In my highly-anticipated follow-up conversation with Tripp, we cover his rise in the weed business, building Dixie Brands, the fall of MedMen, spending pot millions, vaping during Covid, and how this cannabusiness legend avoided the industry cannibalism that’s consumed so many other less-fortunate pot pioneers.
Read the first part here.
David Rock: Tripp, you started out as a self-described ‘serial entrepreneur.’ You were a businessman long before you were in the pot industry. Can you talk about what you saw before there was a ‘Cannabis craze’ and how you seized the opportunity?
Tripp Keber: We started looking at the industry back in 2009, shortly after the state of Colorado had passed a constitutional amendment allowing for medical marijuana. I was noticing more and more in bars and nightclubs that people were using cannabis quite openly and freely. At the time the Denver police officer didn’t really seem to care about it.
Also, I noticed, generally, that an individual that was using marijuana was much better behaved, but that person generally spent less, and it was really an epiphany. I realized that it was likely going to be difficult to fight them, so get ahead of it. This was ultimately what I would describe as a great point of inflection for the industry — that more and more people began to embrace cannabis at the time it was medical, but that it would quickly morph into adult use. Through progressive thinking, and what I would call a high tolerance for risk, I jumped into it.
And ten years ago, we officially launched Dixie Elixirs.
David: How did you know that the medical marijuana market would translate to such a fertile legal market?
Tripp: Well, I didn’t. Nor did I know how you market strategically and cost-efficiently to a demographic that spans from a 21-year-old lift operator in Breckenridge, who’s wearing his hat on sideways, to that of a 75-year-old grandmother who has glaucoma. But I did see that those two individuals — and all points in between — seemingly embraced “medical marijuana.” And I use it in air quotes because about 70% of the 130,000 people that were using medical marijuana in 2013 — just before we implemented adult-use — used the designation of chronic pain as the qualifying condition, which was obviously the great catchall.
The reality was, it was a subterfuge. It was a way in which individuals could go in, tell a doctor that they had pain and subsequently access marijuana legally, which in the grand scheme of things was a little white lie and really brought on a much bigger opportunity for the state. Because anyone not getting marijuana through legal means was paying local gangs or organized crime, or worse, cartels. And El Chapo is not creating tax-paying jobs, or new tax revenue lines.
That point of inflection came back in 2014, when the first adult use consumer purchased marijuana legally at Denver’s Discrete Dispensary. And ironically, the first buy was a quarter ounce of flower, as well as some Dixie truffles, which was not a setup.
Now, you’re seeing not only states, but more countries and continents come to believe that marijuana is not a dangerous narcotic that is highly addictive with no medicinal value. That’s what it means to be on the CSA Schedule One, by the way. (Note: CSA refers here to the Controlled Substance Act where marijuana is categorized in the same cohort as heroine and peyote.)
David: You’ve stepped back from the limelight in recent years, but around the time Dixie was taking off you became a rock star in your industry. Arguably, you were the face of the corporate movement towards legalization. Then came the nicknames. What was it like being known as ‘The King of Cannabis’ by insiders and outsiders alike?
Tripp: Well listen, these terms are terms that are certainly appreciated and heralded by you. They probably were given to me by others. I believe most of them were terms of endearment, but not always. Everything from the Ronald Reagan of Reefer to the Gordon Gekko of Ganja. These are silly designations that were headlines and probably what attracted the average Midwest consumer to my story. Willy Wonka of Weed I think was actually given to me because Dixie had one hell of a chocolate operation and that designation stuck.
It was also a view that the nicknames were a way of crediting me for starting a dialogue with your mainstream consumer, that we in cannabis were legitimate businessmen and women, interested in doing things within the confines of the law within our state. It was unusual to be in Time Magazine (multiple times), or GQ, or 60 Minutes, twice. There’s incredible excitement on being the cover of a magazine, but there’s also incredible risk — not only the obvious that the feds could potentially not appreciate that notoriety. But also potential danger from those who we were displacing slowly but surely, and likely costing tens of millions of dollars a year: the local gangs, the organized crime rings and the cartel.
It was really a delicate dance that I played for years. I fundamentally believe that if you were going to be in the space of cannabis, you should be comfortable in standing on the steps of the Capitol, whether it was in Denver, Colorado, or Washington, DC. Both steps that I visited and stood from on high and said, ‘I am a marijuana business owner, and I’m not embarrassed by it because what I’m doing is legal.’
