Charles McElroy is the founder of Goldleaf, a science-forward printing company for cannabis growers, patients and enthusiasts. Goldleaf empowers people by helping them better understand their interactions with the plant, and works to make the subject more approachable to new audiences. A former volunteer with Marijuana Policy Project, a history supporting veterans education and access to medical marijuana, and several years studying permaculture and organic farming in Ohio and Colorado, McElroy created Goldleaf to benefit the evolving recreational and medical cannabis communities. Goldleaf products are available worldwide and the company also provides custom design services, now adorning select dispensaries and white-label products across the U.S. Formerly COO at Noble Denim & Victor Athletics, a sustainable and ethical clothing manufacturer, McElroy holds a B.S. in Engineering Technology and Management from Ohio University with an MBA track at Miami University in Business Informatics.

Goldleaf — With all of the myths and misconceptions surrounding the cannabis conversation, it’s easy to miss the forest for the trees. Goldleaf brings a clear and credible perspective to the cannabis community by pairing compelling design with the latest peer-reviewed research, making the complex more approachable— beautiful, even. Specializing in guided notebooks and elegant print design for cannabis patients, growers and enthusiasts alike, Goldleaf products are available worldwide. Based in Cincinnati, Ohio, Goldleaf also provides custom design services for like-minded organizations around the world. 

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you share with us the story about what brought you to this specific career path?

I’ve long been an advocate for responsible cannabis legislation and reform, so I’ve had the idea for what Goldleaf does for quite a while. I got the chance to begin down this road in 2015 and released the first Goldleaf items in 2016.  I ‘cut my teeth’ in the entrepreneurial world with a different company (a sustainable clothing brand) and that experience taught me so much about product development, operations and marketing a niche product.  The clothing company wasn’t my passion though, and when my partner burned out and wanted to sell the company, I agreed.  It was then that I decided to take the leap into the cannabis space (something I had been fantasizing about for years).  At the time, that was very abnormal for someone in the Midwest (who was planning to STAY in the midwest). Still, I was mostly met with affirmation about the idea.  I wanted to help reshape people’s perception of cannabis by showing off the science behind cannabis in a visually pleasing way.  Again, at the time, there wasn’t anyone else utilizing this type of ‘modern/chic/minimalist’ branding in the cannabis space… and there certainly wasn’t anyone working on creating educational art and tools. To me, this was a perfect use of skills – I’m a designer and an engineer by training.  Goldleaf allowed me to merge the two to create something new.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

There have certainly been lots of little adventures along the way.  As I think about what might be of interest to your readers, and what resulted in a ‘lesson learned,’ one anecdote comes to mind.  Being based in Ohio often strikes people in the industry as ‘strange’ for a cannabis company. Slightly less-so in 2020, but I still get a quiet pleasure at seeing eyebrows lift when I tell folks where I hang my hat. I’m proud that we are based here – if ‘cannabis’ is a new industry, it is incredibly new and novel in a place like Ohio.  To that end, I’ve been watching for the ‘Ohio Community’ to level-up in terms of creating useful conferences, events and organizations.  Slow and steady they start to bubble up, but not as fast as I’d hope.  All the same, I try and participate when opportunities arise.  Often I find that the new startups here in our state are not ready for a company like Goldleaf, they aren’t yet to the place where they need to solve the education or design problems.  However, everyone has been very supportive and positive when I’ve made the introduction.  All that said, I did see a new ‘Meetup’ come through my feed (Meetup being the platform that connects like minded folks for different sorts of gatherings).  This was a meetup for Cincinnati folks in the cannabis space.  While only 8 people RSVP’d early on, I thought it would be interesting to attend. I do prefer smaller more intimate settings, and the fact that it was hosted at one of my favorite micro breweries was a little bonus.  I didn’t have high expectations but I was really surprised.  Out of that one Meetup event, I found a new regional print partner (something I had been diligently searching for for YEARS– in the spirit of keeping as much production close to home as possible).  I also met a gent who is now our legal council for the state, as well as an entomologist (random I know), but I was able to work with him for some new infographics we were creating about beneficial insects.  I’ve never to this day had a more successful conference or event in terms of forging lasting business relationships.  Lesson learned, you never know what might be worthwhile in terms of networking!

Are you working on any exciting projects now? How do you think that will help people? 

Always!  One project that comes to mind was a little departure from our normal ‘educational’ work.  It was more geared around highlighting the social and cultural elements of the cannabis industry in an interesting and ‘normal’ way.  We call the project our ‘cannabis travel series’ and the idea is to create different art-forward works that feature different locations, and point out something special and unique about what each brings to the cannabis community.  The inspiration for the series was the ‘vintage travel prints’ from the early 1900s – only subtly featuring cannabis.  We didn’t want to be heavy handed with this, rather, create something that is visually striking, and shows the cannabis culture in a very normal way.  A fine example of this series is our Southern California work.  We partnered with one of my favorite modern artists, Eugenia Mello (a NY resident, but from Argentina).  Her style perfectly matched what we were going for, which was a minimalist painted beach scene showing people from all walks of life enjoying cannabis (subtly).   At first glance, you won’t notice the cannabis angle, but upon closer inspection it is a ‘where’s waldo’ of cannabis culture.  This print is an homage to what this part of California has done for cannabis’s cultural and social progress.  To drive the point home, we also partnered with Last Prisoner Project (based in Southern California), a non-profit focused on social justice and cannabis reform, for its release. Proceeds for each print sold are donated to this organization, and we also produced 4 limited editions which were signed by the artist and donated to LPP for auction.

