5 Things I Wish I Knew Before I Started: “Implement an immediate way to report customer feedback given to employees” with L.A. Dawson and Fotis Georgiadis

Given my background as a leadership coach, I’d tell any CEO to implement an immediate way to report customer feedback given to employees that is funneled up to you on a regular, recurring basis so you can make tactical and strategic decisions real time. It’s critical to be flexible based on your customers’ needs. Employees will be happier when customers are happy and when they can offer products they believe in.

As a part of my series about “the 5 Things I Wish I Knew Before I Started Leading a Cannabis Business ”, I had the distinct pleasure of interviewing L.A. Dawson, the founder and CEO of EDIYBLES, an Ohio startup focused on teaching easy, effective, and safe methods for making and consuming DIY cannabis-infused edibles. Prior to founding EDIYBLES, L.A. dedicated her career to enabling positive organizational culture at leading media, technology and financial services firms as a trainer, communicator, and leadership coach.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you share with the ‘backstory” about what brought you to the cannabis space?

Thank you for the opportunity to appear in your publication! Most people who know me IRL have no idea I work in the cannabis space, nor my passion for the plant, although that is changing. I was one of those kids who was a “good” kid — didn’t really go to parties in high school, went to college on an academic scholarship — not exactly the stereotypical cannabis user back in the early 90s in West Virginia. I still have that squeaky image because I’m extremely successful in my career and life.

After 2 years in college, I joined the student newspaper and fell in with a new social group, some off whom used cannabis. I was a driven, tight, anxious person at that age. I don’t know that anyone who achieved all that by my age could ever be described as chill. I didn’t consciously realize this then, but when I first used cannabis, I liked it because I could just relax and laugh and melt all the anxiety away. I became more introspective and thoughtful. I didn’t get sick like I did from using alcohol, and I continued to be a star student despite my cannabis use, graduating magna cum laude. As I got older, the migraines I had suffered as a teen became more frequent and severe. Cannabis was the only thing that quickly relieved the pain and nausea. That’s when I knew it was medicine. But I felt bad about it — being the goodie goodie I am — and hid my use from even those closest to me.

Years later, one of my closest friends and fellow (illegal) medicinal cannabis user, became sick with cancer. Toni asked me to learn to cook with her vaporized leftovers (people call it ABV or already been vaped), and that was the genesis of EDIYBLES. I had to learn to do it right for her. My edibles helped with her pain, and I had to give her high-quality homemade products. Later, I realized I could use my teaching background to help others do it themselves, too, without all the trial and error we went through.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?

When I was first starting the company, the Cleveland School of Cannabis happened to be holding its first series of public open houses. I connected with the admissions director, who graciously allowed me to present my business concept to gauge public reaction. At one of the events, Irv Rosenfeld — one of only 3 living medicinal cannabis patients to receive deliveries of his medicine from the Federal government’s farm in Mississippi — spoke about his experience. Since I had a booth at the event, I had the privilege to speak with him afterwards and hear his perspective on why he continues to fight for legal access for others, despite his health. He also understood my business concept at a time when I needed validation from someone professional and credible like him. He brought in his tin of 100 rolled up joints delivered directly from the Feds! I couldn’t believe my eyes, given the laws in Ohio and around the country at the time. He’s a fascinating character.

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?

I hope I can share this story without getting into trouble. At the time this story took place, I had just started cooking with cannabis a few months prior. I was not very educated about how to dose edibles just yet. Toni asked me to make her Firecrackers — two graham crackers stuffed with Nutella and ABV baked in the oven. Not knowing the cannabis strain or potency, I just measured the ABV by the tablespoon when making the recipe. As you can imagine, I had no way to tell her what the potency of the edible was, but she didn’t care. Toni was open to try whatever I was making. Stronger was better, she told me.

