“We started getting inundated with calls. 50% of the time it was people giving us the ‘eff you,’ telling us we’d better stop, that we’re ruining the industry—that sort of thing. The other half would tell us it was an amazing idea.”
Ralph recounts his company’s humble beginnings matter-of-factly. On paper, his words hint at the epic nature of the endeavor, but on the phone his tone suggests that for him, it was just another day at the office. He’s unassuming by nature, soft-spoken and rarely given to hyperbole. He’s more interested in the concrete stuff. Facts. Calculations. Strategy. One employee described his methods as a “long game of chess.” From what I can tell, it’s a near-perfect description.
Whether his strategic mind was a trait acquired through experience or if it was the M.O. adopted by him and his partner, Roger, from the beginning is difficult to tell. They had already been running a successful wholesale company in the secretive space for six years when they published the first issue of HeadQuest, so their business acumen was obviously soundly intact. But the way Ralph tells it, the first issue came together rather haphazardly, at least by today’s standards.
“We were prepping for an ASD show one year, and we just kind of got a wild hair up our ass and said, ‘You know what? Let’s launch it there. Let’s put it together.’ Roger’s dad came up with the name . . . at the beginning, we made a lot of fake ads.” He hesitates. “Well, not fake, per se, but we did ads that . . . well, actually, they were fake ads.” There’s a muted, self-effacing chuckle as he says it. “It was pretty hard to get people involved or even interested in placing an ad.”
Initially, the idea was just to compile catalogs of active head shop vendors. The concept may sound unimaginative by today’s standards, but this was 1998. For reference, kids, that’s before even MySpace existed. The internet was still a novelty and the drug war was in full force, fully supported by both major parties. For the head shop world, it was an era of silence and isolation. There was a handful of national vendors, but overall, the distribution network was largely based on travelling salesmen who slung wholesale items from the trunks of their cars. The idea of even consolidating catalogs for national distribution was borderline revolutionary and, in some circles, heretical. The long-held orthodoxy called for businesses in the space to keep their heads down and hope to not get noticed. Ralph and Roger had other ideas.
“Our main goal was to make the industry legitimate and help people understand how much money was involved in the head shop business,” he recalls. “It’s always been a booming business. People just hadn’t realized it. So we were just trying to get that out and legitimize our own little world.”
”You provided a credible face for that,” Sandy chimes in. “A legitimate business face to carry that message and for that interaction to take place.”
If Ralph is indeed playing chess, Sandy is his queen, the central figure around which all the other pieces move. Not a chess player? Let’s shift the analogy. How about Game of Thrones? In that case, she’s the Hand of the King. We could go all day with this. The comparative analogies abounded in my conversations with the staff.
“Ralph may be the General,” Monica, their long-running star account rep told me, “but Sandy is the Captain steering the ship.” If the company were a Seinfeld episode, she said, “Sandy would be Jerry,” which I can only assume would mean Ralph is Larry David. The point is, Ralph is the planner, the behind the scenes guy and Sandy is the executor. She likes to think of herself as the coach, but she only bristled slightly when I suggested “benevolent dictator.”
She makes it all happen and she does it with uncanny precision and an unwavering smile. Editorial, sales, design, ad placement, deadlines, office conflict resolution (rarely needed); it all goes through her, and not just for HQ. You may not be aware, but there are two other magazines being produced. There’s also PAIN, the HeadQuest of the tattoo and body piercing industry and Canna Dispensary Supply, their new, quickly expanding publication for the burgeoning legal cannabis sector. She has her hand at the tiller of all three. Scratch all previous analogies. She’s the juggler.
Yes, this is a Behind the Scenes on HQ in an issue of HQ. No, that seeming self-cancellation won’t create a rift in the space-time continuum and suck you into a parallel dimension. But in case I’m wrong, send us postcard from your new reality and be sure to let us know who’s president. We may want to join you.
But how do you turn the focus of a magazine inward and maintain any trace of credibility? Simple. Bring in an outsider. Even better, a former competitor, someone who has at some point demonstrated a degree of skepticism about the operation and can suss out the real strengths and weaknesses of the services they provide, free of the Kool-Aid of its corporate culture. That’s not to say that there’s anything cultish going on behind the curtain at HQ—if anything, the vibe is familial—but a healthy skeptic is always wary of such things.
That person would still need access—and not just to the canned answers provided for a P.R. stunt. They would need an inside view of those moments when no one is looking, access to those private conversations when the public face is set aside and the true essence of the individuals running the machine seeps to the surface.
Well, here I am, a ten-year veteran of the industry and a former employee/owner of a competing publication, not once, not twice, but three times over. Now an independently-contracted contributor, I have the unique position of being that outsider who’s been given a peek behind the proverbial curtain. The Wizard is no fraud. Yes, like the classic tale to which we are alluding, he’s mild-mannered and more wisdom than magic, but he’s pulling all the right levers with methodical precision. The truth is, he’s probably not going to love this article. He’s not overly fond of the spotlight.