Beyond this series, we are also working on adding additional content and tools to our ‘cultivation’ subject for release later this spring. This includes a refreshed version of our popular Grow Planner journal, and a new infographic and reference card back for growers (tackling subjects like diagnosing nutrient deficiencies, calculating energy usage, beneficial insects and much more).

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?

One name that comes to mind is my old business partner, Chris.  He was the other co-founder of the sustainable clothing company and is still an inspiration to me… both creatively and professionally.  He was the one who validated my original idea, gave me the confidence to dive in, and shared much appreciated advice about how to create our aesthetic.  He was integral in the creation of photography and content during our launch. I still keep up with him, though not as much as I’d like (that’s life though!).  The one lesson he was great at teaching is this: if you can’t do something your best, don’t do it at all. It is better to have a few ‘great’ things than a bunch of mediocre things.  This speaks to not only product development, but also branding.  If you don’t put your all in video creation, don’t release content that could water things down.  If you don’t put your all in photography, don’t release pics that weaken your brand.  This is a lesson to live by and really helps shape perception around a brand.

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?

Ha, yes, I think that is mostly what we do! In addition to being a relatively young group, we are also a fully remote team (with members residing all around North America).  While we are a cannabis company, we’re also not a cannabis company (our wares are all printed). Regardless, we are seen as a cannabis outfit by the digital powers that be, and are thus saddled with the same red tape as a producer of flower.  This has caused us to need to be creative with our marketing efforts and I actually think it was a blessing since it forced us to concentrate on our product and our stories.  This is what makes businesses stand out these days – authentic stories.  This is in fact our sweet spot.  Every infographic, journal or printed item we create has a story behind it.  Because we often take the educational angle, there is also plenty to tell!  This has been well received by media and influencers and our barrier for getting our word out is probably a little less than other cannabis companies.  The formula that has worked well for us is what we call ‘piggyback marketing’.   Simply put, we team up with an expert or brand and create something new together that both brands resonate with— we then build the story and share it with our audiences.  The other brand gets exposed to our worldwide audience, and we get exposed to theirs. In terms of marketing costs, it is an amazing deal compared to the wide and unpredictable net of ad buys.  It feels more authentic (and it is!) and both audiences show a great deal of engagement because the topic is right up their avenue.

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

Excite:

  • The speed at which new research is now starting to happen. This has historically been a challenge (and still is), but the stigma and red-tape over such research topics is starting to fade and we’re learning new information at a very quick rate.
  • The overall acceptance of the topic of ‘cannabis’ among historically conservative groups. There are very few opponents to cannabis progress these days and those barriers continue to fade as people learn more about the potential of the plant.
  • The level of technical innovation coming out of the industry— from more efficient cultivation equipment, to cleaner extractions and delivery devices. Super cool stuff.

Concern:

  • The total disconnect between the ‘gatekeepers’ of the internet and their users. It is a shame that organizations from Silicon Valley who are historically progressive, are this far behind their users and other companies.  They have a real opportunity to move the needle, but instead hold onto prohibitions and severe penalties for businesses who use their platforms. This goes beyond digital ads.
  • The fact that cannabis is still a schedule 1 on the federal level is absurd. It literally defies the definition and is at the heart of most of the industry woes (from banking, insurance, distribution, etc.).
  • The steady stream of misinformation and half-truths. Now that there are so many new CBD companies, we’ve seen a trend of these ‘THC-Free’ products claiming powers akin to snake oil.   Don’t get me wrong, cannabis has immense potential, but the fractured state of people’s access to information on the subject has put a lot of opportunity for deceit at the hands of business owners— many of which only have the goal to make money.  We often get contacted by brands to create custom education, but they ask us to proclaim things that just aren’t true.  We don’t accept these commissions obviously and it is always a frustrating experience.

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. 

Goldleaf isn’t a traditional cannabis business, so our experiences have been somewhat unique. We still feel the challenges that cannabis businesses face, but we also deal with other challenges unique to the print and publishing world.

