If the cannabis industry has produced any rock stars, Jonah Tacoma is one of them. Jonah is the founder of Dabstars, a marketing and lifestyle brand born of the social media age. Since its inception, Dabstars has grown into a cannabis entertainment and digital media powerhouse.
The company recently gained particular notoriety for their video “Drive Through Dabbing” in which Jonah recorded a video of himself paying for fast food with dabs. The video went viral internationally and has been seen millions of times, inciting criticism from all corners of the world as well as from within the cannabis community itself. Jonah recently joined our host Shango Los to talk about the video, how Dabstars got started, how he has utilized social media to amass an audience of millions, and how he selects and approaches the clients he wants to represent in the industry.
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Shango Los: Hi there and welcome to the Ganjapreneur.com podcast. I am your host Shango Los. The Ganjapreneur.com podcast gives us an opportunity to speak directly to entrepreneurs, cannabis growers, product developers, and cannabis medicine researchers, all focused on making the most of cannabis normalization. As your host I do my best to bring you original cannabis industry ideas that will ignite your own entrepreneurial spark and give you actionable information to improve your business strategy and improve your health and the health of cannabis patients everywhere.
Today my guest is Jonah Tacoma. Jonah Tacoma is founder of cannabis marketing and lifestyle brand Dabstars. Appealing originally to dabbers all over the world and reaching almost 1.5 million Facebook followers Dabstars has now expanded into cannabis retail, podcasting, and other new ventures. Jonah’s bombastic approach to hype and spectacle marketing makes him truly a cannabis rock star. Welcome Jonah. Glad you could be on the show.
Jonah Tacoma: Thanks for having us.
Shango Los: Jonah, let’s start by getting a handle on what exactly Dabstars is. What was your original intention for starting Dabstars and what has it evolved into now?
Jonah Tacoma: That’s exactly what it has been, is kind of an evolution, because what we saw was that people were developing kind of a fame within the cannabis industry and we had jokingly labelled it cannafamous. We had gone out and we had … The Dabstars was originally just a little sticker that people would hold up and we would take a picture. We would do a small baseball card style biography about why they were cool and what they were doing in cannabis. That concept took off. When we started reaching tens of thousands of people we realized that we needed to monetize and this is something that we really wanted to make into a business.
Shango Los: Actually those cards sound like a lot of fun. Did you actually print them or was it primary social media so they were graphics that were put out?
Jonah Tacoma: We were born on Facebook. This is something that we started as a Facebook page. I have a created a small .com behind it just because I felt like everything needed a web page, we were coming out of the .com bubble, and it took off from there. Social media really opened up a market for us. When we saw what was there and we saw the reaction that people had we were able to develop into something bigger.
Shango Los: You’ve obviously had a huge success with social media. Do you have a background in social media yourself or have you been figuring out as you go?
Jonah Tacoma: I went to University of Mesa in Grand Junction Colorado for computer science. This was a long time ago. I started there in 1997. I had dreams and aspirations of conquering that field. For me to end up ultimately working in cannabis is light years away from where I started, but it’s certainly applicable.
I saw cannabis go legal and I had been part of the cannabis scene my whole life. I had been growing and selling pot and doing my thing. I had actually gotten bumped off campus for being the pot guy. So I saw an opportunity to take something that had always been a stigma, it had always been a bane to my existence, I had lost plenty of jobs and opportunities as a result of cannabis and I walked right into the world famous Cannabis Farmers Market and I said, “I want to volunteer.” I dropped a business that was doing great at the time and literally took a volunteer position with no money and kind of floated until I had some traction.
What ultimately happened is I took over the Facebook page for that Cannabis Farmers Market and I quietly developed some fame for being able to cultivate the following on social media and ultimately I had five or six big companies that turned over their social media presence to me. When we took on DabStars it was a no brainer to knock one out of the park for ourselves.