That subsequently created a lot of notoriety and one story led to the next. Now, all of this was also driven by being a colorful individual that was as much a fun-monger as I was a businessman. That obviously worked out to my advantage. Most of the time, I should say.
David: We can probably both agree on the time your notoriety worked out less than favorably…
Tripp: My arrest in Alabama. That was a challenge. I was wrong to possess cannabis in the state of Alabama (in June of 2013). I was arrogant to do so, but again, what should have been written as ‘Colorado Marijuana Moron,’ was written ‘Colorado Marijuana Mogul.’ That just gave me even more energy. Candidly, people like Steve DeAngelo, who has been described as the godfather of legalized marijuana, called me and said, “Attaboy.”
Listen, it wasn’t my proudest moment, sitting in a jail cell, handcuffed, with 13 other men who may not appreciate you being the ‘King of Cannabis.’ Those were scary days, but it was a valuable lesson. I did my time, and more importantly, apologized and was outspoken about how stupid it was to possess marijuana in a state that doesn’t offer it. However, the hypocrisy that, in one state, you can be heralded as a hero, or a pot baron, or whatever the title du jour is, and just a few hundred miles south, you’re thrown into jail… Those were interesting times.
David: Let’s talk about some former leaders in the industry who could be in a great deal more trouble than you ever were. Adam Bierman and Medmen were being talked about as the ‘Apple of pot’ before recent accusations of fraud and self-dealing forced Bierman to resign. MedMen almost seems like a pot cautionary tale.
Tripp: Yes, I know them very, very well. A lot of times I’ve had direct communication with Adam, who I’ve known since 2011. I think we were both quoted in the first Time Magazine, which really provided a positive and professional exposé on the industry. Adam piqued my curiosity.
I think Adam, like me, possessed delusional confidence the way he went about things. Certainly, what I’ve read was the lining of his own pockets for his own benefit ahead of his investors is potentially where he went wrong. I don’t know. I generally respect Adam as a person. Maybe he overstepped the boundaries of reasonable compensation or possibly overspent on personal security, but I don’t know. The fact that man was kidnapped, tortured, castrated, and thrown into the desert is a real story.
(To Keber’s point, as this article in Greenfund relates: “In 2012, a dispensary owner was kidnapped, castrated and left for dead in a Californian desert. He survived, but the incident shook… Bierman to the core.”)
Believe me, anybody that was a public figure in the industry at that time and was stupid enough to be on television took note of it.
Eventually, there’s going to be the next generation of leadership, and whether it’s Adam Bierman today stepping down, or me two years ago in December of ’17 stepping down, it’s likely a fait accompli. Because, it’s a group of individuals that took the industry from zero to $50 million and it’s another set of individuals, with a far different set of skills and professional experiences, that are needed to take it from $51 million to $500 million. I think you’re seeing that with many companies across the industry. A lot of the old school original players have been pushed out in some form or fashion.
David: Unlike some of the other pot baron frontiersman, you were not pushed out. So why then did you decide in 2017 that it was best for you to step down as CEO of Dixie?
Tripp: For three reasons. Number one, I realized that the likely way for Dixie to evolve was to be bought by a private equity firm, or go the route of the IPO, Initial Public Offering, or in Canadian parlance, the RTO, the Reverse Take Over. I didn’t have any interest in dealing with the scrutiny of being the CEO of a publicly traded company, or working for a private equity firm. Also, it was my humble estimation that I didn’t have the proper skills set.
I thought it prudent to be able to control the narrative, and stepped down with grace and humility, versus other people in my position, who we’ve seen some very public falls from grace. That was the primary reason, but secondarily, cannabis fatigue is real. I had worked seven days a week through all the great times and a few of the bad times, and it was exhausting. Let somebody else step in who has got the right skillset and really, really energized to take leadership.
Also, at the end of the day, it was time for me to take money off of the table. I was fortunate to do so, whereas others were not. I experienced real liquidity. That was important for me because no one could accuse me of being a short-timer, nine-plus years into it. Those three things all worked out. The reality is it was the best move I could ever make. It’s been sad to see my company languish over the last two years and I’m not pointing the finger at anybody — some of it is certainly the public markets. The reality is that something material had to change. Finally, that change is on the horizon with the combined merger between BR Brands and Dixie brands. That combined new company will be in theory much stronger. And I still have a significant equity position in the company that, hopefully, I’ll be able to cash in on down the road.
