MJ Unpacked Conference Debuts In Las Vegas – Forbes
Premiering October 21 & 22 2021, alongside MJBizCon, MJ Unpacked is a cannabis industry event that places cannabis retailers and THC consumer packaged goods (CPG) brands at the center of the action. The goal is to give brands access to unique opportunities to connect, collaborate, and access capital.
MJ Unpacked is produced by Jage Media, Inc., which was co-founded by George Jage, who was instrumental in building MJBizCon and is currently the CEO of Jage Media, along with the MJ Unpacked. Jage Media also operates MJ Brand Insights, providing industry intel and data for cannabis brands and retailers.
Jage is a powerhouse in the cannabis industry who is best known as a B2B growth specialist and business builder adept at identifying new markets and opportunities to scale national businesses. Prior to founding Jage Media and its properties, Jage was Co-founder & Exec VP of the Off-Price Show (1993 – 2001), Co-founder & CEO of World Tea Media (2002 – 2012), and Group Director of the Beverage Group at F&W Media (2013 – 2014). During their substantive growth years, Jage served as President of Marijuana Business Daily (2014 – 2017), and Chief Executive Officer of Dope Media (2017 – 2019), leading the six year old startup to its acquisition by High Times. He’s also the recipient of many different industry and other professional accolades.
I sat down with Jage ahead of MJ Unpacked to learn a bit more about how the show came to be.
Jackie Bryant: You helped build MJBizCon, one of the most well known and revered events in the industry. Tell us a bit about that journey and what inspired you to get involved in the cannabis space.
MORE FOR YOU
George Jage: Prior to my cannabis career, I was fortunate to have owned and built two B2B media companies with one serving the off-price apparel market and the other for the global tea industry. In 2014, after selling the latter, I was approached by a friend of a friend who said, “We should start a pot show!” While I had a relationship with the plant from a very young age and even tried to open a NORML chapter in college, I wasn’t actively watching what was happening with cannabis legalization at that point in my life.
The conversation with the friend of a friend didn’t get far after he explained I could do all the work, we would be partners and he had no money. Having always been a serial entrepreneur, I know that good ideas are cheap and it is hard work and execution that creates successful companies.
He had mentioned my name to a small, early-stage publisher in the space, Anne Holland Ventures, who published a medical marijuana newsletter, produced a small conference with 20 tables tops and a single conference room at a race track near Seattle the year prior, and hired one full-time employee dedicated to covering the cannabis market. They contacted me and, after long consideration on the idea of working for someone else versus owning my own business, I saw this as a perfect storm of leveraging my talents for building and scaling early stage business media and events, navigating complex markets, and my passion for making positive change in the world.
Once I took over the position as president of the company, I quickly rebranded all the assets under the MJBiz moniker to create a cohesive and integrated media solution composed of events, digital, print, and publications. My second initiative was to build out the infrastructure from accounting systems to CRMs in order to facilitate the potential scale. And last, I was determined to make this the must attend event in the industry before the market got oversaturated.
There wasn’t any specific secret formula, but there was a layered and strategic approach to building that event. First, moving the event to Vegas was a natural fit. People in the cannabis industry tend to have a proclivity to having a good time and no other city offers as many options for entertainment as Las Vegas. Second, I was adopting a hosted freight model. Instead of burdening our exhibitors with obnoxious material handling charges from the contractors, we included all their charges in with their booth price. This resulted in companies bringing in larger and more impressive booths than any of the other shows in the industry. Third, we brought in big name speakers, not just the same people on the cannabis speaking circuit.
The first one I brought in was Ben Cohen, co-founder and half namesake of Ben & Jerry’s ice cream. He is a staunch advocate for civil liberties and let’s be honest, it’s a solid go-to if you have the munchies. The following year, I brought in Ralph Nader who has been a staunch advocate for the use of industrial hemp. I was also able to bring in Malcolm Gladwell and a Sr. VP from Starbucks in subsequent events.
It was a great ride and our event was recognized as the Fastest Growing Trade Show in the US by Trade Show Executive for the two years prior to my departure.
JB: How did your experiences prior to founding Jage Media and its properties lead you to creating MJ Unpacked?
GJ: There were most certainly a lot of parallels to what I created with World Tea Media and the cannabis industry — and with the plants themselves. When I built World Tea Expo with my wife Kim, who is also co-founder of MJ Unpacked, there existed this group of people who were exceptionally passionate about tea, but did not know what success looked like in the market. There was a lack of clarity on what a successful tea retail store looks like, where to source product, or even how to run a business. This created a great opportunity to provide education and a sense of belonging. This was the same in cannabis.
From a plant perspective, tea and cannabis both contain phytochemicals that cross the blood-brain barrier that have an impact on your mood and homeostasis. Rarely known, both plants were used and documented some 5,000 years ago by the father of modern herbal medicine Emperor Shen Nung.
But, our real inspiration for creating MJ Unpacked was one I saw from the very start when I entered the industry — that cannabis is a consumer packaged goods (CPG) industry and eventually the most important trade event would be a brand and retail focused trade show. This is consistent in every other CPG industry with shows like Natural Products Expo, Consumer Electronics Show, or the Nightclub & Bar Show. The only reason we do not have a national CPG-style show for cannabis is we do not have a national market…yet.