Shango Los: I think that that idea of being willing to volunteer to get your foot in the door is something that we should highlight right there, because our listeners, our cannabis entrepreneurs or soon to be entrepreneurs, and sometimes you can’t walk into an industry that may be new to yourself and demand a fat paycheck, especially when we’re all pretty much just running startup companies right now. Would you speak for a moment to the idea of being willing to volunteer and put in sweat equity to earn your stripes before you can start charging?
Jonah Tacoma: I think the reality is that cannabis is evolving and you really have to look at this as a business paradigm. In business that’s kind of the way of it. There’s internships. There’s sweat equity. You have to earn your stripes. In cannabis especially because this is a community where you had to be brought in, because for a long time it was illegal, and if you weren’t vetted in then you couldn’t be a part of this. The people that did ultimately land here are a tight-knit group. I think that’s helped the people that are successful get to where they are, because the community really lifts you up if they know you’re a part of them.
Shango Los: Obviously you’ve had very quick success once you got your hands into cannabis social media. I mean breaking a million Facebook followers is a big accomplishment in any industry, but to do it in an industry that’s technically illegal is astonishing. What do you do so differently from other cannabis brands that makes everybody want to follow you? I mean, your social media stuff is so sticky. What do you think is different about your approach?
Jonah Tacoma: There’s definitely a recipe for it. Part of it is having a good team. Dani Green Fox, the current Miss High Times 2015 worked a shitty job at night so we could do this for a long time, because I understood that this was going to be something but I wasn’t getting paid to do it, so there’s a lot of people that put in time to make this happen. Ultimately what really made us succeed is that we made our page interactive. DabStars isn’t about us. We’re a company that recognizes people, products, and businesses that are excelling in cannabis. We’re like a food critic that only gives positive reviews and it really allowed us to gain a lot of headway in the industry.
Shango Los: As far as your business model goes are you recognizing these great products and companies and inviting them to become clients for you so there’s a paid relationship between them, or are you repping these other folks to create original content that people aren’t getting elsewhere so they come to you to find out the best stuff?
Jonah Tacoma: It’s a mixture of both with the glass artists and the farmers that may be living a little closer to the bleeding edge. We don’t charge them a thing. We feature their content for free. There’s companies that we recognize have created a niche and we’ll approach them. I think we share a couple of sponsors in common. Dr. Dabber is a great sponsor of ours. We didn’t pick them up because we wanted to add another pin company. We picked them up because when we do DabStars giveaways on the ground, they would bring us thousands of dollars on merchandise. We developed a relationship through their giving back and our own little one of altruism that we do on the ground.
Shango Los: That’s another good example for our listeners that you are like Dr. Dabber giving you something to give away to your audience, which makes your audience like you more. That warmed you up to them where you want to do a further relationship with them. A lot of the companies in cannabis, they’re kind of chintzy about their giveaways and stuff because they want everything paid for. But this is a perfect example how by Dr. Dabber hooking you up in the end paid for them many times over.
Jonah Tacoma: Oh yeah, and I think that’s the reality, is that it’s reciprocal arrangement. They’re not giving us stuff for no reason. They understand that the crowd is here and that they have ability to reach out to the people that support their business. In America we vote with our dollars so when you buy a Dr. Dabber pin you’re saying I want your company to succeed, I’m voting for you, because you have another 100 choices to make. They have a responsibility to stand out and they have a responsibility to promote cannabis and do this service that they do. If you smoke pot and you pretend that you don’t then you’re doing a disservice to the plant.
Shango Los: As far as who you rep do you rep competing folks who are in the same section of the industry, or do you only choose one flavor of each product?
Jonah Tacoma: We traditionally pick one company in each niche. As we get bigger it gets harder because it’s a very limiting business model. We’ve branched out a little bit, but our idea is that we don’t want to be a company that you can just hire because you have money. We have to approach you and say, “We like what you’re doing, we like what you contribute to the cannabis scene, and we want to represent you.” By doing that we maintain a quality for our page.
