Grenco Science, the company behind the G Pen, is celebrating its 10-year anniversary this year since the company's founding in 2012.
Not only is Grenco Science celebrating its decade milestone, but company founder and CEO Chris Folkerts also recently celebrated his 40th birthday earlier this month. As he reaches new milestones both professionally and personally, Folkerts sat down with Cannabis Business Times to reflect on his company’s history, his career in cannabis, the California market, and more.
Zach Mentz: How did you get your start in this industry and how did you end up here as founder and CEO of Grenco Science?
Chris Folkerts: Not only did my company turn 10 [in February], but I turned 40 [in March], so it's kind of an interesting moment … I think it's a nice intersection of where I expected I would be in life and where I thought the company (Grenco Science) would be.
There was this ‘it’ moment in a dispensary called LA Confidential in Los Angeles that was very known as an epicenter for a lot of the culture and lifestyle that happened. They had a hash bar, and they did jazz and comedy nights, things like that, and so this became very much of a hangout for me and a lot of people. The (California) market was still medicinal, shops were plentiful, it was pretty easy to get yourself into a space and it was pretty easy to get yourself set up. That was the landscape for the industry. You had growers and you had shops and you had middlemen in between.
As I was hanging out and being there, I saw the very first product where somebody figured out how to utilize e-cig technology that was currently available. I saw somebody that figured it out, a guy out of the Bay Area with a product called the “Vape Pen,” literally. It came with little prefilled cotton cartomizer that had been filled with some sort of a tincture which has some sort of either an ethanol or a glycerin mix and could be vaporized. So I screwed that in, I hit the device, vapor came out, and there was an ever-so-faint taste of cannabis. And I thought that was a lightbulb going off over my head.
I was like, “This is the moment, I want to sell these things.” This is the digitization of cannabis, as I always like to call it, and I knew this is something that I could sell to people. I've always been involved in the (cannabis) industry one way or the other, regulated or not. And so that was the moment for me saying, “Okay, I believe that I could sell this to people, and all of my stores that I deal with would love that.”
That was just where my mind was at initially. As I began down the journey of trying to find these products through my attorney [and] everything else, I ultimately realized the product did not exist. Even that group Vape Pen that did it, it was really available in minimal quantities. I could buy four or eight of them at a time. There was nothing at scale. I was buying low quantities of these vape pens that were probably pretty expensive at the time, then taking them and then refilling them, so that was kind of how it started.
When I figured out that the products did not exist, I went through the process of locating groups that could assist with that [and] went through a lot of trials and tribulations with those group. After about a year or a year-and-a-half of either selling other people's products … I ultimately landed into the conclusion that my particular skill set, which was relationships with both the dispensaries and the producers, put me in a unique position … my rolodex was and has always been my biggest asset. So I looked at the business side of this and said, “Hey, I could do this. If I did it myself, I could do it better.” So G Pen was born.
ZM: What inspired the company name Grenco Science?
CF: So Grenco Science is a company name that came from a branding agency that gave us options and logos and things like that. It doesn’t mean anything, it's not a real word, I looked it up 10 ways to Tuesday. It didn’t come up with anything SEO, so I thought, “Hey, if I could just get people to start saying it, I don't have to fight anybody for the SEO.”
And this is when it gets even better. The first product was to be named the G-O. Our branding and packaging [was] inspired by Apple and the cleanness of the logo in that it was meant to have the logo on the product, the logo on the box, and nothing else.
The first 15,000 units that we made, basically 100% of them were defective and [we] sold them all. It shows how tenacious we are, and then also the demand for the product. Once people had tried it [and] used it, [they were] like, “I don't care if it's broke, give me another one.” That just goes to show that we were onto something; if you sell 15,000 of something that's broken and people want more of it, then you know you're on the right path.
Maybe one out of five just didn't work out of the box ever. Some of them would work out of the box, but after that, maybe they didn't connect with the charger, so you got to use it for the duration of the first full charge, and then that’s it. And then your atomizer could go out so you could lose a piece. And then if somebody lost something, we only had complete sets, we hadn't ordered ancillary items.
Some call it the school of hard knocks. I call it trial by fire.
ZM: Your company, Grenco Science, is best known for the G Pen. Where did that product name and branding come from?
