Here’s What it Takes to Stand Out in the Crowded CBD Space

populum mobile
Courtesy of Populum

In our new series “Straight from the Founder’s Mouth,” we’re asking entrepreneurs in emerging and fast-growing categories to share intel on what it took to launch their business and explain how they’re continuing to thrive during growth.

Up first is Gunhee Park, cofounder of Populum, a line of direct-to-consumer CBD body-care products that launched in January 2017 and was earning more than$70,000 per month within six months. By 2018, the company more than doubled that number, pulling in a total of $1.5 million that year. CBD is an exciting but increasingly crowded space with plenty of unique manufacturing and consumer perception challenges. Here, Park reveals what he thinks Populum did right and what they’re still struggling with.

Tell us what Populum does in one sentence.

Gunhee Park: We’re reframing the way people view CBD and providing high-quality, trustworthy hemp products to conscious consumers.

If we were potential investors or brand partners, what would you tell us about Populum?

Park: We started in 2016 as a bootstrapped company with a mission to bring high-quality hemp CBD oil to the people. Understanding that a large portion of customers are also trying out CBD for the first time, we wanted to make the shopping experience as seamless and approachable as possible.

Over the past two and a half years, we’ve grown from $600,000 revenue in 2017 to $1.5 million in 2018. We’ve been fortunate that our single biggest driver of growth has been through our subscription platform. Just this past year, our monthly subscribers increased by 300 percent. Prioritizing our product quality and putting our customers first have translated to early success for our business.

What is the most important lesson you’ve learned from running this business?

Park: To this day, the hemp industry is perceived as taboo and closely affiliated with marijuana. When we were first getting started in 2016, it was difficult for us to even find a payment processor to take our payments. We couldn’t advertise on Google or Facebook, and many vendors shied away from even working with us. While overcoming the obstacles of starting a business in this environment, my biggest takeaway has been to find ways to go against the grain.

We started winning when we decided to get creative in our approaches to marketing and go against the conventional wisdom of our industry. We created Populum to make a positive difference in this industry and to become a champion of this product category by creating a brand that is inclusive, refreshing, unique and innovative. We believe that real change comes from mustering the courage to challenge the status quo, and we implement this mind-set into everything we do.

What’s one aspect of your business you knew nothing about when you started it and how did you solve for that?

Park: I was not familiar with the hemp industry at all, just mainly knew the health and sustainability benefits that come from the hemp plant. I became familiar with the industry by writing about the industry, going to conferences and meeting people in the industry. Getting more familiar with where the industry stands helped me discover opportunities—not only for our brand but also for the hemp industry as a whole—that I would not have otherwise known about.

What do you consider this biggest milestone or breakthrough moment in Populum’s history?

Park: I’d say two milestones really stick out for me. The first is when we hit 100 monthly subscribers. It was a testament that we had a loyal, although small, customer base that believed in our products and our mission. To us, it meant that, though we were small at the time, our approach to hemp was something that people could trust in and that we had a shot at bringing this to a mainstream market.

The second milestone was when we officially rebranded in late 2018, in our logo, our packaging and our website experience. This was a project that took over six months and one that our team had been working hard toward. This was a big breakthrough moment that really catapulted our growth, and we also found it best portrays who we are as a brand and we were really able to shine.

What mistake or challenge have you gotten through and how did you prevail?

Park: Being a bootstrapped company, I was very stingy when it came to hiring. I waited until the last minute to hire new talent, when the team was overloaded and stretched thin. This was a mistake I made early on that I’m honestly still working at improving.

What important projects or business challenges are you currently grinding on? Why do they require your time and energy?

Park: In late 2018, the hemp industry got a big boost with the passage of the latest Farm Bill. This bill further deregulated the hemp industry and further opened up the industry. This will translate into fiercer competition with more entrants into the industry. The biggest challenge for us this year will be to find creative ways to continue to differentiate ourselves among the crowd of CBD brands and continue to be leaders not only in distinguishable product but also in quality and spreading a message of inclusivity and approachability for every customer.

What advice would you give to someone looking to start a CBD product line?

Park: Don’t be scared to start a business in an industry where you’re not an insider. Don’t be intimidated when you first get rebuffed by the so-called “experts.” As somebody new, you probably have a fresher perspective, which you could translate into an opportunity and scalable solution.

How does your background—educational, professional or otherwise—contribute to your ability to run this business?

Park: I used to work in supply chain for a big corporation. Having the experience of being part of a bigger operation has helped me always keep in mind how to structure and scale the business. When the business is quickly growing, it’s easy to get distracted by the day-to-day problems. Leveraging the networks and knowledge I have gained prior to starting this business has been tremendously valuable.

What do you look for in the people you hire, other than the basic “good employee” traits?

Park: I’ve come to value personality and culture fit as much as I do talent. I learned early on that hiring people just for talent is a mistake if they don’t fit into the culture of what you’re trying to build. I want every employee to feel like our success as a company is their own personal success, and I feel that requires talent that aligns with our values and culture.

How do you take care of your mental and physical health as an entrepreneur?

Park: I’ve come to value having a morning routine that helps me get my day started correctly. I’ve made it a habit to wake up at 5 a.m. and go to the gym at least three times a week, and then, on other days, I spend one to two hours reading before diving into work. I’ve found that this routine helps me feel refreshed by the time I start working and also not feel rushed when I wake up, since I’m getting a head start.

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