The above photo is Elevate's first social media post, and the signage from the launch of the brand at the Cannabis Cup 2014 in Denver.
The history of Elevate is probably a pretty standard one. Guy feels like something is missing from the industry/world, so he creates a product to satisfies his own needs. Though, nothing is ever really that cut and dry, is it? If you've ever wanted to know how Elevate got started, how I got involved in this rapidly growing industry and what types of hurdles we've faced along the way, please read on...
It seems like it was not that long ago that I decided I would set out to create a new smoking accessory brand that spoke to my maturing sensibilities (and in reality, it wasn't - only about 4 years ago). Being a consumer of the herb since I was 15, and an advocate for normalization all my adult life, you could say that one of my major passions in life was this plant that we all love and respect. Growing up in the scene taught me that the people who participated were not the "criminals" that the government said we all were. I was simply not able to connect the wonderful people I was meeting with these horrible people we were told to believe are the ones doing the "drugs". After some time I realized that the powers that be were just feeding us lies and the war on drugs was rather a war on individuality and consciousness. I mean, what government wants its citizens to be thinking for themselves and difficult to control? What was once probably viewed as a conspiracy theory is now seen as the truth: The government fabricated the propaganda story about marijuana simply to feed their own greed and further separate different classes and races of its people.
To understand how I got here it's helpful to know some of the story:
I was raised in Atlanta, GA, an avid skateboarder, artist, and creative type; all things that are synonymous with the "drug scene". So sure enough, I started smoking herbs at the ripe age of 15. Yet I excelled at math and did well in school (go figure), and was passionate about video editing. Keep in mind, this is well before YouTube or iPhones. We were making skate videos on Hi8 tapes and old clunky computers, circa 1995 - early on, cutting videos on a VCR. My time spent working on a computer editing videos grew into a great interest in technology and learning software. I decided to go to the Savannah College of Art and Design to pursue my interests in video/film production. However, the party scene never left me and I focused too much on expanding my consciousness through drug use rather than through education. Ultimately, SCAD came to an abrupt stop only 1.5 years in, but not before I took a furniture making class that helped me realize what was missing: making things. I dropped out of school and went home to recover from having too much fun (if there is such a thing!).
After a family member suggested I look into Industrial Design as a possible outlet for my creative passions and penchant for math, software, and making things; I decided to make a go of it at The Art Institute of CO, in Denver. That was one of the single best decisions I've ever made. Industrial Design was exactly what I needed. I dove into the program head on and was finally ready to get an education and do what I needed to do to make the most of it. I went into the program thinking I wanted to make camera lenses and small gadgets, I found out early on what was even more important was making products that would not ultimately end up as trash (which is the sad end life of many a small gadget). I shifted my focus to sustainable design which led me to meet a business owner making quality jewelry and accessories from wood.
I started working for Omerica Organic right away, doing everything from hand finishing products, operating a laser engraver, CNC lathe, and various other tools- to designing new products, laying out web pages and print material, working on custom fabrication projects, photographing products, and more. You could say I was the guy who could "wear all the hats", with the exception of running the company. The owner and I worked very closely on projects and I got to help grow that company to be one of the most recognizable names in the piercing/tattoo industry. Getting to work so closely with the owner was a great opportunity. It allowed me to learn more about what it takes to run a business, and I thought I knew exactly what I would have done the same, and what I would have done different. Feeling the itch to do my own thing, I started consulting on outside projects doing product design/development as well as reintroducing my passions for content creation in the form of commercial photography.
How did I get from the jewelry world into the cannabis industry?
A friend of mine who is a grower asked if I could photograph some of his plants. I figured, "it's basically just a another product, how much different could it be?" Besides, I already had all the gear. I gave it a shot (pun intended) and the resulting photos turned out really great! A bit novice still, but by the standards of most of the cannabis content out in 2012-13, it was top notch. I figured people could use quality photographs of their plants or that consumers would like pictures of these for their wall. I needed a niche for my freelance work, so I figured why not take the product and brand dev/photography business and focus it on this industry? That led to some more freelance work and the first attempt to create my own brand. Working with another designer we set out to create a "classy cannabis brand", and called it Cannanovo. Kinda like a lifestyle brand that really just sold prints of the plant photos we were taking, and stickers and shit. It didn't really work out. The brand looked great, people loved the content, but no one really bought anything. So it just became a couple of guys with an instagram account and some nice photos.
