“No one likes to pay interest. But if you can come in and buy your raw materials COD for a 25% discount and you pay a 2.5% monthly interest for 2 months (5% total) then you just saved 20%!”
Since its inception, whatever that means for different states, the legal cannabis industry has grappled with financing challenges, especially gaining access to non-dilutive and scalable capital. Traditional financial institutions have shied away from financing the industry for as long as cannabis remains illegal at the federal level. In this interview, Judson Hill takes us through his journey into financing the legal cannabis industry as he shares deep insights into the exclusive role that fintech will play in providing seamless B2B and B2C transactions across the entire cannabis supply chain.
Judson is the head of revenue at Bespoke Financial, the premier fintech lender with a focus on funding the future of cannabis. To date, Bespoke has financed more than half a billion dollars in GMV for its clients and expects to do over $1 billion in 2022. By partnering with Bespoke, 90% of clients have secured larger lines of credit today than when they first started, allowing operators to continue building scale.
As an intro, how did your career path lead you to the cannabis industry?
Prior to cannabis, I worked in the fashion and eCommerce space building sales organizations for both brands and startups disrupting the traditional retail industry. Living in Los Angeles in the early 2010s, I had a front-row seat to the developing medical cannabis industry and as a consumer, I started to see clear correlations between fashion and cannabis.
There was a developing supply chain with flowers now being broken down into products such as 1/8ths, pre-rolls, vape carts, and edibles which were then branded and sold to retailers similar to any clothing brand. A friend of mine named Tuna, who was a legacy cultivator, asked for my help branding his blunts and selling them to dispensaries. We then created “Tuna Rolls!”
From there, I was determined to find my footing in the industry. Fortunately, I was friends with the partners of Casa Verde Capital, one of the first VCs focused on investing in cannabis businesses. I became the Director of Sales at one of their portfolio companies in 2017 which allowed me to learn the newly developed recreational cannabis regulations and meet all the major players entering the legal market in year one.
My passion is on the brand side so in 2018 I began working with my friend who was the founder of one of the first pre-roll brands, Higgs. I helped him launch the brand into the recreational market via a licensing deal. I became a partner in this company and was leading the sales efforts as we expanded into retailers across CA which is where I learned the difficulties operators experience in terms of accessing capital in a cash-only industry. Experiencing this pain point firsthand led me to Bespoke Financial which was just in its infancy and sought to alleviate this working capital constraint for cannabis operators by launching the first lending platform specifically for our industry.
Briefly introduce Bespoke Financial and the unique role that the company is playing in the cannabis industry
Bespoke provides revolving lines of credit for cannabis operators to access non-dilutive and scalable capital. Our lending products alleviate working capital constraints that have been so prevalent in this cash-intensive industry. Since until recently, little to no lenders were willing to work with these businesses.
Now that we have 3 years of lending experience, Bespoke has a number of real-life success stories as you can see from our client list being a who's who of top cannabis brands. Our lending products have allowed these companies to scale and become profitable which has been elusive for most of the industry. For example, our client Jeeter has worked with us for almost 3 years now and has gone from a relatively unknown pre-roll brand in 2018 to the top-selling pre-roll brand in the US in 2021.
We currently offer 5 solutions that allow clients to access capital in a variety of ways based on their needs and position in the supply chain: a General Line of Credit, Inventory Financing (paying our clients' vendors), PO Financing, AR Invoice Financing, and Dispensary Financing (paying retailers' vendors for finished goods.)
The cannabis industry is beset with humongous financial challenges such as an unreasonable cost of capital and obligations that are as high as 30-40%. Can you share some of the biggest frustrations that your customers encounter on the regular in relation to this?
I think the biggest challenge is simply the lack of access to any non-dilutive capital. With the emergence of Bespoke and other cannabis-specific lenders, this is gradually changing. Now it is more about educating cannabis entrepreneurs about the options available and how to leverage the debt to increase their purchasing power. No one likes to pay interest but if you can come in and buy your raw materials COD for a 25% discount and you pay a 2.5% monthly interest for 2 months (5% total) then you just saved 20%!
