The cannabis plant; loved and revered by some, despised and loathed by others. To call this plant divisive is an understatement.
But if we look back through history, we can see that cannabis has always played an important role in the lives of humans — being used for medicinal, religious, and spiritual purposes. And in turn, we (the humans) have continued to cultivate and spread it. A co-evolution of sorts.
Unbeknownst to many, the relationship between cannabis and humans has been positive for the majority of the time we have co-existed together. It was really the 20th century that marked the beginning of our first big disagreement. We decided that cannabis might not be the friend we need. But even the best of friends sometimes fight; it’s how you resolve and move forward that’s important.
Fast forward to 2019. We have realized that we might have made an error in judgement when we told cannabis we didn’t want to be its friend anymore. But luckily, cannabis is forgiving and doesn’t hold a grudge. We are starting to rebuild this friendship; at the forefront of this are startups like Equilibria.
For companies like Equilibria, the science is crystal clear. Cannabis, and in particular Cannabidiol (CBD), has some very impressive health benefits. CBD has a good track record in treating ailments like depression, anxiety, and chronic pain. With this in mind, Equilibria developed a range of CBD-based creams and ingestibles, specifically for women. They have seen tremendous success, with their customer base continuing to grow exponentially.
We caught up with co-founder Marcy Capron Vermillion to learn about the challenges in founding a CBD startup — particularly one which uses WooCommerce. We also chatted about how they were using Metorik to better understand their data and make better data-driven decisions.
Cannabis’ turbulent history has meant that not everyone is 100% clear on all cannabis terminology. You would most likely be clear on what beer, vodka, and whiskey are. The same might not be true for cannabis, hemp, THC, and CBD.
So to ensure you have a smooth and enjoyable read of this post, let’s cover some important definitions.
Cannabis: Also known as marijuana, is a genus (biological classification) of flowering plants in the family Cannabaceae.
THC (Tetrahydrocannabinol): One of the 113 cannabinoids (and perhaps the most famous) currently identified in the Cannabis plant. This is the one that gives you the ‘high’ feeling.
CBD (Cannabidiol): Another of the cannabinoids identified in the Cannabis plant. This is the one known for its medicinal properties. And it does not have any discernible impairment on the body (ie: it doesn’t get you high). It also is completely safe and legal in all 50 states in the USA.
Hemp: A type of Cannabis sativa that has been grown to exhibit 0.3% THC content or less. At this level of THC there’s no intoxicating effect. Hemp plants are 100% legal in the USA, whether they are bred for industrial use or as plant-based medicine. Most important of all, these are the plants that Equilibria use in their products.
That’s right, hemp and marijuana are the same plant, bred for different purposes.
Chapter 1: WordPress & cannabis — an unlikely duo
Equilibria’s story doesn’t begin with cannabis. It actually beings with WordPress & PHP.
As a software engineer by trade, Marcy used to run a consulting firm that specialized in building proprietary tech solutions for antiquated industries. This gave Marcy a unique understanding of how these older industries function.
“In many ways, cannabis is both the oldest and the newest of all industries.”
In addition to tech consulting, Marcy and her co-founder - Coco Meers, had worked together before when they built a product together called PrettyQuick. It was a success and was eventually sold to Groupon.
Marcy had actually started using CBD herself because of a kayaking accident. “It’s done wonderful things for me.” It helped her drastically reduce her reliance on pharmaceutical drugs, and tackle her mental health and spinal nerve pain issues.
With her new-found passion and understanding of CBD, Marcy began hosting events for Ellementa - a women’s network group focused on health, wellness and cannabis. Through these sessions, she started to see the positive impact that cannabis (particularly CBD) was having on the lives of women. Women would come from all around the city to attend these meetups, sometimes driving up to two hours to talk about how cannabis had changed their lives.
Marcy actually started counselling women, many who were older, on how to use hemp-based CBD. For many of them, this product (or any cannabis product at all) was very terrifying. It was through this experience that Marcy realised there was a need for this in the market — a service which de-stigmatized CBD and actually explained to women how to use it. This would go on to become the basis for Equilibria.