Her mother, on the other hand, had no clue about edibles. All she knew was what Toni told her: cut up the Firecracker into 4 equally sized pieces. Like the great lady she is, Toni’s mom followed exact directions. The treats looked so delicious, she licked a little drop of Nutella that came off the side, along with the crumbs off her fingers. Two hours later, I received a phone call from a hysterically-laughing Toni asking me to come to her house! Her mom was in the bathroom with her head under the faucet to cool off. Her mom was alternately roaring with laughter and completely quiet. Now, this mistake might not be funny in another context, although Toni’s mom and I still giggle about it today. She took it in stride, and I’m lucky there wasn’t a different outcome.

Certainly, the lesson here is precision matters in DIY cannabis cooking! While it may not be as accurate as a laboratory, dosing must be carefully estimated when doing it yourself. I also learned an important lesson about safety: educate everyone involved with dispensing edibles, and be sure to keep products locked away from those who shouldn’t have access to them.

Are you working on any exciting projects now?

Oh yes! Now that I’ve worked at a couple of big consumer shows in Ohio to get the brand into the public consciousness, I’ve joined the Ohio Cannabis Chamber of Commerce. They are connected to all the major industry players in our state and can help me partner on events with their member organizations. I’m continuing to teach mini-classes at events and live online, and I’m offering a mobile class from Ohio to Michigan, where recreational cannabis and homegrow are legal. From my area, we can take a day trip there. Of all the ideas I’ve put out there, the mobile class generated the most excitement.

I’m also in the process of hiring part-time staff to work at consumer and business-to-business networking events in other cities and states. To do that, I’m working with an outsourced HR firm to handle the important logistics, including managing a centralized support staff in Ohio that will assist those in the field. I’ve been hard at work developing training and other support materials for these folks.

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?

It’s cliché, but there is no person more responsible for my success than my mom. We were dirt poor in West Virginia in a low-income family. My single mom didn’t always know if she was going to be able to make the mortgage payment every month. She knew the only way I was going to rise up out of poverty was to work the hardest, to strive for excellence in everything, and to make connections with people. She taught me all those things with her words and actions. And that’s exactly what I did to become the successful person I am today.

While she didn’t earn what she deserved, given the limitations imposed upon women then, she was the most independent person I’ve ever known. I can’t emphasize enough how she set the perfect example of the modern-day woman before anyone had a concept of what women would be doing 40 years later. Like many women of that time, she started at the bottom of the ladder and stayed there, especially since she had kids.

Around the time I went to college, she finally started working at office jobs in customer service roles that placed her firmly in the middle class. But during the very tough times, she rarely complained. She always said regardless of who she worked for, they were paying her to do a quality job. That’s what she was going to give them. I’m well aware she didn’t have to have that attitude with the way those jobs and companies treated her. No one would have blamed her. She didn’t do it for them, though. She did it because she had pride in herself and her work, and because she cared about her customers. All those lessons have stuck with me throughout my life.

For most of my life, I hid my use of cannabis from my mother because I knew she would be disappointed with me. However, as times changed, so did my mom’s attitude towards cannabis. I wasn’t sure what to expect when I told her I was starting a cannabis-related business, but she was my number one supporter. When she was diagnosed with cancer herself, she became one of my product testers. She’s just as much a part of this company as I am. I wish she was here to see it come to fruition.

This industry is young dynamic and creative. Do you use any clever and innovative marketing strategies that you think large legacy companies should consider adopting?

In this industry, you’re forced to develop alternative marketing avenues because social media advertising can shut you down at any moment for “illegal” product marketing. Facebook closed my advertising account for both itself and Instagram, right as I was beginning to successfully market events.

The best brand-building avenues have been through my participation on cannabis-related Facebook groups. Granted, this is time-consuming because there are so many groups out there. However, I’ve made so many connections to the larger local cannabis communities I want to target, including large events where we sold products direct to consumer. I’ve been very selective about the groups I’ve joined so that I can connect with my target customers and business partners in my voice with authenticity. It’s a whole other level of grassroots marketing. I’ve also made similar connections on Instagram — which costs me zero dollars. These groups are what I’ll call micro-influencers, and they are critical in the cannabis industry because it’s still taboo for many older folks to share anything about cannabis on social media. But they will quietly monitor or sometimes comment on others’ posts in these lifestyle groups, especially when they are professional and educational.