Bespoke is constantly working to make it even easier for cannabis operators to access our revolving lines of credit as you can see by our recent partnership with PayQwick which was featured in Forbes. Our aim here is to create a one-stop-shop for cannabis compliant banking and lending services.
In your opinion, will transitioning the industry to a cashless and cardless system (fintech) solve the financial challenges in the legal cannabis industry?
Cannabis and technology have a very interesting relationship where this is really the first new industry being built in the modern technological age. So we are seeing creative solutions to operators' challenges built in real-time. In terms of fintech, most of the developments to date have been focused on the consumer payment side as you refer to. The fact that retailers can only accept cash payments or a variety of debit card workaround solutions has been a huge pain point. I think the cashless and cardless systems you refer to will help de-risk the industry by moving operators away from running cash businesses that open them up to theft and make it very hard to track funds.
At Bespoke, we are excited to be one of the only businesses focusing on creating fintech solutions that service B2B transactions that are more up the supply chain. Our lending products allow cannabis operators to pay their vendors to bring in raw materials without coming out of pocket. Now we have integrated our lending platform with metrc (state compliance software) which allows our clients to choose to finance a PO at the push of a button!
I think the combination of B2B solutions and the consumer-facing retail solutions you mentioned will significantly alleviate the financial challenges of our industry.
The SAFE Banking Act. Do you think that it will tackle the financing problems in the legal cannabis industry?
This is a great step in the right direction as it will allow more banks to start working with cannabis operators. As I mentioned, there are a number of credit unions and local banks in legal cannabis markets that already bank these businesses. Once the federal government gives banks the green light then I'd expect much more traditional banks and therefore rates + services to be available to cannabis operators. That would be an obvious win and would help solve many problems!
The banking challenges in the industry mean that cannabis companies remain susceptible to illicit activities. How can this problem be tackled?
The long-term solution here is federal legalization but obviously, we all know that will take time and many of the current bills proposed are flawed so I am not saying we should simply pass the existing legislation.
In the meantime, we always require our clients to work with a cannabis-compliant bank so they move away from a cash-intensive business model and have the security of knowing their account won't get shut down.
The future of lending in the cannabis industry; what does this look like?
Our thesis has always been more of “when debt financing will be widely used” vs. if it will. Bespoke is excited to provide access to non-dilutive capital for all-size operators as we aim to empower these entrepreneurs to scale their businesses without losing ownership. We are currently focused on enhancing our online lending platform to make it easier for operators to access capital and building out fintech partnerships with other software platforms to embed our financing into systems that are already facilitating transactions across the supply chain.
We look at federal legalization as inevitable as well. I'd anticipate federal legalization happening anywhere in the next 2 to 5 years but the actual rollout of federal regulations will not happen overnight. The fact that Bespoke already has 3 years of lending experience and knowledge positions us very well for when other institutional investors begin to dip their toes into cannabis over the upcoming years. Bespoke has been a trailblazer in this space and we are excited about the continued normalization of our industry.
What's next for Bespoke Financial? Are you looking to expand into new markets?
Partnerships and expanding our client base amongst retailers are big initiatives of ours this year!
I spoke about the PayQwick partnership that we recently launched and we have a couple more that are signed and will be announced over the upcoming months that allow us to make it easier for cannabis operators to access Bespokes capital. We are working to be the fintech solution that provides financing across the supply chain wherever a transaction occurs!
On the retail front, we have made a super easy application process for dispensaries to get pre-qualified for a line of credit within 48 hours! Then we can finance a store's POs which we have seen allows them to negotiate COD discounts and actually increase their margins despite the financing fee. That makes this product a no-brainer where everyone is winning- the vendor is paid on time and the retailer has more purchasing power + better margins!
We are always looking at new markets as they turn on but currently we service 14 of the largest cannabis markets so we are able to lend in most states and the newer states (NJ, NY, etc.) take some time to get set up and mature to a point where the businesses are actually revenue-generating.
It was a great pleasure to have this conversation with Judson Hill. Readers who wish to keep up with how Bespoke Financial is transforming the industry are welcome to visit their website.