In a smart two-piece suit and tie, hair cropped short, Brendan Kennedy doesn’t look much like the average drug dealer. But that’s precisely the point.
Kennedy is hoping that it is precisely this normality, this whiff of corporateness, that will give him the edge in the burgeoning global cannabis business. Five years ago, the push for the legalisation of marijuana was led by “people who were well intentioned, but weren’t interested in creating brands that don’t embrace the ubiquitous clichés,” he says. That’s where he saw his opportunity.
The Seattle resident and former banker is now the CEO of Privateer Holdings, a cannabis-focused holding company that has taken big bucks in venture capital investment. It has three key companies: Tilray, a medical marijuana producer; Leafly, a website/app that provides information to cannabis users; and Marley Natural Cannabis, a recreational cannabis product branded with Bob Marley’s image.
Kennedy appeared at Irish tech conference Web Summit on Wednesday morning to discuss his vision for the future of the cannabis industry. It’s an optimistic one, but not massively eyebrow-raising. He predicts legalisation of the drug in the US at the federal level within three years, between five and seven in parts on Europe. (The UK is, he says, “a little bit behind,” and would “benefit from a stronger activist base.”)
If anything is striking about Kennedy, it’s the lengths that he goes to to make him a safe, friendly face to the established business world. He’s wearing a full suit and tie, for one, which is all but unheard of at Web Summit, where entrepreneurs often pad about in T-shirts and trainers. When he carefully talks about “brands” and positioning, he could just as easily be touting a new chocolate bar or software startup.
When asked, Kennedy rejected the idea that Privateer Holdings is too corporate — the term “big pot” has been suggested. “When we’re talking to politicians, bureaucrats, [and] consumers … “they’re looking for brands they can identify with,” and “people who can talk about this industry with a serious voice.”
If the tide of marijuana deregulation does continue unchecked — as Privateer is betting — it’s a compelling investment proposition. Right now, it is “one of the only products that we buy that we put in our bodies that isn’t professionally branded,” Kennedy reasons, and that means everything is to play for.
“It was a wide-open opportunity … There was no engineering risk: We knew people could produce this product,” and there is no marketing risk: “People would buy this product.”
Kennedy doesn’t confess to being much of a marijuana smoker himself, saying that he had “been exposed to it” before, but not for around 20 years before launching Privateer.
It’s an audacious bet, dressed up as a mundane one. And it’s working. Earlier in 2015, Privateer Holding took a huge $US75 million (£48.7 million) in VC funding. When it announced its new Marley marijuana product, it scored coverage in 2,000 different media outlets, and 2.3 billion impressions across the globe. “The toothpaste is out of the tube,” and Kennedy is looking to cash in.
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