Five Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started a Cannabis Business, with Billy Levine and Fotis Georgiadis
For a little while I wondered whether we did ourselves a disservice by not including CBD in the name of our business. But now I can honestly answer: How do you get people into a CBD shop? Don’t call it CBD. We’re the only CBD store in the area that doesn’t have a name association with the plant. We’re the The House of Kombucha and we don’t even say CBD. We’re located in a shopping center a few doors down from Lululemon — a high end yoga clothing store. Our name and location differentiate us and makes us less intimidating which I’m thankful for. We are not selling vapes or buds, we are not a head shop. We are a boutique concept store bringing quality local products to the community. I can get people in here that I know for a fact do not want to walk into a head shop.
I had the pleasure of interviewing Billy Levine. Billy is a native of Rochester, NY where The House of Kombucha is located. Billy also owns and operates KOGA Rochester, the only Bikram yoga studio in the area and KOGAbucha, one of the only certified organic and non-alcoholic kombucha’s on the market. A graduate of the School of Management at the University of Buffalo, Billy is happily married and has a 10-year-old daughter.
Can you share with us the story about what brought you to this specific career path?
In 2016, I stumbled upon a Bikram Yoga Studio in Rochester, NY. Learning that it was the only Bikram studio in the area and had such a large following I decided to investigate what made it so special. With Bikram, people’s lives were being supplemented, they were being enhanced by this type of yoga practice. Clients came from all different fitness backgrounds: runners, weight lifters, rope climbers- and their health and wellness routines were enhanced by Bikram. I was a little apprehensive about buying the studio at first since I had no previous experience in this industry, but the manager of the studio at the time brewed a strong, delicious, fruit-infused kombucha and gave it away to members. It struck me that I could buy this studio and make my mark on it. We changed the name of the studio to KOGA and began offering kombucha after class by the bottle or the growler. After a long tedious Bikram session — one in which you’re sweating, dehydrated and delirious — it was important to provide members something enjoyable to rejuvenate their system.
After establishing success distributing KOGAbucha in our own studio, we set our sights on having it in all the local yoga studios, fitness centers, and the grocery store, enjoyable for the entire local community. A challenge we had was I wanted control over the amount of alcohol and sugar in the product. During this time, I was approached by the Buffalo Fermentation Plant about an investment opportunity to purchase a machine called a Spinning Cone Column (SCC). The high velocity of this machine spins out all the ethanol from the drink- allowing us to create a certified, non-alcoholic kombucha. The spinning also creates terpene. Terpenes are used in the flavoring of hemp extract and the manufacturing of oils. That lead me to meet another SCC investor, the owner of Vitality CBD, who now manufactures my house brand of hemp extract sold as KOGA CBD. I really like what they do. It’s bottled in Buffalo and I’ve been able to bring some fantastic CBD products to my local community.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?
January was a crazy month for my business. Not only did we successfully brew and bottle our first batch of non-alcoholic KOGAbucha, but we also launched a beverage line of Hempbucha which people are loving! On the heels of that we opened a brick and mortar boutique called The House of Kombucha where we sell our kombucha as well as CBD products. We carry nationally recognized CBD brands such as Lord Jones, local favorites such as Vitality CBD as well as our KOGA private label products. We have a wide variety of cannabis products, from edibles, tinctures, oils, to bath bombs and pet products.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
Early on I invested in refrigerated coolers to distribute my KOGAbucha to other gyms, health food stores, and yoga studios. I thought that by simply slapping some of our branded stickers on the sides of the coolers that it would make them look all fancy and I thought that the sticker was all I needed. I was wrong. The coolers just sat there, and I came to realize that in the health and wellness industry you really need someone there on-site to explain the benefits of these products. I think that is where the magic of The House of Kombucha comes in. It’s an educational spot. You can come in and ask questions. It’s an important face to face interaction and because of the knowledge I’ve built up I’ve been able to educate people and guide them to purchase the best product for their individual need.
Are you working on any exciting projects now?
I am so excited about our water-soluble products. As you may know, 70% of our bodies are made of water. Using nanotechnology, we break down the CBD crystals into a form that our bodies can ingest and absorb easier than drops of oil under your tongue. If you’re using CBD oil, how much is ingested and goes through your system to be metabolized by your body? With water-soluble you know exactly what you’re getting. It’s a full spectrum product — which means we are using the whole plant and you are going to experience the entourage effect- when the many components within the cannabis plant interact with the human body to produce a stronger influence than any one of those components alone — it’s a synergistic effect. I’ve learned so much getting involved in this business.
I’m also excited about a new 1500mg cool mint flavored product we have coming to market. Even when dissolved in a drink, some people think the taste of CBD is strong, so this mint flavor will make it more palatable for those folks. Not quite like a bite of cherry pie but not quite like sucking on a hemp plant either, somewhere in the middle, if you will.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?
There are so many people who have helped me along the way. Howie Jacobson introduced me to the folks at Buffalo Fermentation which also led me to meet Perry Hill, co-founder of Vitality CBD. It feels like a lifetime ago that I worked in sales, but something I learned during that phase of my career was the value of relationship building and surrounding myself with people who are always working towards the “next best thing”. These guys are passionate and inspire me to keep thinking big.