Because we touched a little bit on developing social media for a cannabis company, and the reality is there’s some very severe restrictions that come into play when you’re a company trying to create a social media presence. One, it’s very important to do. Every modern business has a social media presence. Your name should be established on everything, whether it’s Snapchat, Instagram, you have to own these spaces, or when you start to take off someone else will own them in your name.
The restrictions on advertising, Facebook will not let you advertise a cannabis company or a cannabis related product, even if it’s completely ancillary, something like nutrients. We saw Remo lose a substantial follow on Facebook page because he did a single nutrient advertisement. Our 1.2 million followers is 100% organic. We don’t do a single paid ad. So it’s very important for us to generate fresh content that’s engaging and to do it in a way that is different than what everybody else is doing.
Shango Los: Right on. We’re going to take a short break. When we get back we’re going to talk about some of the spectacular stuns that you do to get that organic attention. You are listening to the ganjapreneur.com podcast. We’ll be right back.
Shango Los: Welcome back. You are listening to the ganjapreneur.com podcast. I am your host, Shango Los, and our guest this week is DabStars’ founder, Jonah Tacoma. Before the break we were talking about your 1.5 or so Facebook followers and across social media, and that it’s organically gained, because people are really interested in the content you create.
You’ve got this reputation for making these grand spectacles. Your marketing style at Cannabis Cup is really go big or go home. You’re usually on top of a stage or a shipping container or a scaffolding with the mic in your hand, hyping the crowd and everybody is getting … It’s getting to be a fervor. You’re throwing out shirts and joins and products and all those kind of stuff. What do you think about that? What do you think about doing that gets people so hyped up? What do you think it is about that, that back and forth between the crowd that works so well for you?
Jonah Tacoma: It’s very visceral. You just gave me goosebumps describing it. I think that it’s very easy for me to tap into that energy, because it’s one thing to stand in a crowd of people and watch a guy do his thing. It’s entirely different to be the guy doing your thing in front of that crowd of people. When you see that the interaction, when you see 10,000 kids enjoying what you’re doing and vibing and reacting to what you’re saying it’s indescribable. That’s fuel for me and that kind of involved on a whole different level.
We started out with the online presence and we had gained a lot of traction on that. We were already the world’s biggest dabbing page pretty much from the jump because it was a new movement. Other companies started picking us up and bringing us to these shows because we didn’t have a budget for this.
In the beginning we had one guy whose mom worked for the airport. We got $150 stand-by tickets and we all slept in one hotel room. We did a lot to get by. By the time we started getting to the point where we could demand payment and we had people flying us to the shows we saw a different side of cannabis that most people don’t get to see.
It’s really a crazy community of companies and people and supporters that come together to celebrate what we’ve created. That happened for me with Happy Daddy. They brought me to a small show and they put a tiny little megaphone that you would give to a kid at a football game. I had a crowd all day long and I’m like, “This is something,” and we’ve been doing it ever since.
Shango Los: Well you obviously crush it when you’re doing it. I mean even when I see you I like am smiling ear to ear, I’m this like crush of bodies. Everybody is feeling the vibe. I mean it’s an experience. Is that something that you trained for in advance, or is it just naturally in you because of your personality and so when you’re given the mic in a crowd you just know what to do, you’re a natural at it?
Jonah Tacoma: I think we all have hidden talents, and for me that was one I found very late in life, because that certainly wasn’t something that I had done previously, and it just came. But like I said, I think it was the crowd that built it. Once you get that kind of reaction and you start tapping into it it’s just natural and we’ll get up there for an hour and a half. I think we did an accounting at one point. We’d given away well over a quarter of million dollars’ worth of products and none of them are our own.
Shango Los: Holy smokes. That’s one way to really garner favor with an audience, you’re giving away free stuff that somebody else gave you, because yeah, they like the Dr. Dabber or whatever the brand is that you’re promoting, but the fact that you are the one giving it to them you get credit for it and that’s a really great feeling.
