The Sweet Life : Chapter One
In August 2017, the new moon slid its way between the sun and the earth, casting its umbra — the darkest part of its shadow — on awestruck humans lucky enough to find themselves in the path of totality. The band of landscape where this total solar eclipse would best be visible fell squarely in Oregon, which inspired millions of travelers to flock to the Beaver State for their own glimpse of a once-in-a-lifetime event.
The eclipse also inspired a run on weed.
That was the forecast, anyway. Surely these stargazing travelers would pair their epic celestial experience with pot, members of the two-year-old legal cannabis industry figured. So they stockpiled as much marijuana as they could, ready for a Y2K-level stampede.
The eclipse came and went, but the pot bonanza never materialized. A moon-sized market glut did instead. Cannabis flower has an expiration date, and retailers were sitting on a massive oversupply. If not for The Sweet Life, much of that perishable pot would have found itself tossed onto an autumn bonfire.
Joy Contreras and Marissa Rodriguez entered the cannabis industry from very different places, but quickly happened upon the same problem: legal weed had some monumental growing pains. Oregon had yet to legalize recreational cannabis when Joy left a comfortable but disheartening job in medical sales in Las Vegas on a lark, for a gig on a southern Oregon pot farm to build a sales team—a task for which she had loads of experience. But even in a medical marijuana industry that was then nearly two decades old, selling cannabis in this quasi-legal cloud was anything but simple. Anyone who knew cannabis came from the black market, not from business school. The industry’s best attempt at a sales strategy meant car trunks stuffed with garbage bags full of weed, the occasional stickup, or driving the 98,000 square mile state looking for buyers’ via neon green plus signs outside of a retailerdispensary. It was inefficient and unscalable. Joy grilled retailerdispensary owners, everywhere she could find them, asking how and why they buy products. She built inventory management and sales logistics systems from scratch. When it became clear a new set of rules and regulations would accompany Oregon’s switch to recreational use, she built those systems all over again.
Marissa grew up in Mendocino County, in the heart of the Emerald Triangle, which has supplied 70 percent of the nation’s black-market cannabis for decades. Her parents were in the industry, and she traveled home every fall to help trim the family’s harvest. She never imagined making a career out of it. But in June 2015, Marissa left her job as a consultant to work for a new cannabis company, tasked with building compliance systems and a human resources department. She had no idea how monumental a job that would be.
In 2016, Joy realized that the best path to sanity in her job was some kind of distribution system between her farm and its customers, who were scattered all over the state. She convinced her bosses to buy The Sweet Life, a fledgling wholesaler based in Portland, and she recruited Marissa to help her run it. The pair built an unprecedented set of systems in Oregon cannabis, focused on logistics and compliance. In less than a year, they grew The Sweet Life from 20 SKUs to 300.
When the eclipse came, The Sweet Life was months old under Joy and Marissa’s leadership. The per-pound price of flower was plummeting. Flower sales dropped by 75 percent. “I was hyperventilating,” Joy remembers. It was impossible to know how bad things could get. But Joy and Marissa had built resilient systems and a crack team, and desperate growers were flocking to The Sweet Life for help. Knowing it would take some time for the price to rebound, Joy and Marissa focused on developing a suite of vetted products to offer overwhelmed retailers, and on moving volume — quickly. “People needed us, but they also couldn’t afford us, so we said, ‘Let us broker your trim, we’ll try to get you top dollar for that, and then you’re going to have to hang on for dear life.’” By January, the market was starting to stabilize, and the word was out. “Maybe The Sweet Life is a legit company,” Joy remembers hearing.
The takeaway: sometimes you need a middleman.