Each week we highlight entrepreneurs in the cannabis industry for our viewers to learn more about the leading cannabis executives of our time.
This week, we highlight Gary Cohen, CEO of Cova. In a career that encompassed a dozen start-ups, Gary has held leadership roles with Verizon and AT&T, has managed technology-oriented research practices for Nielsen, Milestone Group and ITG/science, and led software/internet ventures Shoptok, Birdstep, and Handmade Mobile. He has also been on the boards of several tech start-ups, including Onavo (acquired by Facebook), OpenSignal, Cenoplex, and Adello. Gary has a Bachelor of Science in Finance and a Master of Science in Marketing.
In our interview with Gary, we asked a variety of questions to gain further insight into being a cannabis entrepreneur:
Thank you, Gary, for joining us, it is an honor featuring you at this week’s Entrepreneur of the Week. Can you please tell our readers a little bit more about Cova?
Gary Cohen: Cova is a leading software solutions company that designs and builds products to elevate the dispensary experience. Our point-of-sale solution is purpose-built for the cannabis industry based on years of research and expertise; our digital signage and menus integrate seamlessly with our POS, providing a suite of tools to help bring dispensaries to the next level.
The legal marijuana market is one of the fastest growing industries in North America. Cova operates as a start-up within a solid, well-established parent software company. Collectively, our software can be found in over 19,000 stores across North America in various verticals.
How is Cova helping the cannabis industry in a positive way?
Gary Cohen: Dispensaries are in a unique and complex retail environment that requires an advanced software solution designed specifically for it. For example, tracking inventory of a product that evaporates and is highly regulated is challenging. With their current technology, retailers find themselves forced to create “workarounds” because of system limitations that aren’t designed to meet the law and regulations of the industry. Unfortunately, this means they often have to deal with frequent errors.
Cova is built with the specific needs of dispensaries in mind.Through our intuitive user interface, robust reporting capabilities, and grams and inventory tracking, our POS and inventory management platform empowers budtenders to create great in-store experiences and allows the owner to run a legal marijuana store efficiently and profitably.
You have held leadership roles working with companies like Verizon and AT&T, is there anything that surprised you as you became a cannabis entrepreneur?
Gary Cohen: When I entered the cannabis industry, I didn’t know anything and everyone else knew so much. It seemed I was really “late to the party” (in 2016), and would never catch up. I’ve realized, in the arc of the industry to come, we are at the very beginning. This is similar to the mobile phone industry, of the mid-80s, that had the same effect on me. I felt late to that party, in 1986, because everyone knew so much. They had been selling cellular phones for a few months but had been building the networks, billing platforms, customer support, and tech services, for years. However, the real fun began, right when I started. This is the same for cannabis. I’m surprised that I’ve seen this movie before.
What is the best piece of advice you would like to share with our fellow cannabis entrepreneurs who are looking to launch a business in the industry?
Gary Cohen: Understand the market you’re trying to serve and don’t generalize about the industry. Each state (market) has unique challenges (regulatory, cultural, political), but also a unique set of opportunities (timing of licensing, demographics, gaps in the eco-system). Think about how your product/service/solution can cleverly overcome or deal with the challenges. Make that part of your strategy and don’t just focus on how you are going to fill the gaps. You may have a better ‘mousetrap’, but if you can’t overcome the market-limiting issues, you will get buried by them as you’re busy yelling about the opportunity.
I would love to share with our readers about one project or accomplishment that you consider to be the most significant in your career.
Gary Cohen: I joined Flirtomatic in 2009, a London based Mobile Social Network/Dating company, to introduce their service to the US. They had been trying to get traction, for over a year, with no success. While I was very well-connected in the Wireless industry, I had never run a mobile platform company, nor knew much about dating apps. However, I developed a unique path-to-market by working through US carriers, and then ramped up sales and marketing. We were able to register 1.5M users, within 18 months, and eventually, bring mobile flirting to millions of Americans.
What is the hardest part of launching a startup, specifically in this industry?
Gary Cohen: For this industry, which is in ‘hyper-growth’ mode, it is urgency. It’s a race. With every passing, quarter you are not in the race with an offering, you miss the market. It’s hard to get your investors, developers, and staff to fully appreciate the necessity of speeding up. While many supporters believe in the vision and opportunity, they can’t always appreciate the need for quicker action. Most people have never truly been on the ground floor of a new industry. Going slow is not an option when hyper-growth brings, with it, hyper-competition.
In life, I have found that we all have a role model we look up to in one way or another, who is your role model and why?
Gary Cohen: There are a couple of people I draw motivation from and try to apply to my business thinking. Joseph Campbell’s ability to connect the dots of what it means to be human, through the myths and stories of people around the world and over time, is fascinating. All people love the ‘hero story’ and how the hero overcomes obstacles to succeed in the end. I find the stories he tells, about storytelling, relate well to sales and finding your own company’s story.
Another is Fareed Zakaria. Over the past 10 years, I am amazed at his ability to get to the heart of an issue and communicate it clearly. A huge part of leadership is effective communication. Start-up environments never have a playbook (policy manuals, operational norms, etc.) and things happen quickly. It is clear, concise and accurate communication that is essential for minimizing confusion caused by miscommunications.
How do you stay balanced? Any hobbies?
Gary Cohen: There’s really three things: 1) Family time without work. When we have dinner together, I am really there, and not mentally still at work. 2) Quality time with people I respect and like being with. Since personal time is precious, I don’t waste it. 3) Physical activity, especially outside, is the greatest stress reliever. Skiing, mountain biking and working on my property are ideal, but I also try to go to the gym every day.
What book is currently on your bookshelf that you personally are reading or that you suggest our fellow readers should check out?
Gary Cohen: I’ve recommended Weed the People, by Bruce Barcott, to dozens of people, including my management team, as the prerequisite for understanding the cannabis industry and its progression to its current state.
For entrepreneurs, I love Fountainhead, by Ayn Rand. At its essence is the belief that the ‘creator’ (inventor, entrepreneur, business pioneer) is entitled to see his or her creation deployed to the public as they see fit and not as outside forces (government, policy-makers, special interests) would like. If you compromise too often, your invention becomes diluted. Greed, or other interests, not only want to take your invention from you but destroy that thing in your mind. Ultimately, the book defines the rights of the individual and his/her idea, versus the right of the public to it.
How can we as an industry continue to make a positive difference in society?
Gary Cohen: I’m proud that, in Colorado, the cannabis industry endures an incredible amount of frequent regulatory, and statutory, change for the sake of legitimizing the industry. Legitimizing the industry includes making it safe in relation to children, positioning safe marijuana product consumption and providing the transparency that negates criminal activity. By doing this, we can provide medicinal access to those who suffer and adult access for a better quality-of-life alternative to alcohol. Being mindful of legitimacy, in business practices, is the investment required for the future of the industry.
To learn more about Cova Dispensary Software, you can visit www.covasoft.com
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