Cannabis Entrepreneur Sees Bumpy Road, Then Bright Michigan Future
Cannabis entrepreneur Hilary Dulany, founder of Accuvape and co-founder of Aardvark Extracts, has been dreaming up businesses since she was a kid. Selling toads and crayfish to the neighbors from her red wagon was her first attempt.
But she didn’t launch a “real business,” she told attendees of the October 5 Women Grow-Southeast Michigan chapter meeting, until she was 24 and working at a mindless marketing job at a local paper. When she was offered the opportunity to sell ads for a new digital media project the paper was taking on, she dove in head first. “I ended up outselling the entire sales department on one of their projects. As I brought the last check in for them, they brought me into the publisher’s office and let me go. I was a bit too ambitious for them.”
Fortunately, a client the paper did design work for was also a friend of her family. “I asked if they had any work that couldn’t be done by the paper so there’d be no conflict of interest. I ended up bidding on and winning a statewide project for them that required hiring contractors, pulling permits, and seeking variances.”
With that contract in hand, she launched Grass Roots Promotion and Design, LLC, and thus began her career as a “serial entrepreneur.” “The marketing firm really helped me flesh out the components of small business development. Not only was I doing it for myself. I was doing it for clients. I got to work in different functional infrastructures for so many business types in a compressed period of about five years.”
Entering the Cannabis Business
Dulany credits her start in the cannabis business to the convergence of two unrelated forces that both exploded in 2008. First was the ripple effect of the housing crash. “Most of my clients were small businesses that were not going to weather the economical storm,” she begins. “I lost over 60% of my business in about a year. I didn’t have mentors at that time to help guide me through the storm.”
Taking a position in a company that needed to develop a marketing firm, Dulany brought her team with her and tried to dig in. “I was extremely restricted in what I was able to do. My ideas were exploding. However, I had no resources to accomplish any of the collateral I wanted to develop. I was basically paralyzed in my position.”
The Second Explosive Force
She didn’t last long in that environment. Instead, she took a time out to clear her head and think about that second explosive force. ”I knew medical marijuana was on the November ballot in Michigan so I looked into it from a marketing perspective to see how I might fit into this new industry. I was about the only person calling it an industry in Michigan then—mostly people would laugh at me when I’d bring it up. I put a few business ideas together and as soon as it passed I started going to local networking and education events.”
On August 22-23, 2009, Dulany and six others (she notes that she was the only woman) threw the first MMMP (Michigan Medical Marihuana Program) Expo in Michigan, an event they were able to organize in six weeks.
After the law passed in November, the state had until April to work on implementation so the “industry” really only started networking then. I remember calling my dad the morning of the event and reminding him to stay close to the phone in case I called him from jail. It was exhilarating and scary all at once. No one had ever done an event with the word “marihuana” in it—and we had a billboard to boot. My parents, while trying to be supportive, were very unhappy with my occupational turn of events.
Despite sweltering heat on the first day of their event and punishing downpours the second day, the event successfully hosted several thousand attendees and volunteers over the two-day span.
We were trying to keep handicapped attendees from getting overheated one day and their wheelchairs stuck in the mud between the buildings the next day. Day 2 we had to order a semi-truck of straw to create usable paths. They charged us like $10 a bale and knew they had us over a barrel. We were all spreading straw as fast as we could that morning. I can’t believe we survived it.
But they did, while educating the public and promoting upcoming local businesses along the way. And, she notes, “I didn’t end up in jail.”
One conclusion the organizers drew from their experience was that they needed to continue the educational component.
So I founded The Midwest Cultivator with just $50 to open a bank account. I found ad sponsors and it became the first cannabis publication in Michigan, running for almost five years. The paper was truly an education of a lifetime into this industry. I got to see where the holes were and how to fill them.
Back then, being in the cannabis business posed challenges not common to other businesses. For one, Dulany recalled, you couldn’t use “marihuana” in conversation.
