsletter/publisher style business, this time on the internet.
Cannabis was actually our third launch. We had things going in subscription sites. We had something going, again, in the online marketing area and we were looking for a new market to have another, you know, very niche business. That was back in 2011 when there were only a very small handful of states who had medical coverage of cannabis and, uh there were no recreational states at all at that point.
So we, um, pursued this really thinking it was, at first, a very niche situation of how to help, specifically, dispensary owners run their businesses better, do their jobs better. What were the skills and expertise and information that these people needed now? You know, maybe they had been business people for their whole lives in this industry but suddenly they have to keep accounting records. Suddenly they have to deal with H.R. issues. Ways of operating that when you come up literally out of the basement really affect the way that you conduct your business.
That’s what we set out to help people with. From there we just listened to our audience. We listened to what they told us that they needed. Number one was they didn’t really need that expertise but what they did really need was more of a “daily business news section” of a metaphorical newspaper. We morphed what we were doing in to MJBizDaily.
They said they needed benchmarks. They knew what their costs were, here in Denver, where we are based, but they didn’t really get, you know, how that compared to costs in San Francisco to run a dispensary or in Portland, Maine. From there, we launched the Marijuana Business Factbook to deal with that need and give them that information. From there, they said, you know, we would love a place to get together with the professionals of the industry. Not at a Cannabis Cup environment, not at a Kush Con type environment, but a business networking, educational space where we can create deal flow, meet our peers and really have great professional business conversations. So we launched MJBizCon.
GH: Great. What a great story. Thank you so much. So is your business partner still involved in the organization?
CF: Yeah, she’s still very much involved. She’s on the board and she’s engaged at the strategic level. She remains my advisor. She and I are equal shareholders in the business and so she’s very engaged and invested in that way. She doesn’t hold any operational role.
GH: I see. Ok, um, so how do you maintain your leadership in the cannabis space with so much competition from other magazines and other conferences?
CF: You know as this industry has grown we certainly have seen an influx of other business information products and services. Honestly, I think the reasons why people keep coming to MJBizDaily and MJBizCon and looking to us for that leadership are the same reasons why we gained that position in the first place. We have always taken this from the standpoint of “This is a business and we’re going to tell you what’s going on in the industry and how to run your business successfully.” In spite of it, because of it, taking advantage of whatever may be going on in the marketplace today. We’re going to highlight those business opportunities. We’re always going to be very professional. We’re going to be very unbiased. We’re not going to pick favorites and that sort of thing. Those sorts of rock-solid fundamentals that we founded the business on and run the business on remain the thing that set us apart from much of the competition.
GH: Well, I understand you are not going to be picking favorites but of course, I’m your favorite interviewer, right? (laughing)
CF: (laughing) Always.
GH: What is most inspiring to you about the cannabis industry?
CF: You know, there are a couple of things. Well, I did not come into this industry because I had a personal relationship with the plant, you know, like a lot of entrepreneurs in this industry did. Especially the pioneers in the industry who were on a mission to free cannabis from the laws. That was not my background. I came into it from a business background.
But it is absolutely undeniable that anyone who comes into this industry from a business background can spend long here without having those really great reasons to legalize this plant get under your skin. The incredible medical benefits, the reduction of social harms, just the adult choice and that freedom of choice issue. There are so many great reasons to do this, and those sorts of things I do find very inspiring. I especially find inspiring the people who continue, to this day, to hold those as very fundamental reasons why they are doing this.
This industry is very unique in that regard. Yes, there are a ton of people in it now for money but so many remain in it and get behind it even if their primary initial motivation was money. They get that message really quickly. The other thing that I honestly find so inspiring is how quickly it is growing and professionalizing and just exploding around the world. Every year I’m amazed when I walk into MJBizCon, even though I am deeply involved in the planning and I have a really good sense of what that experience is going to be because I’ve helped orchestrate and direct what that’s going to be in the lead up to it. When you walk onto that show floor, even me, for the first time when you walk into MJBizCon (especially this November’s convention that just passed), you just, you look around like “holy crow” (I swear she didn’t swear), look at what we created! Look at what all of us, together, you know, look at what we’ve done in six, seven years. It’s amazing!