We next set our focus on Elevate. We were still doing the freelance stuff, but it was tough to corral clients to work on the bigger projects we wanted to do. The owner of that previous company I mentioned, Omerica, was also the first partner in Elevate. He offered his company's infrastructure and Cannanovo brought the brand and product development. The three of us worked tirelessly for 3 months to launch a brand in the cannabis industry that used all the manufacturing capabilities of his company with all that my Cannanovo partner and I had learned during all our client work. We figured it would be a good case study to help us land those bigger product and brand design/dev projects. We were right, for a while.
Cannanovo was given an opportunity to work on a brand development and product photography job in Barcelona for about 9 months. It was an amazing experience, to say the least, and one of the best overall learning experiences of my life. Primarily because after that I knew that I needed to put all my focus into Elevate. Working with clients can be rewarding, but working on your own brand is even more so. So we stopped taking new clients.
Sadly, my partner on Cannanovo had to step out soon after that and focus on other things, understandably. I continued to run it for another 6 months until my partner in Elevate also decided to focus on other things. Again, understandably. I was on my own, so to speak. Running a business can be difficult (running one in the cannabis industry can be ever harder), however I have been fortunate to have mentors and resources through my past relationships that have helped tremendously. I continued to run Elevate to the best of my capabilities, wearing every hat imaginable. Remember when I said "I thought I knew exactly what I would have done the same, and what I would have done different"? As it turns out, until you really get into it, you just don't know. It's a constant learning process. It's incredibly rewarding while at the same time: exhausting, frustrating, lonely, and sometimes downright depressing. Despite all that, I kept it going, with very little growth. I felt like I needed some help on the business side. I had the creative and product development down, I just needed a little support in the business development area. So, I applied for a business accelerator program and got accepted with Elevate!
The program that I entered into, called Canopy Boulder, was a 13 week intensive "business bootcamp". They also become investors in the company, giving an initial investment to help you get things going or move the needle a little more. Since Elevate was already a company in the market, we just needed help moving the needle. On the first day of the program they held a kick-off party for all the new companies and others within the industry or those just looking to become a part of the industry. That was where I met Mike, who eventually would become a partner and cofounder for Elevate. He was experiencing a lot of the same frustrations I was with a brand and product that he developed (Unity Glass) that was strikingly similar to Elevate's products and brand philosophy. We quickly realized that we were both striving for the same goal with our respective brands, and we got along so well, that it just made sense to join forces. It took a little longer to figure out exactly what that relationship was ultimately going to look like, but many conversations later we decided that we would bring the Unity product offering under the Elevate name.
I learned so much during that 13 weeks, and the learning has not stopped since. Before I started I had given myself an ultimatum: if you don't get into the program, you'll shelf Elevate and find a "real job". Thankfully I got in, and ever since, we have seen steady growth. Nothing meteoric, but enough that we know that we've got something special with the Elevate brand and we need to keep it going.
I'd be lying if I said it was not a constant challenge, but I honestly don't know what else I would do. I feel the need to create brands and products and Elevate represents everything we want to see within this industry. Navigating the maze of building a business is already difficult. Add to that an industry that is widely frowned upon (I'm talking to you, lawmakers- help us out) and there is no shortage of challenges. From paying double in merchant fees compared to a regular business, to being turned down for a bank account 10 times, business insurance 5 times, business loans a countless number of times, to not being able to use any of the big digital players to advertise (I'm talking to you Google, Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, Pinterest), to simply being stigmatized for what we are doing; it's challenging, is what I'm saying. But we're stubborn, so fuck it, we'll keep at it as long as we can.
Why do we put ourselves through hell trying to have a business like this?
Because we believe that cannabis consumers have gotten a bad wrap for too long. We recognize that there are so many benefits to the use of the plant when it comes to medical purposes, and even as a recreational substance. It should be made available to anyone who thinks it can help them. If people are educated about the effects, regulations are made to help label and moderate the doses, and adults are using it responsibly; it is a great over the counter supplement or an alternative to alcohol to be used to help you relax, remove anxiety, aid with sleep or appetite or pain, help with focus for some, increase libido- the list goes on. And the addictive nature is so minimal that it's worse to drink caffeine regularly.
We will continue to grow the Elevate brand, doing our part to help normalize consumption through quality design and an aesthetic that anyone can appreciate. We promise to always make Elevate's product in the US, a statement that we are proud of. We will represent the industry in the best light that we can, making every effort to move the needle of mass acceptance forward. We will do this because we know that there are many people that already consume but are afraid to talk about it. We also know that there are many people who don't consume that could benefit from it so long as the stigma can disappear so they feel comfortable starting their own journey with the plant. It will benefit everyone to have a future where cannabis is regulated, understood, and just a little more normal.
Thanks for reading. Feel free to contact me via Linkedin if you have any questions or are just looking to get into the industry and aren't sure if you should or where to start. I'm always happy to share any advice I feel qualified to offer.