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The Spark That Lit The Canna Version Of A Western Mass Bloom Brother

Photo courtesy of Nathan Girard (rt)

Interview: Nathan Girard of Lit Alerts and Bloom Brothers on his company’s “three-dimensional connection point between the retailer, the wholesaler, and the consumer

In order to begin to understand how Nathan Girard got to masterminding marijuana magic tricks for wholesalers to peek behind the curtains of dispensary menus to see sales and inventory data, it helps to know he kind of relishes the idea of returning to the bartending and bottle boy gig he had after college, and has seemingly never had too much fear of failing in business as a result.

Long before he co-owned the Bloom Brothers dispensary in Pittsfield with his wife Migdeliz and brothers Ben and Nick, or co-founded two software companies serving the cannabis industry, the Western Mass native was pouring cocktails around Boston circa 2006. Prior plans to do the finance thing were foiled after the head of the Hub firm that hired him fresh out of undergrad was indicted for white-collar chicanery, and so he worked three nights a week, and, at least figuratively speaking, enjoyed fewer headaches than he currently endures in the weed business. Not that he’s complaining.

Since that halcyon era, Girard has lived on both sides of the Bay State, boarded a billion-dollar rocket ship, returned to Earth, and bought and sold several properties. In a lengthy interview about his Forrest Gump-like pedigree and how his team is building tools like Lit Alerts that help more than just their own enterprises grow, he recalled every launch, handshake, and deal with the zeal of a moonwalker retracing his first trip to Mars. I edited Girard’s comments from our conversation and parsed them for clarity below …

From bar tips to startups … 

I come from the early days of Wayfair. Back in the day, when I graduated undergrad at Endicott up in Beverly, Mass, I was just literally trying to make ends meet, and I became a bartender. And I did pretty well for myself. I only worked three days a week, and I think I made more money bartending than I ever really did doing anything else.

Back then, Wayfair was CSN Stores. … And [Wayfair Co-Founder Niraj Shah] ended up being from Pittsfield, where I currently live and where I was originally from, and basically, he was like, Dude, we’re working out of a really small spot in [Boston’s] South End. And I wound up being the tenth employee who ever worked there. 

I kind of got my bones early with that company, and stuck around for a few years. Once they migrated over to Wayfair, I wanted to return back to the Berkshires and start the process of raising a family and everything, and coming back here I got into the real estate field. I took some of the money that I had been able to save in the Boston area, and that’s when I ran into another old friend of mine—a real estate broker. 

Crash and earn … 

This was like 2008 or 2009, when kind of everything had crashed, and he was basically like, You got a good personality … you can sell some real estate. Selling kind of teaches you a little bit about how to invest in real estate, because you’re doing it every single day and you’re seeing what stuff sells for. And I was like, Yeah, sure. New challenge, new thing, no problem. So I started working with a buddy of mine, Erik from Greylock Realty

I worked there for a few years, and eventually I kind of spun off on my own and I started a company called Royal Property Group. And what led me to cannabis is I would be buying transactional real estate, commercial real estate, residential real estate, whatever. In 2014, I officially opened the brokerage and bought a couple of buildings and started to run my own real estate company.

Pittsfield, open for business … 

Merrill Road in Pittsfield is a four-lane highway, with two lanes on either side. It’s where the local shopping plazas are, and gas stations, and it’s just a commercial corridor. And in 2018, recreational cannabis was just becoming a thing in Massachusetts. [The people of Massachusetts] had just voted on it in November [2016], and I had bought this building in October, right before the vote happened. 

Once the vote passed, the City of Pittsfield came out as one of the earliest adopters and pioneers in the state. And they were basically like, We are open for business. And from that point, I’m not gonna lie, my phone rang 50 times a day. … I had people calling from California, Canada, Thailand, Oregon … I think it really just boiled down to Pittsfield saying that they were open for business.

“Do we know what we’re getting ourselves into?”

I called a couple of lawyers that I had done a lot of real estate stuff with and they were like, We really don’t know anything about cannabis. The laws don’t even really exist. … Everybody had a story of how it will negatively impact you to go into the cannabis industry. But I was somebody that was like, Well, I’m gonna learn this stuff for myself.

My brother Nick [Girard] and I went off to California … searching for dispensary owners. We ended up getting in touch with a couple of people who were happy to give us behind-the-scenes tours because we weren’t their competition. … And I got to ask them questions like, If you could do this all over again, what are some changes you would make to your operation? And they were super open and honest with us, like, Listen, man, I did this back in 1998. I’ve been raided by my own government a dozen times. It was just people telling us these stories of misfortune. And we’re like, Damn, do we know what we’re getting ourselves into?

Good at being quick

[During the height of the COVID-19 pandemic] … We did curbside service [at Bloom Brothers] from Memorial Day to Thanksgiving in 2020. So we built this store, I spent all this money on building this beautiful destination, and people couldn’t even set foot inside of it. It was heartbreaking. But in those first eight months, we learned a lot about our salespeople and about our team and about our business and making people happy.

Curbside service felt like a drug deal. Every single one you were doing you were like, Shit, I feel like a drug dealer in a parking lot, slinging drugs in one window and taking payment out the other. It was crazy. But it taught us something about this industry. And we created really good demand because we were really good at it. We were good at being quick. Ninety seconds in and out of our parking lot. Even if you didn’t have a pre-order, we were still able to just get cars in and out—[after] we originally kind of cleared all the hurdles. 