Yet that was what I was selling ads for. Grow stores had to talk about tomatoes. I was able to get credit card processing for the publication because my business name was pretty vague. However, the industry was a blank slate. There was no infrastructure, no set protocols.
In addition, players were living in two worlds:
I tried to keep perspective between the weed world and the real world while I was on my journey. It’s easy to forget about the real world when you are so immersed in this industry. Perspective can quickly become jaded or skewed when you forget about what’s happening outside the bubble.
The Midwest Cultivator began as a regional cannabis business and life journal, the first business trade journal in the Midwest for the medical marijuana industry. Its name was changed to The American Cultivator when it expanded to thirteen states and parts of Canada. Circulation was 40,000 copies per issue when she donated the paper to My Compassion, a Michigan-based medical marijuana-related 501-C3, one of only four in the country. The paper is no longer in print.
In 2013, Dulany founded Accuvape, a portable vaporizer company. Marketed to “the price-savvy individual who expects what they buy to work and for a company to respond when contacted,” Accuvape grew from a regional Lansing business to a national brand in just twelve months.
In 2015, she and two partners co-founded Aardvark Extracts and Aardvark Farms in Bend, Oregon, after a year of travelling back and forth from Michigan. She recalls falling into the Oregon market when a friend suggested that she bring Accuvape there, she did, and it sold well on her first trip. Then, one of her partners bought a greenhouse in Oregon.
What really pushed us to make the move was the desire to work in a regulated industry where we could grow a company without fear of state intervention. Michigan hadn’t finished its laws and we didn’t see any movement by the government to create tax revenue from this industry. I wouldn’t trade that experience for anything now. We have years of operating in almost the identical system Michigan is now adopting and are coming home to build the brand here in 2018.
The Industry Today
Dulany looks around at the industry today and marvels at how far it’s come. Yet she acknowledges how far it still has to go. “Banking is extremely difficult. In Oregon, there are some credit unions that specifically work with cannabis businesses. The process is arduous, but it is the first real banking provided to us as a cannabis business.”
She warns budding entrepreneurs that the industry is “thick with undercurrent and culture. You have to understand the way the industry plays the game, on top of how to run a successful business. It’s one of the hardest industries to break into cold turkey and not for the faint of heart.”
Meanwhile, Michigan’s entire system is in for a shock as it transitions from being self-regulated to being like the system that she has been living under in Oregon:
Living through the development of that system was one of the scariest periods of my life. Losses are staggering as the state tries to figure out how to navigate through a system they don’t understand. I wondered if we would ever make it to the other side. I wanted to give up every day.
I worry that people here will have an even harder time than we did out there because they’ve been so used to doing things their way for so long. The economy that can come from this is so intense. However, the road is long, bumpy, and uncertain. People have got to keep enough gas in their tanks to get to the other side.
Secrets to Success
Dulany hesitates to call herself a success, acknowledging only that she is “working towards successful enterprises every day.” However, she is pleased to share thoughts and practices that have guided her throughout her career:
- “If I was successful it is because I focused on what I knew with each endeavor and surrounded myself with people who knew what I didn’t for everything else.”
- “I grew slowly and tried to minimize my mistakes to the level I could weather and survive as a business.”
- “I’ve always paid myself modestly and reinvested as much as I possibly could.”
- “Some might say not bringing in big investors in my early years was the wrong move but I wasn’t ready for the complexity that bringing on massive debt and obligation to people who don’t necessarily have your vision brings.”
- “I think time, diligence, keeping your eyes open, and remaining humble are definitely components of a successful operator.”
Dulany’s next hope is to see adult recreational use pass in Michigan. “I’ve seen what it does for communities, for states, for the residents. Free college. Homeless communities that have dignified housing. Beautiful downtowns, nice schools. Jobs that pay a living wage. I could keep going. Michigan needs this. I’ve seen it happen in other states. I want it for us here, too.”
Ken Wachsberger, editor of Bloom Blog, is an author, editor, and book coach, and the founder of Azenphony Press. He is the author of the upcoming Ken Wachsberger’s Puns and Word Plays for the Job Seeker.