George Jage: Maximizing Value for Cannabis Trade Show Attendees & Exhibitors

In this insightful Q&A, we sit down with George Jage, co-founder of Jage Media and one of the organizers behind the popular cannabis trade show event, MJ Unpacked, coming to Atlantic City, New Jersey, this April. Having been organizing cannabis industry events for nearly a decade, George is at the forefront of convening cannabis entrepreneurs and investors, and has been navigating the complex landscape long before the ink dried on today’s regulatory frameworks. George also has a seasoned background in fundraising and a knack for fostering environments ripe for growth and collaboration. In this interview, George joins us to discuss:

  • The evolution of the cannabis industry from its early, unregulated days to the current environment.
  • How MJ Unpacked provides unique value as an event exclusively attended by license holders, applicants, investors, and other qualified guests.
  • How license holders and applicants can maximize the value of their attendance if they’re seeking investor financing.
  • What prospects and challenges for the cannabis industry lie ahead going into 2024.

Read the full interview below!

You have been coordinating gatherings for cannabis entrepreneurs and investors since before most of the current regulations were even written, and in those days, everyone had a different vision for what the industry would become. Over the years, what are some of the ways in which the industry evolved that surprised you?

Probably the most surprising and disappointing is the lack of progress at a federal level for cannabis reform. At the onset, it was clear that the 280e taxation was punitive and unfair as well as discriminatory banking policies.  Truly little has been done to change this in the past 10-12 years.

The rest is expected.  Early stage markets are messy and confusing.  You have good actors and bad actors.  You have huge success stories and epic failures.  Everything is new so there are always opportunities to win and plenty to lose.

Do you think cannabis reform will be a significant factor in the upcoming US presidential election?

I hope not as this is not a political football.  Biden made promises and if he can live up to getting cannabis rescheduled (and not make it an issue to bait the younger voters), I think the industry should rally behind him if he commits to further descheduling.  This is a tough question to answer given the presumption options we have on who can lead our country in the next 4 years and the risk of civil unrest or turmoil that could follow this upcoming election.

Photo from MJ Unpacked event

While many conferences are open to everyone, MJ Unpacked is unique in its focus and audience, limiting attendance to vetted license holders and applicants, accredited investors, and qualified media & research personnel. How does this change the experience for attendees?

Honestly, we just listened to people and understood what they disliked about most of the events they went to.  And on the top of that list was how many unqualified people they need to sift through to have a meaningful conversation.  Trade Shows are like family gatherings.  You want to have a sense of belonging.  Talk with the people you have shared experiences with.  Sometimes get in arguments, but mostly feel you are among your people who care about you and support you.  Your tribe.

But I think what sets our team apart is our compassion and empathy for the people we serve.  We never approach this as selling a booth or selling a ticket.  This is about partnering with our exhibitors and sponsors to invest in an event to get a return on their marketing spend.  That can in turn help grow their business, hire more people, serve more customers.

We like to say we are focused on outcomes, not our income.  The latter is a function of being of service and value.

The next MJ Unpacked event is coming up this April in Atlantic City, New Jersey. What aspect(s) of the New Jersey cannabis market are you most excited about?

This event is not a New Jersey event despite misconceptions in the market.  Our focus is on the east coast because this is where all the new investment and market growth will come from in the next several years.  But this is still national in scope. At the past 2 events we did in New York, California operators were among the top 4 states represented in our attendance.

What excites me is how well New Jersey is rolling out its market and licensees.  And Atlantic City is on the up and reminds me a lot of Vegas 20 years ago.  It was a tough decision to leave midtown Manhattan as we love the city, the energy, the opportunity there, but as the industry remains undercapitalized, the AC event offers a lot of savings to our delegates and provides a more concentrated event environment.  We don’t want to see the event go the way of MJBiz where the trade show has become second billing to the action in Vegas.

How does MJ Unpacked proactively help facilitate connections between brands and investors?