Jonah Tacoma: Yeah. I call it a conduit for free shit. I don’t know if I’m allowed to cuss on this show, but …
Shango Los: Yeah, actually you can so you’re all right.
Jonah Tacoma: That’s the kind of arrangement that we’ve created, and that has really blown up on its own to the point where we now get boxes and boxes of stuff sent to the studio. When we show up at these cups they bring the stuff to our booth. It’s really cool to see it happen. Now they’ve kind of allowed it to grow and we’re having a lot of fun with it.
Shango Los: That’s one of the things I enjoy actually from your Instagram feed is to see these days, you’re like, “Oh man, look at these boxes of swag we just got.” It’s just like covering your conference table. It’s like wow, you just want to dive in like it’s a pool. The role that you have in front of the crowd it’s a pretty unique role. Not a lot of folks get to do that. I bet you got some crazy stories, probably more than we have time for. But do you have one you had to be there kind of story that you can drop on us?
Jonah Tacoma: Yeah, I do actually. It’s pretty crazy. We did the last Seattle High Times. There hasn’t been one since because the city hasn’t given them a permit since, so they’re having some issues setting up here but we had a great cup. We had our own little booth. We had two booths next to it that were set up as lounges. We did what we do. We get up there and we give away free stuff. But we also talk about cannabis and how it’s a topical, it’s a textile, it’s so many things besides what we traditionally take it for. We talk about how easy it is to get involved in cannabis.
I’m off set. We had a great day. I’m super excited, but I’m also dead tired. This guy walks up with this giant bottle. It looks like the biggest tincture bottle I’ve ever seen. He hands it over to me. I pull out this giant sword of a dropper and I squeeze it all the way full because it’s been a really long day. I squeeze it under my tongue and I’m holding it there because I want it to absorb. I know how tincture works. I screw the bottle back together and I’m holding it under my tongue. I look up at the guy and he has just these wide eyes and he’s starting at me straight out of Cheech and Chong. He says, “You’ve just took the most acid I’ve ever seen.”
He calls me out in front of everybody and I’m like, “Acid? My God,” now it’s like 200 hits what I had just taken. I spit it out on the ground instantly and I start rinsing my mouth, but it doesn’t work like that. Once it’s in it’s in. I got on the mic and told everybody it was going to get weird and it got very weird. The Seattle Times took me back to the hotel and I swam in the sheets and it was a crazy night.
Shango Los: Wow, that is a crazy- That’s a good story. Thanks for sharing that. Actually it’s also a good note to don’t take stuff folks without knowing what you’re taking. Dose yourself.
Jonah Tacoma: That was the last thing I said on the mic, was stay away from the High Times tincture and then it was bye-bye from there.
Shango Los: We got to talk about the drive-through video of course. Probably the biggest thing that a lot of folks know about you is this amazing YouTube video that you’ve got out of you going through a drive-through and you offered to pay for your meal with a dab. You give these guys a dab through the window. It’s pretty hard core. Then you take a dab yourself and you drive off.
This just lit up the internet. People had a reaction to it, whether or not they thought that it was totally the sickest thing they had ever seen somebody do and like you were a hero, or they’re all like, “What an ass,” because the guys eventually got fired and you’re driving after you dab. So people were either loving it or hating it. But from a marketing point of view it was freaking brilliant.
Can you share with us the backstory about that because there’s lots of rumors about how it happened, but since you’re here like what is the story behind that video?
Jonah Tacoma: To start off you’re right, it was extraordinarily divisive in terms of how the cannabis community reacted to the video. Our YouTube is very small in terms of our stature on Facebook. We were born Facebook and we decided later on that we had own these other mediums, but we weren’t set up to produce video at the time. Our YouTube is much smaller and our videos would get 1000, 2000 views and the people that watch them were hard core dabbers.