Equilibria now sells a number of CBD-based products (both as a subscription and one-time purchase): sublingual daily drops, soft gels that are ingested by your digestive system, and a cream — which all come in varying strengths and volumes.
Chapter 2: What makes Equilibria different?
The CBD industry is currently exploding, with a new CBD-based startup popping up almost every day. So then what makes Equilibria different?
First and foremost, their products are designed with females in mind.
Marcy and Coco’s understanding of females as consumers has allowed them to tailor their brand and shopping experience specifically to females. This is evident in their well thought out website design and copy, and in their unique service offering… where every purchase includes a consultation with a Dosage Specialist.
“We create a starting point, and then the dosage support team helps each customer work through what they actually need, based on their health goals.”
Cannabis is scary to a large chunk of the female population, who tend to be trust-based consumers. They need to understand what they are buying and who else has used it. “They have 65% of the buying power in the USA” and aren’t going to buy something they don’t trust.
But branding and customer service are only one part of the puzzle. Any successful product-based company needs to have a high-quality product. In Equilibria’s case, that means having the highest quality of hemp.
To ensure they can maintain a high quality, they have an exclusive partnership with a hemp farm in Colorado. Marcy told me that the farm's initial crop was so good that they knew they had to take it to market.
Having an exclusive partnership has a number of benefits:
- It gives Equilibria total insight and control from seed to sale: transparent chain of custody.
- If they are low on inventory, they can quickly get new stock, and it’s always fresh.
- Seed genetics, farming, harvest, curing, extracting, formulation, and manufacturing is all done in-house.
- They can use all the data that they glean from their customers to dictate which strains to grow and what products to develop.
It’s the combination of their unique business model and their deep understanding of their target market that has resulted in their rapid growth and success.
Chapter 3: Selling cannabis — more difficult than meets the eye
It’s not all butterflies and rainbows.
The legal status of cannabis in the US makes operating a cannabis company more difficult than meets the eye.
Marketing their products has been particularly challenging for Equilibria. While for most companies, marketing avenues are seemingly endless, Equilibria doesn’t have that luxury. Channels like Facebook Ads, Google Ads and Instagram Ads are off-limits due to current legislation. As a result, they have had to get creative, using influencer marketing and in-person events.
One of the questions I often ask during these interviews is ‘have you encountered any problems while building your business?’ When we got to this question Marcy responded with “oh we have a really bad one, are you ready? It is the horror story for any subscriptions business”.
And I can confirm, a horror story it was!
So what happened then? On May 30th 2019, Equilibria’s payment processor pulled the plug on all hemp/CBD companies. To quote the Green Entrepreneur, “Elavon, a payment processing subsidiary of U.S. Bank, notified its hemp and CBD clients that it had recategorized hemp and cannabidiol-based merchants as a prohibited business type and that accounts for such merchants would be closed within 45 days”.
All the other major payment providers were also out, which left Equilibria without many options. They couldn’t find a ‘high-risk’ processor that would come on-board in time. So they built their own blockchain solution with a very terrible company — which at the time they had no idea as they were working with what was available (hindsight is 20/20).
“We built a WooCommerce Payment Gateway with this blockchain network, desperate to be able to process cards… but 95% of the transactions were failing due to fraud alerts.”
They were offline for almost 3 weeks. Women were calling and (very politely) begging them to run their cards manually. So they did what they had to do, they worked around the clock, manually processing the cards, and then logging those payments into WooCommerce by hand. Despite being offline for ¾ of the month, they were still able to process almost as many transactions as they did in the previous month.
Around this time, the payment processor Square had just opened up a CBD pilot for 200 companies. It was a closed pilot and already at capacity. After multiple connections vouched for Equilibria, Square made them a seat. Equilibria was number 201 in the pilot! They got back online on the 19th of June.
“The scary part was that during this whole process, we lost all of our credit card numbers. I think about 75% of they came back, which is a miracle for any subscription company. And considering we are on track to continue to double revenue every month, and we took this payment processing hit in June, I’d say we are a success story.”
