By Emily Fata
MJ Freeway is no longer exclusively drawing comparisons to other cannabis companies. After growing at a rate of 205% over the past three years, the company was listed among companies such as Microsoft, GoPro, and Yelp, on the 2015 Inc. 5000, Inc. magazine’s list of the fastest growing companies.
“Cannabis has been in the limelight so we’ve been recognized in the media a fair amount over the years,” said co-founder Jessica Billingsley. “It’s nice to be recognized for just being a successful business, not just a successful cannabis business.”
MJ Freeway, a software business that has generated over $2.5 million in revenue over the past three years, began as a startup in the mountains of Telluride, Colorado. Cofounders Jessica Billignsey and Amy Poinsett had already been technology entrepreneurs in their own right, running an IT business and a website development business, respectively. As they were watching cannabis regulations evolve in Colorado in 2009, their entrepreneurial urges began churning and they began throwing around business ideas. Billingsley had invested in one of the first licensed dispensaries in Boulder and noticed that the business had no means of tracking their retail transactions. “We know software—we know how to grow a business like this,” Billingsley said. “We did something that we really knew how to do.”
The duo released their first product, GramTracker—a point-of-sale system that tracks plant count, grams and dollars for cannabis businesses—in 2010. There were no hungry venture capitalists trying to break into the cannabis industry during those days; the founders bootstrapped operations using personal funds and bridge loans.
“The climate then was very different—no one knew what would happen with the presidential election and there were raids in California,” Billingsley said. “Even though we’re an ancillary business that doesn’t ‘touch the plant,’ investors would talk to their lawyers and then lose interest.”
After selling a license a day every day for the first two months of operations, they realized the demand for their system was real. MJ Freeway has grown rapidly since and currently has an international presence, working with clients in Australia, Canada, Europe and South America. The company has also expanded its services beyond the initial point of sale system offering, and is offering hardware, application support, and operational analysis and marketing services.
“Before starting MJ freeway, I didn’t realize that managing growth was a thing,” Poinsett said. “I am very grateful for our growth. But learning how to manage the rapid growth … making sure our teams are meeting the needs of clients has been a tremendous challenge.”
The company has cited the ever-changing legal regulations as another challenge of operating within the industry, but Billingsley and Poinsett also recognize that that is also where their market opportunity lies. MJ Freeway guarantees that its software products will meet or exceed state legal regulations and has a compliance and legal team dedicated to staying up-to-date on policy changes. For many dispensary owners, this makes MJ Freeway an easier way to manage their inventory than more mainstream software, like Quickbooks or Microsoft Excel. And then of course, the company has faced obstacles for simply being associated with a federally illegal substance.
“We play inflated merchant processing. We’ve had our insurance canceled twice,” Billingsley said. “We’ve had a lot more challenges just by being associated with cannabis.”
For now, Billingsley and Poinsett are less concerned about the challenges of operating within the cannabis industry and are more focused on the opportunity. They’re pushing to have 50% of the marijuana industry’s market share by 2017 and want to continue to expand their business internationally. They’re also exploring ways to utilize the intellectual property and data they have amassed from their clients since the early days of operations to provide more intelligence for the rest of the industry.
“The most difficult thing is decision to act, the rest is merely tenacity,” said Poinsett, citing a favorite personal quote from Amelia Earhart. “Starting a business from scratch takes a tremendous amount of work. It’s going so fast—things can happen very quickly—hang on to your vision and your goal.”