How I Started A Cannabis Company
In April 2019, I launched a hemp food company entirely from scratch, by myself with my own money. Here's a rundown of how I did it.
IN THIS ARTICLE
I've always wanted to run my own business. I'm 32 now and I’m finally doing it but let me quickly fill you in on the last decade.
Stumbling Through Corporate Life in London
I completed my Masters in Business at Glasgow University in June 2008 and already had a job lined up in London to work for a consulting firm called Accenture. The global economic meltdown hit at virtually the same time, so my start date ended up being deferred for a year, which was initially frustrating but ended up being quite convenient. I didn't really want to hang around in Scotland and needed a plan. I'd piled on a solid amount of timber after overdoing it on the beers for four years and I'd just been dumped by my long-term girlfriend, so I thought I'd do the classic newly single man thing and get myself into shape. My sister and her (now ex) boyfriend had just opened their own gym in Leicester. They'd also just had their first baby (my niece) so I invited myself to stay down there for a few weeks. Four months later, I'd lost about 20kgs by running in the morning, lifting weights in the afternoon, eating clean and avoiding booze. I worked behind the desk in their gym for zero pay in return for free rent. I also did my fair share of nappy changing and baby cuddling at night. Good deal for all involved.
My sister's ex was into his bodybuilding, so the gym they ran was targeted at the ‘hardcore’ segment of the market. In between my own workouts, I genuinely spent most of my days blending up protein shakes for the members, who'd gladly pay £5 for me to mix a scoop of whey protein powder with water, and pay a further £0.50 a pop to throw in extras like oats, creatine and glutamine. The revenue from the shakes was outweighing that of the gym memberships which I found quite fascinating. Light bulbs were going off in my head on ways to capitalise for myself. But time ticked over, and a few months later, Accenture came calling and I made the move to London.
I lasted about a year and a half at Accenture before moving to Barclays to take on a role in their Strategy department. No need to dwell on what the work entailed – just picture me sitting in a cubicle wearing a fancy suit and feeling depressed (which had nothing to do specifically with Barclays, I just didn’t get excited by office work). Our whole team ended up getting made redundant after just six months, so my next move, naturally, was to audition for the BBC show ‘The Apprentice’, armed with a bright business idea to launch my own supplement line with a twist. I got down from 10,000 or so to the final 30, but ultimately wasn’t one of the chosen ones (I’ll probably write about that experience in another post). Off I went back to corporate land – this time to start freelancing as a Business Analyst at Sky TV. At that point, I was just over 2 years into my career and I’d already decided I hated corporate life. I was earning decent money as a 25-year-old, but I was blowing most of it at weekends. I was living the so-called dream in London, but in all honesty, I missed the freedom of working for nothing in my sister’s gym, pouring protein shakes for the punters.
Fast forward 9 months and I decided to quit the gig at Sky TV with 3 months left on my contract to go on a trip to China. I hadn’t stopped thinking of ideas to make protein shakes more accessible and I needed to explore cost effective machinery to bring one of those ideas to life. I flew into Shanghai and met a translator at the other end called Michelle. She accompanied me around factories for a couple of weeks and helped me navigate the world of business over there. I learned a lot, but my idea was going to cost a huge amount of money and I had no connections or any real knowledge of how to approach venture capitalists for funding. So, I decided to fly to Sydney to visit my cousin for a couple of weeks to gather my thoughts and plot the next move. After a few heart to hearts, he did a good job of convincing me that the health industry in Australia was huge and suggested that I join him in relocating there. I flew back to London feeling impulsive and optimistic - when I landed, I told my flatmate I was leaving, and one month later I was back down under.
Moving to Australia
When I arrived in Australia in September 2012, I only knew 3 people. One of my best mates - Pete - was working in a hotel on Hamilton Island. Fraser, another mate from high school, was living and working in Melbourne. Dimitris, my half Greek, half Scottish cousin was up in Cairns somewhere by this point doing his compulsory 90 days of farm work to get his second working holiday visa (bizarre initiative by the way). I crashed with Fraser in Melbourne for a few weeks before deciding to move up to Sydney. I hadn’t earned any money for 6 months at that stage and the bank balance was suffering, so the hunt for a soulless corporate job commenced.
I spent a few months of the first year in Sydney doing consulting work before losing enthusiasm. Anyone reading this who works in an office must be able to relate to that empty, worthless feeling – if you’re honest with yourself, you know that ultimately everyone is dispensable. But, more poignantly, I often found myself questioning the real value of everything that was being done.
The next few years were spent in corporate jobs to keep the immigration department happy. I worked at the ABC for a while before joining Ogilvy - one of the big WPP advertising agencies. I was naive and didn’t anticipate the headache of working visas and all their restrictions, but on the bright side, I did learn a lot about digital advertising (branding, website builds etc.) which has come in pretty handy now. As an immigrant, you can’t just arrive here and start your own business (well, not unless you have millions of dollars to invest, which I certainly did not). So, I did my homework, put my head down and followed the corporate path to eventual citizenship in 2017. I was officially a dual citizen and afforded the privilege of staying put in this amazing country. It was time. The start-up dream could finally commence. No more excuses or procrastination.
