BudSense Founder + CEO, David Thomas, Blazing the Way For Cannabis Retailers
The team over at Cultivator sat down with our close friend, David Thomas, founder of BudSense. Find out what he had to say about his rapidly growing venture.
We recently had the opportunity to catch up with David Thomas, CEO, and Founder of BudSense (currently in Cultivator’s SCALE program). In this week’s Founder Feature, we wanted to ‘roll up’ David’s journey in the cannabis world and learn more about how he ‘sparks’ his team by leading a revolution in merchandising and selling cannabis.
In the early days of cannabis legalization in Canada, David Thomas set out to enter the new market by establishing 4 dispensaries in Saskatchewan. In 2019, David sold his first company, Jimmy’s Cannabis, to Fire and Flower. As David moved on to open two new dispensaries in Alberta, he also partnered with Farmer Jane Cannabis to help them expand their one-store operation to twelve locations in under two years.
With experience selling weed directly to customers, David identified the clear obstacles facing retailers and the challenges that arise for franchisees with an ever-changing selection of products. With a solution in mind, David connected with his now founding team of BudSense: Kirk Morrison, Andrew Cretin, and John Thomas. The team of ‘buds’ built a strategic, repeatable system that fits both small and large dispensaries. BudSense entered Cultivator’s START program in February of 2021 and moved directly into the GROW program in May 2021. After only 9 months, BudSense was ready to SCALE and moved to the most robust program in Cultivator in February 2022. With over 250 retailers currently using BudSense, David’s vision of a merchandising tool is now a proven solution that allows retailers the freedom to customize their customers’ purchase experience.
For those who are unfamiliar with BudSense, what can you tell us about your company?
Our mission is simple… “Make selling weed easy.” During our journey from cannabis retail to cannabis tech, we haven’t left our dispensary operation roots behind.
BudSense lets you completely customize the look of your in-store digital signage. Quickly add, remove, or modify products from anywhere.
What led you to your decision to put aside your other projects and focus on taking BudSense to the next level?
BudSense was always in the background of our cannabis journey. We just didn’t know it was going to stand by itself one day and we didn’t know it was called BudSense.
When we first started we were trying to make ‘sense’ of all the problems and pain points of the retail cannabis industry. Federally regulated recreational cannabis is a brand new industry and you don’t have to look far to find all sorts of problems. I gravitated to the connection between complex inventory and supply management spilling over into customer experience and trying to create and improve systems around those problems.
Cannabis has such a unique problem set around merchandising mainly to the nature of the complexity of the plant– plus heavy regulation. It’s common to see 5 to 10 new products a week and even more that are hit and miss with availability. It’s not like liquor where you always have bud light on the shelf or Canadian tire where you know they have duct tape.
These challenges cause havoc for even the best ops strategies. Merchandising strategies falling on the plates of front-line managers is not a good place to be in packaged goods but that’s what has become fairly typical for cannabis.
John and I met Andrew and Kirk at Path Cowork in Regina. They were at the start of their Grassland Ventures journey and John and I were just getting into our Jimmy’s Cannabis / Prairie Sky Cannabis retail journey. From there, John and I hired Andrew and Kirk to develop our e-commerce system (this was their first independent consulting gig) and we ended up taking on a small digital menu project at the end of it.
At this time, we were opening 4 Jimmy’s Cannabis stores and I wanted a way to be able to monitor the merchandising program remotely. The clunky pilot project was the start of our deep dive into the cannabis menu and merchandising systems. Once we sold Jimmy’s Cannabis to Fire & Flower in 2019, we saw our internal digital menu tool as a larger opportunity.
The early days of BudSense were complicated because we didn’t really know what it was formally going to be, and all of the co-founders had other primary projects pulling them in all sorts of directions. Mine was Next Door Cannabis– two Calgary neighborhood cannabis stores we opened after selling Jimmy’s.
It wasn’t until the spring of 2021 that we really decided to dive in and make a serious run at BudSense. It was my friend David Sauve who made me see the writing on the wall. I didn’t know how to spend my time and he made the choice simple. BudSense was at the center of everything… Why was I spending time growing inefficient cannabis operations when I had an opportunity right in front of me to help other businesses grow by focusing on building scalable systems.