When we did the drive-through dabbing video it happened on a break. It was a random thing. We went through there jokingly. They were aware of the fact that we were recording. We told them it would be a week before we released the video. No one thought that it would be seen by anybody that would matter. We posted the video and it just took off.
The manager was alerted to it and the employees were let go. The news got ahold of the fact that the employees were let go. I’m in Portland opening the new DabStars shop, the first DabStars dispensary, and I get a call from Matt Markovich KOMO 4 News. We do regular work for him. They call us and we go on and do little pieces about dabbing and we explain why it’s safe and why it’s relevant and why it has to remain a part of the market. We’re used to doing sound bites for him so I didn’t think anything of it.
He says, “Hey, I want to do a piece with you real quick about this drive-through dabbing thing.” I’m like, “Well, I would love to but I’m in Portland.” He says, “Let me see if they’ll let me come down to Portland real quick.” I knew that something was wrong because they’re not going to come from Seattle. I’m already getting nervous. He calls me back and says his sister station in Portland is going to cover it. They come by and they do it. Now I’m really nervous because at least I know Matt is a cannabis friendly reporter.
What ultimately happened is the piece was played internationally. It was nationally syndicated so Fox picked it up, everyone picked it up locally, even Munchies played it and VICE did a much better portrayal than probably anybody else did. But it played in China, it played in Europe, it played everywhere. It probably got 30 or 40 million views in totality and it got so much press for our little tiny YouTube that it got half a million views on our YouTube, which to us isn’t a big deal because our video is on Facebook at half a million views, but it was big deal for YouTube and it was a big deal to the press. At the end of the day there’s no bad press.
Shango Los: Yeah, and I guess that’s a good thing to point out that you’ve got to try lots of these little things as far as social media goes to wait for something to hit a home run. You probably did a whole bunch of different ideas and 1000, 2000 views, but like you said, you did this kind of on a whim during a break and boom it goes big and is a reminder to people in social media to don’t expect their first or everything to hit, but it’s about continuing to try and try new things and then something eventually will hit.
Jonah Tacoma: It explains that there’s a double edge sword at play there. You can hurt yourself in a single blow as easily as you can help yourself. There’s a lot of videos that we put a ton of production time into, I mean flights, crews that were hired, camera teams, and they were seen by 1000 people, and then you take a cell phone video in a drive-through parking lot and the whole world sees it.
Shango Los: Right on. Well thanks Jonah for explaining that. We’re going to take another short break and be right back. You are listening to the Ganjapreneur.com podcast.
Shango Los: Welcome back. You are listening to Ganjapreneur.com podcast. I am your host, Shango Los, and our guest this week is DabStars’ founder, Jonah Tacoma. Before the break we were talking about Jonah’s clients and how he puts them in front of his overwhelmingly large audience of cannabis enthusiasts.
Jonah, when you get a new client what do you think about to yourself about how best you can represent them? I’m sure that I’ve watched your different clients and you rep them in different ways. There’s probably some method to your madness about what you decide you’re going to do for a client. How do you think through that to give a picture of it to our audience?
Jonah Tacoma: I think every company has a core aesthetic. What’s important to remember is not to comprise that, because at the end of the day it’s what got you the client to begin with. You have to have control over the material that you put out. In our case particularly we have complete control over the advertising concept. We don’t allow them to generate ads per se. We take on a client and we start to sculpt their image and we create a base for them, and we take the temperature as we go and we develop it.
Our contracts are based on performance delivery, so there’s no hard feelings, there’s no expectations that aren’t met. We have hard numbers that we’re going to hit and we have expectations for where we’re going to take you, and if we haven’t hit them in our contract period then we continue to work on them until we have. We have a very straightforward relationship with our clients and we’re so particular about who we’ll work with that it allows us to pick and choose the companies that are out there.
Shango Los: If you look across the country into states that are beginning to normalize we’re starting to see these little boutique marketing companies, who they’ve got the vision of doing what you have already done. What kind of words of advice would you offer to these up and coming cannabis marketers from you, somebody who has already found their way there?
