Cannabusiness As Usual

Arizona Dispensary Owners Rely on Traditional Business Practices for MMJ Success

The first few days of business for The Giving Tree Wellness Center in Phoenix were dicey. Only about 10 people came in even though the dispensary was among the first in Arizona to open – leaving owners Lilach Mazor Power and Gina Berman wondering if they’d made the right career choice. “It was stressful knowing that we put everything we had into this business – it was crazy,” Power said. After a few tense weeks, the buzz started building. Some positive Internet reviews and strong word-of-mouth marketing helped boost traffic flow into the store substantially.

Gordon said. “We knew Colorado and Washington were going to be experiments, and people are still going to jail for doing things by the book – I didn’t want any of that risk.”

That led the pair to open a second dispensary in Mesa, Arizona, a couple months later, which was much less stressful thanks to the success of the company’s first location.

While running a marijuana grow and dispensary presents many challenges, Power and Berman found that most hurdles can be overcome by finding a unique business model, treating employees and customers right and making pathways into the community.

Basically, run it like you would any other business.

Find a Niche

Power and Berman initially wanted to open a general wellness center – not one that specifically sold medical marijuana. But when the opportunity to open a cannabis business presented itself, it was too good to pass up, Power said.

To differentiate the dispensary from competitors cropping up at the same time, the pair decided to incorporate their initial idea of a wellness center into the dispensary. Giving Tree, for instance, offers massage therapy, yoga and other holistic treatments alongside its medical marijuana offerings.
That resonates particularly well with some patients who aren’t comfortable with the idea of walking into a business that sells cannabis.

“They come in and say it relaxes them. They say it’s like walking into a spa and not like walking into a pot shop,” Power said. “We actually get older people who walk in and say ‘I picked you from the list because it says wellness center.’”

While the ancillary wellness services helped Giving Tree gain legitimacy in the eyes of some patients, that part of the business hasn’t taken off as quickly as Power and Berman initially hoped. Still, those services are important to patients who otherwise wouldn’t come into the building if it were only a dispensary, and Power is optimistic that the number of people using the wellness services will increase.

Hire for Customer Service

Customer comfort is paramount when operating a marijuana business, Power said. To that end, hiring the right people to work in a dispensary is equally important, as employees are on the front lines of customer service.

This can be daunting in the marijuana industry. It’s not a matter of finding enough people who want to work at a cannabis business. Every time Power has a job opening, “there’s a line out the door.”
Rather, finding experienced and professional applicants can be the big challenge. Many people who’ve been growing in the shadows for years don’t understand what it’s like to cultivate commercially, and those applying for general jobs many times don’t have what it takes to make patients feel welcome.
“People think growing marijuana is the coolest job and want to be a part of it, but this is farming – you’re going to work whenever the plant needs you to,” she said. “It’s dirty, it’s physical and it’s demanding. You have the compliance side, so you have a lot of paperwork. It’s not coming in and looking at pretty flowers. We’re all farmers, really.”

Instead of hiring people who have many years growing cannabis in their basements or people with customer service experience, Power and Berman try to find those with a combined love of helping people, providing a quality medical product and believe in the promise they see in medical marijuana. To retain quality employees, the company offers health insurance and will offer a retirement plan in the near future.

“We look for people who are passionate,” Power said. “We look for people who don’t have an ego.”

Educate

Hiring the right employees can help break the stigma attached to people who work in the marijuana industry. Professionalism is important for every company, but more so for cannabis businesses.
Many people who have been prescribed medical marijuana often are reluctant to tell their families and friends that they use the drug, fearing they’ll be labeled or judged. Educating not only patients but also the people around them about the benefits of medical cannabis is important. So is showing them that the industry has evolved.

At Giving Tree, patients are given a one-hour consultation before they’re allowed to purchase marijuana. There, they can sit with Berman, the company’s medical director, to learn about their treatment options.

This helps them make smart decisions, understand the medicine and communicate it to their friends and family members – which in turn gives credibility to the industry as a whole.
“This is medicine,” Power said. “This is legitimate.”

Give Back

Letting people see that the company is in fact not the pot shop some people perceive is a big part of doing business. To get their name out and to help people who otherwise wouldn’t know what a dispensary does or who works there, Giving Tree raises money for the very ailments its customers come in to treat.

Employees raised about $4,000 during a recent breast cancer fundraiser, and the company kicked in a matching amount. The company also does fundraising for research into Crohn’s disease and colitis and donates money to a local domestic abuse facility, among other causes.

“We’re able to be involved, to show our neighbors that (the dispensary) is not what you think,” Power said. “It helps to change the way people think about us.”

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