Cannabis brokers… they seem to be everywhere. In most industries, brokers play a very important roll connecting buyers and sellers and earning a reasonable commission. In cannabis, brokers evoke very different emotions based on who you speak with and their most recent experience. Most of the times, they don’t have good things to say.
To start off let me say that the idea of an effective cannabis broker should be appealing to most new and existing players in cannabis. Ultimately, the broker is there to generate sales, offer solutions, execute a plan, or help put their client’s business in a much better position than it was before they were engaged. Some are good, some not so much.
Cannabis brokers are essentially business development consultants, connectors, and industry experts (at least the good ones), but I like to define them further because broker is a broad brush. Instead, I like to categorize these individuals into three buckets: Deal Makers, Executors, and Time Wasters.
In business development, there isn’t always a big difference between a Deal Maker and a Time Waster. However, often times there is a large difference between Deal Makers and Executors. Now, while neither a Deal Maker, nor an Executor, think they are potentially Time Wasters, the truth is, all Time Wasters were at some point trying to be Deal Makers or Executors. Watch out though, Deal Makers, Executors and Time Wasters can all cost the same amount of money, despite only a combination of good Deal Makers and Executors actually generating a return. Are you still with me?
To avoid any further confusion, let’s define some distinguishing characteristics.
First and foremost, the majority of individuals who see themselves as business development consultants, brokers, or connectors make their money through finder’s fee, commissions, or some other quid pro quo agreements. Most benefit for quarterbacking some mutually beneficial transaction between two parties that the broker has no real allegiance to – it is way of living as old as time. I like to think of these folk as “Ronin” – leaderless, loyal to no company, travelling from town to town offering to their services to anyone who will pay.
Now Ronin exist in every industry, not just cannabis. Often times these individuals do cross between industries, utilizing their networks to chase any prize large enough. I’m sure there will be a few reading this article who can instantly recall one or two associates who took a stab at the slinging hand sanitizer or importing 3M masks. If there is a product sitting in a port somewhere, where someone can buy it for $1 and sell it for $2, there are Deal Maker’s trying to take a piece. From price arbitrage, to asset sales, to mergers and acquisitions, Deal Makers look at assets not their own and make money when it changes hands. Some Deal Makers are so good in fact that they are paid before a job is even done (sometimes they are paid regardless of it getting done).
A good Deal Maker always requires two things to be good at their job – a creative imagination and a deep professional network of individuals who can make things happen. Apart from creativity and connectivity, a good Deal Maker will often have a decent to strong understanding of a particular market’s inefficiencies; though I have seen examples where it wasn’t always necessary. With the understanding of a market comes an understanding of problems which a Deal Maker then attempts to fix by leveraging their connections. Not enough hand sanitizer in Canada? Call the Deal Makers! Having trouble locating isolate? Call the Deal Makers! Having trouble raising money? You get the picture.
Once you call in a Deal Maker, they typically rely on bringing in a second group of people – the Executors. Now certainly Deal Makers can be Executors but in reality it is very hard to be both. The reason being, most Executors are a different mentality of people – they are diligent, meticulous, extremely knowledgeable on specific topics, and get their jobs done time after time. In cannabis, they are everywhere – the lawyers, the builders, the financiers, the growers, the brand creators, the QA teams… the list goes on. The individuals hired to complete specific targeted tasks and those who are good at their jobs get the title of Executors. Nothing truly gets done without someone being able to guide you through the many intricate and complex steps involved in a legal cannabis transaction. Brokering is no different – if you don’t have someone who can put the pieces together, you just have a Deal Maker’s idea and client who expects results.
In most situations, it is very difficult for Deal Makers to complete a deal without one or two trusted Executors. Sure, some Deal Makers are also great Executors, but they’re more of an exception to the rule as it is rare to see that outside of a select few highly specialized operators.
Now as you can imagine, with the bubble in cannabis continuing to deflate, more companies are downsizing (or the new colloquialism, “rightsizing”), and with that more and more individuals are being laid off, the amount of Ronin running around the cannabis industry has exploded. Cannabis Manufacturer’s Guild is no different as our partners also come from the fragments of other cannabis ventures and we are out in the wild brokering biomass, manufacturing contracts and takeovers like the rest of them. When COVID hit however, even more individuals, even those outside of cannabis, were pushed out of secure jobs and are now looking for the their next opportunity – either as an employee or an entrepreneur in the cannabis industry. As such, there has been an influx in the number of talented individuals converting their experience in CPG, Pharma, Finance, or even more abstract professions, to the cannabis industry.
Now it is the opinion of the author that individuals coming from other industries working directly for one of the now over 400 licensed players in Canada is a necessary step towards the industry maturing. It is vital that we move away from selling stories based on napkin math and actually build real companies with quality goods and teams leading them. Less helpful though, are those without a working knowledge of the legal cannabis industry who have become the advisors and Deal Makers for some cannabis companies. Just like those who infiltrated PPE and tried to negotiate billion dollar sales without a working understanding of international trade law and importing pharmaceutical products were ill prepared, so too are the groups trying to broker isolate, launch a cannabis product, or buy a licensed facility out of bankruptcy without a working understanding of Health Canada, the Cannabis Act, and the nuances of the industry. This lack of understanding, coupled with lack of access to Executors (aka experienced operators) often turns the majority of would-be Deal Makers into our last category of business development folk: Time Wasters.