CF: One very key, funny story at the beginning is that those first 15,000 units that we made, not only were they defective, but they didn't have an instruction manual. So most people would call and say, “Hey, it doesn't work.” You go “press the button five times,” and they'd be like, “oh, right.” So it didn't even tell you that you needed to press it five times, and unless somebody told you, you couldn't even know. Not only did the manual not exist, but nowhere on the product or the box did it say it was called the G-O. It had the G (logo) on the pen, it had a G on the box because the Grenco Science G was going to be our brand, but each product was going to have its own SKU name.
And then people started calling it the G Pen. I was like, “Okay, so that's it. We have a letter, this is cool, the people have spoken.” The way that it came about was very serendipitous. It just kind of came into existence. We were like, “Listen, everybody calls it the G Pen, so we're calling it the G Pen. It's got a G on it and it's Grenco Science.” And we meant the branding to be about the G, we just didn’t think to call it the G Pen. It was gonna be called the G-O. What we did from there was just the first one was called G Pen, and then after that it was G Pen Micro, and everything's a G Pen then since. Grenco Science is the company, G Pen is the product.
ZM: When was that moment where you felt like boom, this is starting to work?
CF: I had connections on the distribution side of things from the smoke shop industry, which is fortunately a very well-established method of distribution. Pipes, bongs, rolling papers, things like that–it's one of the most widely distributed as far as brick and mortar goes. And not that you can't buy any of these things digitally, but when somebody goes and buys a bag and they want to stop to grab a bong or they need some papers, they're not waiting [until] the next day to get them.
So we had rapid growth. We were, by the end of our first year, probably in a couple thousand stores because of the distribution.
We're in every [legal] state. I think we're in something around 60 countries at this point, too. A lot of what we do comes from the distributors who are already established in those regions. And look, that's great. If distributors are doing their job, then they're an essential part of the company because they have years of relationships, the time, logistics worked out–all that.
ZM: What is the current state of the California market from your perspective? And how do you think it can be improved?
CF: I'm going to come to probably the first answer that everybody else is, which is taxes. When you've got people that are struggling as hard as they are right now, financially, it is difficult. And for an industry that actually is recession proof, which cannabis is, I see that people are struggling. You can’t have the kind of taxation on this product, versus having a 10% tax on alcohol that people can walk into a store, buy a handle of alcohol, and that be something that gets them through, versus something like cannabis that's a medicine. No doctor's ever going to prescribe you to go get that handle of vodka, but there are doctors all throughout the state of California that have been [prescribing cannabis] since 1996. So why is it that I'm taxed differently because of that?
It still baffles me and a lot of other people, and I think we all agree that it all starts with taxes. … What's wrong with California's market is that (the state) is allowing the people who have laid the foundation of this industry to be robbed of their intellectual property, and they’re forcing those people to be taxed at such a ridiculous rate?
ZM: What would be your advice to new or existing operators in the cannabis industry?
CF: If anybody wants to take anything from this … partnerships are one of the most important decisions you're ever going to have to make in your life. It is very difficult to predict the future. But what you can do is understand that a lot of businesses fail, and a lot of things fail for a lot of different reasons. Not having sound operating agreements, not having your business in order, and not understanding the contract, what you're doing, what you're signing without having really good people around you to advise you can be extremely costly in a world where the lessons that I got to learn 10 years ago would kill a company dead in its tracks today. You’d never be able to survive the stuff that we were able to survive because it was different times.
I cannot emphasize enough that a partnership is filling a void, right? You're filling voids for each other. You can have duplicities, but if you create all these duplicities and you're the same person trying to do the same thing, or you have bad actors, or you have people that you haven't properly vetted and you go into a business with your heart and you act emotionally, either in the business or as an individual, be careful. Speaking strictly from experience, these are the type of situations where you're dealing with uncomfortable conversations and you're dealing with extremely complex litigations that if you're not prepared for–financially, mentally, et cetera–is something I just don't wish people to go through.
When you're making decisions upon going into partnerships with people, you should always think of it as just like saying, ‘Hey, will you marry me?’ to somebody and, in a lot of cases, [it’s] way worse than asking somebody to marry you. Because if [a business partner] says yes, now you're in business. … It’s so important for people to think about it like that. And I don't think people do. It's all gung-ho, let's start a business, we're going to be partners, we're boys now, we're best buddies forever. That is not how life works.