It takes a lot of effort, and I’ll eventually have to hire a person to handle it for me, but it’s really one of the best ways to reach people all over the country in a targeted way on a small budget. Perhaps I’m naïve, but I can’t imagine big brands interacting with customers on these organic networks quite like small businesses can.

Can you share 3 things that most excite you about the Cannabis industry? Can you share 3 things that most concern you?

3 Things That Excite Me

1. Stigmas being removed from cannabis use at all age groups

2. The push for Federal legalization/decriminalization — driven by individuals and businesses

3. The positive energy generated by women in service working for a common goal — creating the first female-dominated industry in modern history

3 Things That Concern Me

1. The lack of authoritative sources of information for the layperson on dosage, uses per condition, state laws, etc. Because of search engine issues, it’s hard to sort through what’s true and what’s false about cannabis online.

2. Confusion about cannabis CBD and hemp CBD — what the differences are, what has medicinal value and why, where you can buy legal and effective CBD products, etc.

3. Continued legal and financial disruption because of Federal laws — banking remains elusive, business registrations are tricky, people are still being prosecuted for possession and “manufacturing” of cannabis. These are huge risks that virtually no other industry faces.

Can you share your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started Leading a Cannabis Business”? Please share a story or example for each.

1. I wish someone had told me that businesses like mine that don’t touch the plant face many of the same challenges as those that do. Surprisingly, I deal with many of the banking, tax, and incorporation issues as those that touch the plant. My first bank and accountant dropped me after initially accepting my business!

Given the products we sell can be used in other kitchen applications, I was shocked. But because banking is federally regulated and cannabis is federally illegal, some businesses understandably don’t want to take the risk of being associated with cannabis, even if it’s just in the marketing and education side of the industry.

2. I also wish I had known that online giants like Facebook, Instagram, and Google would suppress free speech so easily using the argument that cannabis is an “illegal drug” — their words not mine. Mularkey! Cannabis is legal in some form or fashion in all but 3 U.S. states. Twitter closed my account without explanation, but I was able to recreate it without issue (for now).

Consider all the controversial content these platforms produce without batting an eyelash, and then consider the outlandish idea that they would eschew advertising dollars from anyone! Of all things, they won’t take money from the cannabis industry. They’ve taken to shutting down even free cannabis-related content and groups on their platforms. It’s mindboggling.

Fighting city hall, in this case, is fruitless. The only complaint mechanism is run by a bot, and you can’t reason with a bot. Again, my products don’t touch the plant. I am guilty by association in their eyes. Getting shut down on social forced me to come up with other creative ideas for advertising and marketing on a start-up budget, so I guess their loss is my gain. When they decide taking advertising dollars from the cannabis industry is in their best interest, many of the brands will have moved on to greener pastures (pun intended).

3. Where was the crystal ball telling me how hard it would be to find reliable business partners and contractors who follow through after initial conversations? I’ve wasted many hours on conversations that led to either no business relationship or broken promises. Sometimes, I can tell right away if someone is wasting my time, but there are many persuasive people vying for your time who say enticing things so you’ll give it to them.

I’ve purchased products from vendors who went dark afterwards and refused to return messages. I’ve spoken with and trained people who seemed completely excited about booking and facilitating classes, but when it was time to deliver, they were nowhere to be found. It’s frustrating, but I’ve been able to find legitimate service providers to help me cut through the clutter. I hired an HR firm, Mary Jane Agency, to find qualified candidates and joined the Ohio Cannabis Chamber of Commerce so I can connect with top-notch vendors. Once again, I needed to come up with a better solution to what I was doing to find vendors and contractors because I just didn’t know what to expect when I first started out.

