As a part of my series about strong women leaders in the cannabis industry, I had the pleasure of interviewing Dahlia Mertens, founder and CEO of Mary Jane’s Medicinals. Dahlia Mertens is the founder and CEO of Mary Jane’s Medicinals, one of the leading cannabis topicals companies in the country. With a passion for the healing properties of cannabis, and a holistic approach to well-being, Dahlia has been using a natural whole-plant infusion process since 2009, at the Mary Jane’s Medicinals production facility in stunning Telluride, Colorado.
Thank you so much for doing this with us Dahlia! Can you tell us the “backstory” about what brought you to the cannabis industry?
Back in 2009 I went to Northern California to help trim on my friend’s farm for a few weeks. Trimming all day can be a physically exhausting activity and my neck and back were killing me. A friend on the farm had infused some vegetable oil with cannabis and asked if I wanted a neck massage with it. I had never heard of cannabis being used topically before and did not think it was going to do anything, but to my surprise I experienced relaxation and relief of the sore muscles in my neck and shoulders shortly after application.
When I got back to Colorado, the state was in the midst of “Green Rush 1.0” with lots of dispensaries popping up. This made me think that maybe I could utilize cannabis-infused products in my massage practice, so I started mixing up infused massage oils in my kitchen and then asking my massage clients if they would like to try them out during our sessions. The feedback was incredible because the massage oil was doing so much more than just relieving sore muscles. My clients began reporting back to me about chronic health issues being alleviated or even healed with the use of the infused oil. I realized then that we were onto something exciting, so I pivoted my focus from my massage practice to developing cannabis infused topicals. As a result, I launched my cannabis topicals company, Mary Jane’s Medicinals, at the end of 2009.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
Lesson 1: Protect your brand. In the early days of the industry, we were operating in a gray market. There were no laws, regulations or structure, so it was not clear if what we were doing was in fact legal. I was constantly worried that I would be raided and taken away in handcuffs by the Feds. I didn’t have legal representation back then. I learned how to handle licensing, trademarking and bookkeeping, all myself. However, protecting your brand in the THC industry is much harder than in any other legal sector, which I learned firsthand when my trademark was denied. When other companies started popping up with similar names, I did not know what to do and I did not have the money back then to afford a legal team to fight them.
The main company I had to worry about, Mary’s Medicinals, came online a few years after I founded Mary Jane’s Medicinals. I tried to convince myself that it would be okay because their branding was plain, and their products were different — originally, they only had a transdermal patch. I hoped they wouldn’t be around for long, but then they started developing products that were similar to mine. This caused a lot of confusion in the marketplace, and I felt paralyzed because I didn’t have money for lawyers and didn’t know what to do. A few years later I was able to enlist the counsel of some trademark attorneys and they advised me to change my name, but I had the name first and that didn’t feel right to me.
The lesson: In the cannabis industry, so many brands have incorporated Green, Canna, Mary, or the acronym THC into their name or branding. I strongly encourage new businesses to choose a brand that is unique and protectable. When I chose the name Mary Jane’s Medicinals, there were very few established cannabis brands. No one else was using the name, and I never imagined where the industry was heading. The inability to protect my brand and the ensuing confusion that I confront every day has been very challenging.