GH: Absolutely. So speaking of planning the conference, um, how long does it take to plan the conference or how soon are you going to start planning MJBizCon 2018. I know you have the mid-year conference too in New Orleans.
CF: Yeah, this is a continual, year-round cycle. We already have our venues for both Las Vegas and New Orleans for the next several years so that planning started, y’know, multiple years ago for events that are going to be happening five, six, seven years down the line. So, if you think about that really long-term view in terms of the actual production of a very specific show, as I said, that’s a kind of year-round continual event. We’re continuing to expand our staff to make sure that, um, we have the bandwidth internally that each one of these events requires. The New Orleans show, which is MJBizConNEXT, the big fall MJBizCon, as well as our new international event in Toronto this August.
GH: Oh wow!
CF: Yeah, so we’re expanding to ensure that all three of these do get the attention that they need and deserve and to make sure that they all continue to be really great experiences for everybody who takes part.
GH: That’s exciting! So you sorta read my mind. I was just going to ask, y’know, if you were hiring and expanding and what types of roles are you hiring and also, just how much staff does it take to pull off the conference?
CF: (laughing) That’s funny. So um, our MJBizDaily staff, right now we’re at 32 people.
We will probably become not quite double, but our current forecast is probably to grow by
75 percent in the next year. That is across all of our departments. From the editorial and the content creation to the events production to the marketing team that helps support all that to our sales team that’s supporting our clients, um, and making sure they have great experiences as well. Not just at the show but when they place advertising in the magazine or purchase one of our digital products, that takes a whole army over there.
Of course there’s our customer service team and the technology that goes in behind all that. And then, of course, all the back office stuff. As you grow that staff across the board you also need to have, you know, I.T. support and H.R. and finance support. All those things need to go along with expanding your staff. So we are growing in every single one of our departments.
As far as what it takes to put on an MJBizCon, um, more people than we have on staff.
We don’t quite clear out the office but we take all but about three or four people. We took all but three people to Las Vegas with us. We also bring on board a virtual army of contract help. People who work shows for a living as contractors and have that expertise of knowing what a big show is and how you help the producers, those sorts of things.
GH: Yeah, um, it was so smoothly run, it was like a precision, Swiss watch. I was really impressed because I’ve been to a bunch of other conferences, both cannabis business related and non and I would have to say yours was right up there at the top. Near perfect production. Maybe you, behind the scenes, saw something off somewhere but, from my perspective, it was pretty amazing.
CF: That’s great to hear. I’m glad to hear that. Yeah, I mean there are always things, when you’re intimately familiar with all the planning and how everything is supposed to go, that you notice when things don’t go quite the way that they were planned. But I completely agree and I’m very grateful to my team and very proud of our team for pulling it off so effectively each and every year.
GH: Fantastic. So, y’know, three days of MJBizCon was pretty exhausting, um, but I actually think a fourth day would be helpful. You know, it would give people a chance to network even more and actually visit all of the booths. Any plans on adding an extra day next year?
CF: You know, it’s one of the challenges as shows grow. This is not just MJBizCon but large shows in general. As the show grows it can be harder to wrap your arms around it. Things start to break down and that magic starts to ebb away when you start stretching it out. Not just for the attendees but for the exhibitors and for the staff. So instead of making it longer which, as you say, becomes more exhausting, what you can do and what we are looking at doing, is finding better ways to help people connect and to locate the specific exhibitors and the vendors that they’d like to connect with on the show floor. Also, finding other ways to help people navigate that show more effectively so they still feel very much connected to what they wanted to accomplish at MJBizCon. So that’s how you have to think about it.
