This is a follow up story for Plain Jane. If you're interested in reading how they got started, published about 4 years ago, check it out here.
Hello again! Remind us who you are and what business you started.
I’m Lindsey Holthaus and I co-founded Plain Jane in 2018 with Evan Marshall. We’re a CBD brand based in Ashland Oregon. Many people are now familiar with hemp-derived CBD products due to the rapid explosion in CBD products. We manufacture and sell CBD hemp flower-based products including joints, cigarettes, flowers in jars, kief, moon rocks, and many more. Our first update was in 2018 when we 10xd our revenue in one year. By 2020 we doubled again in size to nearly 500K a month.
We decided in 2020, we should either take on investors or make a successful exit. After exploring our options we decided to sell the brand after 2 years in business.
Tell us about what you’ve been up to! Has the business been growing?
In our last update in 2019 we had 10xed our revenue in year 1 and we were at 250K a month in sales. By 2020 we had doubled that. Part of this was circumstantial. The pandemic had shut down most smoke shops and consumers moved more to online retailers. At the same time, we had a product that may help people feel more relaxed which many people desperately needed during such a chaotic time. Luckily we had already built a trusted brand by this time and had strong SEO when people went to search online.
Know when to keep going and when to let go.
Up until that point, we continued to put our energy and money into methods that helped build brand awareness and increase traffic. Here are the strategies we used to build a strong, authentic brand.
SEO: We’ve continued to improve in ranking for many industry-specific keywords. We’ve done this through both link building and organic traffic as traditional marketing routes are still a no-go for cannabis companies. News articles have been helpful for more organic traffic but they are harder to come by. Some tools I like to use for SEO are AHREFS, similar web, and Semrush.
Social Media: Instead of paying big celebrities to market our products we’ve used hundreds of micro “canna influencers” which are more affordable and more effective. The few times we played our hand with bigger-name celebrity influencers, the ROI was never worth it. We have built a solid following on our instagram and use that to market new products and build brand authenticity through social justice-focused posts thrown in.
Customer Satisfaction: You can have the best SEO in the world but if your product sucks then you won’t have returning customers. In a competitive field like ours, you can’t afford to be less than perfect. We work hard on building product lines around what consumers want. We’ve started adding topicals, edibles, and vapes as the flower market has become more competitive. We offer free samples to anyone interested in the product because we know the product can sell itself. I use Klaviyo for email campaigns and flows to keep engagement and conversion rates high. We manufacture almost all of our products in-house to keep a close eye on quality and have fewer supply issues. We use Zendesk for customer service and we use Trustpilot to monitor customer reviews and stay on top of any issues.
What have been your biggest lessons learned in the last year?
Starting (and selling) a business has taught me so much more than any University ever could. I feel like I am constantly learning lessons. Here are a few of the biggest lessons I’ve learned:
Nothing is certain: 2020 was an intense year. We were dealing with a pandemic which on one hand helped our eCommerce business but on the other hand hurt fulfillment because of the labor shortage. On top of a pandemic, a few weeks before the sale was finalized, a huge fire ripped through our town in Southern Oregon, destroying the homes and all the belongings of multiple employees. The fire was half a mile away from our production facility. In just a few minutes, everything we had worked so hard for could have been gone (yes we had insurance, which leads me to say: always have insurance). The laws are also constantly changing, at times conflicting, and difficult to keep up with.
Learn from Your Mistakes (fast): Have we made mistakes? Absolutely. We’ve switched our backend platform quite a few times to save money. The amount of money saved was never worth the headache of glitches on new platforms. I’ve personally taken too long to let people go instead of trusting my intuition as soon as I felt it. We started growing and realized after the first harvest that financially it didn’t make sense for us so after the first year we stopped. There are always going to be mistakes but learning quickly and not making the same ones twice is the important thing.
Patience: Running a business can be tough. The more you grow, the more tiny decisions that constantly need to be made. When we first started, we were small and there were only so many things that could be done. Now the work is never-ending, there is constantly something I could be doing to make the company better. Knowing that it never ends, I’ve had to learn patience with myself and with employees so that I can sustain it.
What’s in the plans for the upcoming year, and the next 5 years?
For the business, I think the plan is to continue as is but to focus on international expansion and gaining a larger foothold in edible and topicals. Evan is no longer with us but he’s working on some of his new projects for fun. I don’t necessarily have a 5-year plan, I take everything a few months at a time. I enjoy being creative and problem-solving so definitely in the next few years I’ll be coming up with my next business idea.
Have you read any good books in the last year?
- Parable of the Sower- Octavia Butler
- We Speak for Ourselves - D. Watkins
- The Plague - Camu (timely)
- Behind the Beautiful Forevers - Katherine Boo
- The Shame of the Prisons - Ben Bagdikian
- War Against All Puerto Ricans - N. Denis
Advice for other entrepreneurs who might be struggling to grow their business?
Know when to keep going and when to let go. We got lucky in that we were in a fast-growing market. Our sales picked up relatively early and we broke even early on (because we had to). Unless you’re heavy in R&D or a genuine tech startup, if your burn rate is increasing and you’re a year or more into the business you might want to consider a different route. With that being said, you can’t expect to make money right away, at least give yourself the 6 months to a year if you can afford it.
The other important thing is to know the economics of your company. Understand your COGS and how your pricing fits into the goal of the company (whether solely e-commerce or both e-commerce and brick and mortar). Let the data drive your decision-making. Know how much it costs to acquire each customer and their ltv. Not having a good grasp of your spending and wasting money can be the reason a potentially viable company fails. We took a few risks with money but always for just a few months and then reevaluated if it was worth it. Don’t make the mistake of hiring too many people too fast. When we started, the two of us were doing nearly everything from fulfillment to customer service. These things are important for bootstrapped companies but they are also important for well-funded companies, that’s where the most waste is possible.
The last thing is to pivot if you have to. Maybe your original idea isn’t a hit but you’ve built a strong base and some ancillary products or services might do better. Build around the customer. There were many times we had to pivot once we found out the preferences of our customers.
Are you looking to hire for certain positions right now?
Head of Brand Partnership Sales - looking to expand into more retail stores.
Where can we go to learn more?
If you have any questions or comments, drop a comment below!
Plain Jane has provided an update on their business!
Almost 3 years ago, we followed up with Plain Jane to see how they've been doing since we published this article.
Hey! 👋 I'm Pat Walls, the founder of Starter Story.
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