Without a doubt, the medical and recreational marijuana industry is full of rebels and colorful characters. But as the sector moves from its startup to its growth phase—pun unintended but not really avoidable—success in the weed arena will require good old business fundamentals.
Enter Canna Advisors. The Boulder-based consultancy was founded by husband-and-wife team Jay and Diane Czarkowski in the early days of medical and recreational legalization and has quickly become a leading provider of services to the industry wherever prohibition is winding down.
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The Czarkowskis and their team help marijuana operations with everything from licensing to facility design to basic business consulting, thanks to a pair of resumes that could hardly be more tailor-made for this industry. The pair met in the 1990s when they worked in IT sales, and after the dot-com boom ended they transitioned into real estate, with Jay getting his general contractor’s license (he also has an electrical engineering background) and Diane becoming a certified real estate agent.
They built high-end homes in towns such as Steamboat Springs, but when yet another bubble burst (the housing crash and subsequent recession), they switched their focus again, opening one of the first marijuana dispensaries in Colorado despite knowing little about the plant itself. “We were never ‘into’ marijuana before that, but our shared business backgrounds allowed us to kill it early on,” Jay says.
After a few years of running a dispensary near 16th and Pearl in Boulder, their lease expired and their building was sold. When city officials wouldn’t allow the couple to transfer their license to another address, the Czarkowskis turned to consulting. Within six months they were fielding calls from outside Colorado, people in other states looking for help in starting their own dispensaries.
Connecticut and Massachusetts were first on the list. The newly dubbed Canna Advisors helped their clients get three of 20 medical marijuana licenses in Massachusetts; the state eventually revoked nine of those, but all three Canna clients were spared, largely because they’d filed everything properly and had strong business plans. Since then Canna has expanded its services to entrepreneurs in about five other states, with more to come. They also were early members of the National Cannabis Industry Association, and part of their work involves lobbying Congress about changes to marijuana laws. Lately they’ve begun fielding calls from potential international clients, and with some form of marijuana legalization on the ballot this year in numerous states, the Czarkowskis are anticipating another boom.
“Up to now we’ve been working with a few clients per year, and it’s usually a six-to-nine-month engagement,” Diane says. “But we might have about 17 states adopting legalization within the next few years, so we really need to beef up our operations and make sure the people we hire are still high caliber. We plan to hire individuals and acquire smaller consultants that can’t scale.”
The couple agrees that the stigma long associated with marijuana is fading fast, and they say they’ve begun to see “PhD-level” talent—chemists, horticulturists, engineers—enter a business that’s projected to have more than $40 billion in economic impact nationwide by 2020. (Among their current clients are former DEA agents looking to make a career change that takes advantage of their extensive knowledge about things such as security and regulatory compliance.)
All this growth might point to an eventual “Big Marijuana” situation that some have tried to frame as a looming problem. The Czarkowskis aren’t fazed by that prospect, particularly since it can’t really happen until there’s a major shift in federal marijuana policies. “We may eventually end up with something similar to large chain restaurants”—an Olive Garden or Applebee’s of weed—“but there will always be room for boutique operations,” Jay says. “If you can provide a good product and service for a good price, it’s no different from working in any other industry.”