Time Wasters pop up in all sorts of ways:
First, you have the “IDK” Time Wasters, example:
IDK – “I found some US isolate for $500/KG, let’s just import that to Canada and crush the competition.”
Client – “You can’t do that, Health Canada only allows imports for medical and R&D reasons.”
IDK – “Oh, I didn’t know that.”
Second, you have your “Vanishing” Time Wasters, example:
VTW – “Hey, I got a crazy low price for 29% THC White Widow – unlimited supply – interested?”
Client – “That sounds great, send me over details.”
VTW (6 months later) – “Hey, how have you been?”
Then you have a particularly tricky bunch, “Introducing” Time Wasters. Example:
ITW – “Hey I heard you just did a deal with Company X, we introduced you to them, can we talk about our fee?”
Client – “That was 2 years ago and we didn’t do any business through you. They came back to us unsolicited and we haven’t spoken to you since your contract ended a year ago.”
ITW – “Yeah but remember we signed that exclusivity non-circumvent? So legally you owe us money…”
Last but not least, the “Daisy Chain” Time Wasters. Example:
Broker 1 – “Hey I heard there is a buyer looking for X, can I introduce you to the broker?”
Broker 2 – “Hi, I’m working on this deal on behalf of another group, let me introduce you.”
Broker 3 – “Thanks for connecting, let me introduce you to my (secret) buyer over a phone call”
Secret Buyer – “Nice to meet you Client… oh, never mind, we’ve already met before and discussed this offer – we are good.”
Don’t get me wrong, there are infinitely more examples and I’m sure readers can amuse themselves coming up with their own. While time wasting can take many forms, most cannabis companies in 2019 got fed up. It got to a point in the cannabis industry where the word “broker” was one of the worst words you could call an industry participant – it still is to some people. I recall a colleague of mine once advising me, “If it’s a broker calling – just hang up.” Many large LPs installed policies prohibiting the use of brokers due to over-compensation, inundating emails and calls, lack of industry understanding, and overall poor success rates. While most brokers had good intentions, their impact (or lack thereof) coupled with their lack of self-awareness turned the industry away from using outside help. However, in 2020, attitudes are softening as the pedigree of consultants slowly rises with more experience and time spent in the market.
Taking a step back, you may ask yourself, why use brokers at all? The truth is, there are far too many deals that need to be done, and far too few insiders to envision them, let alone complete them. One would think that after billions of dollars were injected into the industry and hundreds of thousands of jobs were created, there should have been enough brains to solve all the problems in cannabis. However, problem solvers aren’t cheap, are often self-motivated, and aren’t always appreciated once they officially step inside of a company. Operating without handcuffs, as a Ronin, the broker sets their own prices and once they complete a deal and get paid, they move on to the next problem. One could say some of the first Ronin in cannabis rose all the way to the top becoming their own Feudal Lords before they eventually got chased out and moved to the next town. We’ll save that for another article though.
Now that we are well past the thousand-word mark on this essay, you may be asking what the point of this whole diatribe really is? Well, let me break it down. The new wave of deals and Deal Makers are already here – they are brokering isolate and biosynthetic cannabinoids, moving GMP flower to Europe, launching products, flipping fire sale facilities and equipment, and exporting their knowledge internationally. Measuring the skills and chance of success when using these folks is another exercise all together – and if you are going to hire a Ronin, there are a lot of factors to consider and two truths to remember: 1) a good Deal Maker always requires one or more good Executors – and they often aren’t the same person; and 2) there are more Time Wasters infiltrating the industry all the time. As long as there are arbitrage opportunities and inefficiencies in the market, brokers thrive.
It now falls on companies to do their due diligence when looking for outside help – and I assure you, many cannabis companies do still need outside help. Internal teams have gotten smaller, the industry continues to change rapidly, and while money remains tighter than ever, deals still need to get done. These days, and for certain companies, a single deal means life or death and some are putting their fate on a Deal Makers shoulders. We hope those Deal Makers care about your business as much as you do, but we doubt it. Finding a broker who is rewarded when their client is rewarded seems to be the only way interests can be aligned but it also comes with the risk of having your time wasted.
Looking for outside help is no easy task and it does take a company accepting that they can no longer do everything on their own. Here are three recommendations that Cannabis Manufacturer’s Guild would suggest when hiring your next consultant, broker or Deal Maker.
If it seems too good to be true, easy or downright ridiculous – it probably is.
Ask questions until you are blue in the face, inquisitiveness can make up for lack of experience or particular talent. Consultants are here to pass on knowledge, so take as much as you can.
Find outside help that is eager to stick around for the long run, particularly avoiding those who charge large upfront fees with no long-term incentive should they come up short.
While it has a become a prime hunting ground for consultants and brokers to chase fees, we all need to be diligent. In 2020, it is no longer just about the risk of wasting more money – it is also everyone’s time, and time is of the essence.
DISCLAIMER: No companies mentioned in this article are clients of Cannabis Manufacturer’s Guild. Neither James Williams, nor Cannabis Manufacturer’s Guild, have ownership positions in any companies mentioned.