Andy Joseph, 43, went from working on nuclear submarines for the U.S. Navy to engineering machines in his garage. Then the former military guy's Johnstown, Ohio-based business gained an unexpected following--in the booming legal cannabis industry.

--As told to Kate Rockwood

My friends joke that I'm the most knowledgeable non-stoner possible. I guess I'm a square. I tried pot once in high school and haven't done it since.

I went straight from high school to the Navy, where I operated nuclear propulsion plants on submarines. That helped pay for college. I started doing welding and fabrication on the side to make a few extra bucks. After I graduated, I got a job as an engineer and was promoted to management, but I missed getting my hands dirty. So I kept taking on side projects, working out of my garage.

I designed and built botanical extraction machines. They extract the oil from things like vanilla or cayenne or mint and make it into a concentrated flavoring. I was selling them all to one guy, who would sell them to the ultimate customer. I never had much exposure to the customer base.

By 2012, I was working almost every night and weekend. It was clear I had to choose between what had become two full-time jobs.

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When I went out on my own, I started working directly with customers. I started getting phone calls from people who seemed kind of coy, saying things like "I'm in California. I'm doing ... lavender." It never crossed my mind that they were dancing around something. Finally, one customer said he was doing lavender, and I said, "Wow, there's a lot of lavender in California." And he said, "Are you kidding me? We're doing pot."

Holy shit. I was so naive. I stammered my way through the rest of the phone call. Afterward, I told my wife, "I think the majority of these customers are selling pot," and she gave me this look like, "You're not serious, are you?" She just assumed I already knew that lavender was a code word for cannabis.

I decided early on to make a full commitment to the cannabis industry. It's an entrepreneur's dream: explosive growth, a pretty big market with potential to continue expanding, and a legal landscape that's just risky enough to keep the big boys out. Still, it took me six months before I had the balls to put the word cannabis on my website.

There are so many challenges to working in an industry that's coming up from underground. Most of my customers want to pay with cash. Fortunately, I've been able to find creative ways to use banking to prevent people from showing up at my house with $50,000 in cash.

Marijuana is illegal in Ohio, but even when I travel to meet potential customers on the coasts, I don't use it. I've had people look at me cross-eyed, like they're wondering if I'm a cop or a fed. But in my mind, even if pot were my thing, I'm not there to party--I'm there to do business.