Lesson 2: Prioritize organization, especially when it comes to your books. I started my business on a shoe-string budget — about $1,500! This meant that in the early days I had to do everything myself because I didn’t have the money for lawyers, accountants, bookkeepers, etc. However, I highly recommend new business owners start their bookkeeping out on the right foot. It is worth it! This aspect of the business was not my strong suit, and after several years of operating my business and doing a mediocre job with my books I realized I had to get help. Audits are a common occurrence in our industry, and I did not want to go through one with sloppy books and boxes of crumpled receipts. So, I enlisted professional accounting help and managed to get my books in line. Since then, I have been audited by the state and the IRS and both audits were fairly pain free thanks to being organized and ready.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
In the beginning of my business, I was living on a ranch with my boyfriend of that time. He was growing weed in the gray market and we had a big greenhouse full of it. People that have operated in the illicit or gray markets typically have a certain level of paranoia and my boyfriend had his share of it. Naturally, it had worn off on me as well. One day my cell phone went missing. It seemed to disappear into thin air and I started having silly thoughts that the feds had somehow confiscated it, and were using it to monitor my boyfriend’s activities. A few days later the plumbing in our house severely backed up, so my boyfriend crawled under the house to see what was going on. When he opened up the main sewage pipe all of a sudden, my phone came shooting out followed by gallons of raw sewage. I had inadvertently flushed my phone down the toilet without even realizing it. My boyfriend was ill amused- even though the make of the phone was called the “Chocolate”!
Lesson: Do not let worries dominate your thoughts. Most of the things you worry about are never going to happen. Focus your thoughts on things you want to happen, and when the shit does hit the fan, or your boyfriend — whatever the case may be, deal with it one step at a time.
Do you have a funny story about how someone you knew reacted when they first heard you were getting into the cannabis industry?
I was nervous about talking to my parents about my idea to start a cannabis topicals company. They have always been open minded, but they do not smoke cannabis and are fairly strait-laced people, so I was nervous about how they would respond.
However, once I explained to them about topicals and the medicinal effects, they were surprisingly open to it. Then I got my mom some samples and she started using it and giving it to her friends. My mother noticed it helped relieve her restless leg and made her skin look younger. My dad then started brushing his teeth with my salve and he said it helped with his gum recession. They were both very surprised by the medicinal effects they were experiencing. Needless to say, they were onboard!
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?
As I mentioned earlier, I started my business on a miniscule budget, and was operating hand to mouth for several years in the beginning. About a year into my business, regulations came out which required long applications and steep fees to get compliant. It was going to take several thousands of dollars to get through the application process, and it was all intimidating for me. The day before the deadline to submit the application and its corresponding fee, I called my mom in a panic. I did not know if I was going to be able to pay the rent and was worried about using all of my money for this application. I was not even sure if I was going to get approved and the thought of spending all of my money on an unsure outcome was risky to me, but my mother encouraged me to go for it. She told me I might regret it if I gave up and gave me the push I needed at such a critical time. I’m so glad she did because I certainly would have regretted giving up.
Are you working on any new or exciting projects now? How do you think that will help people?
We are currently working on a brand refresh for Mary Jane’s Medicinals. When I came up with my branding 10 years ago, the vast majority of customers going into dispensaries were men in their twenties and early thirties. I had to figure a way to get that demographic to buy body products — a challenge for sure! In an effort to do so, I made my brand icon a Betty Boop-like sexy nurse with a lot of cleavage.
However, as the market has matured, there is a much broader demographic of consumers going to dispensaries. Baby boomers, physically active people and a lot more women are now shopping at dispensaries and are looking for high quality products that have a professional look and feel. The market has evolved and as a result it is time for my branding to evolve as well.
Ok. Thank you for all that. Let’s now jump to the main core of our interview. Despite great progress that has been made we still have a lot more work to do to achieve gender parity in this industry. According to a report in Entrepreneur, less than 25 percent of cannabis businesses are run by women. In your opinion or experience, what 3 things can be done by a) individuals b) companies and/or c) society to support greater gender parity moving forward?
Executive boards at the corporate level are more effective when men and women are equally represented. Women and men bring different talents to the C-Suite. Women tend to be more team oriented and collaborative, whereas men tend to be more competitive or power driven. Balance is key for health in any environment and when these sensibilities can be balanced, it makes for a healthier and more successful environment for all. I would like to see corporations put more value and effort towards creating diverse teams and realizing this as a benefit to their overall success.
Within my own business I have experimented with different ratios of women to men. There were times when my team was comprised mostly of women, and other times when it was male dominated. I have noticed when the ratios are fairly equal, we experience the most cohesive and successful working environment, so I make an effort in my own business equally represent both sexes.