  1. The gatekeepers of the internet don’t see a difference between cannabis products and printed works on the matter. I always assumed that our work was adjacent to some of the internet prohibitions on cannabis products.  It makes sense that it wouldn’t be OK to advertise cannabis products to ‘blanket groups’…much like alcohol, tobacco and even pharmaceuticals have stringent advertising rules.  What was surprising was that our work is unequivocally seen as the same— even though we work squarely in the print works creating books, journals and art prints.  Of course, we still enjoy the first amendment rights and freedom of speech/expression– but ISP’s and tech companies don’t need to abide by this when it comes to accessing their platform (either through paid engagements OR organic).  This was a surprise at first.
  2. Education is SEVERELY lacking in cannabis – and those shortcomings are different depending on where you live. Part of the vision of Goldleaf was to educate in a passive way, showing information in a visually appealing manner so the user learns while they interact.  However, one size does not fit all (this is obviously true with cannabis therapy and the individualized endocannabinoid systems).  For our part, we quickly learned of the disparity in foundational knowledge based on location. Not only do different states have their own vernacular, but they also have their own beliefs (not all of which are scientifically accurate). We found that when communicating an idea, we had to tweak our word choices based on the audience.  This was not only for regulatory compliance (like in Canada), but also to ensure we’re making topics as understandable as possible.  Some areas are JUST learning of the ‘indica/sativa myth’ and those terms are widely used and accepted. Other areas have long moved on from using those terms to describe effects and to do so causes animosity and diminishes the validity of all we are saying.  For this reason, we try and adopt a universal ‘science-forward’ voice for our national publications, and amend our wording to best fit the region (when we do custom work for other businesses).
  3. People are way less judgmental in conservative areas about cannabis than you’d think. I live in a conservative area, and so when I started Goldleaf I was hesitant to publicize it too much in our local community for fear of judgment or worse (moreso for our children’s sake than me personally).  It turns out that this wasn’t a valid concern.  Most people I’ve met have been very supportive and interested.  From other supportive businesses, to other folks I meet during normal business activities, very few have voiced any reservations or concerns.  Perhaps, it is due to the fact that we focus on education and work with a lot of doctors and physicians, which I think is disarming to someone who still carries reservations about the industry.
  4. Keeping up with changes in information and research is a full-time job. We learned quickly that in order to deliver quality and trustworthy information, we had to keep our finger on the pulse of the medical and wider science community for updates to existing information and publications of new studies.  One thing that makes Goldleaf special is that we go through great lengths to ensure our accuracy.  When new information is available, we update EVERYTHING affected.  For this reason we produce most of our wares in small batches, with seasonal (or more) updates.  Our Patient Journal for example is on its 12th edition.  However, this is incredibly time intensive, so it has resulted in us hiring a specialist to focus exclusively on this challenge.  We call him our ‘content czar’ and his work is incredibly important to us.  Thankfully, he’s got a background in research, holds his MLS and has lots of experience doing similar work elsewhere in the science world.  Since he’s been on the team, we can all breathe a little easier and it has freed up the rest of our team to focus more on their specific skill sets.
  5. There will be copycats. This isn’t unique to the cannabis space of course, but we’ve had to address it all the same.  Since our inception, there have been a handful of other startups that lean on our idea.  Some have done a very sloppy job and ignored the educational component, while others more plainly stole our creative content (wording, layouts and even proprietary research). We’ve always been in a good habit of copyrighting each of our published works and registering our trademarks, so from a legal perspective – we’re protected.  However, it is still an ongoing frustration when new companies simply duplicate our work (without improving in any way).  I realize that others will follow suit, and I’m actually OK with that — it helps build a stronger cannabis community.  But, I want to see others holding the same code of ethics to accuracy, and I’d rather see the works done in a fresh style (not a carbon copy of our ‘minimalis/modern’ approach).  We’ve had to send a few cease and desist letters, but that has thankfully been the extent so far.

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

I’ve found that you really need to find people who are synergistic with your work culture.  Otherwise, they just won’t work out long term. For example, our team is mostly remote.  I’m based in Ohio, we have boots on the ground in Maryland, California, Oregon, Calgary and Texas. I have to rely on everyone’s individual work ethic and autonomy.  I can’t be looking over shoulders and guiding on every task. Instead, I communicate the deliverable and leave it to them to figure out the specifics.  Of course, most of the time it is a little more collaborative, but that is the expectation I set.  Some people thrive with this type of freedom and autonomy.   Others will very soon crumble or simply not get their work done.  It is then that I have to have the conversation to learn why, and see how we can work through it. Most of the time, this eventually results in us parting ways.  I’ve learned that this ‘self-reliance’ is a trait that isn’t easily taught.  I normally get a feel for this trait after 2-3 months.  There are always growing pains, so that longer runway is a way to give folks the benefit of the doubt, and really trial them for the role.  

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. 🙂

Very interesting question.  Putting cannabis aside for a larger theme of ‘progress’ — I would challenge folks to use their craft (and I don’t mean just ‘creatives,’ but anyone who is skilled at their work) to push for social progress.  Not to get super political, but there is definitely a correlation between left/right leanings and stances on cannabis.  Furthermore, it is sad that the more conservative (and FAR right) mindsets seem to be ‘winning the internet’.  Sure the methods are often inappropriate or deceitful, but I’d love to see more of the talented folks who champion progressive ideas bring the information fight in a similar way.

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

Our favorite social channels are the visual ones – Instagram and Pinterest. We are @gldleaf on Instagram, and /goldleaf_ on Pinterest. We also do a good bit of educational writing which we feature on our facebook page (/goldleafltd).

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