Event planner turned cannabis industry entrepreneur Paul Warshaw, founder and CEO of GreenRush, shares his curious career trajectory, the edge provided by this unique background and thoughts on the intersection of legal marijuana and the events world.
Briefly share your experience as an event planner.
It’s what I did for the last almost 15 years, before I got into the cannabis industry. I started a company five years ago called Ball Drop—the largest producer of New Year’s Eve events in the [U.S.]. We produce everything from 200-person events in a hotel lounge to a 2,500-person event at a nightclub in Times Square. On New Year’s Eve, we’re servicing about 50,000 people in one evening throughout New York City—and we do everything from event production to staffing to…we built our own proprietary ticketing technology, marketing, fulfillment, customer service. So it ended up being a full-service New Year’s Eve event production company that’s now on its sixth New Year’s Eve. So while we were an event company, our core was we were really great at technology and marketing. That’s sort of what tied everything together—having our own proprietary ticketing technology and being able to acquire new customers to attend our events was the glue for the entire business. So while I was doing production of events, my core competency was always around marketing and technology for the events industry.
How did that technology and events background help you transition to GreenRush?
Absolutely. I know it’s sometimes hard for people to wrap their head around, but it’s a very similar business in the sense of it’s tech and marketing being leveraged to acquire, in the events industry customers and in the cannabis industry—because we’re focused on the medical space—acquiring new patients. So it’s a very similar transition in the sense that we’re offering this online experience and it’s supported by really good technology marketing. So all of the stuff I’ve been doing for 15 years on the tech and marketing side in the events space has really been paying big dividends and leveraging a lot of that experience in cannabis. We’re planning on using our event experience to produce events and experiences to help market and support GreenRush, which is a part of the business we haven’t even rolled out yet—right now, we’ve really just been focusing on building a really good patient experience on the technology side and now we’re starting to do some aggressive marketing campaigns to bring new patients onto the platform.
Are there other opportunities in the cannabis industry that you believe lend themselves to people with planning backgrounds?
So cannabis is, while it’s medical, it’s also a very social activity. People do like to medicate with friends and share experiences so I do believe there’s a big opportunity for social clubs and cafes and lounges [pending proper licenses], but I think it’s a cultural shift and being able to aggregate people that share this interest there is an opportunity…
As a good example, there’s something that was launched a number of years ago called the 420 Games—cannabis enthusiasts get together and do all of these activities and stuff outdoors… I’m starting to see more and more of these gatherings and clubs and leagues. I think there’s a huge opportunity to combine the cannabis industry with the event planning space—but it’s got a ways to go. And it doesn’t always have to be about actually medicating at these events…it could be education, it could be sharing stories, it could be similar interests, so I’m starting to see a lot more of these types of events.
Another good example: About a year ago there was a “getting baked” sale and it was a bake sale but all cannabis-infused products and you had to be a medical marijuana patient in order to attend, and you get to walk around and purchase and try all sorts of different cannabis-infused products, some of it’s very gourmet and unique, there are chefs cooking different dishes… It’s amazing all the different, cool stuff that’s going on around us, especially in California, for the cannabis industry.
What kinds of events do you envision as GreenRush enters the events space?
Absolutely experiential. Where there’s a huge opportunity is opening up the education of cannabis to a more mainstream audience. I think if you were to go to things like the Cannabis Cup and Hemp Con and Emerald Cup—these are events that have been going on for years and they have a very strong following and are very successful events, but it’s sort of the old school cannabis mentality, the people have been attending for years… I believe the opportunity is tapping into a new demographic, the business professional, the grandmother, the senior that has glaucoma or arthritis or issues that cannabis really helps with… For me, the most exciting part of doing events around cannabis is really tapping into [this] new demographic…and creating experiences—for example, renting out a restaurant and having 25 patients come and have a cannabis chef cook a fully cannabis-infused meal with pasta and fish and meat…a real meal…and it’s not like you’re coming to get totally stoned, you’re coming for this cannabis-infused experience and it’s about coming for education and trying new stuff. That’s where I feel the opportunity really lies.
Do you see a lot of growth for GreenRush?
I’ve worked at big companies, small companies, Fortune 500 companies, and I’ve never been a part of something so cutting edge, so new with so much opportunity: We’re sort of creating a new industry, so I’m really thankful to be a part of it and contribute when we can. A lot of the patients that we help connect dispensaries with, they really are not well enough to leave their home or they don’t want to travel an hour to get cannabis. So there is a lot of good that gets lost…we are helping sick people feel better. That makes it a little more exciting for me on a personal level.
[Cannabis use] has become more and more accepted. I think there’s still a stigma around the industry, and part of that is the federal scheduling of cannabis. So I think until the feds play ball…that’s when, I think, the more buttoned-up people, investors, big business, are going to start to get involved. There’s so much opportunity that I think the real players haven’t even stepped into the arena yet, they’re sort of waiting for this federal scheduling to change and the banking to change and then you’ll see a big shift. Even today, I have friends that quit investment banking jobs that were making $5-$10 million a year to start up an investment fund in cannabis. Over the last six months people you’d never think in a million years would ever want to get into the cannabis industry are starting to get involved. When I was first approached with it, I laughed, but I was uneducated. As I got educated, it quickly became pretty attractive.
I think now, people’s eyes are open, when they see the numbers that Colorado has put up in tax dollars—for a small, little state—is going to turn a lot of people on to it.