David: Speaking of cashing in, since you have gotten liquid in many ways, what’s Tripp Keber doing to enjoy all that money? What does a Pot Baron do after cashing in his chips?
Tripp: My single greatest joy is spending time with my family. My lifestyle is dramatically different. Post me stepping down, I now live with three beautiful women who are 12 and 14 and 41. I pretty much lived by myself for all of my nine and a half years of being CEO. There’s just so much risk associated with it. In my opinion, it was imprudent to live with anybody that you really love because who knows what could happen? Also, I was never around. Number two, I enjoy traveling immensely. I got the whole chartering of mega-boats and flying private and all that stuff out of my system, and now I’m traveling either with my fiancé, or with my family.
I took my brother to the Galapagos last year. I took my mother to Europe as well. I travel probably between two and three weeks a month globally, and that’s a real luxury, a real privilege.
David: I often notice signed guitars in the background when well-compensated people are interviewed on television. Do you have any signed guitars?
Tripp: No. Well… we have one here in the house, but I think it’s my fiancé’s.
Tripp: It was signed by the lead guitarist of The Fray. I’m not that into music. I’m really into art. I’m an avid collector of some famous photographers.
I’ve also made many investments in supporting young, either inventors or young tech entrepreneurs. In every investment, I’m generally very, very active. One of my investments is really designed to be a powerful tool for the world, particularly in areas of abject poverty where water purification is challenging and, yes, I hope we can also make money. You can only be as charitable as you are profitable. All these things I do with some strategy in mind.
David: Let’s get to the serious business of pot preferences: Vaping or a joint? How does the King of Cannabis prefer to ingest his cannabis?
Tripp: I’ve always been a vaper. I really, really love some of the new methodologies for the intake of cannabinoids. I love my PAX Era. I’ve been a loyal supporter of PAX for years. Every week, I try and hit up somebody at a dispensary for an ample supply. In addition, I love my Jupiter vaping platforms. I have probably three or four of those. More recently as I’ve sat on my porch many a night, sometimes there’s just nothing better than lighting a joint up or a pre-roll and sharing it with a buddy. If I have a buddy over for business, and we’ve wrapped up and rather than have a drink, we may just sit and share a spliff. That’s always a nice way to be social.
David: When it comes to sharing joints, sharing vapes in the Covid era, is that over? Too dangerous?
Tripp: Not for me. The individuals that I’m interacting with, we’ve known each other for as long as 30 years. I look them right in the eye and say, ‘You feeling good? [laughs] Have you been behaving yourself?’ I’m no fool. People that I’m letting in my house or near me, generally, I trust implicitly.
David: I’m sure a lot of people ask you for advice. What does the King of Cannabis say to those trying to follow in his majesty’s footsteps?
Tripp: I think there’s three clichés that I’ve used. This ain’t a lazy man’s business. This ain’t no fools business. This certainly isn’t a poor man’s business. You better be willing to work the requisite hours. Call it six plus days a week, 12 plus hours a day. You better have a true head on your shoulders and not be the epitome of the stoner, whatever that means. You have to be intelligent and articulate and really committed to this revolution, if you will, this movement. Then third, you have to be willing to invest. You have to have the requisite access to capital.
You don’t necessarily need that if you come into Dixie as a salesperson, but, again, you better work hard, you better be motivated to either help people or make money. And follow the rules. You can apply those three clichés to any level of leadership or participation within a marijuana business. Those are three things that I focused on every single day that helped me achieve a certain level of success. Some days were better than others, but this is an industry that is growing exponentially that has been deemed essential by the governments across the land.
I truly believe that the next generation of Pot Barons or Willy Wonkas of Weed, are not only being formed here but across the globe. I’ve got a business in Jamaica that I’m about to tilt up sometime in the latter half of 2020. It’s really going to be focused on social equity, and women of color, and bringing people out of the shadows of the ganja fields, into commercial cultivation and telling their stories. I think that’s incredibly exciting. Whether you’re 20, 44, or some points in between there is no shortage of opportunity for those individuals that are smart and articulate, that are committed to working hard and also willing to invest either the time, energy, or money, into this industry.