Being a salesperson doesn’t always come easily, but cannabis entrepreneur Nicole Skibola explains how you can make it work for you.
I’m no stranger to the discomforts of being an entrepreneur. There’s the intense physical labor associated with manufacturing, never-ending work days and weeks, the occasional account groveling and doing the sh*t that no one else wants to do. Staying alive as a startup means operating lean, sparing the expenses of a normal, profit-generating business because you are small and new and looking to funnel every penny into growth.
A couple of months ago, we had our first investor meeting. Our projections were way off target. The second year of legal cannabis in California was far more difficult than any of us could have anticipated. The legal industry is contending with a persistent black market—unregulated hemp and corporate dollars scooping up shelf space. California market data demonstrates that projections for legal cannabis sales are way off target for the industry as a whole. My investor doesn’t have other cannabis companies in his portfolio and, as such, he was disheartened with the news of our slow sales. So, he did what any other investor would do and gave us a substantial pep talk. His number one pointer: You absolutely have to do your own sales.
Sales … where do I begin with sales? Sales tap into every insecurity that I have, every gendered stereotype that I carry with me as a woman entrepreneur. I don’t want to bother people. I don’t want to appear unlikable or annoying with multiple phone calls, emails and in-person visits. I don’t want to brag about my product to strangers. I don’t want to appear desperate.
And yet, we found ourselves again, shortly after that meeting, having to take control over our own sales as yet another outside sales relationship fell apart. In the cannabis industry, few business founders do their own sales. This process is generally managed by distributors (thanks to California law which requires such middlemen) or the salespeople that well-funded brands can afford to hire as full-time employees. Small company founders are busy, and many of us don’t have the relationships that a seasoned distributor or salesperson has which could help us get a foot in the door with retailers. Shelf space is limited, so the competition for all brands—especially those of us with limited resources—is fierce.
Our only hire, Sharon, fortunately came out of a long career in sales and account management. She has lots of tricks that helped her own career before cannabis. Remember birthdays, send weekly newsletters, leave little tokens of appreciation for current accounts and prospects. Be in front of your current and future customers on a regular basis. Pick up the phone and call. Visit in person. Be persistent, even in the face of no. As she explained all of her tactics that had made her a successful salesperson over the years, I cringed.
“I am going to have to call him?” I asked in horror with regard to one particularly important prospect. She looked at me stunned—coming from an older generation and an industry where the idea of texting a prospect would be suicide. “Why don’t you call him now?” she suggested as the three of us sat in a sales meeting. The butterflies immediately began churning in my stomach. I took a deep breath and dialed. The buyer remarkably picked up and told me that I could call him anytime. He was nice. And encouraging. That same week, Sharon and I visited dispensaries, dropping by unannounced. I felt like an awkward teenager, fidgeting my hands, trying not to exude desperation as the staff at each store told me the “buyer was in a meeting.” (Note for non-industry folks: That’s the favored excuse of buyers trying to avoid contact with prospective brands). I sent follow-up emails cheerfully: “I visited your beautiful store and want to tell you about my handmade craft products!” I knew damn well no one would respond. But then, one did. And another appeared willing to hear us out. And slowly, it became easier as my skin grew thicker and I stopped caring so much. The truth was, it felt way better than doing nothing or, worse yet, handing the fate of my business to someone else to mismanage.
I’ve started offering my own pep talks to the fellow small brands I know who are hurting, unable to expend the resources on expensive full-time salespeople. Perhaps the most important thing I’ve learned after nearly three years in the industry and my first foray into being an entrepreneur is that you have to try everything humanly possible to survive. Because it’ll take all of that and some more and if I fail, well, then at least I’ll know I gave it my all. At least until I have the resources to hire my own in house salesperson—a girl can dream, right?