This industry is young dynamic and creative. Do you use any clever and innovative marketing strategies that you think large legacy companies should consider adopting?
Working with Emily Kyle, a nutritionist and local TV personality we landed a 5-minute spot on Good Day Rochester (FOX-13WHAM). Emily is a trusted local influencer and she was able to share the benefits our products have on your health and wellness. Hours after the KOGA-focused segment aired, we had folks walking into House of Kombucha wanting to learn more and try our products.
We also recently added some new lab-authenticated educational posters into our store explaining some of the science behind the cannabis plant. What I’m able to do is educate people on their level, show them the science, explain the studies and how these products are going to help them. What does Broad Spectrum mean? What does Isolate mean? CBD is an important supplement and there is a huge educational gap. These are conversations I can have as a small business owner with my customers, helping them to feel more confident about what they are purchasing.
Can you share 3 things that most excite you about the Cannabis industry? Can you share 3 things that most concern you?
The things that concern me are also some of the things that excite me, but I’ll try to answer these questions!
Three things that excite me:
- When Sephora announced it would begin carrying Lord Jones. That was a huge breakthrough into mainstream markets.
- 2) The recent announcement that Martha Stewart would be teaming up with a cannabis company.
- 3) My customers. I talk to people from all walks of life. Ex-athletes. Seniors. People suffering with PTSD. My storefront allows me to talk to people with various levels of education when it comes to CBD and its benefits. Some customers are CBD fanatics, some have never heard of it or have a negative perception of CBD. I get excited about the educational forum that I bring to my community within the walls of The House of Kombucha.
Three things that concern me:
1) Misconceptions about CBD products. We have a lot of work here to do on educating the public on the difference between THC ad CBD.
2) CBD misuse. When marijuana is legalized, I worry that folks who smoke think that they are ingesting enough CBD to help aid in whatever function they are trying to manage. I think that’s a mistake. So as the marijuana grows, I think the importance of CBD might be misconstrued.
3) The flood to market of so many CBD brands. I care and respect this industry and the people it serves. There are people hawking CBD products who haven’t taken the time to put the care and respect into their product, into the research. I hate the thought of someone having a bad experience with a sub-par product and then avoiding CBD all together.
Can you share your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started Leading a Cannabis Business”? Please share a story or example for each.
1. DO IT SOONER! I am so happy how my business has evolved from yoga, to kombucha to CBD, but I just wish the universe brought me these opportunities sooner.
2. For a little while I wondered whether we did ourselves a disservice by not including CBD in the name of our business. But now I can honestly answer: How do you get people into a CBD shop? Don’t call it CBD. We’re the only CBD store in the area that doesn’t have a name association with the plant. We’re the The House of Kombucha and we don’t even say CBD. We’re located in a shopping center a few doors down from Lululemon — a high end yoga clothing store. Our name and location differentiate us and makes us less intimidating which I’m thankful for. We are not selling vapes or buds, we are not a head shop. We are a boutique concept store bringing quality local products to the community. I can get people in here that I know for a fact do not want to walk into a head shop.
3. We recently started selling CBD online and that has provided some challenges. While we have a greater reach in distribution, selling online does not allow me to have that 1:1 customer interaction that I prefer. I had a customer this month who was not happy with her purchase. I feel like if I could have guided her before her initial purchase, I could have steered her down the right path for a more desirable selection for her personal need.
4. We’re not made of oil, why are we putting oil in our bodies? How much of it is really getting absorbed? Does it really permeate? I don’t have any complaints, but I’m trying to get out of oils. I will probably keep a few on the shelf but, water soluble JUST MAKES MORE SENSE. Personally, my go-to product is a 1500 or 1800 water soluble CBD. I think there will be a big shift away from oils and more towards water soluble CBD solutions.
5. There are buyers everywhere. 19 years ago, when I was starting in sales, I noticed I could bring stuff to people and talk to people that were not approached before. There’s a market. Those people are buyers!
What advice would you give to other CEOs or founders to help their employees to thrive?
Respect and appreciate each of their individual talents. Invest the time to mold people and create a happy environment. Demonstrate how business should be conducted and how services should be rendered, in a way that you would do. Train people. Be hands on. Have them watch you. Spend time. People really are creatures of habit. I know it sounds generic but use your talents to hone their talents and create a combined effort.
You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂
I can already envision a KOGA Life Movement. Ultimately, I would like to build a KOGA Center which would house a CBD outlet, a Bikram hot yoga studio and a KOGAbucha bar all under one roof. Imagine that you’ve just ended a killer Bikram Yoga session, and now you need to rejuvenate your body with a cold kombucha. Before you head out you pop by the CBD section of our center to stock up on your favorite edibles or water-soluble CBD. You’re happy, you’re healthy and you’re living your best KOGA life.
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Five Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started a Cannabis Business, with Billy Levine and… was originally published in Authority Magazine on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.