VIP: Bryan Gerber, CEO of Hemper, Hara Supply

July 12, 2023 · Cannabis Now

Known in the industry as the “King of Cones,” Bryan Gerber is co-founder and CEO of the popular smoking accessory subscription box Hemper, and the rolling paper manufacturing company Hara Supply, which is on its way to becoming the world’s largest distributor of pre-rolled cones. With an entrepreneurial spirit, mind for innovation and love for cannabis, it’s no wonder Gerber finds himself at the head of two successful and growing brands. And Gerber’s making it clear he has no plans on stopping here—there’s always room for improvement.

Cannabis Now: Which came first, Hemper or Hara Supply?

Bryan Gerber: I started Hemper a week after I graduated from GW [George Washington University] back in 2015. And then, with Hara, we kind of morphed into our brands and our supply horseplay started in early 2018. Every three years, we’ve identified a new step function opportunity to kind of plough into and take market share. That’s kind of the timeline.

CN: I’d love to hear the backstory of how you go from a college graduate to leading one of the most recognized brands in cannabis.

BG: So, I’ve been a user for quite a few years. Early on, probably about tenth grade, I was put on Adderall. One of the things that really calmed me down at the end of the day was cannabis use. And then I graduated. My background is in accounting and information systems. Originally, I thought I was going to be pre-med, but I figured out I could help people in a different way. I graduated college on May 18, 2015, and I started Hemper on June 1, 2015. We originally launched as a discovery outlet called the Hemper Box. Every month, you’d receive a new set of premium products for $30 per month—part replenishable, part discovery, part necessity.

CN: How do you keep the subscription box fresh and exciting?

BG: I looked at all the other subscription services—Birchbox, FAB Fit, Dollar Shave Club—and where each of them succeeded and where they faltered. Then, I went back to product development. The idea was: “Let’s start designing our own products and push them through the subscription box”—kind of as our own Trojan Horse marketing outlet that’s paid for. We got feedback from thousands of consumers overnight and then went to distribution and retail partners and showed them the data of why it’s popular and why they should put it into their stores. It was one of the first data-driven approaches to smoking accessory product development. That’s what we did for the first three years of business.

CN: How has the business evolved?

BG: Fast forwarding, we’ve developed more than 300 products in the lab. We’ve been doing this for nine years now. But we’ve kind of turned into more of a Procter & Gamble approach, developing brands outside of Hemper. Hemper.com has now become one of the largest own branded marketplaces for discovering smoking accessories. We’re now at about 30,000 subscribers for those packages. And we’ve serviced more than two million customers in nine years.

CN: In the subscription box industry, some are gold mines, and some are disasters. How did you guys survive and thrive in that environment? What would you say differentiates Hemper’s success?

BG: When I first started it, there were already five boxes doing something. And then there were five more after us. What I identified was everyone was kind of cheapening out on the brands and products. So, I used slightly more premium brands in the box with the same price point, and I was just better at marketing.

CN: Can you share some marketing tips with other business owners out there?

BG: The fact that I know people want to own something and be a part of a community is very important. The three Cs of e-commerce are community, commerce and content. We really excelled at that side. And we emphasized Hemper as a stand-alone brand. I also identified early on that with just the box alone, you can’t scale a business. So, let’s take these products that are winners and move them through distribution and retail—that’s how we’re going to pay for our overhead. It was kind of a simple evolution in my eyes, but a lot of people missed the boat on that.

CN: And when it comes to creating new products, what’s the big takeaway there?

BG: As cannabis consumers, we’re able to identify what consumers are looking for because we’re kind of those Alpha buyers ourselves. That really set us apart. I think a lot of people get into business, and they don’t love and partake in what they’re selling or doing. And I think that really came through in our products, where we were really trying to deliver functional, affordable, awesome stuff to people every month.

CN: Keeping with the theme of authenticity, how do you maintain that on social media? How do you genuinely engage with your followers while also trying to drive sales and introduce new products?

BG: Well, if we just pull apart what High Tide did, they rolled up six of the top online headshops plus Daily High Club. They turned every single one of those websites into a discount or store. So, there’s nothing special about them and they don’t have brands; they’ve got marketplaces, and they’re pretty much the same thing across all five sites. There’s really nothing unique setting them apart anymore. If you go look at their social media and you look at their website, it is that “50% off, come by our bong today” messaging. They lost out on the community aspects. I think they lost out on the product development aspects. I think they lost out on a lot of different things. And I think we’ve stayed true to the brand and our core ethos this entire journey, and I think that’s really what separated us.

