How Two College Roommates Started An Online CBD Business

$15,000
revenue/mo
3
Founders
3
Employees
product
Plain Jane
from Berkeley, CA
started April 2018
$15,000
revenue/mo
3
Founders
3
Employees
532K
alexa rank
16.5K
followers
852
followers
platform
email
shipping
productivity
social media

Hello! Who are you and what business did you start?

I’m Evan and I started Plain Jane with my college roommate, Duane Dennis.

Plain Jane is dramatically changing the CBD market. We’re the first ultra smooth and low odor Hemp CBD flower and cigarette.

Not a ton of people know what CBD is. It’s a cannabinoid in the Cannabis plant like THC except it doesn’t get you high. It also has anti-anxiety and anti-pain effects. Generally when people refer to the medicinal properties of cannabis, they’re talking about CBD. Most people aren’t aware that you can get these benefits without intoxication.

I believe we’re the best CBD company because we offer the best prices and we have unique products. Unlike the vast majority of companies, we do not have middlemen. We’ve partnered directly with farms to bring customers the best prices.

We’re also continuing to innovate and create new products. Our flagship product is a low smell and ultra smooth CBD cigarette. It has the same potency of other CBD flower products but without that identifying weed smell.

Within 5 months of starting to sell, we’re now generating more than $20K a month in sales. We have customers in 47 states and we’re in more than 12 retail locations.

how-two-college-roommates-started-an-online-cbd-business

What's your backstory and how did you come up with the idea?

At MIT, Duane and I grew weed in our dorm room and were really interested in learning more about the plant. After college, I went to work for a tech startup in San Francisco as a software engineer.

Duane created Miramix, a supplements manufacturing and branding company. Over the few years we were out of college, we saw the tides turning for cannabis legalization and knew we wanted to be involved.

When 2018 rolled around, I quit my job and Duane flew out to California.

In college, we figured out a way to remove the smell and harshness from cannabis. We read about it on some online forums and thought it’d be interesting to try out. It ended up by far being our favorite. We could smoke it without smelling strongly like weed and it caused much less throat irritation. We thought this would be a pretty cool thing to work on and we didn’t really see any products that offered less smelly weed products that don’t make you cough.

Our friend, Lindsey suggested looking into CBD products. The more we learned about CBD, the more the excited we became. CBD provides many of the physical benefits associated with cannabis without the intoxication. Lindsey has since joined us as a founder and is constantly help us develop new CBD products.

Since I had struggled with smoking cigarettes since college, we created a non-addictive alternative and that’s our flagship product. A low smell, ultra smooth, CBD-rich hemp cigarette.

Take us through the process of designing, prototyping, and manufacturing your first product.

There are a bunch of different philosophies about creating products so this is just my take.

I believe a product has to have some essential attribute that makes it different from existing products. It can be price or a unique feature but something has to be different about it. I believe marketing and brand is a lagging indicator of your products. Simply selling something already out there with a different label doesn’t really appeal to me. Most of the work of selling a product is done by the product so differentiation can be crucial for growth.

Our first goal in prototyping our product was to figure out if our identifying attribute, a low smell and ultra smooth weed was an interesting concept to anyone.

Validating the idea

To test this idea, we bought some weed from a dispensary, processed it to remove the smell, and brought it to Hippie Hill on 4/20. (Hippie Hill in Golden Gate Park in San Francisco on 4/20 is a giant cannabis celebration event with thousands of people).

We printed out a bunch of surveys and went person to person asking them if they wanted to smoke a bowl and see how they liked it. After doing about 50 interviews, we found that people who considered themselves connoisseurs of cannabis hated it, but the more casual smokers loved it.

This was a pretty positive sign that we were going in the right direction. We wanted to be polarizing because with a unique product, the worst someone can say is that the kind of like it.

There are a lot of people out there working on a lot of different products. You should try to understand why no one has created your product yet. Most people in the industry consider themselves cannabis experts with an appreciation for complex flavors and smells. They smoke too much to ever really cough. They don’t care about the smell. Our product isn’t for them and they make up most of the industry.

Making the product

We then had to make a product. We decided to create a hemp cigarette because we saw parallels in the THC market and really liked the form factor.