GH: Sure. Um, so with the three conferences that you’re now gonna be having, do you think you’re going to have each one be a little focused on one aspect of the…
CF: Absolutely, yeah. In fact, that’s one of the reasons why our spring event, we’ve even updated the branding and the name of it. It used to just be the spring Marijuana Business Conference & Expo. Which while it’s, y’know, really the second largest show in the United States after MJBizCon itself, everybody who was there would be like “Oh, this is good. This is really good. It’s not MJBizCon but it’s good.” Y’know, so you have to start pulling those shows into their own personalities. So, MJBizConNEXT. MJBizCon in Las Vegas is all about, “This is where the cannabis industry is today and these are the movers and shakers, the exciting things that are happening. This is the modern day cannabis industry.”
MJBizConNEXT becomes about tomorrow’s cannabis industry. What’s coming down the pike? What do people need to be thinking ahead about? What do the industry leaders, the executives of the companies that are leading this industry, what do we need to be thinking about? Y’know, whether that be sustainability or business strategy for the future. You know the diversity issue and how can we continue to make the cannabis industry a very forward-looking industry as a whole. And how do emerging companies and emerging markets really figure out what they’re going to be doing tomorrow, what they’re going to look like tomorrow. That’s what MJBizConNEXT is going to be about.
MJBizConINT’L (international) is the show that will be in Toronto in August.
That is going to be all about the quickly exploding global cannabis marketplace. A lot of that activity is being centralized out of Canada because, of course, they have that much more effective framework of banking and investment and legal regulations and legitimacy under the law. All those things that the United States doesn’t have. So Canada has become that hub of the global cannabis marketplace. That’s why we’re holding it there and it is absolutely going to be not just for and about Canada, although I’m sure that will be a big focus, but it’s about the world and what this industry looks like as it goes into Europe and into Central America Latin America.
GH: That’s great. Actually, that was one of my big takeaways of this year’s MJBizCon. You know, Canada. How different and maybe better it is given the regulations in their country. Canada is becoming the leader of the global cannabis industry
CF: Yeah, and hats off to them. Great! And we’re expanding, by the way, not just on the events side but our international coverage is expanding. We already have a reporter on the ground in Canada, um, reporting for and about that specific marketplace. We are also expanding on the international front making sure that we get that coverage into MJBizDaily. And helping all of the cannabis entrepreneurs of today really think past what the end of U.S. prohibition looks like and building those frameworks now to be able to have really effective businesses in the future.
GH: Great. Okay so, uh, what’s the funniest or most bizarre thing that has ever happened at MJBizCon?
CF: You know nothing really crazy crazy crazy has happened at MJBizCon. I think there may have been some crazy stuff that’s happened at some of the after parties. But at MJBizCon itself, in a way, it’s a good thing that nothing really, y‘know, mind-blowingly crazy has stood out.
GH: Speaking about the after parties, I have an off the cuff question, which is also somewhat of a personal observation, um, there were no after parties on Friday that I knew of. They were all like on Wednesday and Thursday and there were some pre-parties on Tuesday. So, I was thinking to myself, “Well, I’m still here on Friday and there were other people who are still here on Friday.” So I thought, “You know, I wish there was an after party on Friday so we can, y’know, continue to network. You know, have a little downtime because the show is over. You can try to sort of solidify some of those relationships right away. So I don’t know if you have any plans to have anything like that in the future. If not, I would even take it upon myself to have just like a dinner. Not like a crazy party but just an after show dinner to network and wind down because that’s what I ended up doing anyway with a few people from the conference. Perhaps we could have it be more of an actual event next year and invite anyone who is planning to stick around on Friday night?
CF: That’s a great idea. So MJBizCon ourselves, up to this point, the only kind of official afterparty of the show that we’ve ever hosted is the mixer, which was a ticketed fundraiser in previous years. This year, because of our space and venue change, we evolved that into having drinks on the floor where we were really focused on the “give back” part of MJBizDaily corporate give back. But we don’t, ourselves, produce a show party. We keep talking about it. It’s not something that we’ve quite pulled the trigger on yet. For lots of lots and lots of different reasons. Our sponsors love being able to have those evenings to do their parties. We’re trying to figure out ways to help them get more impact out of those. Encouraging people, maybe, to do a Friday night event is a great idea. So, input noted.