Chapter 4: Equilibria’s Stack
Marcy built the first iteration of the website using WooCommerce on her own. “Just knowing how infinitely accessible it was, and that I could use almost any payment processor, it was a no brainer for me.” Their current version of the website was then later developed by Helio Interactive.
Marcy’s background in WordPress/WooCommerce has allowed her to now step away from the development side of things, but continue to technically scope out the development of the website.
To enhance their customer’s purchasing experience, Equilibria integrates WooCommerce with their postal carrier’s API so they know exactly when the package has been delivered. Once the package is delivered, the order is automatically set to a custom status called “Arrived”. The customer is then introduced to their Dosage Specialist through an email.
This is great because it streamlines an otherwise manual process of checking periodically to see if a package has been delivered. This ensures that the customer is contacted as soon as they receive the package, which builds customer trust.
WooCommerce has also allowed them to scale well, and build out their website to their needs.
Marcy has however found Woo to be a bit clunky in places, specifically with subscriptions, recurring coupons and the way in which declined cards are handled. “The experience for our customers to update an expired or declined card through Woo is very clunky. If they don’t do it in a very precise way, the system doesn’t always catch it, and therefore the subscription doesn’t always reactivate.”
“I’m so grateful that Metorik exists because it fills a lot of the gaps in WooCommerce, primarily around data-driven decision-making.”
Equilibria’s relationship with Metorik began in a similar way to many of our other customers. Coco (who is a data-junkie), “was begging me for a better way to view all this WooCommerce data.” She was exporting spreadsheets and having a difficult time making sense of it all, and it was a labour-intensive process to repeat weekly if not daily.
After hearing this, one of their developers recommended Metorik. “We installed it, and within 20 minutes I thought Coco was going to cry of happiness.”
Metorik has allowed Equilibria to start answering some very basic but crucially important questions. For example, how many one-time purchase customers have converted to a subscription? Or completed a dosage consultation?
“I’m a big fan of creating very specific customer segments, and then using those segments as filters on our orders and subscriptions.”
To elaborate on this, Marcy has a segment called ‘Initial Consult Complete’ which uses a custom meta field keep track of whether a customer has had their initial chat with a Dosage Specialist.
Using this segment on her customers only gives back a list of customers and not specific order information. However, she then can segment her orders using this initial consultation segment:
Using this method, Marcy now has a list of all orders where the customer has had their initial consultation. This allows them to better understand their customer lifecycle, and also provide important context for future customer interactions.
I was really glad to hear that it isn’t just Marcy and Coco using Metorik, their entire team is using it. Sales, customer retention, customer service and even engineering are using Metorik in some capacity. Literally, even the ladies assembling/filling orders can see Metorik segments & sales progress.
“When we are trying to meet our monthly goals, it’s 11:30 at night on the last day of the month, and I’m sitting there refreshing Metorik, watching to see if we make our monthly goal. The whole team is doing that. It’s saved to the home screens on our phones.”
Equilibria run a lot of in-person events, where they distribute coupon codes. The sales team then track orders with those coupons within Metorik to evaluate the success of an event.
They also have the Metorik x Zendesk integration set up. This allows them to see all Zendesk tickets within Metorik, and also allows them to see a customer’s order details right within Zendesk. This is great for the customer service team.
It’s often easy to look at successful companies and minimise the reasons they have succeeded. You often hear:
- “Oh, they were lucky.”
- “I could have done that myself if I also had that amount of money.”
- “They were in the right place at the right time.”
After chatting with Marcy, it was evident that Equilibria’s success didn’t hinge on luck. It’s a combination of a great idea, a solid business plan, passionate co-founders, a dedicated and talented team, and of course…. good quality hemp. ;)
I generally end the interview asking ‘who would you recommend Metorik to?’ Marcy’s answer was the definitely the funniest and most direct answer to date: “I’d recommend Metorik to anyone using WooCommerce and running a subscription store. If they’re not using it, they’re an idiot.”