At a time in our nation’s history when we could very well see the federal legalization of marijuana happen within the next couple of years, MERCHtender gives the “moms and pops” of cannabis farmers, distributors, and brands a boost by helping them to better connect with their customers and each other.
Created by Jean Rousseau and Sean Knight, two friends who share a love for technology, cannabis, and branding, MERCHtender was born at the height of the pandemic. Over 1,000 miles apart and only seeing each other in person once in two years due to COVID restrictions, Jean and Sean are providing resources and support that could soon be overrun by Big canna-Business.
MERCHtender was originally intended to guide canna brands through everything from concept and branding to merchandise manufacturing and promotion.
“To boil it down to its essence, it’s like ‘you do flower, we’ll do merch’,” Jean explains, clarifying MERCHtender as a ‘non-flower touching’ business, “The merch stuff is a full-time undertaking, and it’s shocking how so few brands have merch figured out. We realize that brands are all spending more money and time than they probably have the ability to. We think that that process can be simplified for them by working with us and making us a part of their team.”
“We initially explored it more from the B2B side, thinking that the service would really be just us behind-the-scenes working with the brands,” Jean continues, “And then we had an epiphany: once we’ve created this merchandise for these brands, how about we also help them sell these items?”
And the concept for an actual on demand marketplace, the MERCHtender marketplace, was born. On demand means no minimum order requirements, no set-up fees, no inventory and no shipping to manage.
Now, MERCHtender is a fully realized “merchandise solution,” offering canna brands a variety of promotional, non-flower merchandise—from branded rolling papers to coffee mugs to apparel—as well as providing a space for cannabis aficionados and fans to purchase from their favorite brands and discover new ones.
A long-term resident of Santa Monica, California, Jean Rousseau gained a love for brand development while working for Virgin Records America. He took his passion for development and co-founded PwrdBy, a next-generation tech development company for non-profits and mission-driven organizations. Around this time, Jean also became immensely interested in what was taking place with the opioid epidemic in the U.S.
My anecdotal experiences around cannabis long ago convinced me that this vilified and greatly misunderstood plant is here to help and heal, versus being used as a baton to conduct the failed War On Drugs and as a reason to incarcerate so many people of color.”
Sean Knight was already a veteran in merchandise manufacturing at the time of MERCHtender’s conception. Sean had previously owned a screen print facility in Vermont, working with hundreds of brands including Ben & Jerry’s.
Sean’s manufacturing experience eventually led him to open one of the first online t-shirt shops in the early 90’s. He eventually moved to Humboldt County, California to help a friend with their cannabis farm, and has been involved with the cannabis community and non-profit endeavors since.
Apart from being the creative and design-focused force within MERCHtender, Sean is also the founder of The Yak Group, a website design and development platform for the cannabis industry, and is a co-host of Hotboxing in Humboldt, a podcast that focuses on cannabis strains, breeders, and farmers.
Check it out: Listen to all available episodes of Hotboxing in Humboldt here.
Sharing an interest in mission-driven efforts focused on community and firmly believing in marijuana as the plant-based alternative to addictive, synthetic prescription drugs, both Jean and Sean hope to see marijuana deregulated, decriminalized, and better integrated into our society. They also both hope to see MERCHtender as a major player in the visibility and accessibility of the cannabis industry.
The motivation behind MERCHtender stems from Jean and Sean’s deep understanding and appreciation for cannabis culture. Both men are passionate about not only developing within the industry but also preserving the cultural history surrounding cannabis.
Our business is a highly regulated business,” Jean says. “We feel for our brand partners. Every day, the people who are working in this industry are under much more duress and pressure than people realize. That’s why we want to be a smooth, ideal brand partner for them.”
“There are generational farmers and cultivators, people who’ve been going for multiple generations, and we really think it’s important to preserve what they’ve been doing all these years,” Jean adds.
Despite the new industry booms, MERCHtender remains intent on being advocates for the smaller operations and mom-and-pop shops. “Big businesses [are] rolling in…It’s important to help [the little guys] any way that we can,” Sean adds.
In the face of the shifting climate, MERCHtender takes a stand. With cannabis operations becoming commonplace so rapidly, Jean and Sean believe now is the time to take a stand on behalf of small operations everywhere. “There’s always something changing, and it’s moving fast. It’s an emerging industry, and it’s not going anywhere,” Sean says.