GH: Ok great! I’m happy to participate with that too, y’know, to promote it or help run it.
CF: Sure. Awesome!
GH: Ok, so a couple more quick questions. Um, with consolidation of the industry, you know, kind of impending over the next three to five years, how do you think that will impact MJBizCon?
CF: This is an issue that quickly growing trade shows deal with frequently. Where the client base or the exhibitors, suddenly, where you had five different exhibitors, maybe those five companies go down to two different companies but they don’t take as much booth space. So you have to kind of be forward thinking about how much space we need and making sure you don’t overcommit and get your expenses out of line with your revenues and that sort of thing. The same thing can happen on the attendee side. You know, a company may send three or four people to MJBizCon. As companies consolidate, y’know, you have two companies that each sent three or four people before, maybe you’re going to get five or six after these two companies come together but you’re not going to get eight attendees. So you just have to keep an eye out for that and ride that wave.
Our projections are that this industry is going to continue to expand for the foreseeable future. Yes, there are going to start being some consolidation events. We’ve already started to see a few of those and we’ll just continue to keep an eye on it. We’ll stay in touch with our marketplace, both on our exhibitor side, listening to them and what they’re experiencing, as well as our attendee side and what their needs are. Just making sure that we continue to evolve this event and everything we’re doing at MJBizDaily to match their ongoing needs.
GH: Makes sense. Last question. What are the top three lessons that you’ve learned since starting MJBizCon or MJBizDaily?
CF: Top three lessons learned. Um, if you’re coming into the cannabis space, in particular, be prepared for the marathon. There is no quick exit. It is a lot of hard work. A lot of long days. This is something that I’m hearing from other people that were really early industry entrants like myself. You know, if we had known that we were going to be still doing this seven, eight years later we would have figured out a way to pace ourselves better.
But it just feels like everytime we turn around there’s an opportunity just around the corner. We don’t want to lose those opportunities and we want to help the industry grab those opportunities. It’s both for our own personal businesses but also, we see this as a really good thing for the industry. That’s why we’re in this industry in the first place. We want to help this whole thing happen. So that’s number one. Related to that, I’d say number two is that it really really helps to be in affinity with a marketplace that agrees on a mission and a spirit.
So the community of cannabis business people is an amazing group. The support structure that comes from that is absolutely phenomenal. I mean as tired as I might be and long as some of these days get, I always know that there are a lot of people out there who feel just as excited about it as I do. And they are just as tired. I get that too.
Um, number three. I am going to go back to the fundamental core values of MJBizDaily.
We set those very early like, for example, what I was saying that unbiased content, listening to our readers and marketplace, those sorts of things, those had never ever steered us wrong. As long as you stay really firm on those core fundamental values, you’re going to find your path forward.
GH: OK great. Well, thank you so much for taking the time to speak with me Cassandra.
CF: You bet. I’m happy to do it.
GH: Have a wonderful day.
CF: You too. Ok, thanks.
Congratulations stoners! If you were able to read this entire interview until the end in one sitting, you probably don’t have ADHD.
If you have any interest in getting involved in the cannabis industry, I highly recommend that you check out MJBizDaily.
Then update your resume and buy a ticket to MJBizConNEXT in New Orleans on May 9-11th, 2018. If you are a music fan, like myself, you can make a fun adventure out of it by showing up early and going to the 2nd week of New Orleans’ Jazz Fest from May 3-6. That gives you 2 days to recover or do some touristy type of stuff and then hit MJBizConNEXT so you can proudly tell your parents that you are gainfully employed.
So put down your bong, get off the couch and get involved. Particularly if you have sales skills, a degree in agriculture, engineering, IT, HR, Accounting, or Business, there will be many job opportunities cropping up in the growing field of cannabis.