How a software developer started a luxury cannabis brand.

A interview with Parkdale Brass - Toronto

Hello! Who are you and what business did you start?

Hey! My name is Shawn and I was born and raised in Toronto, Ontario! I’m a new dad and the founder of Parkdale Brass. At Parkdale Brass, we focus on mindful cannabis use and believe our products breathe life back into the ritual of smoking. Our signature brass pipe became available in 2019, and since then, has been featured in Forbes and Weedmaps, just to name a couple.

The updated version of our pipe, The Brockton Mk2, fuses modern functionality and 20th-century design. Of course, I can't forget to mention that it allows smokers to light from the bottom, saving their fingers from burning and protecting their flower with a magnetic lid. Our eco brass is safe to use and slowly crisps the cannabis like a vape, meaning cannabis users can stretch their stash. Also, brass provides a lower heat conduction rate, which means you can easily save your bowl for later. (But I wouldn't recommend leaving it too long!)

Our pipe is a high-end cannabis accessory, making it ideal for the sophisticated or successful stoner who is looking for a unique piece that will last for years to come. Of course, it is also a great piece for collectors. Plus, as it’s quite a special piece, we offer plenty of information on how to use it, clean it, and enjoy it on our website and social media.

What's your backstory and how did you come up with the idea?

I am a Filipino-Canadian and grew up in Parkdale, a historic neighborhood of Toronto. I have always been fascinated by business, having financial freedom and, especially, doing it all from a computer. So much so that when I was a teen, I invested 300 dollars into a MLM thinking I would start making 5k a month online and travel the world. Long story short, I quickly learned that it was a scam and that I need to put real work into a business to achieve my dream.

I first came up with the idea of Parkdale Brass while working as Web Developer for a digital agency that focused on creating cannabis websites on Shopify. When we would receive products from our clients, I noticed that most of the products out there had similar designs, like very futuristic or modern, but still quite similar and not super innovative. Also, because of the materials these companies chose, the products would sometimes arrive broken. That got me thinking about durable materials, such as brass.

At the time, the cannabis industry was so new and felt like an open industry, ready for anyone to make money from. I decided that given the working knowledge I have of the industry, the knowledge I have of ecommerce and not seeing the type of products I would personally like to use (classic, luxury, rugged and vintage) that I would create my own brand.

Take us through the process of designing, prototyping, and manufacturing your first product.

Well, it all began when I started brainstorming ideas and researching different pipe designs. I was heavily influenced by the tobacciana culture and aesthetic from being a cigar aficionado, as well as, early 20th century designs. After sketching out several different designs, I took them to friends and family (smokers and non-smokers) and asked what their first impression of each design was. The Brockton design stood out as being a bit industrial but also classic and vintage.

I also wanted to add a feature that I hadn't seen in any other pipe. When holding another pipe and going through the process of lighting, I found that I had to turn the lighter over to light from the top. Then, I thought, why not reverse that and have the bottom open and light the bowl from there?

After that, I updated my design. With a lot of trial and error, and daydreaming about how the air and flame would flow from the bottom through the flower and to the user, I finally came up with a pretty good design. I began considering names and was quite partial to “The Brockton”, as it was a neighbourhood near Parkdale. It just seemed to fit the pipe, and that's when things really began to take shape.

Then, I decided I needed to take the next step and get a 3D model of the design. That way, I could 3D print it to get an idea of how it felt in my hands. However, having no money to put towards the project, I decided I would learn 3D design and 3D design software. So, I researched and watched a couple of videos and landed on fusion 360 as the software I would use. I got a hobbyist account and just played around with it for a couple of weeks.

Eventually, I got the hang of it and developed a rough but workable 3D design. The next step was to make a prototype. I researched some options and, in my excitement, went with the first company I saw on Google, which was 3D Hubs. I uploaded my design and ordered the first 3D plastic prototypes. When I got it, the prototypes were massive! I had all the proportions wrong, and the model was larger than my hand but I got a good feeling of what the design will look like in the real world. After several models and lots more trial and error, I eventually got the feel and proportions right.

Once I had the 3D printed prototype, I figured that I needed a real prototype in brass. I used the same service to get a prototype made, and it took a couple of weeks to arrive. When it arrived, I noticed the weight of it. The pipe felt heavy, sturdy and strong. The lighting from the bottom took a bit of time to learn and get the hang of, but I liked that process. I likened it to figuring out a cigar.

In time, I found that, like a cigar, I needed to take time out of my day and relax, find a nice place to sit and light my pipe. It became a ritual that I still do to this day. After that, I ordered about 50 for my first order from 3D Hubs, which lowered the cost per unit a bit and had them ready for launch.

Describe the process of launching the business.

Not having any idea on how to start a business or how to get a business license or even open a business account, I began to do a lot of research. I was slowly beginning to see that with cannabis, the rules were somewhat different as well. I had a lot of difficulty opening up a bank account and getting small business loans because I was cannabis adjacent. Banks would ask me for a cannabis license even though I sold no cannabis. I had to largely fund this project with my own money, which was frustrating and at times, difficult!

Digitally, things were much simpler. Developing the website was easy for me as I had lots of experience with Shopify. I used one of Shopify's free themes and edited it to my liking. I hired a writer and social media manager to handle all the content and social media, as this was a portion of the business that I was not good at. Then, it was time to add my product, get product renders and produce the product description.

After a week or two, the website was set up and ready to launch. Launching the actual business and product didn't go down as I had imagined. I simply turned on the website and expected the money to roll in, of course things didn't happen like that at all. But I persisted, and shared the site on all my social media and the company's new social media.

