The most sought-after tech in the cannabis space has gone Pro.
Since the company’s conception in a Brooklyn basement in 2013, the innovators at Puffco amassed nothing short of a cult following. Puffco’s Peak vaporizers have transformed both the accessibility and experience of dabbing cannabis concentrates.
Roger Volodarsky, founder of Puffco, has been working to perfect the company’s handheld vaporizer device over the course of the last 8 years. Volodarsky is the Steve Jobs of cannabis. A hefty title (eluded to by many others, including Inc in 2018) further emphasized in 2020 by a digital launch keynote he spoke at to introduce the world to the Peak Pro. Big Jobs energy. One month later, the Peak Pro is “the best selling Puffco vaporizer ever, and the fastest-selling Puffco vaporizer ever,” says Volodarsky.
So how popular is this smart rig among consumers? The Peak vaporizer currently boasts hundreds of thousands of users and has received rave reviews. It is an “exponential growth” product which Volodarsky projects to reach $100 million in sales by 2021. And it ain’t cheap. The Peak Pro device is priced at $399.00, while the original Peak is $299.00, with colorful iterations that often sell out in a matter of days.
I caught up with Volodarsky several weeks following the launch of Puffco’s latest model. The unconventional cannabis industry vet, now based in Los Angeles, California, muses on how the industry needs to take responsibility for its prohibitionist past, the rise of a pop cannabis culture, consumption in the time of COVID, and the possibility for other entrepreneurs to achieve the “American Dream” through cannabis.
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Tell me how has the launch of the Puffco Peak Pro been so far?
Roger Volodarsky: I would say, incredible is an understatement. We’re a really scrappy company. Puffco started in my mom’s basement. And we’ve been failing upwards from there. With all of our product releases, we are always learning as a company. And it feels like this specific product release— between the actual release and presentation of the product, the early reviews from customers— has all been greater than any other product we’ve ever made.
We’re seeing the lowest fail rate of any Puffco product in our history. We’re seeing glowing reviews from everyone. We had an insanely informative keynote, which provided more info on the product than I think we’ve ever done before in a release.
The goal is really to paint a picture for people of what the system is, what it can do, how it will personally better their experience with the Puffco Peak. It finally feels like we’ve hit a stride. Where we’re not just good at the vision, and seeing what the future of consumption can be, but we’re good at executing a reliable product, we’re good at executing a story and presenting that to all of our consumers. It feels like a well-oiled machine.
It’s the calmest product release in Puffco history.
How did the digital launch compare to past launches? Is this new need for a “digital world” in the pandemic something that’s been easy to pivot to for your team?
Nothing that we do is easy. But yeah, it felt natural, I would say. We want to present as much information as possible. When we originally thought, of ‘how do I launch the Peak?’ We had this idea; let’s make an event for Peak users and have them come. and say, ‘surprise, there is a keynote here.’ So we could get our most engaged audience and really present them with something on-site, that they could engage with before anyone else.
It was supposed to be this really special moment between us and our community, and that got stripped away with COVID. So we had to think, how can we do our best explaining every single aspect of this deceive so people can truly understand all the gadgets?
There are so many new features: the redesigned chamber, temperature control, Bluetooth, wireless charging, the power dock, the changing glass, the app. So many areas that deserve their moment to shine. For us, it was actually good that we had to relay this all digitally. Because it allowed us to pace out the information in a way where it could be useful.
We set up preorders so that people would take the time to absorb what this product is, before they have it in hand. It’s worked out wonderfully for us. Because people are getting it, understanding more about the product than they could have if we just put it up for sale and let them buy it and figure it out on their own.
We’re actually happy with how this landed. It was a bit of struggle, even filming with COVID rules. We were making sure that everybody is wearing masks, as separated as possible. There were a lot of challenges there, but the end result is something we were extremely proud of. We’re very grateful that we were able to execute the way that we did.
Tell me what you can about sales. Is the Pro up there with the most-sold versions of the Peak, or how does it look out the gate, has it exceeded expectations so far?
Exceeded expectations is hard to say. We had a feeling it would be this popular. So far, it’s been the best selling Puffco vaporizer ever, and the fastest-selling Puffco vaporizer ever. Obviously, the Peak has been around for a few years, so there has been more units sold than in the few weeks the Pro has been available. But the velocity of sales has been coming in at a rate that we were expecting, but we’re really happy admittedly.
There are hundreds of thousands of Peak users out there. We knew coming out with an upgrade is not the same as convincing new people the technology is great, it’s offering upgraded technology to people who have already felt comfortable with what we’ve done before.
