To celebrate 420, Verda wants to highlight Living Skies Cannabis! With so much success, we’re sure that other dispensaries around you want to know the top tips for how she went from being a student in University to being a first-time business owner, to being tied for first place in Leafly’s Reader’s Choice Awards for one of the province’s favourite dispensaries!
First, tell us a bit about how you got started…
I always thought that I wanted to be an entrepreneur and a business owner because it runs in my family. My dad is an entrepreneur, and I always liked his lifestyle growing up. He was his own boss, and as a kid, I always thought that he could do anything he wanted, which is true to an extent, but with employees relying on you and bills that need to be paid, it’s up to you to get the work done. But the flexibility is part of what makes it a cool career.
My journey with cannabis started a little bit before I was done University. I never knew what kind of business I wanted to get into, but then in February 2016, I got really sick and we weren’t sure what was going on. Basically, in less than 24 hours, I went from walking around like a totally normal 21-year-old at the time to not being able to get out of bed, and it was terrifying.
I recovered in a hospital in Las Vegas, and my doctor suspected I had something wrong in terms of my auto-immune system and that I needed to get follow up appointments once I returned home to Canada. However, my doctor in Canada came to the conclusion that it was a one-time occurrence and that it would never happen again, but sure enough, almost exactly 4 months later, I ended up in the hospital in the same condition as the first time. I was diagnosed with Rheumatoid Arthritis, which is an auto-immune disease that affects my immune system and meant that I would need to start taking medication every day for the rest of my life, which for a 21-year-old really isn’t ideal, and honestly, it sucks.
I started looking into alternative ways to ease symptoms, without having to rely solely on heavy prescriptions. In my search, I found other people who have RA found relief with cannabis, not just the flower, but CBD oil, and soft gels as well so I thought I’d give that a try, and I ended up getting some relief being able to manage my disease. Through that experience is what made me want to do this as a career, one day when the opportunity presented itself.
“The timing couldn’t be any more perfect.”
At the same time, this was happening, recreational cannabis was not legal yet, and I was also still in the midst of finishing my degree at the Edwards School of Business within the University of Saskatchewan.
One of the courses I took in the final year of my studies was an entrepreneurship class, and I got the opportunity to write a business plan for whatever business I wanted, and I chose to write one for, at the time, a medical marijuana dispensary because that was what was legal at the time in Canada, although there was some gray area around storefront medical marijuana dispensaries, so for the sake of my class I wrote a business plan on that.
Because I got to do that at that point in time, it made it a lot easier for me to apply for a license when the lottery system came around in Saskatchewan. So, I got to apply for the opportunity to win a cannabis retail license — many people are under the assumption that I just won this license, but even if you win the opportunity, you still have to pass through numerous requirements set by the SLGA, and I was lucky enough to pass. Because I did this class, and I had this business plan, it made it a lot easier to apply having done all of this work ahead of time. I used actual pieces of my business plan in my application, but then I just pivoted some sections to make it fit the recreational criteria, so I was prepared because of this class.
I applied in March of 2018, all while finishing my last semester of University, which was a very stressful time in my life, I had driven to Regina the night before the applications were due because I didn’t realize that the application was due at the SLGA, and for some reason, I thought there was a place in Saskatoon to drop it off, but there was not. So 10 pm, the night before it was due, I took off and started heading toward Regina to submit my application, and I was lucky enough to have my application drawn so the trip was very much worth it.
Since Cierra has now been in business for over a year, she’s shared some insight into her experience entering the industry, and things that have set her apart which have ultimately helped her tie for first place in Leafly’s Reader’s Choice Awards for one of the province’s favourite dispensaries.
1. Don’t be afraid — we’re all new to this
It’s comforting knowing that I’m new to this, but so is everyone else, regardless of other people’s business experience.
“Everybody is learning together, which is the luxury of starting while the industry is still developing and settling into what it will be for years to come.”
It’s also nice not having any pre-set biases on how I do business, because I’ve never done business before up until December 2018, so I’m very open-minded to new ideas and ways to do things, where I think a lot of people who have been doing business for years are maybe more hard-wired in what they do and they have less willingness to change.
2. It’s important that the people you have involved in your business are overall good people
Unfortunately, one thing that one person did in their past could completely slow down the process of getting your license. I was lucky and I passed, and it was a pretty quick process for me because only my dad and I needed to pass all these security clearances and regulatory checks.
3. Delays happen in every industry, so just keep rolling with the punches
I knew that my biggest hurdle would be getting stock in my store to open, so because of that, I didn’t start the hiring process until one month prior to opening. I had an aim to open at the end of November in 2018, however, it just kept getting pushed back a bit. There was a day where I thought I would even open on October 17th, 2018, but I quickly realized that it wasn’t going to happen due to the product situation in the province.
“I tried to time things, like hiring staff, as it would naturally fall in any other business while being timely for when our store would be open.”
With the delays in opening our store, it just so happened to work out for me in the best way possible.
4. Keeping our store fresh has really made a difference
We have a younger staff, and they’re all different in their own ways. It amplifies our organizational culture of being really friendly and approachable.
I tried to hire people I got along with, and I know that maybe sounds silly, but it’s so important to get along with the people you work with — and that doesn’t mean that you need to be best friends and hang out outside of work, but you have to spend every day surrounded by these people and you have to work together.
“I can’t do everything by myself — I know that. My staff are in the frontlines and they’re the people my customers talk to, so I wanted to make sure that they’re friendly and approachable and that they all have their unique personalities.”
Even in terms of uniforms, I leave it up to my staff to choose whatever Living Skies item they feel most comfortable wearing. I want them to still feel like themselves while being a part of a team, and that’s definitely been a strength of ours.
“We’re people — we have personalities, and our customers love that.”
