The Web of Life: Networking in the Digital World
Mike Sessoms isn’t building an empire. He’s cultivating an ecosystem.
Since the nascent days of his now wildly successful, multinational trade show circuit, his method for success has always eschewed the tired formula of warfare and competition and instead relied on balance, symbiosis and synergy. To wit, SSE sprouted up amidst a rotating cast of wannabes and imitators all vying to defeat, or at least take a significant bite out of the standard bearer and reigning champion of counter-cultural trade shows at that time. They all failed – and embarrassingly so. Meanwhile, the standard bearer lives on, all the stronger from the conflict.
Mike, on the other hand, chose a different paradigm altogether. Forget all the Sun Tzu catechisms you’ve memorized; forget the imagery of alphas in the wild living by the law of “eat what you kill.” Think instead of a massive oak tree in the forest and think of Mike and his operation as the vegetation that sprouts up between its roots. He didn’t need to uproot what was already there; he just created a system that could occupy the space between.
The acquisition of HeadQuest fits perfectly within the model presented. SSE worked hand in hand with this publication for nearly a decade, an arrangement that was infinitely beneficial for both. The balance, symbiosis and synergy generated between the two couldn’t have been more apparent. The merging was as natural as moss clinging to a tree trunk.
Here’s the thing about thriving ecosystems: beautiful things often grow spontaneously and unexpectedly. New life begets more new life, often to the benefit of what was already there.
When Mike started the Smoke Shop Retailers Network on Facebook six months ago, he didn’t have any specific business plan or profit model attached. To stretch the metaphor, he was just playing in the dirt of the system he’d helped to foster.
“I love this industry,” he tells me. “It’s the family I’ve been a part of for 26 years now. I love connecting the people here. I love helping them grow and improve their businesses. I’ve helped build other industry groups on Facebook, but this time, I thought I’d try starting my own.”
At press time, the group has already amassed a membership of close to 800 after only six months in existence, with a dozen or so more requesting to join daily. The vetting process is more than a little exhaustive on the administrative end, but not at all cumbersome to the initiate. Aspiring members are simply required to answer three questions that help to validate their merit as industry operatives, be they retailers, vendors, or manufacturers. For Mike, the answers are just a starting point. Next comes the research—and it’s meticulous. If discrepancies come up, he makes phone calls and gets to the bottom of it.
“I really go the extra mile on the vetting process,” Mike asserts. “I had one guy tell me he worked at [a certain smoke shop]. I called the store and talked to the owner. It turns out he’d never heard of the guy . . . he was really grateful for the call and I was glad I was able to spare the group from dealing with a fraud.”
A Facebook forum for the smoke shop industry is nothing new. We’ve had iterations of the concept at least since the early part of the last decade, back when Zuck and his minions had yet to deliver the final death blow to poor Tom at Myspace. Mike is a member of several and won’t speak ill of any. His is not a zero-sum game.
“They’re all great, but I felt the need to start something new,” is about as much as he’s willing to say when pressed for side-by-side comparisons. As an arguably objective third-party, though, I’ll say what he won’t.
There’s a vivaciousness to this page, a dynamism, the likes of which I haven’t encountered since the first group of this kind sprouted up 10+ years ago. Things are happening; new relationships are being forged and commerce is taking place, free of trolls and spam bots. I can chalk this up to a handful of factors.
First, the group may not be anywhere close to Mike’s primary venture, but he’s putting the same love into it that helped to grow Smoke Shop Events into what it’s become today, as well as breathed new life into HQ since his acquisition. He’s tending his creation daily, fertilizing it with useful information and engaging conversation.
Mike’s scrupulous vetting process also helps, but he’s taking it one step further with active curation of essential members. After all, his goal is to equip retailers with the tools they need for sustained success. That doesn’t happen simply with a handful of wholesalers.
“Resources, resources, resources,” he says with an audible slap of the table. “I’ve brought in experts, service providers for credit card processing—I have display companies in there. I’m also keeping the group up to date on changes to laws and regulations, like flavor bans or new DEA rules . . . I want to empower this industry. There are corporations that are gobbling independent stores left and right. I want the ‘Ma and Pa’ shops to have a leg to stand on when corporate comes knocking on their door. If we can help them improve and increase their business now, maybe they’ll have a fighting chance.”
It is now all part of the ecosystem. Mike may not have had big plans when he created the group, other than to give back to the industry that has given so much to him. But he’s now beginning to see the implicit possibilities of a group that has come to fruition at the intersection of the industry’s most innovate trade show series and its leading publication. It’s a new connection between reader and publisher; a new web of integration between magazine and trade show that puts the people of this industry at the very center. It’s yet another embodiment of his natural practice of balance, symbiosis and synergy—and it’s all happening organically.