CMO, Sasha Kadey on Leading the Industry into the Future
“What the hell is a vaporizer?”
These words marked the moment of conception. As the story goes, Greenlane founder and CEO, Aaron LoCascio, was about to take a trip to Southern California from his home state of Florida. It was back in the first few years of the new millennium, before smartphones and snotty kids who turn up their noses at glass pipes and say things like “I don’t smoke flowers anymore.” His friend, an avid smoker who was aware of all the goodies out west that had yet to make it back east, asked him to pick up a vaporizer. The opening question ensued, and the rest is history.
It started in a garage. Now it’s a counter-cultural empire with six distribution centers (four in the U.S., two in Canada) and 240 employees.
It’s impressive, yes. Inspiring, even. But it’s a story that has been told through media with far more entertainment value than what can be captured in the pages of a magazine. Just flip over to HBO and watch Silicon Valley. The variables are different, but the formula is the same. Young guy has idea. Young guy starts company in garage. Meteoric rise ensues.
The true gems to glean from this story are not where they’ve been or even where they are, but where they’re going—and more importantly, where they’re taking us.
“We have a tremendous vested interest in helping independent retailers to not only survive as the industry changes rapidly, but thrive in this new paradigm,” says Greenlane’s Chief Marketing Officer, Sasha Kadey. “We’re here to help them, and not just in the obvious ways like trying to curate their product selection . . . but really understanding their businesses and the challenges they’re facing and giving them advice wherever we can.”
It’s not an uncommon claim for a vendor in this space to make. As a marketplace founded on counter-cultural ideals and filled with self-starters who are often more heart than head, we could admittedly use the help. But in talking to Kadey, you get the idea that there’s more to his words than the hot air and laryngeal vibrations it took to form them—that he might just have the tools necessary to see those aspirations to fruition. Though only two years in the industry as Greenlane’s visionary CMO, Kadey has made a career in the servicing of niche retail outlets, first in the wine and spirits business, followed by cosmetics.
“You’d be surprised at the similarities,” Kadey interjects when the subject of his past is broached. “Maybe the wine and spirits industry, it’s a little more obvious, but the area of the cosmetic industry we focused on was dealing with high end salons . . . there’s a lot of commonalities between them and smoke shops. They are usually independent business operators, operating maybe one to three locations on average. They are dealing in a business where there is a very high level of touch and interaction between them and the customer, a lot of hand selling, a lot of product education. They’re kind of the gate keeper that’s educating the customer about the product. I think head shops, especially good head shop operators, do the same thing.”
He has a point. At the end of the day, business is business. The mechanisms by which we grow are the same; the rest of the game is just widgets. That’s not to say that product knowledge isn’t essential. But this is Greenlane, FKA Vape World, we’re talking about. Product knowledge is the foundation of the entire operation, a fact that Kadey readily acknowledges.
“I think we’ve built a good reputation for ourselves by introducing products to our clients that they’ve been really successful with,” he remarks. “There’s a sacred trust that’s been built. When we go to one of our clients and say, ‘Hey, we’ve got this new product . . . You should pick it up for your stores right away,’ They’ll respond, ‘Well, you’ve told me about the Volcano. You told me about the Pax. You told me about the JUUL . . . Every time I’ve listened, I’ve been rewarded, so I’ll trust you and give this a shot.’”
It’s an insanely valuable tool, but as Kadey sees it, it’s also a fragile one, as the most precious things often are. “If we steer them the wrong way,” he adds, “We lose that. So, we try to be so careful about selecting the products that we are willing to put our weight behind and stake our reputation on.
“I’d say that we cut our teeth and built our reputation on vaporizers,” he continues, “but these days I like to think that we now specialize in branded premium smoking accessories . . . we sell a lot of premium glass, premium grinders. We sell kitchen appliances like MagicalButter and the LEVO extractor and products across all of those categories. The real, common feature is that they are real brands with real people behind them that have the appropriate infrastructure to provide customer service and warranty support and have all the hallmarks of being a real, reputable business with integrity.”
For the curious among us, therein lies the impetus behind the company’s name change—that and the fact that the word “vape” has been reappropriated by cloud enthusiasts with their tanks and mod boxes.
Widgets? Check. Back to the mechanisms.
“Moving forward,” Kadey goes on, “we want to offer innovative programs around how to design your store, how to upgrade your fixturing, how to cross sell products. We want to start helping to bring more manufacturer-supported promotions to the shops.”
He hesitates and qualifies his words with a touch of humility.
“I don’t mean to sound like we’re at the cutting edge of anything when I’m talking about stuff that’s kind of like a caveman first discovering fire. But because the industry has been such a fragmented landscape, a lot of the sort of tried and true methods from bigger industries haven’t really been brought to this space. It’s different when a manufacturer is dealing with a Best Buy and can snap their fingers and do something in hundreds or thousands of stores. In this business, you’re dealing with so many different independent operators. Our special sauce is that we’ve developed relationships and sort of charted the course to all of these independent, fragmented retailers. So, if we can shepherd the manufacturers to provide the type of tools that are provided to big box retailers in other industries, then we are really helping the retailers in this industry to adapt and evolve into a place where they can thrive.”