I couldn’t see the forest for the trees but I stumbled into my dream job. I’ve always wanted to work in the tech industry and the opportunity was sitting in front of me. I’m thankful that I have people in my life to push me to do better and I’m grateful I wasn’t too stubborn to listen. We still have our other retail cannabis projects but since that discussion, with David Sauve, my main priority has been BudSense– and I haven’t looked back.
How does BudSense differentiate itself from any other existing or similar products in the market?
Other menu providers come from traditional digital signage companies. None of our competitors have experienced the pain points of retail cannabis directly.
They also typically take a ‘black box’ approach to menus. They pull in your products and put them up on a digital display. If something doesn’t work or you want to make a change you’re forced to contact them and wait.
With BudSense you can access your menus in the same way we can. You have remote access to any of your menus in any location across your organization. We also have online support to help with any problems that come up.
Cannabis retailers are busy. We want to help them as quickly and effectively as possible. This direct feedback loop is also instrumental to our future development. This is a brand new industry and anyone who thinks it’s anywhere close to finished growing and improving is kidding themselves.
We view our customer support and relationships as R&D and partnership opportunities– not a nuisance.
What are some of the biggest challenges that you foresee in the future for BudSense?
Ultimately the market will dictate what heights BudSense will reach. It’s challenging to predict anything- especially when it’s outside of our control- like investment markets, evaluations, legalization schedules, and more. Our reality, in retail cannabis, is that the addressable market is determined by complex legislation.
Our biggest challenge is ensuring we focus on the task at hand and do it as efficiently as possible to avoid growing in ways that are outside the limitations of our market. Our challenge is to create space to learn and solve problems for our current and future customers. As long as we continue to make it easier to sell weed… BudSense will be successful.
Reflecting back on Q1… what have you accomplished? What has set you up for success in 2022?
So far we have been product-focused in 2022. We have been a sponge. BudSense has so many unique products to launch over the next year and much of Q1 has been spent building them. We see the current market as a starting point for what we want to do.
100% growth is the goal this year. We need to take the product and operational systems we are building and continue to expand our team and customer base throughout North America. We will be attending several trade shows in the spring-summer including the BC cannabis summit, Lift and Co., and MJ Biz.
What has been most important to you as you grow your team at BudSense?
We don’t define success exclusively through a capital lens. BudSense builds and measures success through team and people development. By providing talented people opportunities to learn and grow we have created a cohesive talented team that understands our product, customers, and growth plans holistically.
We have heard you have a passion for working with students? Where does this stem from?I just like creating opportunities for our employees. And students and new grads are full of new ideas. They’re curious and excited.
I constantly hear how students “aren’t ready for the real world” or “don’t have the work ethic”, and “they need constant gratification and attention”. I heard the same thing when I started my career and I’m sure we will hear the same over and over again for generations to come.
Sure you need to spend the effort to work through expectations, build elementary skills, and focus on creating the environment for each individual to flourish– but once you meet even the base layer of an individual’s required nurturing, you have created a meaningful opportunity for not only their future career and wellbeing but and also your company’s growth aspirations.
As a leader, I feel like it’s my job to create a space for individuals to prosper. That’s what the building blocks of a diverse thriving team look like to me. Individuals working within their role. Defined not only by a company’s ever-changing needs, but their personal unique combination of strengths, weaknesses, and aspirations. When you create a group of enough of these individuals the result quickly becomes a holistic organization working towards a common goal.
Although I have this approach towards all people I work with. I feel like the opportunities we can create resonate with students and new grads because it’s a novel approach and it often matches their energy.
Don’t get me wrong– we aren’t perfect. But this is our goal, and even when it goes sideways, my employees typically understand that I care and that I always want the best for them whether it’s with BudSense or if they need help creating an opportunity that better suits their needs.
Last question! What is your perspective on Cultivator and how has our programming helped you establish roots in Regina?
The support Cultivator provides without any expectations is like nothing I’ve experienced before in business. With Cultivator, it does really seem like a free lunch and in exchange, I won’t stop yelling from the rooftop about how AWESOME the Cultivator team and community is.Every time I come into the Cultivator space I can’t help but daydream about all the opportunities and lives the building is going to create and change. It’s truly inspiring and humbling to be a part of.