5. Employee/Customer relationships can’t be beat
I’ve been so lucky. Most of my employees are almost all the same original employees from day 1 and because of that, our customers have gotten to know the people who work in the store. It’s really nice to see customers who come in and have an employee they love to communicate with so they seek out that person when they come in.
“It’s cool that my staff have made that much of an impression on customers.”
6. We believed that a soft opening would help prepare us for the masses
We opened on December 3rd, 2018, but we didn’t announce anywhere that we were actually open until December 5th. I wanted to have a soft opening for 2 days, get my staff used to what was going on, what to expect, and how to tackle questions right off the bat before the masses came because we just didn’t know if the masses would come. It wasn’t what we thought it was going to be.
“We thought it would be total pandemonium, like Black Friday in the U.S-type of madness, but it was a pretty natural ramp-up. It would get really busy and then go back to a normal pace for the store.”
I was really worried about how my employees would react. I mean, I did hire these people, but you don’t actually know your staff at that point in time yet. Some of them, at the time, I hadn’t known for even a month yet, so I didn’t want to freak them out.
The first 2 days we were open was sort of like training in a sense. I had never done this either, so it was a lot of learning and easing into opening the store and making sure that everyone knows what to say and do without being bombarded with a huge crowd of people.
I honestly did the soft launch because I was nervous more than anybody. I just didn’t know what would happen. I didn’t know the processes, I didn’t know if the ones I had laid out were the right ones. We were just waiting to see what it would be like, and from there we would adjust what we needed to and then just go with the flow.
“That’s the best thing you could possibly do. Each store and every region are going to be different, so you just have to see what it’s going to be like and adjust accordingly.”
7. Customers are very different and you have to treat them like so
People don’t just come in and browse around and look for what they want, but they have to talk to us, and probably more than they’d like to, and you have to figure out how to treat each customer and match their energy level.
“It’s not your typical retail store.”
It’s tricky, and not everyone needs to have super high energy or have a super chatty sales approach, in fact, most people just want to be left alone and browse the menu by themselves and they’ll come to you if you have questions.
So it’s important to feel out your customers and assess what they need and not just try and sell them stuff. Try and understand your customers, and avoid pushing them on things that they don’t want.
“It’s a lot easier said than done… We’re still learning and figuring out what the best way to do that is.”
We don’t want to hover around people, and I also feel like cannabis consumers, in general, know what they’re after and don’t want to be helped, but then you also see new consumers who have no idea what’s going on, they’re nervous in the store and they want to so desperately talk to a budtender.
It’s just being able to visually assess the customer’s needs and gauge that before diving into a sales spiel, because not everybody needs that or wants that, and that could deter someone from coming back to your store if they felt bombarded.
8. Be careful, calculated and willing to change if need be
First impressions are huge and people are super judgmental of the cannabis industry, and everything we say and do, plus we live in a world of Google reviews or Yelp and 1 star vs 5 stars — and it’s stressful! All of those things matter, unfortunately, and you don’t want someone to have a bad experience and blow your reputation out of the water.
“You have one opportunity to make a good first impression with your customers and that’s it. That’s what people will remember about you.”
There were also a few processes that I had initially laid out in the store that I thought would’ve been the primary flow of how people would shop, but that ended up not being the case which is something we’ve learned with time.
Stocking shelves was another roadblock. It was very much, “this is what’s available, so this is what we’re going to get in”. I think the whole country experienced a cannabis shortage to start, and it was stressful!
“I had made a commitment to myself that once I open the doors to my store, I’m never going to close them because we ran out of products — it’s just never going to happen.”
I now had people relying on me for wages, and I just couldn’t put my employees through something like that and potentially put them in a situation where they’re out of work.
We bought what we could, but at the same time, we were being cautious about what we were buying. I didn’t buy up every single product that I could, and there were some that I said no to because we felt that they wouldn’t be good products to have in the store, and I’m glad that I waited until December to open the store. To date, we’ve never had to close down due to product restraints, actually, we’ve never had to close down at all aside from statutory holidays.
9. It’s tough to forecast demand for products right now, but just go with your gut
Trends seem to change every day. Now that there are new products available, we’re seeing concentrates and vapes selling more and more, but people are still buying flower! Smaller items like pre-rolls are still popular, and I think something like that always will.
“Even now, we have a year’s worth of sales data, but it’s just going to keep evolving and changing.”
There is no ‘well this was popular last year so that is what’s going to be popular again this year’ — that’s just not the case. Especially when there are so many new products still coming out. It’s going to be a lot of waiting and seeing and trying to dynamically forecast what people are going to be into.
10. Online ordering really opened up the store
It makes our store bigger in a sense where you can be almost anywhere and get your cannabis delivered right to your door.
I mean, we’re living in the age of ‘Skip the Dishes’ and ‘Amazon’, where people expect that you can get things delivered to your door same-day or in a matter of days. So for some people, it seemed obvious that this option was available, and more shocked if we didn’t have it, but you also see a lot more customers who are like ‘wow, that is SO cool, I’m going to try that next time I’m in a pinch”.
People still enjoy coming into the store, but for those who want cannabis but can’t get down to the store or they’re at home because they are sick and don’t want to leave their houses, it really helps them knowing that delivery is an option. Plus, despite the stigma around cannabis relaxing, there is still taboo, and some people who have professional careers don’t necessarily want to be seen in a dispensary just yet, so delivery is a great option for them as well.
It’s been such a pleasure getting to know Cierra! If you’re living in Saskatoon, check out Living Skies Cannabis or visit the store at 208 3 Ave S, Saskatoon!
Did you know that the Verda platform is live!? Find all of the licensed dispensaries in your area, place online orders to reserve in-store for a fast pickup, or even home delivery if it’s allowed in your region!