Episode 80: 10 Years with MJBiz



Joe: On this episode of the "CPG & CBD University Podcast," it's been 10 years since Chris Walsh founded MJBiz, a leading news source in the cannabis industry. The story behind MJBiz, how it's adapted to the changing storylines and regulations in the industry, and the launch of its brand new podcast. This is the "CPG & CBD University Podcast," and it starts right now.

I'm Joe Agostinelli, host of the "CPG & CBD University Podcast." And if you're a returning listener, we welcome you back to our podcast. If you are a new listener, we're glad you found us on your podcast platform of choice. And don't forget, full video episodes of our podcast can be found on the Global Widget YouTube channels and the YouTube channels of our brands. And for those of you who do watch full video episodes of our podcast, you'll notice this is one of our Zoom episodes. And if you followed our podcast, you know that from time to time, we welcome in Kristen Nichols, editor of Hemp Industry Daily. We've also featured other members of the team. The parent company of Hemp Industry Daily along with a host of other publications is MJBiz. And Chris Walsh founded the company 10 years ago. He's also the host of their brand new podcast "From Seed to CEO." He joins me via Zoom to discuss all that and more on this episode. Chris, welcome in.

Chris: Thanks, Joe. Excited to talk about this crazy business.

Joe: So, let's go back in time. Let's start at the beginning, 10 years ago. What led you to found the MJBiz and how has it grown over the years with all the changes that have gone on in this industry?

Chris: Yeah. It's been a crazy ride. I never thought I'd be doing what I'm doing, like most people in the cannabis industry. I was a business journalist. So, I was a reporter at mainstream newspapers, mainly in Colorado. And then I was an editor, and I was working on getting my MBA in international business. And I moved to South Korea. I moved to Seoul for two years, and worked in journalism there. I came back wanting to get out of traditional media

And when I had left for Seoul in 2009, working for a newspaper in Denver, there was no cannabis business to speak of. And so, we weren't writing anything about it, there were no dispensaries, nothing like that. When I came back two years later, there were more dispensaries in Denver than Starbucks in that short period of time. And that was a phrase that a lot of people used because it was remarkable to think that in a short time, you know, there's a Starbucks on every corner. And there were more medical marijuana dispensaries at that time.

And so, the two co-founders hired me to basically come on and start what became MJBizDaily. And so, I saw an opportunity for a brand new industry that really needed...it needed support, it needed good news, it needed analysis, it needed market research. And eventually, we went down the path of hosting live events, and it needed to be done in a professional way. At that time, there wasn't a lot of good quality information out there. So, no one really knew what was going on. No one knew who to trust. The mainstream media, when they would rarely cover this emerging cannabis industry, was focused on making pot puns more than really covering this in a way that helps people getting into the industry. So, that's what we aimed to do when we started.

And so, you know, I saw it just as an opportunity to keep my journalism roots, but to really help this fledgling industry grow and professionalized and mainstream. And I think we've been able to do that over the years. So, we went from basically more of a blog style trade publication to serious journalism, and to market research. We have our Factbook where we're trying to put numbers around the industry to help people in it, help people that are getting in the industry. And then we launched our big trade show in 2012. And we've expanded along the way in many areas. So, I'd like to think we help support and foster this industry, but we've also been able to ride this crazy wave of legalization and of growth over the past decade.

Joe: And so much changes in our industry. I mean not even on an annual basis, just on a yearly...I mean, you know...excuse me. Even on just a daily basis. And sometimes it seems like maybe even quicker than daily. How have you and your teams been able to stay on top of all the changes and evolve as the industry has?

Chris: You know, it's a constant struggle. As a former journalist myself, you know, I covered a lot of different industries as a reporter, and then edited a lot of stories as an editor, that encompassed a wide spectrum of the economy. And cannabis is difficult. It's really hard to learn what's going on in the industry. Every state is so different. Even the terminology they use in the regulations or that the people in the industry or that the consumers use are different. So, it takes a long time to figure out what the heck is going on. Right when you think got it figured out, there's some other new thing that you weren't aware of. And now, you've got CBD and hemp, and there's just a lot going on.

So, you know, over the years, we have a lot of institutional knowledge both with myself having been intimately familiar with this industry for a decade, but with our staff, too. A lot of our editorial team, which is writing these stories and news and putting together data, has been with us for a long time, for at least several years, and in other cases, more. So, to stay on top of this is hard, and it's easy to feel like you've got to cover everything, like you've got to write about everything. And you can't do it because there's so much going on in any individual state, let alone the nation, let alone when you add Canada or the international market in there.