Since cannabis is a fairly new industry, and not quite the “Old Boys Club” that many other industries are, women have been able to help build this space and affect the culture. I have watched the industry grow here in Colorado for the past ten years and it has been exciting to see more women creating their own canna-businesses and shaping the environment. Many of the early entrepreneurs, both men and women, were driven to succeed not only by the financial opportunities cannabis had to offer, but also the tremendous good it can do for our health and the health of our planet. However, in the past few years we have seen a major influx of big money and consolidation. Corporations are buying up the smaller businesses, and these corporations are predominantly male run. As a result, I have noticed the culture becoming more “dog eat dog”, money driven and less cooperative. I don’t know how to change this, but I would like to see the good that cannabis can do for our society and the good hemp can do for our environment to continue to be the driving force of this industry instead of the almighty dollar.
You are a “Cannabis Insider”. If you had to advise someone about 5 non intuitive things one should know to succeed in the cannabis industry, what would you say? Can you please give a story or an example for each?
The cannabis industry moves at a breakneck pace. They say that two years in this industry is like ten in any other. This makes it very important to stay on top of the changing landscape otherwise you can easily be left in the dust. I came up with a unique and effective product early on. When I established my company very few people knew that cannabis could be used topically, so there were just a handful of companies in my space. This made it a wonderful niche, and I was able to swoop up a nice chunk of market share through my own efforts and word of mouth. My business grew organically for many years. I became overly optimistic that this trajectory would continue indefinitely. However, as the word about topicals got out many more companies entered my space, and this has affected my market share. So I would encourage business owners to stay on top of market trends and stay relevant and competitive — don’t rest on your laurels!
On the other side of the coin, you also have to stay true to your voice and vision. There are constant innovations, and everyone is always excited about what is new and shiny. It is easy to get overwhelmed with all the new entrants into the market, the big money and the power players. A lot of the businesses coming online now are spending significantly more than they are generating. As a result, I think we will see many of these companies that look like they are going to gobble everyone up fail due to their own unsustainable practices So even when it feels like you are swimming upstream with a bunch of hungry sharks at your tail, don’t give up. I think people that can look at it as a long game and keep plugging away will have a better chance at long term success.
I have been able to grow my business organically, only spending money on the business that it generated itself. As a result, I own 100% of it and am debt free. Growing it myself has been very empowering, but there is another side to that as well. Many of my competitors have teams of executives with a broad range of expertise — financial officers, operations experts, scientists, marketing gurus, etc. I have learned so much over the years trying to navigate all the different aspects of the business myself, but I am feeling like I am reaching my own ceiling and could greatly benefit from working and learning from others that have areas of expertise that I do not. So, I would encourage business owners to surround themselves with a diverse team of people whose skills complement each other so you can realize your full potential. Teamwork makes the dream work!
Before I started my business, I never had to deal with regulators and enforcement officials. I was intimidated by this aspect of the industry at first and worried that each time a marijuana enforcement official inspected my site I would either be shut down or hauled off to jail. It was a nascent industry and none of us really knew what we were doing- including the regulators. Sometimes I would get inspected or reach out to the MED with a question and it would be clear that they were just trying to figure it all out too. This helped me realize that we are all humans, and that I did not need to come from a place of intimidation or inferiority. This insight has also helped me in other business-related situations that could be intimidating, such as meeting with Wall Street investors or speaking at conferences to rooms full of high-level executives. Remember your worth and that you deserve a seat at the table.
Be resilient and resourceful. This industry is always changing, and you must be able to adapt. When I began my business there were no regulations and the cannabis industry was likened to the wild west. It has changed dramatically over the years. Now we are one of the most highly regulated industries and the regulations change several times every year. Adapting to the constant changes is incredibly challenging. We also do not have access to traditional banking. I have had six bank accounts shut down on me and trying to operate a business without proper banking is ridiculous. There has been so many times where the problems I faced seemed insurmountable, but if you can be creative with your problem solving, stay passionate about your business, and believe in what you are doing, you can get through it. My mother tells me to look at every challenge as an opportunity for growth and man have I grown over the past ten years, just like a weed!