4. I wish someone had told me that the incorporation name used on business filing papers makes a huge difference, especially in the cannabis industry. When I first named the company, it was called Maryjane’s Confections, LLC. Could I have posted a bigger flashing sign that said, “Cannabis business, please don’t work with me”?

After my bank and accountant left me, I decided to change the company name to something less conspicuous that also reflects the fact that we’re essentially a retailer. EDIYBLES is a d/b/a that represents the brand. That simple, inexpensive fix opened doors to getting necessary business services while also making it easier to deal with wholesalers and pay sales tax.

5. Way back at the beginning, when this idea was in its infancy, I lost relationships with people who, at that time, played key roles in my life. When it became evident that I was charging forward with an ancillary cannabis business — against the wishes of some people — I decided to move on. It hurt, and it was hard to leave them behind. I considered putting my dreams on the back burner for a time. Would it be worth sacrificing relationships for an unproven and shaky industry? If I was unsuccessful, who would be there for me?

If I knew then what I know now, I would have lost less sleep over those decisions. By removing unsupportive people from my life, I opened room for the right people to enter. I have cheerleaders now! I committed to owning a business in the cannabis industry, and I enjoy loving, encouraging relationships BECAUSE of it, not in spite of it. I wish I had known I was wasting emotional energy on people who would never support me, energy I could have channeled elsewhere. There is a silver lining to not knowing all this then: I wouldn’t be repeatedly awed by the amazing people who continue to enter my life because of cannabis.

What advice would you give to other CEOs or founders to help their employees to thrive?

Given my background as a leadership coach, I’d tell any CEO to implement an immediate way to report customer feedback given to employees that is funneled up to you on a regular, recurring basis so you can make tactical and strategic decisions real time. It’s critical to be flexible based on your customers’ needs. Employees will be happier when customers are happy and when they can offer products they believe in.

As a career corporate employee, I’d advise other CEOs and founders to support single-payer health care (aka Medicare for All) in the United States to help employees thrive. Small businesses are at a severe competitive disadvantage for top talent because we simply can’t offer the kind of benefits large companies can. That, coupled with the fact that I want my employees to be physically and mentally healthy when they come to work, is reason enough to support single-payer health care.

It also makes economic sense from a corporate perspective. Companies can take the cost of providing those benefits off the books immediately, not to mention the HR complexity, with a single-payer system. I have no idea why small businesses don’t make more noise about this.

Of course, the most important employee who needs to thrive IS the founder. I can say from my own experience that I was discouraged in starting my company because of the high cost of private market health insurance and the lack of a public option. I don’t think I am alone. If you have a family and want to be an entrepreneur, you’re walking a tightrope on healthcare. It’s an unnecessary stressor. It holds back our economy.

You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. :-)

I believe that everyone working to further the case for full legalization of cannabis is inspiring a movement. That movement is happening everywhere right now! When I was in college 25 years ago, I would never have imagined legalization would happen in my lifetime, or that it would even be a conversation for that matter! Seeing public opinion change on about cannabis as medicine is exciting!

Thanks to the federal government’s draconian policies on cannabis research, we don’t know all the science behind how the endocannabinoid system works. However, what we do know is cannabis is largely non-toxic. People understand this. For all the good cannabis can do with very few side effects, most people realize adults can make the decision to use cannabis on their own.

I can’t tell you how many grandmothers I’ve talked to who are looking to cannabis as an alternative to pharmaceuticals. Let granny decide for herself! I hope I’ve been able to influence friends, family, and people I meet in the public to embrace full legalization for this amazing plant. I believe the work I’m doing will bring the most amount of good to the most people, especially when they are free to grow and cook with it themselves. Who wants to be beholden to pill-makers when you can make medicine at home by yourself?

What is the best way our readers can follow you on social media?

I have a presence on Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter, all @EDIYBLES.

This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for joining us!

Thank you! It’s an exciting time to be an entrepreneur in the cannabis industry, and I appreciate the opportunity to talk to you about my experiences.