As far as those character-defining moments of truth, I’ve been in the middle of them and I’ve seen that essence that defines who they are. I can’t help but dwell on one specific instance in which I reached out to Sandy just before an impending deadline, concerned that my findings for an article in progress might hurt potential advertisers.
“Before I turn this in,” I began, “I have to know: is your primary responsibility to your readers or your advertisers?” It’s not an easy question to answer for any media outlet, let alone a trade magazine. We all know what the correct answer is, but we also know who keeps the lights on, at least directly. But she didn’t hesitate.
“The readers. Write the facts as you see them. If it hurts anyone, they’ll find a new revenue stream.”
She didn’t hem and haw over how to spin the information. She didn’t even see it as a dilemma to consider. Integrity was her foregone conclusion. It’s a refreshing departure from the norm in an industry where “pay to play” is standard operating procedure. At one previous job, I wasn’t even allowed to acknowledge a product’s existence if the suppliers hadn’t first coughed up the cash for an ad.
This isn’t to say that they don’t take care of their clients or have their interests at heart. That’s what the account reps are for, and they are relentless. They’d scale the office building and scream their clients’ names from the rooftop if it helped get results. They have to be this way; otherwise they wouldn’t last.
Ralph has cultivated an atmosphere of autonomy in the office that would likely spell failure, were it not for the care with which he has selected his staff. Everyone has a key to the office. They come and go as they please and do their jobs in whatever manner that suits them. There’s no micromanagement, only an expectation of results. Here, the method acts as the proof. Sink or swim only works if the pool is full of sharks, and the inhabitants of this particular pool are most definitely lined with cartilage. The model is working, and it has been for 20 years.
But what will it take to make it another 20? The market is shifting, and not just our subset. The modern economy is one of disruption. New, more agile companies now spring up out of nowhere and bleed out the slow-moving behemoths of yesterday’s industries, with fatal results. And nowhere is that spasmodic dynamism more pronounced than the space in which HQ has staked its fortune. E-commerce is all-but devouring the brick and mortar model. Digital media is rendering ink and paper obsolete. Expanding legalization is pulling the rug out from under the industry norms and transforming how we do business, as well as with whom we are doing it. These patterns are all rapidly converging to create a perfect storm. Ralph and his team are smack-dab in the eye of it. Will they be crushed by the waves or harness the winds?
Spoiler alert: it’s looking like the latter. While the storm has raged on and chaos has reigned, Ralph has used the relative calm at the center to formulate a new approach, one that will not only solidify his company’s position, but possibly restore a semblance of stability for the businesses around them. It’s called the MarketZone, and it could likely change the way we do . . . well . . . everything.
Talk of its formation has been floating around the space for nearly three years. Many, having heard of it, but having seen no progress, assumed the idea had tanked before it came to fruition. Not the case. Remember, Ralph is a chess-player. It’s a long game, meticulously calculated and carefully executed. He and his team were just waiting to ensure the concept was perfected.
As Sandy puts it, it’s “the future. It’s our way of evolving to meet the shifting demands of the digital era. It’s a new platform designed to bring the wholesalers and buyers together into one commerce-based forum . . . for the buyer, it means instead of talking to ten different companies—ten different sales reps—and trying to make ten different orders, they can now log onto one central platform and take care of everything at once.” It’s more than that, though. It’s an entire paradigm shift for the industry, even more of a game changer than HQ’s initial formation.
The formula works because at the core of it is the essential understanding that the internet is no longer a series of billboards. It’s community. It’s interaction. It’s action. We’re not just talking about a digital catalog here. We’re talking about a hub of commerce, an industry dashboard that puts market knowledge and accessibility at the fingertips of the buyer in real time. What’s on sale, what’s trending, what are the newest products—everything. From what they’re describing, it would come as no surprise to me if in another year, the MarketZone became the default landing page for head shop computers everywhere, part Amazon, part Weedmaps, a dash of Facebook and a smidge of digital trade show. It’s visionary. It’s necessary. It’s disruptive.
“Whether you’re a manufacturer, distributor, retailer . . . where do you go for reliable information? To whom can you turn for market forecasts projected specifically for your industry? . . . Where do you look for news and developments that hold direct consequences for our subculture? Up until now, there has been no constant, no trusted medium by which such information could flow.”
I wrote these words in 2013 as part of the editorial for the first issue of my ill-fated attempt to compete with HQ.
Admittedly, for years, I lamented the fact that the answer to the questions I posed didn’t turn out to be me. Now, I’m just glad I’m part of the team that has become that answer.