Jonah Tacoma: I think it all starts in the trenches. You have to be willing to get out there and just become a part of the community. We’re very close-knit, but that also means that the door is not open to strangers. You have to get out, you have to put a little bit of yourself on the line and let people meet you, and I think the rest of it comes naturally. You see these new companies pop up. Every time there’s a High Times cup or a new event you’ll see a new company. Some of these guys come really hard.
The reality is we’re in the branding phase now. Phillip Morris and Camel, the Marlboro-Camel battle that happened when we were young, those guys fought to establish their brands. Then the federal government came and said, “Your product can’t be advertised.” They said, “Fine, we’ve established ourselves.” For anybody else that wants to enter that space, they can’t do anything to get into that space. We’re seeing the same thing happen in cannabis. The people in Colorado that have gone recreational aren’t allowed to advertise their products, they’re not allowed to attend these events and give away any product. They’re very restricted in what they can do to advertise. The idea is to build your brand first and monetize secondary if you have the ability to do it.
Shango Los: You have diversified DabStars in lots of different ways over the years. Now it seems like you’re going through another big rush and a push right now. What is next for DabStars? What are some of these new projects that you’ve got coming for the brand?
Jonah Tacoma: You know what, at the end of the day this is real business now, so I put together a business plan and prospectus on DabStars and I went to a venture capitalist meeting that consisted primarily of real estate guys from New York. I said, “Look, these are the numbers that make people rich. I need someone else to understand where to go from here.” One guy raised his hand in the back. They were from New York, I was from Washington, so we started meeting in Las Vegas.
They were putting me up these tremendous suites and wining and dining us, but they turned out to be really good guys and they understand that this is a huge growth industry and there’s so many people trying to get in. We established some traction and then we were able to take in a lot of money to do what we want. We’ve opened up a DabStars dispensary in Portland. We have dabstars.com which has a new clothing line that’s launching. We’re going in as many directions as we possibly can.
Shango Los: How big is your company as far as employees go? I’ve seen like four or five folks pretty regularly. How many employees do you have at this point?
Jonah Tacoma: You know what, it started out with just me and Dani and it really took a lot. It was a mom and pop business for a long time so it was me and her. She does all the shipping to this day. It evolved from there. But now we have offices in Washington, an office in Oregon, and an office in Brooklyn and there’s about 20 people that come together to make all this happen. There’s a big group of people that have their stake in this and what it really takes to succeed is career level energy devoted to cannabis. Understand that this is a real gold mine.
Shango Los: I think that it’s a good point to that, how much can be done with just a few passionate people. You don’t have to spend a lot of money if you have people who are passionate and they feel like they belong, and that when the company makes it they will make it too. That kind of loyalty man, you can’t buy that.
Jonah Tacoma: That’s exactly right. I think you’ll see a lot of that in the cannabis community. There’s a lot of people that are hungry just to be a part of what’s going on, because we understand this is our generation’s time to make an addition. Our parents smoked pot and our generation made it legal.
Shango Los: I think that is an awesome way to end this. Jonah, thanks so much for being on the show. It’s nice to talk to another marketing pro. I really appreciated it.
Jonah Tacoma: It was an honor and a privilege. Thank you.
Shango Los: Jonah Tacoma is founder of DabStars. You can find out more at dabstars.com. You can find more episodes of the Ganjapreneur podcast in the podcast section at Ganjapreneur.com. You can also find us on the Cannabis Radio Network website and in the Apple iTunes store. On the Ganjapreneur.com website you will find the latest cannabis news, product reviews, and cannabis jobs updated daily along with transcriptions of this podcast. You could also download the Ganjapreneur.com app in iTunes and Google Play. We’re also thrilled to announce that you can now find the show on the iHeart Radio Network app bringing Ganjapreneur to 60 million mobile devices. Thanks to Brasco for producing our show. I am your host, Shango Los.