I also recently learned about CBD and how it provided many of the sought out for medical benefits without any intoxication. It is a product I use personally.

We spent 3 weeks designing and perfecting the box. I learned how to use Free CAD to design it. We cut the original box shapes out of paper and then taped them together.

how-two-college-roommates-started-an-online-cbd-business

When we finally got it right, we went to a print shop and then printed a bunch of box templates. We put it online and started selling it.

The first few boxes we sold took about 30 minutes each to make. I literally cut them out of paper and glued them together. It was kind of ridiculous in hindsight. Since then, we’ve focused on small and consistent improvements to our product. Figuring out the attributes that people care about and then optimizing them. We’ve really focused on improving the burn experience, packaging to prevent flower from falling out the ends, and even the audible snap the box makes when you close it.

We recently started selling less unique products. After partnering with farms and moving to a farm in Oregon, we also saw that market prices are greatly inflated. We decided to start selling less unique products but at a much cheaper price. We’ve spent way less time on perfecting and testing the products as they are more common and our key differentiation is our lower prices.

Describe the process of launching the business.

We funded the company from savings.

We’ve bootstrapped ourselves to this point. Plain Jane didn’t really have a launch. We just put out a website using shopify and then tried to start selling. It was about 90 days after we started selling before we saw any real sort of usage or engagement.

When a customer wants to meet you in a Safeway parking lot to get their product faster, you know you have something,

The hardest part at the beginning was just figuring out what worked and what didn’t. I sort of felt like I was wasting time. After a while, you start figuring out the things that didn’t work and continue doing the things that worked.

I’m very glad that people really like our products. Our customers love our products. That’s made everything a lot easier and less of a grind. My big piece of advice is to make sure your customers love your products.

The first time I saw that someone love our products was when our 6th customer asked if we could met her in person to drop off her order because her son uses them for migraines and didn’t want to wait the 3 days for shipping.

When a customer wants to meet you in a Safeway parking lot to get their product faster, you know you have something,

Since launch, what has worked to attract and retain customers?

Almost all of our business comes from social media.

As a CBD company, we cannot spend money on Facebook or Google Ads. Basically everything I knew about paid advertising before was pretty worthless.

Influencer marketing has been huge for us. Our approach is pretty simple. We give out samples of our products and ask people to post about us on social media aka a micro-influencer strategy.

We really like this approach because we get authentic stories and content. We cannot really control the messaging so the product has to speak for itself. We don’t really take product photos at all. Our customers take the photos and we ask to reuse them.

With any influencer strategy, you have to be very sure you’re targeting the right people and engaging with them. You can make sure you’re targeting the right influencers by looking through their posts and then looking through the profiles of their engaged followers. It takes more time per influencer but the payoff is certainly worth it. Make sure their followers look like your existing customers.

It takes a ton of time and work to grow a social media following this way but it’s worth it. Other accounts have tried to grow themselves through botting or other manipulations. As a CBD company, we didn’t want to give Instagram any reason to shutdown our account so we’ve done everything through content and real engagement. It’s not magic to make this happen. You just have to post consistently and then reply or like every single comment you get. It takes months but it works.

We tried a lot of things that didn’t work. An early mistake we made was paying large botnet instagram pages to post about us. This almost always lost money. We did it because it was easy.

These pages contacted us and asked we wanted to post. We said sure, why not. After wasting a couple thousand dollars trying this out, we went with a more manual approach and hired someone to implement it full time.

How are you doing today and what does the future look like?

We’re doing alright. We’re profitable but not yet paying ourselves more than our living expenses.

We’ve chosen to focus our efforts in growing the company first. We put in a ton of time and live right next to our production facility in Oregon on a hemp farm. We’ve come a long way from walking around a weed festival asking people to smoke a bowl to renting a production space with employees.

Currently, we have 63% margins. We’re constantly figuring out ways to make our production more automated to bring down our price and pass it onto customers. In November, we sold a bit more than $24K, mostly in prerolls and flower. Most of our sales are through our online store which has been growing around 37% each month. Our conversion rate hovers between 5.5% and 6%. We’re trying to find ways to improve this but we’re fairly content with where it stands.

