Part 1 of a 3-part series
So, you discovered a pain point in the cannabis industry while brushing your teeth. You go on to craft a business plan and begin to execute on a minimal viable product to prove your hypothesis and test the market interest in your product. To date, you have funded this by volunteering your time and convincing some other contacts to contribute their time as well. You still have your full-time job, but it’s time to create a formal entity and grow this thing. How are you going to fund this? Well, there are some options and some of them have greater odds depending on your demographic. Are you considered ‘touching the plant” or not? Are you male or female? Are you a person of color or not? Do you have a track record of building businesses and raising funds?
Unfortunately, the data shows that it’s much more difficult to raise funds from angel and VC investors if you are a female or person of color. The following statistic is actually based on the traditional market, so level up the challenge if you are in cannabis:
“Venture dollars invested in sole female founders in 2020 represented 2.4 percent of overall venture funding… the percentage of U.S. venture dollars that went to sole female founders in 2020 dropped dramatically by stage. At the seed stage, 7 percent of VC dollars went to startups with only female founders. At the early stage, that figure was 4 percent, and at the late stage, a mere 1 percent.” – Crunchbase News.
Fortunately, the cannabis investment industry has approached this issue with several new funds and structures. We will touch on that later in this series.
Does your idea involve ‘touching the plant’? Currently, cannabis is illegal at the federal level. This comes with a whole host of challenges and opportunities. With federal illegality comes the opportunity for a startup to solve a problem before the more established, traditional market entities are willing to enter the industry. If you build it well enough, you are likely to be acquired once the market opens up. But you will have to deal with lack of access or restricted access to banking and processing, the IRS and 280E, the certainty of audits, and working within the boundaries of your state’s regulatory structure.
Now you have an idea, so, how to fund? Well, the first thing anyone considering investing in you wants to know is, what is your investment in yourself? Do you have savings, credit cards, personal real estate? For the earliest stages, this is often the first step. This is the “three peeps and a PowerPoint stage” — ideas and iteration come fast. There is no real cost for you to walk away. It is on your dime. You are living off of your day job and every resource you can apply for This shows commitment and the effort will be a key to demonstrating value in the future. Be scrappy.
You will also need to establish a banking relationship. If you are touching the plant this can be quite the struggle. Federal banks have to comply with the KYC – or Know Your Customer – rules and most are unwilling to take on the extra tasks and time it takes to manage a cannabis account and file Suspicious Activity Reports (SARS). Be ready to navigate the business world in cash – which includes security and safety and paying your taxes. Many local-based credit unions are rising up to the challenge, but that often involves extra, costly fees. And even if you are ancillary, if you choose a “green” enough name you are exposing yourself to having your account closed. This goes for processing too. It really behooves you to be as honest and clear about what you are doing and establish a relationship with your banker. NCIA has successfully advocated for the SAFE (Secure and Fair Enforcement) Banking Act (S. 1200, H.R. 2215) which provides a safe harbor to financial institutions doing business with state-legal cannabis providers. It sits in the Senate after having passed the House twice now, although now a new House version will still need to be approved.
As your concept solidifies, its demands of capital increase, with personal, social, business, and financial needs starting to grow past what you can provide alone. You need help. If you have a buddy willing to put an LLC together for you, that’s bootstrapping. If she wants something in return, you are at friends and family time. This is a good stage to build your early financial network and can really help with those next steps. This is a small round of insiders and is as much about personal capital as financial capital. A friend and family round is a direct contact on your part, and those relationships you made in the boot-strapping are good places to start. These early champions will build your social capital as they talk positively about you. Being a small group also creates scarcity. These subtle behaviors will help your valuation when it comes time for that. A good friend and family round will get you off to a right start with the resources for securing an accountant and other professional services to determine the right way to structure your company.
For these early funding stages, bootstrapping and friends and family funding demonstrate your validity as an investable partner for later rounds. No matter your hurdles, starting your fund journey on the right path will pay off down the road.
In our next blog, we will discuss funding options such as debt, angels, and venture capitalists, and where to find them.