We try and stay in touch with people in the business, people coming in the business, and trying to get at the issues that matter to them, the news that really...and the analysis behind the news and the developments that really allow them to chart their course in this industry. So, it's a constant battle to figure out what is relevant, what should we be writing about. We don't have unlimited resources. We don't have 100 people out there. So, you know, we rely a lot on our institutional knowledge and our connections with the people in the industry to uncover the issues that people care about and that affect their businesses.

Joe: And speaking about connections in the industry, just recently, you launched the latest of the MJBiz outlets with a new podcast "From Seed to CEO." What's that podcast all about?

Chris: You know, what we really realized was along the way in the last 10 years, there have been waves of new entrants that come in. And they're always coming in, they're fueling growth, people winning licenses, people coming up with ancillary business ideas, professionals from the mainstream coming in. What we realized is that with everything that happened with the last election, with a clean sweep of all the measures on state ballots to legalize medical or recreational, or in South Dakota's case, both, that coupled with what happened with the makeup of Congress and the Democrats controlling everything, which was pretty unexpected with what happened in Georgia early this year.

And so, we realized that there was another wave of people coming in, potentially the biggest one we've seen yet from outside the industry. Ever since then, you've had more states, which surprised us as well, continue to legalize. You know, New York and New Mexico and Virginia, it keeps coming. And there are several others that likely will in the coming months. We just saw a wave of new entrants coming in, and there's still...it's hard to find good, reliable insights and intel on the industry.

So, this podcast that we started and that I host is really aimed at helping the new entrants, whether it's a professional, whether it's an investor, whether it's an entrepreneur, really understand the industry and what leads to success. So, you know, I'm talking weekly to CEOs, and other executives, and investors, and entrepreneurs. And we're trying to draw out their lessons about operating a business in this industry, which is very complicated and which there's a lot of misconceptions about what it takes to be successful and how to get in this industry in a way that is sustainable and that leads to long-term growth.

So, that's really what we're aimed at. We're aimed at the new people coming in to give them really good insight into success stories in the industry and lessons learned from mistakes. We've all made tons of mistakes. And they can be a good thing if you learn from them. So, we try and draw that out.

Joe: Let's talk a little bit about the industry, specifically the potential with CBD and the increasing demand for CBD products. And we often hear about that. And although we've heard about it, we've seen now in some recent weeks where maybe there are some slowdowns in the industry consolidation, mergers. How do we arrive at what's going on in the industry? And how do you approach the evolving storylines?

Chris: We approach it by just trying to stay on top of it and give people relevant information. It kind of goes back to our core approach of, you know, we don't want to hype an industry, overhype it or try and put the best possible spin on it. It's really about looking at what's actually happening and what's to come, and the forces at play, and the trends that are emerging positively and negatively. And so, that's the only way that we can help the industry. And the only way that people can truly be successful in the industry is understanding that bigger picture.

So, CBD had all of this hype, and then we were all kind of...everyone was kind of smacked in the face. There was oversupply. The hemp farmers in particular growing for CBD had a hard time connecting with the companies turning it into products. And so, there's been a lot of challenges. And it's not this...I think the general public just hears, "CBD, CBD, CBD. This is an awesome business." It isn't. It's a great business in some ways, but it's like every other business. It can be awesome, but it's going through growing pains and challenges that we don't know what the ultimate ceiling is for the industry.

We don't know. We're still in the middle of this evolution, just seeing how the consumer base responds to CBD if this is going to be a long-term functional ingredient in basically everything you can consume. That's the way it's been going. Or is this going to be...which there are some people who fear this, and it's a possibility, is this going to be a fad? Is this going to be an Echinacea type thing where everyone's talking about it and they're buying stuff within it? And then it kind of loses its luster. And then, yeah, it's still out there, but it's not like there's a whole giant industry based around Echinacea these days. So, that's really what we're also trying to help people figure out. We're seeing where this goes.

I personally am optimistic about the future of CBD. And I've looked at the negatives, and the downsides, and the potential risks, but I do think...I constantly hear people talking about the benefits, and the everyday people who are just like, "I tried some CBD for something, and it worked." And I hear that over and over.

