Rhode Island entrepreneur Anne Holland is on a high — not that kind of high — after a sold-out conference for her latest venture, Medical Marijuana Business Daily, and the launch of the cannabis industry’s first factbook.
Over the years, Holland has earned millions of dollars starting niche business publications, but her most recent — and perhaps riskiest — enterprise is making waves across the country.
Since launching two years ago, MMJ Business Daily has provided a stream of free online dispatches to cannabis industry professionals, including dispensary owners, lawyers, investors, and vendors, tracking everything from federal raids to the November approval of a medical marijuana program in Massachusetts.
MMJ Business Daily is part of an industry effort to give legitimacy to a field with an obvious image problem as it moves mainstream. The company, with seven employees spread across Providence, Boston, Denver, and North Carolina, has ramped up its offerings by rolling out a series of “best practices” business e-books, hosting financial seminars, and producing annual trade shows that attract serious investors in suits. A mobile version of the website will be launched shortly, and a print magazine is planned for the summer.
“We realized there was nothing but lifestyle press and evangelists who are trying to change the politics. There really wasn’t anyone reporting on the business end of it,” Holland said of the medical marijuana industry. “We found there was a huge need to provide numbers business people could trust.”
Holland, who founded various firms, including MarketingSherpa (a publisher of research for marketing professionals in corporate America) knew she was taking a chance in 2011 when she launched MMJ Business Daily. Within weeks of publication, the federal government shut down hundreds of dispensaries in widespread raids in California, Michigan, and other states, and the industry looked as if it could collapse at any moment. While 18 states have legalized medical marijuana and another 11 have pending legislation to do the same, the drug remains outlawed at the federal level.
Instead of retreating, Holland decided to dig deeper into her personal savings — a six-figure investment, she said — to keep the venture afloat and pay a full-time editor and publisher in Denver.
“It was terrifying,” Holland said. “We couldn’t cut back because we were already bare bones.”
MMJ Business Daily pushed through 2012 as the industry appeared to pick up steam. Days after the November election, when a medical marijuana program was approved in Massachusetts and recreational use was legalized in Colorado and Washington, the company hosted the National Marijuana Business Conference in Denver, the only national trade show for professionals. The event drew about 450 people from 27 states. A recent “Cannabis Investors and Entrepreneurs” seminar the publication sponsored in New York City also sold out with more than 100 participants.
It’s easy to understand the interest — US marijuana sales, estimated at roughly $1.2 billion in 2012, are projected to reach up to $1.5 billion in 2013 and potentially double to $3 billion by 2014, according to new research released by the company in its Marijuana Business Factbook 2013.
“A lot of people don’t take the industry seriously,” said Chris Walsh, the editor of MMJ Business Daily who previously worked at an English-language daily newspaper in Korea, the Colorado Springs Gazette, and the Rocky Mountain News. “But this is a real business, and it’s not a bunch of stoners. There’s banking, the investment world, software.”
The company’s regional seminar in New York took place at a loft in SoHo and featured speakers such as Jessica Billingsley, cofounder of MJ Freeway Software Solutions, a top dispensary software firm that provides point of sale, inventory, sales, and patient validation products; and Troy Dayton, chief executive of ArcView Group, a network of about 50 angel investors that partner with cannabis companies.
“I was blown away by the level of serious interest among investors and entrepreneurs,” said Dayton, who runs a “Shark Tank”-like event in Seattle where marijuana entrepreneurs give short business pitches to investors.
Dayton said he receives at least five unsolicited pitches daily, up from one a week in October. He credits the deluge to the changing marijuana industry landscape along with advertising in MMJ Business Daily. He said the publication fills a critical need to provide news and data to professionals.
“We are still striving to be treated like any other industry,” Dayton said.
In recent months, Walsh — who said he does not smoke marijuana — has become the go-to guy for industry news, profiled by Dow Jones Newswires as a top business journalist in the cannabis business and frequently quoted in the media, including MarketWatch, The Seattle Times, and The Boston Globe. After speaking at the company’s seminar in New York earlier this month, he took a train to Boston to make a presentation at a symposium hosted by the National Cannabis Industry Association.
In between media requests, seminar presentations, and daily online dispatches, Walsh has been working with his publisher, Cassandra Farrington, on the Marijuana Business Factbook being released this week. At $129, the thick 180-page publication includes 69 tables and charts and 21 state-by-state profiles. The factbook scored 21 sponsors — far more than expected — and plans are underway to launch a magazine in the summer that will feature longer, exclusive articles for business owners in the industry, according to Holland. A second national trade show is scheduled for Seattle in November and the firm expects to double the number of exhibitors.
Despite the market domination and national recognition, MMJ Business Daily still hasn’t turned a profit. Over the past six months, traffic has increased 43 percent to 76,000 monthly page views, but that’s a modest count compared with other business sites. The company expects to break even in 2013 and hopes to make money by next year. Holland blames the slow revenue growth mostly on the price sensitivity of the marijuana industry.
“You can only charge a fraction of the prices you’d get for similar products in a more established market or in corporate America. This is still not a market traditional publishers and trade shows can make a quick buck in,” she said. “However, we have lots of experience in watching the bottom line and building a publishing brand through high-quality editorial. And we are committed to the long haul.”