I hate to make it sound like it’s easy. It’s not easy, but after almost 8 years of doing this, we’re finally hitting a stride. We’re getting less resistance .
Since Forbes is all about numbers, I wanted to know if you’d be able to touch on sales: year over year, or if we want to look at 2020, for Q1, Q2, Q3, of this year?
2020 has been a great year for us. I can’t get too specific with numbers, but I can definitely give insight on how well things have been going for us.
Starting around year four, we started doing as much revenue a year as we did all the years before that. We’ve hit a point of exponential growth. That’s going to be true for 2020, and it looks it going to be true for 2021, when we finally hit the $100 million dollar mark in revenue for the year.
That’s about how we’re doing. As far as 2020 specifically is concerned, at the beginning of the year, we had a bunch of different initiatives we were planning for the year. Once COVID came, we got extremely scared and became way more conservative. We pulled back some of the things we wanted to do, anticipating, sales are going to slow. At the time we were thinking, it will likely negatively impact the economy. We just didn’t know what this would do to a business that had been experiencing exponential growth.
What we found in a short amount of time into COVID, we were hitting our biggest sales months ever. Through the months of March to August we saw our best sales month ever, every single month. We anticipated really to take some losses. We were afraid it would be tough to maintain the employees we had if growth stalled. Instead, we found growth had accelerated at a rate even higher than we were experiencing before COVID. We’re guessing people have turned to cannabis for comfort in this very crazy time that we’re living in now.
How have sales been affected by the pandemic world: have they increased, remained steady? What changes in demand have you experienced?
You know, I’m still trying to figure it out. My cannabis consumption was reduced from the beginning of COVID. I was genuinely panicking, I think for most people my age, most people in general, we’ve never seen anything like this stop a society. It was something we’ve just read about in history books. I was so panicked, I was afraid of consuming cannabis and becoming more panicked. I personally can experience paranoia if I smoke too much.
Over time, as COVID became normalized, as it became the world we were all living in, I started using it again how I used to. I can’t say it made things better. But it allowed me to be in the moment and focus on what I want to, instead of getting lost in fearful thinking. Which is what I was operating in during those first months of COVID.
Everyone’s different. Some people absolutely use it to calm anxiety; some people use it as a distraction; some people will use it to lean into something useful. I’m still trying to figure out, why now? Why, when the world is falling apart, did all people turn to cannabis? It makes sense to me as a consumer. Any time I’ve had traumatic things happen in my life, it felt like cannabis has been the thing to guide me through those moments. It makes sense that people are turning to it now. But it’s been so overwhelming.
It feels like the rise of a pop cannabis culture. Where it’s no longer an underground thing or this stigmatized thing, but it’s something people are turning to in times of need. I’m still trying to fully understand why, I am almost as confused as anyone else, even with the amount of insight I have into the industry.
Is it repeating users, buying a new device because they don’t want to share? Or is it new consumers?
It’s a lot of new users. That’s what we’ve seen most of. It’s not the same people coming back to us, saying ‘I am getting a second one for my apartment so my partner can have their own.” It’s people that we’ve never seen before, coming and getting our basic entry-level classic Peak.
I have to assume that it being deemed an essential service, how it is positively affecting local economies that are negatively affected by COVID, people who might have reluctant to try it before might be open to it. They might be more open to it as the government changes their endorsement. Maybe it was something that helped push things, to accelerate the growth of the entire space.
You have been really fine-tuning these certain user-friendly features on the Peak Pro, it has received rave reviews so far. Is there one innovation, one new feature in the Pro, that you are the most proud of?
For me, the most important part of the entire experience is the vapor and the flavor. That’s it, that’s what created this whole obsession that we have with the plant. When you are vaporizing concentrates, you are getting the most flavor you can get from the plant, period. When it’s vaporized efficiently, it creates the most wonderful experience I believe to be the best induction experience in the space.
For me, the cross point of flavor and vapor is our unit of measure of a quality experience. The new chamber we have has built-in, real-time temperature control sensors. That sensor is constantly communicating with the Peak base, to make sure that no matter how hard you inhale, no matter how much oil you have in there, you’re staying at the temperature you want to. Getting consistent flavor and vapor the entire time.
While we have a bunch of cool features: an app experience where people can control temperatures, a lantern mode with beautiful lights running through it, a power dock that can charge it on the go, which can also be used as a seamless button where you pull it out, it turns on, put it in, and it turns off.