I just was in New Orleans last weekend with friends, including people I didn't know, friends of friends. And several people said that when we were there, just unprompted. "I had this CBD cream, and I had this ache, and it worked." That's the type of thing that gives me hope that this industry is really going to...it has a high ceiling and a lot of potential. But staying on top of this, it just involves a really big focus on it, and making sure that we are stepping back, too, and saying, "What is the real picture?" Don't get sucked into the hype, but also don't get too sucked into the negative things we've seen. And try to find that balance, and really figure out where this is going.

I'm hearing a ton from mainstream companies that are eyeing CBD, especially in the kind of ingestible area. And once the FDA releases guidance on that, fingers crossed...I have no idea what that's going to be yet, but if there's a path forward there, you are going to see this wave of big companies coming in, which will bring benefits and drawbacks, but it will work itself. CBD will work itself more into the fabric of our lifestyles. And I think that's a good thing. So, we're trying to keep up with these type of trends.

Joe: And for retailers, distributors, and private label brands looking to capitalize on the CBD health and wellness trends in the marketplace, what should they be aware of when reading news in the industry?

Chris: I think they got to be aware of the fact that no one has all the answers, and no one knows where this is truly going to go. I'm speaking at an event coming up to the sweets and snacks industry. So, these are mainstream big companies that make chocolates and pretzels and all that. And there's a big interest from them. "How do I get involved?" And what I can tell you is, the estimates for where this industry is at right now, where it's going, they're all over the board.

We have our own estimates in our partnership with Nielsen, who we trust. And so, we use those. But when I looked at other stats out there, depending on where you look, you know, is this industry going to grow by 1,000% in 4 years? Is it going to be 10, 15 billion? I mean there's estimates all over the board. What I can tell you is we're all trying to figure out where this is going. And people have different ideas on it. So, when you look at this, you've got to find trusted sources of information that you think are approaching this the right way, that they don't have an agenda to make the industry seem bigger than it is. But you also have to understand that there are still so much uncertainty in where it's going.

So, everything you're reading now could look different in six months. And it doesn't mean that what you read was out of touch or there was some other motive behind it. It just simply might mean that the situation and the landscape has changed that significantly. And that's one thing we've seen whether it's CBD, whether it's THC, marijuana, hemp. This changes really fast the industry and the climate. And many times it's for the good, but there are setbacks that crop up out of nowhere that you never expect. And there are also huge moves that are very beneficial that crop out of nowhere, that no one was expecting.

So, we're in this situation where we're waiting for the federal government to really give us good guidelines on what we can do with this, what we can do with this chemical and how we can use it, and what types of products we're ultimately going to be able to develop under federal regulations. And this is something the federal government is working through itself. So, every state is trying to figure it out. And you have states come up with their own rules on CBD.

But then you have the federal government, and we've seen how the federal government works with a lot of things. It's not efficient. A lot of times, it's out of touch when they're coming up with regulations. So, we have to expect a lot of that's going to happen. But it is an experiment. It's a new thing that we're trying to do. So, it's going to take time, there's going to be bumps in the road. And I guarantee, the federal government is not going to get the regulations right. But we're all going to have to work under that framework, and work to convince the people making these regulations in the halls of power of the things that are needed to make this a thriving, truly beneficial industry not only for the business people, but for the end user, for the consumers.

Joe: In addition to founding MJBiz 10 years ago, this year also ironically marks the...almost the 10-year anniversary now, I believe, of MJBizCon which you talked about... It's so weird to say live events. I mean we always have live events and then last year happened. But live events are back. And that's coming back in October. If you want to give our listeners and viewers a preview of what's to come and talk all about as much as you can right now. And then, obviously, we'll have to get together again as we get closer to do more of a preview before it.

Chris: Yeah. I mean we've got events basically going on the entire week of October 18th with the main event starting that Wednesday on the 20th. But, you know, it's...to your point, we built this MJBizCon starting in 2012 as a place for the industry to gather, and everything you can accomplish through that. So, it's deal flow, it's getting your products out there in front of people. It's a business show. It's for the industry. It's not consumer-focused. And, you know, some people go for that business reason. Others go to learn and figure out, hear from others in the industry, network.

There's parties throughout Vegas. We've become a very big show in Vegas. And so, the whole town knows we're there. "Marijuana people are here." And there are spinoff parties at night. And it's really where you go where you know that the bulk of the industry is going to be there. Right? And so, you're having meetings, you're finding new clients, you're meeting new people. You can accomplish a lot. And to not be able to do that over the past year was really hard.