High Tide has people all over the world working on these sites, and you don’t really get that community aspect from people working from home in multiple countries. It’s hard to deliver that personal touch. We’re able to still do that even though we’ve scaled our business to new heights every year. And I think that’s probably why we’ve been so much more successful.

CN: How does Hara Supply factor into all this?

BG: Along the way, we got this interesting opportunity to start manufacturing pre-roll cones, and there was this massive shortage in the market. Because cones are handmade, and you need a labor arbitrage show, it’s hard to scale—and you can only do it in a few countries. My college roommate at GW, RJ, is Indian, so we were able to go over to India, where we were already producing glass and a few other products, and we set up our first cone factory within 90 days. And then, I walked into our first customer, which was an existing customer called Kush Bottles. They basically gave us a half-a-million-dollar purchase order that day because our lead times were six weeks compared to Futurola, which was 15 weeks. As long as we could meet the quality standards, we were in business.

CN: And that business clearly seems to be thriving. What’s the current size of the operation?

BG: We’re now the largest manufacturer of pre-roll cones and combustibles in the industry; we produce over 100 million cones a month for the market. We do all your vanity brands, from the Jeeters and STIIIZYs of the world to your top MSOs. We produced some 1.2 billion cones last year, and we’re growing and scaling, becoming more of a solutions partner to the cannabis brands and MSOs where we’re diving into the product teams and marketing teams, helping them create new skews and where the markets going and trend analysis on micro consumption and different paper substrates and different filter tip styles and things like that and creating custom tooling for automation equipment. You name it, we are becoming that solutions partner for this industry.

CN: What European rolling paper partner do you work with for Hara Supply?

BG: We acquire our rolling paper from Don Levin, so we’re using the finest French rolling paper in the world.

CN: How important is sustainability and incorporating the average consumer’s desire for organic, all-natural options that are safer on your lungs? Is that part of the company ethos?

BG: Yes. When we set up the cone factories, we wanted it to be the most certified facility in the world. We are GMP-certified, ISO-certified, FSC-certified, HACCP certified. We’ve got gluten-free, halal, vegan—you name it, we’re pretty much on it.

CN: Do you have kosher certification?

BG: We do have a kosher certification. Sorry—I forgot about that one. So, we’re basically making cones in clean rooms. And it’s unfortunate—a lot of companies in the space are buying cones out of sweatshop companies, and they’re buying stuff from China and there are child labor issues. We really wanted to clean it up and provide our workers with proper medical care and things like that. It’s a different approach; our costs are higher. And so, whenever we get a customer coming back to say, “Hey, any cheaper? This other Joe Schmo in India said you can get it to me for cheaper,” and I say, “Yeah, that’s because he’s got dirt floors and kids rolling cones.” A lot of companies support that, which is unfortunate. We really wanted to clean that side up, and we have.”

CN: The last time Cannabis Now covered your brand was back in 2019. At that time, you had anticipated that the market for legal cannabis was going to be worth $146 billion by 2025. Do you feel like we’re on track to hit that number? Or do you think it’s going to be way larger than any of us ever predicted?

BG: I get asked this a lot. I think that for my company that if you take, for example, Swisher, most of the people buying Swisher products are gutting them and putting cannabis in it— 98% of people—and they’ll tell the FDA it’s the opposite: 98% are smoking them outright and 2% are recreational. So, if you look at that, they sell four billion cigarillos a year. We’re talking serious money and if you look at just the paraphernalia side of the cannabis industry, it’s worth billions, not including the cannabis side itself. I think we’re going to probably get some new regime here in office and maybe push things forward, but I don’t see it going federal or anything like that even past 2025. I don’t think we’re going to be able to figure out how the states and the federal government are going to play nice.

CN: Speaking of new regimes, are you or your brands active in supporting any kind of political or nonprofit groups?

BG: We participate in supporting the Last Prisoner Project and more recently, we’ve been working with the 40 Tons group. We love supporting the social equity side of the industry. I think it’s super important. We do have a program here called Hemper Helps, in which every year, we donate to certain charities.

CN: Final question. What’s on the big vision board for the next ten years?

BG: Scaling Hara into more of a solutions partner, continuing to clean up this industry and helping guide the great consolidation here. I’m super excited to get our products into mass-market convenience stores. One of the most fulfilling things for me is when you walk into a random headshop and you see your stuff on the shelf. The feeling is like no other. It’s going to be cool seeing everything at 7-Eleven and all those chains. And then, hopefully, we’re going to expand internationally. We’re already doing it. We’ve been selling into South America, South Africa and Australia. We just picked a new distributor in Barcelona recently; we’ve got a lot of stuff cooking on the European side. So, we’re excited about all the opportunities right now. If we can just keep our focus up and stick to our core, we’re going to be successful. (Full Story)

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