Editor's note: This article is part of Inc.'s 2015 Best Industries report.
In the beginning, Pete Williams grew medical marijuana in his basement. He grew strains with names like White Widow and Sour Diesel, and it was good. Eventually, Pete's older brother Andy joined him and the business soon became too big for the basement. Five years later, Medicine Man is one of the largest and most successful cannabis dispensaries in the state of Colorado. With two retail locations, one in Denver and the other in Aurora, the company produced 7,000 pounds of pot and made $8 million in revenue in 2014.
The Williams brothers--along with their sister, Sally Vander Veer, who helped with Medicine Man's launch and came on as CFO in 2013--are one of the many success stories in Colorado's $1.5 billion legal weed industry. According to a report by Convergex Group, the state's 300 licensed marijuana businesses generated $350 million in revenue in 2014, a figure that's expected to grow by 20 percent this year.
Out of the basement.
In 2008, the recession crippled Pete's custom tile business. After 18 years of marriage, he and his wife got divorced, and he needed to make money to support his two children. A friend gave him 16 pot plants, each one small enough to fit inside a Dixie cup, and told him there's good money in "caregiving," or growing weed for medical patients. A born tinkerer, Pete built a complex grow system incorporating hydroponics and aeroponics techniques. That first year, he made $100,000 out of his basement selling to dispensaries.
President Obama declared state-legalized medical cannabis a "low priority" for law enforcement the following year. That's when Andy came down to the basement with a plan. "I'll be the businessman and you be the green thumb," Andy, now the president and chief executive of Medicine Man, remembers telling Pete.
With a loan of just over a half-million dollars from their mother, the brothers leased a 20,000-square-foot space in a warehouse in Denver's Montbello neighborhood and built a state-of-the-art hydroponics-based system. At that time, the brothers were selling wholesale, but in December 2010 a new law was enacted requiring cannabis growers to sell their product directly to customers. Andy and Pete built a dispensary in the front of the warehouse and ceased their wholesale business.
By 2013 Medicine Man was able to buy the warehouse and had generated $4 million in revenue. But with the legalization of recreational marijuana on the horizon, Andy knew the company needed to raise more money to expand their grow facility and up production in preparation for a spate of new customers. He pitched cannabis angel investor network ArcView Group in California and secured $1.6 million in funding.
"Andy was the right entrepreneur at the right time for an investment opportunity. At the end of the day, it's clear Andy thought all the way through the pieces of the puzzle," says ArcView CEO Troy Dayton. (Neither Dayton nor ArcView is a Medicine Man investor.) "In a nascent industry, companies get traction not only when they are early but when they are a great business and composed of great people--Andy has both."
On January 1, 2014, the first day sales of recreational marijuana were officially legal, Medicine Man sold 15 pounds of pot and made close to $100,000. Meanwhile Pete, Andy, and Sally have been looking ahead to a day when cannabis becomes legal nationwide. To ensure another revenue stream, the trio created Medicine Man Technologies, a consulting firm that offers turnkey packages to entrepreneurs who want to start pot business. Medicine Man Technologies, which has helped clients build medical facilities in New York, Illinois, Florida, and Nevada, will become a publicly traded company on the over-the-counter market this summer.
The challenges of being a potpreneur.
In spite of the safe haven Colorado has created, pot businesses still face at least two major hurdles: First, until major banks decide it's safe to bring on marijuana clients, the businesses must deal exclusively in cash. Medicine Man, which says it brought in $50,000 a day in December, has had to invest heavily in security measures. Its two locations are equipped with a total of more than 100 cameras trained inside and out, as well as bulletproof glass and doors. The company has also hired security company Blue Line Protection Group to supply armed guards for the dispensaries and warehouses, and armored trucks to run money from the safe to pay bills, the government, and vendors.
Cannabusinesses also face extremely high taxes, in some cases exceeding 50 percent. But thanks to Pete's super-efficient grow operation, which produces a gram of marijuana for the comparatively low cost of $2.50, Medicine Man has been able to slash prices for the customer while staying profitable--so even after the state takes its cut, the company's margins are 30 to 40 percent, Sally says.
It's easy to look at the Williamses, or watch them on MSNBC's reality show Pot Barons of Colorado, and believe they have the life. The trio seem to be sitting on top of the Mile High City's legal weed industry, but they didn't get up there without personal sacrifice. For example, Andy's decision to give up a stable job to launch Medicine Man cost him his marriage.
"One thing people don't understand is that the entrepreneurs who started the industry in Denver are pioneers in the truest sense. What it takes to be a pioneer is vision, the ability to see something, and the courage to go after it despite the risks," he says. "The risks weren't just about money--they were about our reputations, our freedom, and our families. People risked everything for it."
After years of dealing with all those risks and sacrifices, the Williamses now say they're ready to put their feet up and enjoy the rewards of building the "Costco of marijuana." The siblings are currently in talks with private equity firms regarding an acquisition. They put the current value of the 80-employee business at $30 million, and say it will bring in $15 to $18 million in revenue in 2015.
"We began this whole thing with an end game in mind," Pete says. "We're all in our late 40s and we don't want to work for the rest of our lives."
He adds that they're willing to sell their majority stake, but they'd like to hang on to 5 to 10 percent. "If we don't sell out, [an acquiring company] will buy our biggest competitor," he says. "If we hook up with the right people, Medicine Man can be a household name like Pepsi or Coke. [People will say,] 'Go get me a pack a Medicine Mans, honey.'"