Do you smoke weed?
For years that was a loaded question. In another time, you might have even responded, “Do I look like I smoke weed?”
Today, who does or doesn’t smoke weed isn’t something you can judge quickly. With more US states legalizing and decriminalizing the drug, marijuana users now include everyone from your class valedictorian to your grandmother. It’s now a huge business with large corporations vying for a number one spot.
Brandon Howard was an early player in the modern cannabis industry. He started selling it as a teenager in the 2000s and even did time for it. After cannabis’s decriminalization, Brandon bought a large amount of parchment paper from Walmart for processing and packaging weed products. He soon became the go-to guy for extract papers in his region of California.
After securing his hold on the cannabis parchment-paper industry for the entire US, Brandon turned his sights to parchment paper in the cooking industry. He purchased the domain parchmentpaper.com and created a brand competing with the likes of Reynolds for a space in kitchens around the world.
Today, Brandon is ready to sell his six-figure business. He came to Bootstrappers to tell his story, do some marketing, and offer some insights into what is probably one of the most turbulent industries developing today.
Now They Want My Advice
Like many in cannabis today, Brandon started selling weed before it was legal. It landed him in hot water at a young age.
“I was in it before it was cool and legal,” he says. “I did 10 months in jail when I was 19 for selling weed. I was on probation and everything. People said to me, ‘What are you going to do now, sell weed your whole life?’ Now they want my advice.”
Even after a stint behind bars, Brandon found it hard to leave the industry he loved – and he was in luck: His home state legalized recreational cannabis in 2016, just a few years later. Brandon was well-connected in a now-booming industry.
“I did dispensary management back then,” he says. “These were usually pop-up shops – which were huge at the time. Back then, if you invested $30,000 into a pop-up shop you could make $300,000, though many would collapse. It was really hard to predict. By 2015, I was pretty involved in the modern cannabis industry. I used to do all the High Times events and advertised their products. I had a couple of different companies too.”
However, once recreational cannabis became legalized in California around 2016, Brandon stumbled on a new opportunity: Selling high-grade parchment paper used to extract oil from the bud of marijuana plants.
“One day I ended up needing a large amount of parchment paper to use as extraction paper for a product,” he says. “I bought all the parchment paper at my local Walmart and surrounding retail stores and cut it into standard squares and I had a lot left over.”
Word got out around town that Brandon was sitting on a huge pile of pre-cut extraction paper. Soon the whole neighborhood was knocking on his door. “Someone called and said they wanted four-by-four squares. Then someone else wanted five-by-five squares. That’s how I started a paper company in 2015 just catering to the cannabis industry.”
Black Label Paper Dominates the Nation
Over the next five years, Brandon made his extract paper brand, Black Label Paper, into a household name for marijuana businesses.
“We sold parchment paper exclusively to extract companies for a while,” he says. “I knew spending eight hours cutting sheets would be something no one wants to do. The four-by-four squares aren’t just a single SKU anymore, now they’re an entire brand in the industry. We won Best New Product in 2015. Black Label Paper has done no advertising since 2018 and grown 20 to30 percent year-over-year mostly on repeat clientele.”
Brandon says that the type of parchment paper you use can make or break a product. “There are 50 different types of parchment paper out there and they are picky about it in the industry. If you use the wrong parchment you can lose product. I do six different types that are exclusive to marijuana.”
Brandon describes parchment paper production as a fairly small niche. And while it was a little difficult to crack into, he has fostered strong relationships with major suppliers.
“I’ve been using the same vendors since 2015,” he says. “There are only really three to four quality paper mills left in the world: a couple in the US, one in France, and one in the Middle East. China has a few, but I don’t want to navigate that. I just established my relationship with them and I keep my business pretty loyal. I get a lot of referrals from them too. These vendors usually don’t want to waste time with all these guys in cannabis who are stoned and don’t want to plan.”
Brandon thinks growth truly stabilized once he stopped distributing papers to individual businesses. “Once Covid hit, I focused more on B2B distributors, which gave me less hassle. I found small retail orders wanted to take all my time.”
The Parchment Paper Pivot
Around 2020, Brandon started to lose interest in the cannabis industry. He’d cornered the market and wanted a new challenge. He decided he would start moving his business into general-use parchment paper for activities like baking.
Brandon’s first move was to buy a new website. He had a steady side business of buying and selling internet domains, “I’d often buy a website for five bucks, build a small brand on it, and sell it for $5,000.”