Our goal for the company is ambitious. CBD is the fastest growing segment of the fastest growing industry (cannabis). We have our sights set on the stars.

Personally, my goal is to make a larger enduring company because before Plain Jane, I really enjoyed my job and the people I worked with. My goal wasn’t control but to create influence in an outsized way that I couldn’t accomplish by being an employee.

Operationally, we always try to free ourselves from a task once we’ve figured it out and it becomes repetitive.

For example, we social media, we have our influencer strategy down so we hired someone to do what we already know works. I’m personally against hiring someone to solve a problem I don’t have any clue how to solve. I believe hiring is for scaling up efforts or if you’re hiring an expert, you should already know how to basically do their job. Maybe not as well though.

Through starting the business, have you learned anything particularly helpful or advantageous?

It’s really hard to go from being a Software Team Lead to a CBD company. Now my job is mostly online sales and general company strategy.

The mindset you bring to a sales job is very different than one you bring to creating high quality software. Changing my perspective took time. After being really good at something for years, it’s difficult to be bad at everything. Learning is basically admitting that you’re bad at something. I learned a lot in many of different areas.

One area of advice I’d have for other software engineers starting a company is that you should build in runway for the adjustment. Remember what it felt like to learn how to code?

Like the first few months when making the most basic thing happen was tedious and slow progressing. Learning to start a company is like that except you’re worried about running of out money at the same time.

What platform/tools do you use for your business?

We use Shopify for our store.

As a programmer, it was difficult to make the decision not to custom build something. It was the right decision. We use tons of apps on Shopify, here are a few:

What have been the most influential books, podcasts, or other resources?

Funnily enough, now that I’m an entrepreneur, I don’t really read overarching high level books about entrepreneurship.

When I had a 9 to 5, I read everything like Good to Great, The 5 Hour Work Week, Zero to One, and many more. The books entertained me and somewhat prepared me as I started out this journey.

Most of the content I consume now is pretty small and tactical. I read a lot of one off blog posts about how to do a task I’m trying to complete.

I’ve also found myself engaging with online communities more like reddit/r/startup & reddit/r/shopify. Again, most of the interaction is about pretty low level things instead of entrepreneurial philosophy.

Advice for other entrepreneurs who want to get started or are just starting out?

Just do things. Most people worry a lot about doing things well. Just doing something is way better than doing nothing. Many people frame this as the 80-20 rule. The downside of the 80-20 rule is you don’t necessarily get the feeling of pride from doing good work. I’d recommend just trying something out and being okay with doing it poorly, especially when people are telling you you’re doing it poorly.

Another lesson I had to learn pretty early was getting past negativity. One time pretty early on, we got a very harsh review about our product. I was doxxed (personal information exposed) and I didn’t know what to do. I just kind of left it while it haunted me for weeks. We ended up introducing another product that I knew the reviewer would like more. We sent him a sample and got a glowing review.

Now with so many more customers, we still get occasionally very mean people to deal with. The emotional cycle still happens but now I get through it in an hour or so instead of a couple weeks. I focus more on trying to solve the problem and figure out if it’s a problem we should be solving.

Are you looking to hire for certain positions right now?

We’re actively looking for a social media manager: someone to create content and engage with posts. We’re also always open to affiliate partnerships.

Where can we go to learn more?

Website: https://tryplainjane.com

Email: [email protected]
Instagram: @tryplainjane
Twitter: @tryplainjane

A blog post about the history of hemp in human history: https://tryplainjane.com/blogs/news/the-ancient-history-of-hemp

A blog post about cannabinoids other than THC & CBD:
https://tryplainjane.com/blogs/news/cannabindoids-arent-just-cbd-and-thc

-  

Evan Marshall,   Founder of Plain Jane

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Comments


Jennifer Walker
11 days ago

I just stared a CBD oil business a few months ago, and I am so happy to have come across this article! The issues and frustrations that these business owners faced are exactly the same ones that I am facing right now in regard to marketing and advertising. I happen to have a leg up on the writing aspect of the business, as I am a writer and magazine editor in my other professional life, but the roadblocks with legally advertising CBD are astounding. Thank you for your advice, I will definitely take it!

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