I took it upon myself to just talk to other operators. I don’t consider myself a competitor of anybody. I try to be a collaborator.

ROI or it didn’t happen

With [the first tool his team developed], CannaVersions, we built it so that we could get access to abandoned [online retail dispensary shopping] carts. And I basically created this automated channel of just replying to a customer to say, Hey, you forgot something in your cart, whatever. You get it in every other industry, right?

CannaVersions is not there for you to be like, Hey, come into my shop for Wax Wednesdays. It’s literally just, You left something in this cart. Life happens. Shit happens. Come on back, it’ll be at this link and will be active for 24 hours. And we were getting click-throughs about 15% of the time, right back into the cart. And transactionally, if [the abandoned products] went back to the cart, [dispensaries] were converting 50% of that 15%.

I built the system based on showing the result. I am transparent because I’m the guy that’s sick of being taken advantage of by the Leaflys and the Weedmaps and everybody else saying [they are] responsible for 2% of your business. Eff you, you are not responsible for that amount of business. You have to show me [return on investment] for me to be able to spend with you.

So the ROI calculation on [CannaVersions] is, If you have 100 abandoned carts, and I can get 15 people to go back to their carts, that [adds] seven-and-a-half transactions additionally a day. That’s 200 transactions a month, and all I charge people is 5% of recovered revenue.

Problem first, solution second … 

In getting to know operators and being able to talk to decision makers, I would just literally would ask them, What’s the biggest problem you’re dealing with right now? One guy opened up to me in person, and he told me all about problems with his wholesale team. He’s like, I can’t track if my wholesale guy is going across the state and actually stopping at dispensaries. Either he’s stopping and we’re not getting any more business out of it, or he is just going into his buddy’s house and getting blasted all day.

[And then he said it took him] three hours to go through all the menus of all the retail [stores] they were in to figure out if they even had their product, and a frickin’ bell just goes off in my head. And I’m like, What would you pay if I did all of those mundane bullshit tasks? And then I just fed the data to your sales guy? And he said they tried [other platforms that offer similar functions], and they’re not accurate.

The Lit Alerts difference … 

With [the cannabis market data and supply chain software] Headset … there is an opt-in requirement [to allow the service] to track data … through your POS provider. … I made it very clear from the beginning with my team that we are not going to get [Application Programming Interface access which delivers a firehousefull of all data] for every single retailer we use. That’s never gonna happen. … So we basically built a system with Lit Alerts that tracks every single active menu that we can pull data from. 

Some people like it just because it gives them an email that shows them every single dispensary that ran out of their product. … Some people really like the map so they can see maybe they have a really big presence in Boston, or maybe they have a really big presence in Worcester, but their worst presence is in the Berkshires. We have people telling us that they’re looking at comparisons of five dispensaries, or five products that they’re competing directly against, and they can see the [competition’s] sales velocity versus their sales velocity, and they can look at stores that move a lot of that other Blue Dream one-gram preroll … even though [theirs] is testing higher and [they] can get it onto menus at a lower wholesale price point.

Some [other] systems that [wholesale cannabis businesses] use are just one dimensional, they solve a specific issue. Where we found that we are unique is that if someone comes to us with an idea, no matter how big or how small, we do it for them whenever I possibly can. … I want to provide data insight and analysis at a cost-effective price. So we don’t charge 3,000 bucks a month or anything crazy like that. I want your whole team to have access to this data, and for only 500 bucks a month.

On the challenges … 

We were originally crawling [every dispensary menu] like once a day, or twice a day, because it’s just such a heavy lift to crawl over hundreds and hundreds and hundreds [of dispensary pages]. It’s not even the crawling that is the lift, it’s the indexing of the information, and putting it all in a viewable format, a digestible format for our team to be able to say, Okay, was there a change in an out-of-stock [alert]? So we had to start building in some machine-based learning, because there are [for example] 1,000 different Blue Dream prerolls. And our system was trying to get smart with us and be like, No, no, these are all the same product. And they’re obviously not.

We’re like 20 months into this never-ending battle. It’s a war that can be won, but for now all we’re trying to do is provide our customers transparency. … We’re trying to build a system that’s smart, that meets the needs of our clientele and our user base, and we’re also trying to grow at a reasonable enough pace where, and I mean this in the kindest way, I don’t want to become a Dutchie with 6,000 clients that disappoints thousands of people. I would much rather be someone who has 250 respected, trusted clients that are getting the most out of this product and this product is helping them sell more of their product and build their brands in different markets. 

On what’s next … 

We have to master the eight or nine states that we are [currently] in before we dive in further [nationally].

Lit Alerts is a three-dimensional cube. Side number one is the side for the cultivators and the manufacturers—them getting all these out-of-stock alerts, being able to help them sell more product. Then there’s the second side, which is the retail side. Where the retailers get to look at a competitive analysis of their menu versus somebody else’s menu. You can look at someone down the street a half-a-mile away; you don’t want to be selling all the same product.

Side number three, which is going to be our biggest endeavor, is going to have a consumer end to it. The reason we call it Lit Alerts is that we want our consumers to go into our service and be able to favorite their favorite dispensaries and be able to sign up for back-in-stock alerts, price-change alerts, [alerts about] their favorite products. It’s like a three-dimensional connection point between the retailer, the wholesaler, and the consumer, where [the latter] can inform dispensaries directly through our app to basically be like, You have to bring this product back into your store.