With evolving markets, regulations, and supply chains, Travis Tharp, president and CEO of Keef Brands, calls on a classic Clint Eastwood film to describe the cannabis industry.
“If you ask any person who has been an operator in the cannabis space for more than three months, every single day is a combination of good, bad, and ugly,” he said.
Though there are many challenges, Tharp also pointed to the opportunity the cannabis industry presents — particularly in the beverage category — during Cannabis Products Exchange, held April 28-29 at the Hilton Denver City Center. Tharp said Keef Brands, co-founded by his childhood friend Erik Knutson, has experienced many ups and downs over the Colorado company’s 11-year history, but the team has learned much along the way.
“We have messed up just as many times, if not more, than any other cannabis company,” he said. “We’re still here, we’re still kicking, and we’re proud of the battle scars we have.”
Knutson launched Keef Brands after creating a batch of cannabis-infused Keef Cola and receiving a resounding response from his first tester, his 85-year-old grandmother, Dee. Since 2011, Keef Brands has brought its beverage products, alongside CO2-extracted oil for vape cartridges, to 11 markets, with more to follow this year.
In addition to its classic sodas, Keef Brands also offers low-sugar, low-calorie enhanced waters, as well as 12-oz. mocktails with 100 mg or 500 mg THC that can be dosed out or consumed in one sitting.
Though oil extraction originally represented a large portion of Keef Brands’ business, Tharp said its beverages now make up 90% of sales.
“We’ve really leaned into the fact that we are a beverage company,” he said. “We hang our hat on the fact that we’re an OG beverage company.”
Tharp also offered three keys to succeeding in the cannabis space. First, companies and brands have to accept that it is unlike any other industry. With a background in tech startups, Tharp said that he, like many others coming in from traditional consumer packaged goods (CPG) or other industries, hold assumptions that will likely be proven untrue time and time again.
“Nothing is constant. Nothing is easy,” he said. “It was good, it was healthy for me to finally hear this. I wish I could’ve had a time machine, jump five years ahead and talk to me today when I was first coming in.”
Brand owners and manufacturers should also strive to control what they can, even if there are differences and fluctuations across markets. Tharp said standardizing operating procedures, equipment, and non-THC ingredients has helped Keef Brands expand across the U.S. and Canada.
“There are a lot of things outside of your control, but if you can dig in enough, you can find some similarities,” he said. “You can start to scale. You can do a bunch of really cool stuff.”
Lastly, cannabis companies must learn from their mistakes, as well as those made by other organizations and industries.
“We wear our mistakes like a badge of honor, but if you mess up doing the same thing over and over, you’re just doomed to fail,” he said. “A lot of companies in cannabis have made the same mistake over and over again.”
And while it’s easy to make mistakes in an ever-changing environment, Tharp said he keeps the positive possibilities in mind.
“This is a once-in-a-generation opportunity,” he said. “You’re on the front lines of one of the most highly publicized sectors that has a lot of growth in it. That doesn’t come along every day.”
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