From a business model standpoint for us, it was really difficult. And a lot of your revenues [inaudible 00:17:23] something like that and then it goes away. We had a really tough year figuring out how to get through most effectively. So, we couldn't be more happy that we're getting back together as an industry. And we keep hearing over and over, you know, people need... This business and industry were built on personal connections. And you can say that for any other industry, too. But it's times 10 in this industry. It's the nature of how people do business 100 times over in cannabis. It's relationship-based. It's getting to know the people out there, and establishing those relationships. And in a virtual world, that was really difficult. Right?

So, when we came out of this, we were like, "I don't know how a live event is going to go. Are people going to be ready? Are they going to want to spend money on travel? Are they going to come?" And what we can say so far down this road is, you know, the industry is excited. They want to get together, and they want to, if anything, just to celebrate making it through this terrible time, personally and professionally, for everyone. But also, let's get back to business, and that's what we keep hearing.

In 2019, we had about 35,000 attendees and 1,200 exhibitors. We're not exactly sure whether that's going to come in this year because, you know, there's a lot going on around. But trends are playing out really well. We're getting a lot of traction with registrations. Our show floor is filling up quickly. So, we're excited. Can it be as big as in 2019? Absolutely. Could it be bigger? Potentially. So, we've had big year-over-year growth after this strange pandemic. You know, it remains to be seen where we end up this year, but all the stars are aligning. People want to get out there.

In our event, we have a giant trade show floor. We're in the Las Vegas Convention Center. Our first year in 2012, we could barely find a venue that would take us in Denver because of the stigma around cannabis. Now, we're in the Las Vegas Convention Center. It really shows how far this industry has come. And so, you know, there's thousand plus exhibitors selling everything, marketing everything from consulting services to grow lighting to edibles. We don't have marijuana on the show floor. It's a B2B trade show, and you can't do that in Nevada. You can't have it on the show floor. But again, it's networking, it's doing business. We have a couple dozen educational sessions covering issues in the industry, tips and tactics. And, you know, we have some parties that we're throwing, getting people together. So, a lot going on, and we're excited.

We have our keynote lined up, Daymond John. He's on "Shark Tank." You know, that's another... And I bring him up because if you haven't seen "Shark Tank," it's this investing-focused show, kind of reality show. And he built FUBU which is a clothing line, but he's seen a lot of business plans and proposals, and built his own business. So, he's going to share some great business insight that will apply to cannabis. But I tried to get him a couple years ago, and he said no. His agent said he doesn't want to speak at a marijuana event. Here we are a couple years later, and he's the keynote. This is another example of how much and quickly this industry is moving.

Joe: And to find out more information about MJBizCon, visit mjbizdaily.com. Click on Events, and then you'll see the 10th anniversary expo October 20th to the 22nd live in person in Las Vegas, as we mentioned. And just some numbers to throw out there. You talked about maybe it'll be as big as 2019, maybe bigger. But I'm told, more than 810,000 square feet, 500 temporary workers, 18,500 hours to build it up, and then tear it all down. We talked about all the parties. So, we do want to just mention most importantly 1,400 gallons of coffee.

Chris: Yeah.

Joe: So, you'll be well covered.

Chris: And you need it. [inaudible 00:21:16] big. And you're walking that thing, and you're meeting people left and right. You need that energy jolt. But it is. It's like building a small city in a couple of days. This is massive. It's a very big trade show. And then you tear it all down in a day. Right? It's a lot of work and effort that goes into creating this experience for everybody. And you need the coffee all the way around.

Joe: Well, Chris, I want to thank you so much for joining us. Chris Walsh is the CEO and founder of MJBizDaily, and the host of their new podcast "From Seed to CEO," my guest on this episode of the "CPG & CBD University Podcast." Find the podcast wherever you find your podcast like ours, and give them a listen. And be sure to subscribe to their podcast. Chris, thanks for joining me.

Chris: Thanks for having me. That was fun.

Joe: And don't forget to subscribe to our podcast and MJBiz's new podcast, "From Seed to CEO" wherever you get your podcast. Receive notifications when new episodes are published. You can catch full video episodes of the "CPG & CBD University Podcast" on the Global Widget YouTube channels and the YouTube channels of our brands. I'm Joe Agostinelli, host of the "CPG & CBD University Podcast." Thanks for tuning in.

These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. CBD products are not intended to treat, cure, or prevent any disease or condition. Always consult with your personal physician about CBD and using CBD products. CBD should never be used by anyone under the age of 18. This podcast is not intended to provide legal advice regarding the legal status of CBD and CBD products.