Committee Blog: Fundraising Basics in the Cannabis Industry – Part 2
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Committee Blog: Fundraising Basics in the Cannabis Industry – Part 2

by Deborah Johnson, MCA Accounting Solutions & James Whatmore, MAB Investments
NCIA’s Banking & Financial Services Committee
Part 2 of a 3-part series

In our first part of this blog, we discussed the very beginnings of a company; an idea, gathering a team around you, self-funding, opening a bank account and forming an LLC or incorporating. Now you are ready to take a big step, bring on some more people, purchase more equipment and explore partnerships. You have a path with real milestones. This is the time to plan a funding strategy. 

If you are not plant-touching, or you are directly ancillary, you might be able to secure a bank loan or an SBA loan. As the SAFE Banking Act is being considered in Congress (at time of writing) the reality of greater access to cannabis banking services may be getting brighter. However, traditional banking sources may still be an issue. These challenges have blended into some ancillary activities. There are a few other debt instruments including venture debt, an accounts receivable (AR) line, or an asset loan. Some of these instruments can be originated with specialty firms or other investment sources.

“While debt has traditionally been scarce in our industry, the relatively recent arrival of lenders has fortunately changed the construct of cannabis company balance sheets. Industry normalization, low rates, relatively high equity capital costs and supply-demand imbalances have attracted capital pools into credit and provided companies with the ability to further normalize their blended cost of capital,” said Sumit Mehta, founder and CEO of Mazakali and chairperson of NCIA’s Banking & Financial Services Committee.

Recently Harborside Inc. (CSE:HBOR) (OTCQX:HBORF) in California landed a historic $12 million revolving line of credit with a bank, marking the first time a cannabis touching company has secured this kind of access. Granted it is secured, but it is a commercial loan from a traditional lender. If you have real estate involved many investors will do a sale leaseback on the property to provide some liquidity. Equipment may also secure a loan; this is often a choice to outfit a capital-intensive production. When evaluating your debt options consider what is happening at this point in your life cycle. For an early-stage company, a revolver may not be the right fit; however, having the right equipment getting you to revenues might be worth investigating.

There are also grants available. Especially with COVID-19, many local jurisdictions are providing small business grants, or you might find one aligned with your demographic or target market niche. Many startups find an accelerator or incubator to help both fund and scale the company. In cannabis, the accelerators have historically been targeted to the ancillary market. Several exist, including Canopy Boulder, Momentum, Gateway, Hood Incubator, The Initiative, Cannabiziac, and even traditional market accelerators such as Y Combinator are addressing the needs of the cannabis market. Accelerators will invest in the companies they are providing guidance to and are generally hosted over a short period of time like 3-4 months, whereas an incubator provides resources, networks, and services over an 18+ month time and might charge a fee to participate. This early mentoring is a great resource for social and personal capital as well. If you have participated in an accelerator or incubator environment you should be exposed to early-stage investors; if you haven’t been exposed to them, this is the time for a solid PowerPoint deck and to polish your presentation.

Next on the list are angel investors. Angels are those individual investors that provide early-stage funding for a startup usually in exchange for convertible debt or ownership equity but are not locked into a funding structure. Banks make loans, angels can do as they please. They can be sophisticated or unsophisticated as they technically just need to qualify as an accredited investor. Most are drawn to investing in something familiar, so either they have a direct professional background in your industry or have felt the pain point you are addressing personally. Some want to roll up their sleeves and be engaged in helping your company grow, others just want to diversify their investment portfolio and take a more passive role. They can invest in the idea and direction of the company and a good angel will understand the timing of the investment. This means that early-stage investors like angels and funds should understand that this is a long-term investment that might take 5-8 years to see liquidity.

The greatest challenge to an entrepreneur is where to find them. Sometimes it’s as easy as looking around your network. With some work you can attract attention to your business idea by either presenting/speaking or pitching at a conference. Over the years, many opportunities to do so have developed. NCIA hosts CannaVest and Cannabis Business Summit, one of the longest running is The Arcview Group, Benzinga, IC3 by IMN, CWCBExpo and many cut their teeth at MJ Biz.  Angels are individuals, but often belong to a group of angels to assist with deal sourcing and due diligence. With the normalization of cannabis, you can find many groups via the Angel Capital Association. We’d suggest reviewing market transactions and see who is announcing that they secured funds and with whom.  You can find this information through keywords and press releases, consolidating sites such as New Cannabis Ventures or Viridian Capital Advisors, or even Pitchbook. This is the hard part of fundraising: connecting with the right investors.

You can also gain exposure to investors by sharing your expertise. Whether it’s articles on LinkedIn or podcasts and panels, exposing your knowledge of your niche is critical to gaining their confidence in your ability to execute.  The conferences above may host your presentation as well furthering your investor engagement.  One word of caution, there is a new platform being used by millions – even though it’s still in beta – called Clubhouse. There have been many people that are running pitch rooms on that platform and they are running up against the SEC and rules for fundraising. We encourage an extra dose of caution when pitching where you don’t understand who your audience is and if they adhere to qualifying factors. Many times, the later investors (Series B or C rounds) have to do a lot of work to clean up the cap table from earlier investment rounds. That can be a hurdle that an investor might walk away from. So, the more you can do to assure you are running a clean and efficient fundraising round, the better.

Given that we are in the cannabis industry, it is of particular importance to be an advocate. Access to this plant is still restricted for many, people are still going to jail or are still in jail, and businesses have a disadvantage to all other industries given the repercussions of federal illegality. So being an advocate, aligning and engaging with advocates like the National Cannabis Industry Association (NCIA), Marijuana Policy Project (MPP), Students for Sensible Drug Policy (SSDP) and others, can also expose you to investors who recognize your understanding that there is much work to be done to assure fair access. Expertise, Advocacy, and Engagement will build your social capital. The early rounds can hinge on these factors. While you will need a proforma, other financials and a solid plan, an angel is investing in you as much as in your current project. With enough social capital, your relationship with the early angel investor will survive major setbacks. 

Once past these early rounds, your focus will turn to more formal investment groups and businesses in private equity, venture capital and then the public market. Currently those companies touching the plant are able to be hosted on the OTC (over-the-counter) market or the CSE (Canadian Stock Exchange) with a growing number of ancillary companies listing on the traditional exchanges. Here there will be a deep dive into the numbers and execution, pre/post revenues with a clear runway to real revenue. This requires an adaptive corporate culture with some loss of control expected.

In our final piece of the series, we will review crowdfunding, tips on angel and fund investors, and types of funding.


Video: NCIA Today – April 16, 2021

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