After a week of no sales, we decided to start reaching out to micro-influencers for reviews in exchange for a Brockton. We quickly learned that was how things worked when you are beginning in the industry. This kind of exchange got us noticed by a few publications, and eventually, a writer from Forbes reached out. What a relief! His article got us noticed, and sales started to increase. We then got onto Leafly, Weedmaps and other cannabis publications. Our SEO grew as well, which helps with daily traffic.

The biggest lesson I learnt from all that was to plan and coordinate with other publications, influencers and brands to launch a product. The slow trickle approach is not very effective, and if people don't know who you are, they aren't going to come knocking!

Since launch, what has worked to attract and retain customers?

Since we launched, we have continued to focus our efforts on increasing our SEO. For us, that means optimizing our site, increasing site speed and having good content written on our blog every week. I realized early on that having too many apps on your Shopify site will kill your site speed. Google likes when your site is fast. Weighing whether an app will add value to your site and whether your customers will actually care whether you have a cool widget is critical to keeping your site fast. Every year, I do an audit of my apps and plugins, as well as of the site itself to see if I truly need a feature. If not, I drop it.

They say content is king, and they're not lying! Lots of people discover us from seeing our blog posts and even seeing our products in other publications. Creating and sharing content that is relevant to your users (and also SEO friendly) is vital for growth. Since we are in the cannabis niche, traditional paid ads on Google and Facebook are impossible. That's why we don’t do any ads right now but there are cannabis-friendly ad networks (MANTIS and Traffic Roots) that we might try in the future.

Also, we periodically do unorthodox marketing. We noticed that when customers hold or feel The Brockton, they are more likely to buy one online. So, we decided to try out and have our product displayed locally in coffee shops, whiskey or cocktail bars, barbershops and tattoo shops. Generally, we ask if they’d be interested in receiving a free product to display in their shop and send them a small kit with the pipe and display materials. Although we are in the early stages of this campaign, we are already seeing some sales and interest.

Another avenue we’re trying is to partner with similar brands and licensed producers like Lowell Farms, Botany Farms, Prrl Labs and other cannabis brands. Our general game plan is to set up social campaigns with them, maybe create some content together and promote each other on social media.

Even though we’ve tried other marketplaces like Amazon, we didn't see great results. As with many things, cannabis accessories are kind of a gray area there.

How are you doing today and what does the future look like?

Today, we are still profitable and plan to expand our product line. Soon, we'll be launching our next product which is called “The Bellwoods One Hitter”, a smaller cigarette looking pipe that features a floating barrel for heat reduction.

Also, we plan on expanding our B2B sales and partnering with wholesalers to get our product into dispensaries all over the States and Canada. Once our sales outpace our small operation, we plan on either going with a 3PL service or renting a warehouse.

I am also starting a newsletter. Cannabis Convenience - a weekly newsletter with the most interesting stories in cannabis in 5 mins or less.

Through starting the business, have you learned anything particularly helpful or advantageous?

Looking back now, I think it may have been easier to start with a lower cost and easier to manufacture products. Had I done that, I would have been able to switch up the designs more and produce multiple different products by now. I instead started at the other end with an expensive product, a new brand and lots to prove.

Launching during the pandemic was difficult to say the least, but largely, out of our control. Fortunately, by keeping things lean and focusing on quality and customer service, we were able to come out on top.

Also, actively looking for partnerships with brands in and out of cannabis has been very beneficial to us and continues to pay dividends. After all, cross promotions and giveaways always help both parties grow.

What platform/tools do you use for your business?

Shopify has been a great tool. It has hands down the biggest help on this journey by allowing us to get up and running really quickly, as well as keeping our overhead low. We use Shipstation for fulfillment and it's been great so far. I haven't used any other fulfillment tools so I'm not sure how it compares to others.

As far as email marketing goes, we used to use Klaviyo but have reverted to just using Shopify's built-in email tool. I find that making abandoned cart emails that look like real emails (no fancy images or clever copy) get a better response from customers.

Lastly, a tool I use a lot is ahrefs for SEO. It lets me track keywords, watch my backlinks and find hot topics to help plan content. It’s been a huge help for digital marketing.

What have been the most influential books, podcasts, or other resources?

Reddit has been great overall for finding information on advertising cannabis, as there aren't many official resources. Also, it is great for finding other people to help e out the cannabis marketing landscape. Currently, I'm subscribed to the Hustle and DTC newsletter but I find they're not really related to cannabis, just overall business advice.

Advice for other entrepreneurs who want to get started or are just starting out?

What I would recommend to anyone looking to start out now is to go with the lowest cost MVP (minimum viable product) that they can create or build. I'm not saying don't test your product before going to market, but you also don't want to wait too long. Too much waiting can slow your growth in the long run. It's easy to keep dreaming about how to make something bigger and better. What's hard is putting it out there in the real world.

Getting out there and getting feedback from customers is essential in having a good product and healthy brand. The quicker you can get feedback, the better, since that can help you understand any potential pain points. Remember, there’s never a perfect time to start. Make your product and iterate as quickly as possible! Everything has to start somewhere!

Are you looking to hire for certain positions right now?

Not hiring currently but will need to hire journalists and writers for our new newsletters. If you are a writer or journalist who's interested in cannabis and/or cannabis marketing send us an email at info@parkdalebrass.com. We look forward to hearing from you!

Where can we go to learn more?

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