JB: What sets MJ Unpacked apart from other events in the industry?
GJ: Another key reason we are launching MJ Unpacked is that there’s tremendous redundancy in the cannabis event space. Nearly all shows are 95-100% of the exhibitors are ancillary services, technologies or products. These are the supply side shows that offer the “picks and shovels,” for our industry.
MJ Unpacked will be the first event in our industry where CPG brands from across the entire U.S. will be on display giving an incredible opportunity to see where the industry is heading, which products and categories are gaining traction, and who is leading the innovation in our market. This is critical for the direction the industry is moving.
But we also spent a considerable amount of time listening to our target customers, understanding the needs of the market at the moment, and strategizing how we could create an event that moves beyond lead generation and badge scans but actually drives transactional success.
The first thing we do that is different about MJ Unpacked is that we start with making sure only the right people are in the room. Every single attendee is vetted and qualified as a cannabis retail or brand executive, or an accredited investor actively investing in cannabis.
Next, we wanted to create ample soft-seating so people could sit down and have a meaningful conversation. When you walk into our event, we created a massive lounge area with a bar, foosball tables, couch pits, cocktail tables, and small seating sets. We are even bringing in local musicians. The idea is to replicate the lobby bar or lounge of a nice business hotel where you can set up a meeting, grab a drink, and get a deal done. We extend this soft seating concept throughout the event including a large meeting area in our Brand Experience Hall.
When we designed our “exhibit hall” we wanted to avoid two things — creating endless rows of booths, that remind you of trying to find something at Home Depot, and eliminating the unnecessary costs of exhibiting. Specifically, we recognize that a brand from a state like Washington or Colorado doesn’t want to invest $5000+ on a 10×10 booth space plus at least that amount to design, build, ship and set up a booth to exhibit in a ‘foreign market.’ Nor do they want to be stuck in a booth the entire time. Instead, we created our Brand Showcases to allow CPG brands to exhibit at a fraction of the cost while integrating technology for attendees to download product information, direct message the brand reps, and even schedule time on their calendars.
Because of the focused nature of our event, our conference program distinctly addresses high-level pain points for brands and retailers that we do not see at any other cannabis events. We hand select all of our speakers and validate their proven success stories that can help other colleagues in the industry. And we never sell our stage time to sponsors. We are featuring a separate Money Stage where companies raising capital can pitch in front of an audience of accredited investors.
JB: What are you looking forward to the most at the Las Vegas event?
GJ: I am most excited to bring people back together for an in-person event. It’s coded in our DNA to be social creatures and our need for human, face-to-face interaction is critical to our health and wellness. And we do business with people, not companies, so we expect this event to accelerate deal flow, partnerships, and market growth.
Also, we have some amazing sessions. Kim steered the conference development and has brought together one of the best programs I have seen in years. Personally, I will be moderating a fireside chat with Steve DeAngelo, aka the godfather of the cannabis industry, alongside Javan Bunch who has been a top executive at a number of mainstream CPG companies, including Coach. We will be discussing what happens in the years ahead as large companies come into cannabis, and the CPG discipline that will be required to build a national brand. We have sessions on integration best practices for merging companies, discussions on the future of cannabis consumption, cannabis innovations and how to localize and replicate your store in new markets.
But the one thing most important to me is that we are hosting a live benefit concert featuring the legendary Blues Brothers — Dan Aykroyd is back as Elwood Blues, joined by Jim Belushi as Zee Blues — at the House of Blues to donate 100% of the net proceeds to Last Prisoner Project. This organization’s mission is critical to any discussion on legalizing cannabis. We must have criminal justice reform and get those who are serving time for non-violent victimless cannabis crimes out of our institutionalized prison system.
JB: What advice would you give to a cannabis brand with a desire to scale nationally?
GJ: I am often asked what the leading national brand is today, and I do not believe that we can legitimately say we have one until we have a national market. And we are only at the infancy of the end of prohibition, that in alcohol spawned the generational wealth of families like Bacardi, Seagrams, and Anheuser-Busch.
Bottom line — you need to be in the room to be a part of the discussion. And that is happening at MJ Unpacked. A national cannabis market is inevitable. And when this happens, there will be a tidal wave of activity, investment, and new players to the market who have the capital resources and infrastructure to overpower the massive amount of serial entrepreneurs who have built great products. The time to prepare your brand and business is now.
JB: What lessons have you learned along the way?
GJ: The most important lesson is to listen to your customers. You need to know who your target customer is, then deliver them value.
JB: What can people expect at the NYC event next Spring?
GJ: Our New York event is going to be a game changer. The East Coast is exploding with new licenses combined with the capital resources of Manhattan. It will be an important event for West Coast brands who want to find partners, the emerging East Coast brands to connect to capital, and everyone aspiring to be in the race to be the biggest national brand in cannabis. As the saying goes, “If you can make it here, you can make it anywhere.”