Cannabis Calling: Ryan Sterling’s Rise From Bartender to Budtender to CEO
For regulars of the Hotel Jerome’s J-Bar, you’re probably wondering why one of Aspen’s most beloved bartenders isn’t there anymore to extend one of the warmest welcomes in town. After six years at the historic watering hole, Ryan Sterling packed his bags for Boulder last summer where he’s now the CEO of GreenScreens, an in-store TV network for cannabis dispensaries.
But it all started in Basalt in 2016, where Sterling first met his co-founder Martin DeFrance while working at Roots Rx during an offseason break from the Jerome. Together, they wondered why the wall-mounted flat-screen TV was always turned off and came up with the idea to create something to showcase the store’s strain menu and daily specials. Roots Rx let Sterling and DeFrance run with it, soon expanding exposure to include partner brand advertising and consumer education content.
Sterling started researching how to take their idea beyond the dispensary chain’s six mountain-town locations and stumbled across CanopyBoulder in a Google search. A seed-stage business accelerator “focused on ancillary products and services in the legal cannabis industry,” the startup incubator provides capital of as much as $80,000 following a 16-week mentor-driven bootcamp.
After completing the program last November, GreenScreens is now on screen in more than 100 dispensary locations in eight states and is the fastest-growing company to come out of CanopyBoulder to date.
“Ryan and Martin have first-hand dispensary experience, so they can speak confidently and authentically to their customers and investors about the problem that GreenScreens is solving,” explains CanopyBoulder co-founder and CEO Patrick Rea. “Their focus on business development and customer service has helped them win over dispensaries and advertising brands alike, finding more customers faster than any other company that has participated in the program.”
Since 2015, CanopyBoulder has helped launch 79 businesses, made over 90 investments and watched alumni raise over $35 million in follow-on funding from angel investors, family offices, private equity funds and hedge funds.
Gaining critical knowledge of the industry from CanopyBoulder’s renowned roster of national industry experts who serve as official mentors, DeFrance (now GreenScreens’ chief operating officer) says, “It was the best thing that could have happened to us. They gave us the confidence, funding, network and guidance that we needed to prove our concept, raise funds and truly take GreenScreens to the next level.”
While CanopyBoulder requires a 6 percent minimum equity stake in return, GreenScreens has already raised an additional $105,000 with a Series A round planned for February.
Following a trip back to his “favorite place in the world” last month for an appearance on Aspen Entrepreneurs’ “The Business of Cannabis” panel alongside Rea and Pitkin County Sheriff Joe DiSalvo, I caught up with Sterling to talk more about GreenScreens’ trajectory and get his advice for budding entrepreneurs.
Aspen Times Weekly: What made you want to get involved in the cannabis industry?
Ryan Sterling: I’ve always been an avid consumer and medical patient and really wanted to do something that made a difference. For years I was placed under the stigma of “stoners” and I knew that wasn’t how I identified with the plant, so really wanted to help change that perception in society.
ATW: What’s the biggest piece of advice for someone looking to make a career switch?
RS: My biggest piece of advice is to ensure you are passionate about the plant — for me personally, it’s all about the health and wellness benefits. Navigating through this industry is still very difficult and frustrating due to the huge amount of red tape and constant change happening. Be patient. And get involved — go to events and meet the people who are already successful. Despite so much opportunity, it’s a very small industry and getting to know the players is the best way to learn and grow fast.
ATW: What’s the most challenging part of your trajectory? The most rewarding?
RS: Aligning with the right partners to execute projects is always a challenge because you want to take the time to make sure it’s the best fit. Finding the capital is also extremely difficult and takes persistence and humility. The most rewarding aspect has been helping people have a better experience in dispensaries. Getting feedback that GreenScreens has made the retail experience more enjoyable and easier to navigate keeps us focused on bringing that experience to as many people as we can.
ATW: What do you tell people about CanopyBoulder when you meet them?
RS: It has been the best experience I have had to date in business. Period. As much as you think you know what you are doing when starting a business, there is a priceless value to working in a structured environment with other like-minded people. The accelerator aspect happens naturally because of the energy and the coaching through the program. Even with an M.B.A., the program was essential in GreenScreens finding an identity and growing at the rate we have grown.
ATW: What are you most excited about working on next with GreenScreens?
RS: GreenScreens does more than just make dispensaries look beautiful. Our platform has proven to help dispensary clients and brands move more product, but I am extremely excited to work on phase two. We are taking the network we’ve built and adding new, cutting-edge technologies to improve the insight capabilities, which we will be rolling out in 2019 in even more dispensaries across the country.
Katie Shapiro can be reached at email@example.com and followed around high country @kshapiromedia.
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With 4/20 long designated as the holiday for getting high, another date on the calendar, which stands for “oil” backwards, has gained momentum in the post-legalization era.