After two months of negotiations with the previous owner, Brandon acquired parchmentpaper.com for five figures. He says it’s been a much better way to operate his business.
“For my birthday in August of 2020, I bought parchmentpaper.com. It made sense since I’d begun selling parchment paper for more general use. Cannabis is taboo to a lot of people. Before I owned parchmentpaper.com, many potential partners wouldn’t do business with me on principle. Now they do. Black Label paper is now just one of the sub-brands we sell under.”
However, despite having a quality product, taking a corner of the commercial parchment paper market has proven much more difficult than Brandon anticipated. A few big retail names have dominated it for years.
“Baking people don’t care too much about quality,” says Brandon. “Most just want to buy Reynolds cooking paper since it’s cheap. A lot of people don’t realize that the lower-priced brands aren’t true, vegetable parchment paper. They use grease-proof paper and other stuff. These customers try to save pennies then lose dollars when they screw up their product.”
Increasingly, Brandon realized that if he wanted to break into the market, he’d need to invest more dollars into marketing. He’s already found a handful of creative ways to do so.
“Last year I developed a parchment paper cookbook,” he says. “I’ve been using it for funnel marketing. You get the cookbook for free with parchment paper. I just keep creating products and hopefully, they sell. I’ve never really done content creation before because my customers do it for me. We’ll probably need some YouTube videos of these recipes too.”
I’m Ready to Pass on the Torch
Part of the reason Brandon reached out to us is that he wants people to know he is selling his business. It’s not that he thinks it’s a bad business, he just feels he lacks the resources to take it to the next level.
“Parchmentpaper.com should be a seven-figure business,” he says. “Business is growing off of repeat clientele getting bigger but I’ve stopped trying to expand. Any new scaling will take a bit more effort.”
Running a solo business is tough. Brandon says training a replacement has proved even more difficult. “I say ‘we,’ but it’s just me. I have my contractors through UpWork and one warehouse worker. It’s a simple, streamlined business. I’ve just had trouble training someone with no real skin in the game.”
He believes someone with an entrepreneurial bent and management expertise could help the business compete with the top parchment paper brands. Another owner might also have more tools than he does too. “I made a mistake where I messed up my credit and I’m forced to grow through cash, which is harder.”
Marijuana Isn’t as Legal as You Might Think
Brandon was kind enough to give me a little insider knowledge about the modern cannabis industry. He says it’s hard to get a lot of industry veterans to talk about the business due to marijuana’s longtime status as an illegal substance.
“It’s pretty cliquey,” he says. “People like me are too busy doing their thing to talk to the press. You also weren’t trying to be famous for selling drugs 15 years ago. Until 2018, celebrities didn’t even want their names on anything in this industry they were working with.”
Brandon believes that despite the industry’s growth, there are many false conceptions about marijuana’s legal status and how easy it is to enter the industry today.
Weed is not growing at the rate people think it is. It’s not even close to being legal yet.
“Weed is not growing at the rate people think it is. It’s not even close to being legal yet,” he says. “It’s over-regulated and overtaxed. Many people have enough cash on hand to win a license and then realize they get taxed 40-50 percent and just go back into the black market. Nowadays people with money think they can do anything, but just because it’s weed doesn’t mean it’s easy.”
That said, Brandon does believe there are opportunities in the industry. He just recommends an approach similar to his own.
“Unfortunately, there is much less focus on high-quality medical marijuana and people need that. The market is still there but it’s tricky. If you want to go down that rabbit hole, good luck. I think it is much better to make businesses peripheral to it like parchment paper.”
If It Doesn’t Cost Money, It Takes Time
Finally, Brandon’s advice to other founders is that they need to know what they’re getting into when they start a business. They should never undervalue their time.
“If it doesn’t cost money, it takes time,” he says. “My goal years ago was not dealing with people that I don’t want to deal with and not trading time for money. I didn’t do that. Now I’m 35 and want to experience other things in life. It’s also nice to have a mentor too to help you on the way. I wish I’d had that too.”
While some of Brandon’s success appears to have come through luck, his entrepreneurial mindset was crucial for scaling his business to what it is now. What struck me most was that he always had a couple of side projects going at any given time that he could use to change lanes.
When Brandon saw the risk of selling marijuana products, he started selling paper. When he could see his association with cannabis hurt his growth, he used his knowledge of domain building to change his brand completely. What service do you find yourself providing to friends again and again? How could you scale it?
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