JM Balbuena certainly has the chops to write about successful cannabis businesses. The author of the best-selling book The Successful Canna-Preneur: The Practical Guide to Thrive In the Legal Cannabis Space, is a multifaceted entrepreneur, serving as the co-founder and chief marketing officer of the tech-driven cannabis company Prime Harvest, a 10,000-square-foot cannabis manufacturing facility and popular San Diego dispensary, Jaxx Cannabis. Additionally, she’s the owner of Synergy Studios, a cannabis-focused media company, which is also a platform for her advocacy apparel brand, Boycott Shitty Weed.
Balbuena is also the co-founder of Divana Mushrooms, an e-commerce platform specializing in medical mushrooms as well as a co-owner of her family business, Palenque Provisions, a Latinx food production enterprise. Originally from the Dominican Republic, San Diego-based Balbuena says she inherited her parents’ powerful drive for entrepreneurship. She’s also a decorated US Navy Veteran and medical marijuana patient who credits cannabis for saving her life after a serious head injury.
Balbuena exclusively shares insights from her journey as a cannabis entrepreneur, the motivation for writing the book and the values most important to her in the cannabis industry.
Cannabis Now: What inspired you to write your book?
JM Balbuena: I didn’t initially set out to write a book about cannabis business—my original focus was more of a self-help book on using cannabis for mental health. During the process, my publisher said, “There’s a lot of self-help books out there. But there are no books about cannabis businesses business, written by somebody like you who’s been in the space.” Initially, I was a bit nervous, considering I had only been in the cannabis space for about six years. When I told her my hesitancy, she responded, “No, but some people are just getting into it. And with the amount of work you’ve done, you can help many people.” So, at that moment, I just said, “Well, let me see if I have a book in me for that.”
What message did you want to convey through your book?
The book’s purpose was to attract high-quality stakeholders, whether on the entrepreneurial side of things, the professional side, or the investment side of things. I wanted to paint the picture of opportunity; there’s opportunity in the industry—there’s opportunity there for somebody with a bright mind to come in and try to pose the solutions to those things.
It was important for me to tell that information from the point of view of somebody like me with such a diverse background. I’m a Navy veteran, and cannabis helped me deal with some of those unique perspectives: I’m Latina, I’m Black and I’m an immigrant. I’m an LGBTQ+ woman. I felt like people could relate to my experiences and I could help them to see the opportunities within the challenges. “Hey, if I was able to get this far, you guys can do it, too” type of message. When you hear the statistics that women are not necessarily a part of the leadership, they’re usually like, in lower positions, or that Black entrepreneurs own less than 2% of legal cannabis businesses, that discourages people.
The cannabis industry is unique because it’s new, and not many industries have been stigmatized for more than a century. One of the things that I mentioned in the book is something that I learned from my family: When there’s a problem, there’s usually a solution that comes with that problem. A lot of the time, we tend to focus so much on the problem and what’s affecting us immediately and not necessarily focus on arrival. What’s the issue? How can we solve it? Think critically. More importantly, think creatively. Take the affected community and see how they can positively impact the solution.
We also have an opportunity with this industry to create real social justice. Here in California, 80% of the cannabis arrests are for minor possession of cannabis and most of those people are people of color. We have an opportunity with cannabis to undo that and then set a precedent so that it doesn’t happen going forward with other similar situations. This is a multi-billion-dollar industry. We can reroute those revenues to give back to communities such as Colorado, which uses tax revenue from cannabis and infuses it back into education. The potential of the things that can be done with the industry excites me. That’s the tone of the book I was aiming for.
What are three things you think it takes to be a successful entrepreneur?
Number one is having a creative vision to find solutions when facing challenges.
You must be resilient, which ties into being creative; you must find a way to find a solution, push through and don’t give up.
Know when to ask for help. And in that sense, have a solid team where everybody plays to their strengths. Because as much as ‘solopreneurship’ can feel OK, it’s super lonely and you can only get so far. Knowing when it’s time to expand your team or to extend the business to have somebody else fill in the gaps is super important.
What’s your favorite thing about being a cannabis entrepreneur?
The community. The cannabis community is very diverse. Most of the people in this space, up and down the chain, from the bottom all the way up to the top, we’re all in this as advocates of plant medicine; we all found healing—for the most part—in the plant. We’re on a mission to make sure that the stigma is removed so we can do business.
Can you share a key learning experience on your journey?
You must be patient. In this space, things move a little bit slower. But things happen very fast at the same time. Cannabis has been here before us; it will probably be here after us. But the regulated space landscape is new for everybody. The people who are creating the laws have never done that before. The people who are operating under those laws have never done it. The laws might be detrimental to businesses because most people making the laws don’t know anything about our industry—a lot of the time, they don’t even involve people who are in the industry. Sometimes, it feels like they’re regulating an atomic bomb. It’s like, it’s just a plant, calm down.
As we go through the trenches, we point out, “Hey, this isn’t going to work; we’re going to go out of business.” I think once the lawmakers see that a legal dispensary, for example, is not causing more crime in a city, it’s not causing or contributing to an increase in minors partaking in consumption and things like that, then they’re like, “Oh, OK, well, I guess they’re not, trying to infuse drugs into our neighborhoods.” We’re trying to help medical patients and adult-use consumers find benefits in the plant. We’re paying taxes; we’re doing everything that they’re asking.
The regulated landscape is new to all stakeholders, so we must be patient and things will correct themselves. Unfortunately, it happens slowly, but patience is key.