Whatever changes continue in the cannabis industry across the world, MERCHtender is poised to tackle them without compromising its values.
During their search months ago for the right CRM for their new venture, Jean and Sean tested out several platforms including HubSpot, Copper, Monday, and Cannabiz Media, a canna-centric CRM that comes pre-loaded with cannabis industry leads.
Sean, who admits that at one time he was “anti-computer,” reminisces on the paper systems he used prior to CRM adoption for his earlier businesses. He draws parallels between his three-months-out wall calendar and ceiling tiles—yes, ceiling tiles—containing pushpins and index cards with lead information to his now fully fleshed and automated Nutshell account.
I had a whole card system, and that was my whole Nutshell, right there. My management tool was literally ceiling tiles because they make good pinboards. There would be four or five ceiling tiles right in front of me. It was old school, right?”
“We probably spent about four, five weeks going through all the different CRMs,” Sean reveals, as he and Jean listed off the various CRM platforms they had trialled. “We were trying to find the right fit for us, for the stage that we’re at as a small startup with the ability to grow. If we did have a fast growth rate, you know, could we scale with the product?”
Already heavily utilizing Airtable, they even considered custom-developing features they sought from an ideal CRM into their own platform. But as Sean so elegantly puts it, “We would’ve just been rebuilding what you guys have already built, so it didn’t make sense. You guys checked all the boxes.”
“For me, Nutshell was straightforward, but watching your [knowledge base] videos was great,” Sean said. “Just having that knowledge the first few weeks, lightbulbs were constantly going off. Every time we had those lightbulb moments in Nutshell, we kept nerding out on how much we liked it!”
Expressing admiration in the use of a few Nutshell features—such as customizing the dashboard to see what was most important upon logging in each day, creating and changing sales processes as needed to fit their workflow, and using internal tracking of all outreach communication to see if their marketing efforts were effective in directing attention to their website—Jean spoke on how Nutshell’s tools are setting the course for MERCHtender’s future.
“We’ve opened ourselves up to the industry in the last few months utilizing Nutshell, and it’s been a big success for us. We’re seeing how the data is coming in, how it’s being siloed using Nutshell’s extremely powerful filtering features. These are tools that we need to connect with our brand partners as well as our marketplace customers.”
Both founders are excited about MERCHtender growing, adding to their team of account managers or “MERCHtenders”, as they’ll be titled, in the near future and using Nutshell to cultivate that growth, both internally and externally.
“Right now, it’s just the two of us, so there’s a lot of ease in making modifications and changes,” Jean continues, “But we feel very strongly about our ability to create a process that, ultimately, we can have others adopt fairly quickly. That’s our goal. We’re creating a Nutshell that makes sense, not just ourselves but for our team as we grow.”
So what’s next for MERCHtender as they continue to add brands to their marketplace? Solidifying their own tech stack to use as a resource for other cannabis brands and building a grander team.
Aside from the catalog of promotional items and the opportunity to feature up-and-coming cannabis brands within their marketplace, what Jean and Sean are most passionate about is building 1:1 experience between cannabis brands and their own personal merchandise tender. The founders are hoping that providing this type of built-in membership management will benefit companies of all sizes, eliminating the need for those companies to hire their own merchandising teams or even CRM specialists. This would provide the companies under their merch program with more time to focus on other aspects of their products, brand, and growth.
Having come this far in less than two years, from conception to successful merchandise solution, it isn’t hard to imagine that MERCHtender could very well be a future driving force behind the marriage of the cannabis industry and tech.
“What I’m most proud of is that a year later, we’re here,” Jean reflected. “We were able to build a company in the heart of the pandemic—remotely, from great distances. We were able to utilize technology to help us do that. We were able to bridge our challenges and differences, and come up with a company that’s receiving really positive feedback. It’s very, very rewarding.”
Editor’s note: During the interview with MERCHtender, Jean and Sean were both asked what their favorite cannabis strain currently is. For Jean, it’s East Mill Creek Farm’s “Mother’s Milk.” For Sean, Mattole Valley Sungrown’s “Papaya Punch.”
Hero image photo credit goes to Chantele Leatherwood.
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