Can you share 3 things that most excite you about the cannabis industry?
Pioneering an industry: It is very rewarding to be a part of a movement that I fully support, ending prohibition and getting the word out about this truly remarkable plant. There is never a boring day in cannabis.
We have received thousands of testimonials over the years concerning the positive effects our products have had for our customers. This industry has so many intense challenges but what keeps me going is the fact that I know we are creating a product that is helping people. I feel honored and excited that I get to help change people’s minds about this plant by creating a product that illustrates so clearly that cannabis has so much more to offer than just its’ psychoactive properties.
Even though there are now a lot of people entering the cannabis space that just have dollar symbols in their eyes, I would say that the industry is still dominated by people who truly care about the cause. It is a dynamic space filled with passionate people. It is invigorating to be surrounded by that kind of energy and passion for the plant.
Can you share 3 things that most concern you about the industry? If you had the ability to implement 3 ways to reform or improve the industry, what would you suggest?
Uniform Regulation: It concerns me that each state has its own regulatory structure for cannabis. This causes confusion and lends itself to many problems. It would be nice to figure out a uniform way to regulate cannabis that is a free market structure.
Accessible Licensing: Colorado has done a good job of regulating the industry and making it to where you do not have to be a billionaire to break in. States like New York, Florida and Massachusetts have severely limited licensing structures that require deep pockets and political pull in order to be considered for licensing. This severely limits who can get in. I would have never been able to start my business in these states with the resources I had at the time. A system with open licenses creates healthy competition and a better variety of products for consumers to choose from. Let’s keep the American dream alive!
Corporate Forces: I have concerns with corporatization of the industry, although I know it is inevitable. It is important to me that we make sure there is always room at the table for small businesses.
What are your thoughts about federal legalization of cannabis? If you could speak to your Senator, what would be your most persuasive argument regarding why they should or should not pursue federal legalization?
Federal legalization of cannabis just makes sense. 33 states have legalized it medically, and 11 states have legalized it for adult use. It is clear that the majority of Americans support legalization, so let’s give the people what they want, but let’s do it in a way that does not support corporate greed. There is a lot of concern among small business owners in the cannabis realm that federal legalization will cause sweeping consolidation and push many of the small operators out. I would like to see federal laws support small businesses as well as corporations.
Today, cigarettes are legal, but they are heavily regulated, highly taxed, and they are somewhat socially marginalized. Would you like cannabis to have a similar status to cigarettes or different? Can you explain?
I would like cannabis to have a different status than cigarettes. People use cannabis and hemp as a health supplement while cigarettes have no health benefits and significant known health risks. Cigarette taxes are high because they are meant to deter consumers from indulging in a dangerous habit that we know can cause death. This level of protection is unnecessary when it comes to marijuana, as it has many known health benefits and few dangerous side effects. However, I would like to see cannabis as easily accessible as cigarettes or alcohol.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
“Be bold and mighty forces will come to your aid.” I have had many moments while in cannabis that have caused me fear and made me question my will to continue. But I have also experienced many times in which I felt the stars align and beautiful synchronicities unfold. So, I think if you can boldly move through moments of fear and doubt the universe will support your bravery with unexpected gifts.
You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the greatest amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂
Worldwide legalization of cannabis and hemp. Working with cannabis over the past ten years has cultivated an enormous amount of respect in me for this plant. I have witnessed countless compelling healing stories, seen many people curb their alcoholism and drug dependencies, and learned how hemp is so much more renewable than many of the materials we currently use in our disposable and single use society. We need to drastically change the way we treat our planet and ourselves if we are going to live in a healthy society on a healthy planet, and I believe cannabis offers solutions to many of the very daunting problems we are facing today.
Thank you for all of these great insights!