Hemp was made legal in November 2017
Straight after I became a dual citizen, I started dating my partner, yoga teacher and now baby Mum, Prudence, who was (and still is) big into plant-based eating. Pru single-handedly transformed my views on what constitutes a healthy diet and drew my attention to hemp; nature’s superior wholefood. 2017 was a big year for hemp in Australia and there was a decent amount of media coverage throughout the year as its official legalisation for food consumption edged closer. I’d already noticed a few companies selling hemp food products disguised as “skin scrubs” or “pet food”, so I tried a few out, read up about all the amazing nutrients in hemp seeds and educated myself about the cannabis plant in general. The more I read, the more fascinated I became with hemp’s potential to genuinely revolutionise our environment and our health. I drastically cut back on my meat intake and I eliminated dairy from my diet completely. I’ll go into more depth on all of that in future articles, but my research quickly spread high and wide from dairy farming to climate change, cancer, diabetes, medicinal cannabis, hemp plastic, hemp fuel, hemp housing – the list goes on. I sensed a huge potential to transform not just the way we eat, but how we lead our lives. On Sunday 12 November, hemp seed was legalised for food consumption and my goal to bring Saint Hemp to life began.
Finding the right suppliers
One of the key takeaways from my time in advertising is that agencies are over-priced, and to maximise profits, the people doing the work are generally very junior. In saying that, I’d come across a lot of talented folk who were now either freelancing on the side or freelancing full-time, so I approached my favourites including a graphic designer, a web developer, a tester and an SEO consultant. I worked with them all individually on the branding and eCommerce side of things, while I also engaged a food technologist in parallel. Most importantly, I had to find a whole host of suppliers for the product ingredients, packaging, manufacturing and logistics. With hemp being a brand-new industry in Australia, it was hard to find farmers who knew what they were doing with hemp cultivation. It was also hard to find manufacturers who were legitimate experts in hemp food production, so I spent a huge amount of time and effort travelling interstate to meet people. I could already see other company's products popping up on shelves and beating me to it, using imported hemp seeds to accelerate their entry into the market.
It was always a huge part of my vision that the company would be Australian and support the growth of the industry here. I wanted all our hemp to be grown in Australia. That meant no short cuts, even though it prolonged my launch date.
I’m also a huge advocate of food hygiene and safety. I want to be sure that what I’m eating and selling to you is clean and uncontaminated. To be honest, I also don’t want to get sued, so I really go to the Nth degree (you’ll notice all our products are HACCP certified) and will always go out of my way to ensure we are manufacturing at the highest standards.
Working full time to fund the company
I always get frustrated when I read articles by entrepreneurs who either don’t divulge or quickly skim past how they got their start-up capital. I don’t come from a wealthy family, so I haven’t taken a single penny from them. I haven’t taken out any bank loans. I haven’t maxed out any credit cards. I haven’t started a Kickstarter campaign. And I haven’t taken any funding from venture capitalists or rich friends. I’ve simply worked full time in a corporate job and invested the money myself. It’s involved a lot of 6am starts and 2am finishes working full time and starting a company simultaneously, but I’m still surviving to tell the tale.
Becoming a Dad and launching my first business
Pru fell pregnant last July and I’d set a goal of getting all our products out to market before the baby arrived. I didn’t want the stress of everything landing at the same time, but fate had other ideas. Any new business owner will tell you that everything takes at least two or three times longer than you initially plan towards. I’ve got so many stories I could tell of speed bumps and roadblocks that I encountered along the way, I could literally write a book. I’ll blog about some of the more interesting hiccups separately, but to cut a long story short, I launched our hemp seed oil on 15 April 2019 and our daughter Ivy was born one week later. My plan to separate the two had failed, but it was actually quite special to have two life dreams come true in the space of one week. They say you experience a new lease of life when you become a parent for the first time. I do feel a great sense of responsibility, but I’m also bursting with pride and a lot of drive to build a good life for my family. When you see the term “family business” in marketing, it’s natural to be a bit sceptical. Saint Hemp is genuinely a self-funded, family business, simply looking to make the world a better place for the next generation. No clichés involved.
Our vanilla and chocolate hemp protein powders and our hemp seeds were launched at the beginning of June 2019, about six weeks after Ivy arrived. I’ve worked so hard to get the flavour profiles right for our hemp protein powders. All the ingredients are real, plant-based powders - and no disrespect to any of our competitors intended - but I genuinely believe we have the best tasting hemp protein powder available. The feedback has been great so far and it allows people to use it in a variety of ways. Some drink it with water like a protein shake (a method your palate won’t tolerate with unflavoured hemp) and others bake and cook with it (check out our recipes for some ideas).
Overall, I’ve put my heart and soul into this business and we’re right at the beginning. The focus now lies with marketing, which brings its own challenges given that Facebook (at the time of writing) don’t permit any form of paid advertising for ingestible hemp products. All our Facebook and Instagram followers have to come from organic growth - not an ideal situation for a direct to consumer eCommerce brand, but I guess it’s time to get creative.
I’ll leave it there for now or this will turn into a novel. If you’ve made it this far, I hope you’ve enjoyed learning a bit more about me and the company’s launch journey. Pru and I have grand plans to grow Saint Hemp to become the main source of credible cannabis education, selling the best quality hemp products in the world. If you like the sound of that, please check out our products and drop me a note with any questions.