Tripp Keber has been called many things: the king of cannabis, the mogul of marijuana, the Willie Wonka of weed.
But in 2010 when he started his company, Dixie Elixirs & Edibles, which produces marijuana-infused products, he was hard-pressed to find anyone, let alone top job candidates, who were willing to call him "boss."
"The single greatest challenge I had was trying to attract the best-of-breed thinkers because there's so much social stigma," he says.
By the time Keber started his business, medical marijuana had been legalized by the state of Colorado for nearly 10 years, but federal law still classified it as a Schedule 1 drug, which meant there was (and still is) a chance the federal government could bust him. In 2010, Keber worked out of a 400-square-foot shed behind a house in Denver, where he manufactured just one product—a pot-infused soda. He worried the neighbors would rat him out.
The Dixie Elixirs of today is a different place. The company now makes 110 different products from ice cream to pain relief salves to its signature soda—each bottle the equivalent of smoking four joints. Keber is building a $5 million facility with 50,000 square feet of production space and the company has 45 employees—a figure Keber expects to double in size by the end of the year.
To be clear, Keber isn't your stereotypical ponytailed toker cooking up magic brownies in his basement. He isn't preaching the medicinal benefits of marijuana to legislators. He's a blazer-wearing, clean-shaven entrepreneur whose resume includes a job on Capitol Hill during the Reagan administration and the Heritage Foundation. "I'm not a marijuana activist," says Keber. "I'm a businessman. I simply got into this industry because I saw a potential to profit."
Easier said than done, of course. In those early days, Keber, who didn't know anything about how to grow marijuana ("There's no Medical Marijuana For Dummies book," he says), needed to hire someone who could cultivate the plant for him. Many of the best candidates for the job were convicted felons who'd been growing the plant long enough to know what they were doing—and get thrown in jail for it.
"We weren't exactly doing background checks in 2010," Keber says. "In the early days, we couldn’t go out and attract a PhD food scientist. We couldn’t go out and get a chief marketing officer who's been associated with Fortune 500 companies. … People thought I was nuts."
A few months after Keber started his business, Colorado created the Marijuana Enforcement Division. Anyone who wanted to profit from a marijuana business had to get an occupational badge that required an intensive background check. "My application was measured in feet," says Keber. Once he got his badge, he had to be careful about who he hired and needed to fire anyone who'd been a convicted felon. "That was a difficult time," he says. "Some people were very upset."
For the first three years of the business, just making payroll was a struggle. "I didn't take a paycheck for 30 months," says Keber. "There were times when I faced a $25,000 payroll and I'd have $10,000 in my pocket."
By January, when the law changed in Colorado to include the recreational use of marijuana, and anyone over the age of 21 could suddenly buy a Dixie Elixir soda, no questions asked, things had changed. In a single 90-minute period in January, the company sold more than it had the entire month of November. "Nobody could predict the voracious appetite for infused products," says Keber. "We are getting crushed by demand."
But the stigma of working for a marijuana company is still there. Some of his employees would rather not publicly speak about working for the company. And of course there is the danger that federal regulators could shut down the whole operation. That can make the company a hard sell when attracting top talent. How do you poach people with great jobs to work for you when you could be thrown in jail tomorrow?
Keber has a technique for doing this that he calls "dripping on" people. "It's like Chinese water torture," he says. "It's constantly reinforcing the message, 'Come work with me.'" Now that the company is seeing explosive growth, Keber doesn't handle all the hiring and it doesn't take as much convincing. But before then, he had to make the company's potential ring loud and clear with hires. "I really pitched to people's ego, selling them on a long-term vision of an industry that will produce billions of dollars in wealth," he says. "I tell them, 'You are literally at the ground floor.'"
Starting 18 months ago, Keber has been on a hiring bonanza, bringing in new people in marketing, securities, and production who'd worked at Fortune 500 companies and had decades of experience. "These are professionals I couldn’t afford or attract three years ago," Keber says.
And he is doing his part to make them happy now that the company is finally out of its slump. Keber is constructing an in-house gym and wellness center and recently built a two-story employee lounge with perks like a juice bar, massage therapists, and financial advisors.
"You are seeing a market that is likely to triple or quadruple. … The numbers are massive and they continue to grow only four months into it," Keber says. "I generally tell people, 'This will be the last job you will have to have.'"