This week’s Trailblazer is Jacob Saffer-Spiro, CEO and founder of Willow Weed, a federally licensed micro-cultivator. Willow Weed is at the forefront of merging outdoor organic farming with boutique craft cannabis.
Jacob, at the age of 20 years old, is the youngest Health Canada licensed producer in Canada. Jacob is also working as a hands-on consultant with a portfolio of cannabis companies and a business student at Western University.
Questions with a Cannabis Industry Trailblazer
When did you first become involved in the cannabis industry and why?
Obtaining a micro-cultivation license and starting Willow Weed in 2018 was my entry into the world of weed. From conception to inception the process took a year and a half. That includes about a year of intense research and eight months working through the Health Canada bureaucracy. On May 15, 2020, Willow Weed secured the Health Canada seal of approval to become the 38th micro-cultivator in Canada and the 4th outdoor micro (1st in Ontario).
Willow Weed is named after my farm and middle name “Willow”. Willow Weed is one of the few outdoor micro-cultivators in Canada meaning we grow a canopy of only 200 square meters annually. Willow Weed is wholly owned and operated by our family. My father, David Spiro, is the co-founder and COO.
”Our mission is to grow high quality, competitively priced natural cannabis on a small scale using only organic and eco-conscious good manufacturing practices (GMP). Willow Weed’s vision is to stay focused on craft cannabis and grow into the industry sustainably and adaptably.
I have been a cannabis connoisseur for most of my adolescent and adult life. One day in high school I was picking up from a new plug and the situation quickly turned south. The dealer threatened to stab me, punched me in the face twice, and stole my wallet. I was bewildered that a drug renowned for peace, alternative medicine, and R&R had been tangled up in a world of violence and greed. I am not saying that all black market sources are untrustworthy, just that the BM certainly can’t use credibility as their value proposition. Juxtaposed, the legal market offers pot smokers that trust. Trust that the bud is reliable, safe, and always available. Having the opportunity to be part of a movement that adds trust to cannabis is something I am passionate about.
I also approached the cannabis sector from an entrepreneurial background. Looking back to October 17, 2018, when cannabis was legalized, I thought it was an exciting and invigorating opportunity to be part of history. My parents are hippies who moved to Willow Farm from the Annex, Toronto in the late 90’s to establish a vegetarian, organic, and sustainable homestead. I figured I had the land, which is one of the largest expenses, so I thought, why not give it a try? Being able to have a career in an outdoor farming atmosphere, as opposed to an office, was very enticing. This is a new industry and if you can grow good grass, there’s a lot of opportunities. So it intrigued me as an entrepreneur.
What has been the biggest challenge you have faced?
It has really been a series of impossible challenges that we have had to overcome. The first challenge was getting our Federal license. Health Canada likes to see expensive labs and equipment when reviewing sites. Willow Weed had a licensing budget of $15K and had to be creative when it came to large outlays. Our creative approach, together with a few painstaking Health Canada agents, is why it took eight months to get our license. David and I did all the work ourselves which kept costs down.
”Growing cannabis on a commercial scale had a series of different challenges such as finding the right genetics, soil, growing equipment, etc… We have almost lost the whole crop at least a few times.
The clones arrived wilted and damaged in the mail, a wind/rain storm toppled our greenhouse, and transplant shock from exposure to the sun for the first time are just a few of the close calls. Fortunately, we have had a successful crop and have begun harvesting (the real work). I am sure harvest, and eventually selling, will have its own set of challenges. Perseverance and ingenuity are essential to be successful in the cannabis industry.
How are you situated in the supply chain?
The supply chain is in its infancy and we have to forge our own vertical to market. Currently, Willow Weed is a wholesaler of outdoor craft cannabis. We do not have a processing or sales license (like many licensed producers) and depend on companies that can process our product to be ready for market and then sell to the provinces (eg. OCS). When looking for a buyer, I needed to find someone who appreciates craft cannabis.
”The market is flooded with low quality factory kush right now. If wholesalers do not have a niche and a respectable brand they will struggle.
We are currently dealing with three processors that we believe will be the right home for our product. Hopefully you will be able to buy our product off legal shelves in three or four provinces in the coming months.
If you could change one of the current Canadian or American marketing restrictions on cannabis, which would it be?
I think change, in general, is necessary for the success of this industry. The marketing regulations are creating an awareness issue for legal customers. The flower that Willow Weed is growing is grossly superior to the products that Canopy or WeedMD is offering. Yet when you take into account the packaging, the provincial displays (online and in retail), and the regulations prohibiting marketing, Willow Weed’s product may not appear to be all that different when the customer finally puts it in their cart. The onus is on the customer to do their research, something which obscurely benefits large corporations and puts micros at a disadvantage. In America, the packaging regulations are a lot more liberal and outdoor craft cannabis is differentiated clearly.
”I would also like to see regulation changes in regards to microbial limits, processing licenses and farmgate sales.
For all of these, the rules are unreasonably strict. Tamara Follet says that the Health Canada “requirements are so egregiously excessive, that it suggests a purpose-built obstacle to prevent market entry for small growers.”
What is Willow Weed’s marketing plan?
Having unique genetics, a consistent, high caliber product, and demonstrating effective and lawful business practices are perhaps the best forms of marketing from within the industry. As I said, Willow Weed is situated to sell B2B and is therefore not overly concerned with the end-consumer marketing. This is mostly due to not having a direct way to market and white-labeling. However, it is important to build brand awareness for when we work our way up the supply chain. We are currently operating an Instagram Page to this effect. The Health Canada list of licensed producers is a valuable marketing tool for B2B cannabis partnerships. I am listed as “Jacob Saffer-Spiro”. Processors have either found me through this database, other online articles or my website willowweed.ca. We also hope to be included in the marketing campaigns that processors run to promote our bud. Consumers want to know the story behind their cannabis and these campaigns will help consumers understand that our product is more than just a drug.
Are there any other Trailblazers in the cannabis industry that you follow?
I consider most shareholders of the industry to be a trailblazer because Canada’s legalization of cannabis is still so new and unprecedented. Specifically, my consultant Tamara Follett, founder of SunLeaf Farmacy is my guiding star.
There are so few outdoor micro-cultivators in Canada. It is a tight-knit community and we all are facing the same challenges. Together we have to blaze a trail for each other which includes sending complaints to Health Canada, answering each other’s questions, and sharing secrets.
What is one tip or piece of advice you would give to others looking to enter the cannabis industry?
The cannabis industry is not exempt from basic business fundamentals. A business plan that solves a problem and identifies your value proposition within a niche should be your starting point. The business plan should put equal emphasis on licensing, growing, harvesting, and selling. Many people put too much emphasis and focus on the Health Canada license and not enough on how they’re going to be profitable or grow cannabis. Do what you enjoy, find a niche, solve a problem!
A big thank you to Jacob for participating as this week’s Trailblazer! Stay tuned for another interview with a cannabis marketing Trailblazer next Thursday in the ADCANN blog.
Interested in working with one of these talented cannabis marketers? Check out our Agency Directory for a list of all the agencies that specialize in working with cannabis companies.
Last Updated on October 15, 2020 by ADCANN