As part of my series about “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started Leading a Cannabis Business” I had the pleasure of interviewing Erik Knutson. Erik is Co-Founder and Chief Executive Officer of Keef Brands, a pioneering line of cannabis-infused beverages, edibles, concentrates, vapes and oils. Knutson has a decade of experience operating a wide variety of enterprises within the legal cannabis markets. He co-founded Keef Brands in 2010 in Boulder, CO, as one of the first companies to infuse soda with cannabis. Keef now develops, produces, and distributes award-winning cannabis-infused beverages, edibles, concentrates, oils, and more. Their products are available at over 800 retail locations across the U.S., including California, Colorado, Arizona, Michigan and Nevada, as well as in Puerto Rico and Jamaica. In addition, Knutson holds several leadership positions in the industry, serving as Co-Founder and President of the American Trade Association for Cannabis and Hemp (ATACH), founding board member of the Cannabis Trade Federation (CTF). Erik is also the co-founder of the Denver Packaging Company (DPAC) the manufacturer and distributor of Keef products in Colorado.
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 was in the construction business with my family before venturing into the legal cannabis industry. The Great Recession of 2008 tore up the housing market and as a result, our construction business went under. My brothers and I turned to the burgeoning legal cannabis industry in our home state of Colorado. We applied for one of the first cannabis business licenses in Boulder and used it to open a dispensary selling other brands, but soon realized that there was a gap in the edibles market: cannabis-infused beverages. Drinking and smoking are historically two of the most popular social activities for adults, so we launched Keef Brands in 2010 with Keef Cola, the first line of cannabis-infused soda. We accomplished our first goal by creating a cannabis-infused beverage that tastes great and blends all the best parts of drinking — the fun, social, and celebratory experiences — with the magic and joy of cannabis. It’s the best of both worlds poured into every bottle we make. We started by infusing soda in my kitchen and now Keef Brands products are available at more than 800 retail locations across the United States including in Colorado, California, Michigan, Arizona and Nevada, as well as in Puerto Rico and Jamaica.
Are you working on any exciting projects now?
Yes! We partnered with CannaCraft earlier this summer to launch our award-winning line Keef Cola in California and we look forward to introducing our additional infused beverages to the Golden State. These include Keef Sparkling, the world’s first zero calorie, zero sugar cannabis infused sparkling water; Keef Life, which has less than 50 calories per bottle; and flavored Keef Shots.
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?
It’s important for companies of all sizes to immerse themselves in the local communities where their products are distributed. Get to know the area’s consumers and retails stores, and look for ways to partner with local companies who can assist along your supply chain, as well as with companies who may be outside the cannabis space but with whom you can still foster meaningful reciprocal relationships. Be nimble and flexible, and remain ready to adapt and refresh your brand when needed.
Can you share 3 things that most excite you about the Cannabis industry? Can you share 3 things that most concern you?
Three things that most excite me about the cannabis industry are the rise of a variety of cannabis infused beverages; the increase in licensed social consumption lounges; and the growing popularity of micro-dosed products to appeal to the canna-curious consumer.
Three things that most concern me are that licensed cannabis companies still face outrageously high taxes due to 280E; limited banking opportunities; and the regulatory discrepancies between states, which make it difficult for multi-state operators to thrive.
What advice would you give to other CEOs or founders to help their employees to thrive?
Company culture is so important. For instance, if your brand focuses on fun and enjoying life, it’s important to create a company culture that encourages employees to embrace that mindset. Hard work is always important, but there needs to be a balance so employees remain encouraged, inspired and passionate about the company.
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.
Federal legalization is the movement that I’m most focused on right now and the overall de-stigmatization of cannabis. The positive impacts of federal legalization would be felt socially and economically. We as an industry need to continue to band together to advocate and make it happen.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?
There have been a number of interesting stories that have happened since we founded the company in 2010. That said, the one that continues to baffle me was how the City of Boulder turned a blind eye to its cannabis manufacturing businesses in 2011 and essentially paved the way for thousands of jobs to leave the city, all because they would not inspect wholesale food manufacturing businesses, which the City of Denver required in order to sell into Denver-licensed dispensaries. Some of the largest edible brands in the state originated in Boulder and are no longer there due to this lapse in logic a decade ago.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
We made a number of mistakes starting the business, none of which at the time seemed very funny. However, after a decade, they definitely lose their sting and without them I’m pretty sure we would not be around today. One of the funniest mistakes we made (a number of times) was with labels. In 2014 we started producing vape pens marketed as having ‘Cannabis Terpenes’. Not knowing how many we’d sell, we ordered about 10,000 boxes. Unfortunately during proofing, we missed the fact that at some point the program we used auto-corrected it “turpentine.”\
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?
Very true. There is no way we would be around without the help of many family members, friends, colleagues and competitors. At this point, I am most grateful to my mom for sticking by us through thick and thin over the years. When we were forced to shut down the facility in Boulder and move to Denver, she not only helped us physically move but loaned us all the money in order to keep Keef alive. She has been our rock from day one and her faith in us has never wavered.
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.
- Don’t take money from strangers- All money is not good money. Unfortunately we have had to deal with several bad investors over the years whose morals did not jive with our culture. Luckily we’ve been able to weed those investors out and avoid ever being sued by an investor. End of the day ignore you can’t hang out with someone it’s probably not a good idea to take their money.
- Understand your local municipality and stay involved- We have had to move several times over the past decade due to changes in local regulations. These experiences pushed me to help co-found both ATACH.org and CTF.com
- Be careful when hiring friends- definitely not saying hiring friends is bad, as some of my absolute best hires have been my oldest friends. The key to hiring is putting the most qualified person in that position. I got very lucky in that the friends that are still with me today, are some of the hardest most qualified employees and business partners I could have hired externally. I have also put friends in positions that we’re over their heads and my business and personal relationships suffered because of it.
- Always have multiple bank accounts in cannabis- we have lost over ten accounts since our inception.
- Have fun- Time flies and the ride is more fun than the destination
What is the best way our readers can follow you on social media?
Follow Keef Brands on Instagram, @KeefBrands.
This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for joining us!