This is the very basis of why we created MJ Unpacked.  Cannabis will mature into a CPG (consumer packaged goods) industry.  Brands will be where the true wealth creation will come.  Retail will support local economies and create opportunities for local business success.  Cultivation will bifurcate into craft and commodity.  We started MJ Unpacked to meet the needs of the market at the moment, but to more importantly provide a better, fairer, and more open market for these brands to flourish. To compete on value and authenticity. And to support the small to midsize businesses people who have invested everything to make the industry not only what it is today but will be in the future.  We truly want to support the personal and professional growth that happens when you have a brand new industry emerge.

That said, I think you were asking specifically at our events.  Sorry for the soap box speech.  I think the power of the connections comes from our event design.  We know that walking a Home Depot style event that is endless aisles of sameness often leads to disengagement or overload.  We intentionally design our event to create an experience that connects everyone in the room.

A simple tool is to create a lot of soft seating.  Allowing people to sit down and have a conversation, establish trust and THEN be able to conduct business.  On the tech side, our exhibitors and attendees can message each other leading into the event and schedule time to meet on the show floor or in one of the lounges.  We designed our own lead gen tech so it is as easy as opening your camera and taking a pic of a QR code that can then be stored in your phone or accessed daily from your lead report.  There is much more we put into our design that makes MJ Unpacked unique that would be too long to go into.

Photo from MJ Unpacked Event

What advice would you give to founders who are attending MJ Unpacked specifically to meet potential investors?

Be prepared.  The lack of capital in a growth market is the fundamental reason our industry is struggling.  Period.  Many early angel investors are tapped out or tired of losses.  Many VCs have limited dry powder and are conserving it to support their existing portfolio companies.  PE and institutional capital hasn’t overtly entered the game (yet).  And if you’re raising money for a private venture, you’re competing against public companies that investors can buy at a 90% discount and exit whenever they want.

You need to be able to communicate your UVP effectively. How will you differentiate in the market?  Gain customers?  Scale with efficiency?  Investors have seen and heard most before.  You need to be able to demonstrate you have a solid plan and the team to execute.  You need to show you can weather the storm.  Turnover is rampant so your team better be bought into the vision (through equity).

There is money out there, but as noted, the competition is fierce.  Grit, persistence, consistency are required, not unique.

If you were looking for an easy road to riches and picked cannabis, you might want to turn around and head back.  It is bumpy and filled with pitfalls, but the reward is way beyond what any of us can imagine.  Setting aside the opportunity to create wealth, equity, fame or fortune, we are collectively building a brand new industry and changing the world, for the better I believe.  That needs to be the core source of your strength.

And after that doom and gloom, I am optimistic that if we achieve Schedule 3, this will have a radical impact on the available capital to the market.  But you still need to be buttoned up and on top of your game to get it.  The money that will come in next will be more cautious, more demanding, and have higher expectations (no pun intended).

Can you share a success story or two from past MJ Unpacked events where connections made at the conference led to significant outcomes for attendees?

This is what drives us and honestly, there have been too many to mention.  But here’s a short list of my favorites.  Mr. Moxey Mints exhibited in NY-22, signed a deal with Acreage to expand to 10 states.  Matha Figaro participated through our social impact scholarship, met Azuca, got her NJ licensed and is launching her product right now.  Seed Talent refused to break down early and 15 minutes before the end of the show had a buyer come in (who thanked him for not breaking down early) and closed the biggest deal of the event for his company.  40 Tons launched their brand at our inaugural event and we even designed their prison cell concept for them that now has become a signature part of their brand.

From your vantage point, what would you say investors and VC firms in the cannabis space are looking for right now? And how might sentiments change later this year if there is policy movement at the federal level, such as Schedule III status or SAFE banking?

I think they are starting to make moves into brands.  Many are still playing the safe route to invest in ancillary, especially scalable tech due to the high margins of that business, but there are fewer and fewer new opportunities there.  But if you really want to know, you can hear it directly from the horse’s mouth.  We are having a Mega VC panel at MJ Unpacked titled Who’s Got Money and Where Are They Putting it.

Federal reform at this point is a requirement for our industry to move forward.  280e taxation was designed to bankrupt companies.  The industry needs leadership and a united voice, not just that of the larger companies who can fund lobbyists, but truly the entire industry to unite behind the efforts of getting cannabis rescheduled.

Safe or Safer banking will follow.  Then interstate commerce and eventually federal legalization.


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