(Above photo: Sean Dollinger)
By Nicole Knight, California Business Journal
Tech giants Apple, Amazon.com and Google — to name a few — were all launched out of a lowly garage.
Yet it’s a rare start-up that begins when two partners sit down to vape a cannabis flower.
That’s the story behind Namaste Technologies, a multi-national enterprise that has achieved a market capitalization of $1 billion since it went public just four years ago.
Today, the online platform for ‘all things cannabis’ has amassed 1.5 million users — even as it enters new markets and acquires AI technologies to prime for growth in the explosive cannabis sector.
The brainchild of entrepreneurs Sean Dollinger and Kory Zelickson, the venture’s birth can be traced back to an “A-ha” moment several years ago in Dollinger’s Winnipeg home. Dollinger was freshly returned from a trip to Laguna Beach, Calif., where his father had turned him onto the game-changing potential of vaporizers. Dollinger brought one home to Canada. The co-founders popped in a dry cannabis flower to give it a try.
“I was like, Oh my god, it’s amazing,” Zelickson recalls. “What really blew me away was the flavor. It tasted like the smell of the plant, and that was unique.”
Already partners in e-commerce ventures for over a decade, Zelickson and Dollinger literally smelled opportunity.
“I said, ‘wow these are amazing products,’” Zelickson remembers. “And Sean said, ‘Why don’t we go ahead and start selling these vaporizers and see how it goes.’”
The new venture had a ready-set blueprint because the two partners were already selling products online internationally.
“We basically followed the same model,” notes Zelickson, an engineer by training. “We took our vaporizer site, which was called Namaste Vapes, and then we launched that website in the U.K., we launched it in Italy, we launched it in Germany, in Australia,” he explains. “So pretty quickly there was a lot of head-turning in the space because nobody had seen a company come out with 15 different websites in three months and all in different countries.”
Soon, the team was flooded with orders. Ten orders turned into 100, then 1,000.
“We had no idea it was going to blow up the way it did,” Zelickson recalls. “When we started the company, we were shipping vaporizers from Sean’s garage. I never imagined we’d have the company and the amazing team we have now.”
‘Your Everything’ Cannabis Store
Fast forward a few years and Namaste Technologies is now one of the world’s biggest and most comprehensive cannabis-focused e-commerce platforms. Its 32 online storefronts reach into 20 countries. As the legalization movement has gain a foothold, Namaste has seized the opportunity to crossover from cannabis-related accessories to cannabis sales in existing markets.
Given its massive user base, Zelickson says the platform is uniquely poised to capture new opportunities.
“As things progress in this industry, we’ll be able to leverage our database in countries to monetize cannabis legalization globally,” he notes. “We’re already successful in creating the largest global marketplace for cannabis hardware. So what we want to do now is be the biggest and best online retailer for actual cannabis. We want to be ‘your everything’ cannabis store.”
To that end, Namaste recently landed a first-of-its-kind sales license in Canada. It’s a crucial milestone in the platform’s move to make Cannmart, its online site, the leader for medical cannabis in that country. The Cannmart’s license frees Namaste to sell medical cannabis products online, sourced from many local licensed producers.
Dollinger and Zelickson are spending the next 8 to 10 months building a supply network of Canadian craft growers to secure “an incredible quality of product that might not be available through other channels,” Dollinger says. “That’s really what’s going to differentiate us.”
Technology to Cultivate Happy Customers
Namaste is investing in technology to smooth the way for Canadian customers to consult with doctors for free with the NamasteMD app. With the rollout of the Uppy Cannabis Journal — an app where users record their feedback on various cannabis strains — and the AI technology gained in Namaste’s recent acquisition of the tech company, Findify, Namaste aims to custom-tailor the user experience to match the ideal strain to the customer’s condition.
And while AI is gaining traction in other sectors, Zelickson believes Namaste is “the first company that’s going to be using AI with machine learning in cannabis specifically.”
The investment pencils out for Zelickson, who sees enormous growth potential in medical cannabis.
“Whether it comes from pharmaceutical products that are infused with cannabinoids or clinical research around treatment with cannabis for various conditions, it’s a very exciting industry,” he observes.
Zelickson and Dollinger do not forget it’s a tricky dance to drive new growth and technological innovation without sacrificing customer satisfaction. They say they never forget Namaste’s humble origins — and the lesson that success is built one customer at a time. Even now, co-leading a $1-billion enterprise, they remain hands on.
“Today, if somebody in the U.K. buys a vaporizer and has a bad experience and posts a bad review, I’ll literally get on the phone and resolve the issue,” Zelickson notes. “At the end of the day, the most important thing is keeping customers happy.”
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