Turning a marijuana pipe dream into a multimillion-dollar head shop: Q&A with Smoke Cartel CEO Darby Cox

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In a Savannah, Georgia, warehouse, Smoke Cartel employees file through rows of vaporizers, dab rings and torches, hustling to fill online orders from head shops, dispensaries and consumers across the United States.

It’s an operation that less than five years ago began as wishful thinking – launched from the living room of Smoke Cartel co-founders Darby Cox and Sean Geng with just $600.

Since then, they have transformed the enterprise into a leading online marijuana accessory store with nearly 40 employees and more than $5.8 million in revenue in 2017 – up 20% from 2016.

In February, the company went public on the OTC Markets under the ticker symbol SMKC.

In June, Cox was appointed Smoke Cartel’s chairman and CEO, positioning her among a shrinking category of women holding the executive reins at cannabis companies in the United States.

From 2015 to 2017, the percentage of women in executive roles in the industry fell 9 percentage points, according to a Marijuana Business Daily survey.

Recently, MJBizDaily caught up with Cox, 24, to discuss Smoke Cartel’s growth and the strategy she’s deploying to position the company to succeed in the noisy, crowded world of online retail.

What drew you to the cannabis industry?

In my early 20s, I began using cannabis to treat an intestinal disorder and found tremendous relief.

I was reticent when my partner, Sean, decided to launch an e-commerce shop for smoking accessories from our living room in 2013. But when we attended our first trade show and I saw how many people were being helped like I was, I was all in.

What are the top challenges for a cannabis firm competing in the online space?

There are so many choices for consumers online, and our biggest challenge at Smoke Cartel is ensuring that we prioritize quality over price and remaining competitive while providing stellar customer service.

We also deal with a lot of false information about products and the industry, and we are constantly working to educate our customers and website visitors.

What have been the biggest changes at the company since it went public?

It’s a busy time, and we’re keeping our heads about us and remain committed to maintaining our original goals: Revolutionizing our industry and culture while maintaining the best possible standards and business practices.

The process can seem intimidating, but we’ve learned that nothing is really as mystifying or as scary as it seems.

Understanding all the compliance laws has been challenging, and we are still learning exactly what we can and cannot say about the process.

It has absolutely changed the way that we treat inventory, and that has been a good thing for all of us.

Accountability is so super tight now. We’ve lost a little bit of that crazy, startup excitement and traded up for structure and procedures that feel a bit more corporate – and it feels great.

It’s allowed us to view our growth differently and opened us to possibilities we previously hadn’t seen.

Are there challenges or opportunities that are unique to being a female leader in the cannabis space?

It’s amazing to work in an industry where there has already been a lot done by some talented, powerful and awe-inspiring women who have come before me.

Fortunately, our industry has been thoughtful about growth and rewards, as well as embracing a culture that is inclusive and diverse.

I think we are seeing that traditional corporate politics don’t necessarily work for the cannabis industry and that success comes from being more fluid and creative.

For the most part, the industry’s most prominent leaders in the cannabis industry are very supportive of diversity, inclusivity and ensuring that everyone has a seat at the table.

There’s been a great deal of success with that strategy in the industry, and I certainly don’t see it slowing down.

What strategies does Smoke Cartel employ to encourage diversity in the workplace?

We actively seek differentIt’s not like we have quotas or anything; we just preach interconnectedness and value unconventional perspectives.

Our hiring manager and our team know deeply that we are successful because of the unique traits that each person brings to the table, even if it’s different than our own or what we are used to.

We tell our teammates that the reason we are succeeding is because we’re all from different backgrounds and have different life experiences – a wonderful melting pot of unique folks all working toward a shared goal.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Lisa Bernard-Kuhn can be reached at lisabk@mjbizdaily.com