Diversity in Franchising Franchisee Success Stories March/April 2021 Next Generation in Franchising

Millennials in Franchising: Putting the “Can” in Cannabis

How millennial franchisee Jasper Ly started a successful Spiritleaf franchise during the challenges of 2020

By Karen Stevens

October 17th, 2020 marked the two-year anniversary of cannabis legalization in Canada, and that same day was when Jasper Ly’s Spiritleaf location opened its doors to the public. Starting your own business is challenging enough but add a brand-new industry and a global pandemic to the mix, and you’ve got a unique situation that calls for extraordinary flexibility and persistence. At age 30, Ly is a confident millennial business owner whose ability to pivot and roll with whatever life throws at him is essential to his success.

Spiritleaf runs like a typical retail franchise system; however, as the product is recreational cannabis, the industry has some unique considerations. Ly says that the system stands out because they like to onboard local entrepreneurs to operate in their own communities. “They also have a really unique motto and culture, and their message is very positive; I think it ties in really well with cannabis culture.”

While Ly’s Scarborough, Ontario location has only had the doors open for a short time, this opportunity was years in the making. His journey from Ryerson Business School graduate to franchise owner was influenced by his experience working at a WATCH IT! franchise shortly after graduation. At first, he worked the retail side on the sales floor, but as time went on, he gained more responsibility and was soon managing a few corporate locations. From there, he expanded to working with other franchise partners in the network.

“WATCH IT introduced me to the world of franchising,” says Ly. “Being able to work with both a franchise owner and corporate showed me both sides of the coin. I got to see just how franchising can help someone become a business owner and support them.” During this time, he also staffed the booth at The Franchise Show where he was able to meet and network with franchisees from other systems.

With this foundational experience under his belt, Ly moved onto an operations manager position at Legoland. “It was great, and it taught me a lot, but I knew it wasn’t something that I wanted to do forever,” he recalls. “That pushed me to go outside of my comfort zone to try and create my own success as a business owner.”

A passion for franchising

After he was introduced to the Spiritleaf concept, Ly quickly made the decision to become a franchisee. “I saw the [Spiritleaf] opportunity and I just thought, ‘Why not? Why don’t I take a chance on this?’ I’m familiar with the franchising business, and I have a passion for cannabis and entrepreneurship.” 

Excited about his new business and joining the Spiritleaf team, Ly started putting everything in motion for his new store. However, even before the store opened, he had to overcome challenges surrounding the uncertainty of the new recreational cannabis industry. In order to get his operator’s licence, he had to go through the government’s lottery process. He applied twice unsuccessfully before he was awarded the licence in January 2020. Then he had to apply for the retail store authorization, which requires a built-out store location. “It was quite an investment and it’s quite risky to build out an entire store; you had to do that without even getting confirmation on your licensing,” recalls Ly.

Nevertheless, Ly eagerly started construction—and then the COVID-19 pandemic arrived in Canada. “Throwing a pandemic in there—another delay on top of regulations and the lottery process—that was a real challenge,” says Ly. “We just had to weather the storm.”

With construction halted, Ly worked on other facets of the business, such as marketing and getting everything lined up to resume construction right away. “I still tried to push the needle forward, so that when COVID-19 eased off we could pick up where we left off and get right to it.” He also used that time to put measures in place such as barriers, hand sanitizer, and social distancing equipment to ensure a safe experience for his customers and staff.

Lock in your vision

To withstand this uncertainty, Ly says it really helps to partner with the right people, especially if you’re a first-time business owner operating in such a constantly evolving industry. He was able to rely on the franchisor’s experience as he searched for a location, created the store design, and went through the licensing process. “Having someone to lean on—having that support and getting introduced into a network of other franchisees—was crucial,” says Ly. But the franchisor is only half of the partnership, as Ly also had to be resilient. “Staying focused [and] locked into the vision, and just being able to pivot and adapt definitely helped me overcome all these early challenges.”

So, how does Ly’s experience as a business owner stack up to his previous franchise experience? “It’s been great. It’s been fun. It’s been exhilarating,” he describes. “It’s been nerve wracking and it’s been full of growth; it’s been the highest of highs, and then the lowest lows, but every day you learn something new.”

To keep up with this evolving industry, Ly stays in close contact with the franchisor and other franchisees in the network. The franchisor supports the franchisees with everything from regular emails to ongoing training to social media assets to in-person help with store openings. “The data that they provide is crucial,” says Ly. “They provide ongoing support with everything, whether it’s the pandemic or opening your store.”

Ly stays on top of the latest trends and developments in his industry by talking to his customers and learning which products they like. “I like to be very present at the store, I like listening to guests. Customers are the number one focus.” Beyond that, he reads the news and product reviews, while staying on top of new products coming to the market. 

Learnings from a unique first year

As his incredibly uncertain first year as a franchise owner comes to a close, Ly offers this advice for other millennials who want to become their own boss: “Above all, it’s about knowing what you want.” He says you should ask yourself if you’re passionate about entrepreneurship and being a business owner, and you should explore whether you want that responsibility. “All the victories and losses are up to you,” says Ly. “Do you enjoy that? Do you embrace that?”

Next, he says, make sure to do your research. Investigate the franchisor and explore the franchise model. Also, spend some time speaking to current franchisees. “If you’re truly passionate about it, then you just have to go all in. You have to be focused, stay the course, and find the right partnership,” says Ly.

Once you’ve found that perfect franchise fit, “Just keep pushing forward, even though there are challenges and things in your way. You need to block out the noise and know what your vision is and what you want.”

According to Ly, being a young business owner is an advantage. “Sometimes people might not take you seriously because of your age, but I really think it’s been a huge benefit more than anything,” he says. “As a young business owner, you bring a different energy to the table. I think you should be taking bigger risks when you’re young because you have more time, you can fail, and you can fail forward and learn from it.”