All these amazing features that come with the Peak Pro are second to the vapor that I am getting from it. By far my favorite part, my favorite innovation of this device, is the chamber and the temperature control that it comes with.
Talk to me about the Peak Pro app experience. What does it offer, how does it add to the futuristic consumption of the Pro?
The app is a bit of a story of struggle. When we started to develop the app, it was only a couple of months before Apple put their ban on vaporizer apps. And here we are, working on something designed to be something the users can fully control. They can select their temperature, they can select the lights going through it, they can select Ready Mode. There were all these things that give the user more control over their device than they ever had. And the platform we were planning on using to get that available to everyone, just banned our type of app.
It was a huge, huge blow to us. We weren’t sure what to do. We considered making a little remote that comes with your Peak so you could still control it, but then it felt like we were moving backward in innovation. Luckily, we have such an incredible team here at Puffco. We really look at the world as malleable.
We started thinking, ‘how can we get this onto an iPhone, even if it cant be on the app store?’ It has to be easy, it can’t be something you have to side-load or be a techie to understand how to use it. It should be as simple as downloading an app or going to a website. While Apple has no Bluetooth browser plug-in, Safari has no Bluetooth functionality, there are many Bluetooth providers on the app store. We found one and we started developing a web app for IOS users that could completely mimic the Android app.
It ended up working flawlessly. For IOS users, the only drawback is they need an internet connection to be able to use the app, but they have the same functionality that the Android users have. If you’re going on a hike or camping, you might want tp have your settings preloaded before you get there.
The app for us one of the many things that Puffco has experienced, where the world is telling you ‘no, this can’t be done,’ and we’re saying ‘we hear you, but we’re still going to figure out how.’ And in the end, we get there. The app was super challenging, but I’m proud we’ve been able to get the consumers the experience we wanted them to have.
Tell me about Ready Mode, whose idea?
Ready mode: I hate saying anything is my idea, I really do. Just because even if it is my idea, we have such a big, incredible team here. I feel like I give them a seed, and they turn into this beautiful plant. I likely suggested the feature for ready mode.
It really started with, this thing is going to have wireless charging. And if I’m thinking of wireless charging and what it can do, I love the idea of removing my Peak from my wireless charger and having it just turn on. There’s something about that to me that’s seamless, thoughtless, it’s one less step you have to take to engage with your Peak. That’s where the idea of the power dock started. Then it became, maybe it shouldn’t be plugged in, maybe it should just live on your coffee table. Let’s put a battery in there. Let’s make sure it stabilizes your Peak so if it gets tapped at the top, it won’t tip over.
You are such a powerful voice in the space for innovation. What do other cannabis entrepreneurs need to keep in mind if they want to see success akin to Puffco?
I have the same feedback for all entrepreneurs. There’s something about Puffco that makes it very special and very hard to beat. It’s that, we are obsessed. I use the Peak, I can look up my app and see exactly how much I use the Peak, but I’m using about 20 times a day. I’m not doing this for the sake of testing. When I was testing, I was using it much more per day. I’m doing this it because I love it.
We live by this product. Our employees live by this product. They appreciate the community that we are serving. They’re members of the community we’re serving. We are designing and making products for us, because we are community members and we believe what works for us, will work best for the community.
If what you’re chasing as an entrepreneur as money, I don’t have very good advice for you. Because I lost a lot of money at Puffco before I really made anything of substance. If what you’re chasing is a meaningful life, then follow in our footsteps. Because we do what we love every day, and it loves us back. And if we were doing this just for money, we wouldn’t be nearly as successful as we are now.
What is your best piece of advice to those cannabis entrepreneurs who look up to you?
If you’re a cannabis entrepreneur and you look up to me, I don’t have advice for you but I have an ask for you: hold me accountable.
Just because you believe in somebody doesn’t mean you forgive their shortcomings. At. Puffco, we are deep believers in growth. To grow, you have to find out where to serve yourself and others. If people blindly support you, it’s really hard to be the best version of yourself. If there’s anybody out there whose a fan of what we’re doing, I’m going to ask them they hit us with as much negative feedback as possible. Because we can use that to better serve the community. If they themselves are entrepreneurs, expect the same thing of the people they are serving.
I appreciate the advocacy you’ve taken on your personal social media account, and how you’ve really been sharing resources for progressive movements across the country. In your eyes, how does this moment feel for the cannabis industry? Is it a “boiling point” from which real change will come?
It’s hard to say. I feel like I’m one of the louder voices in the industry and I hate that. I’m not an activist, I’m not a social justice warrior, just someone who believes in human rights. It’s that simple for me. When I see people in our community who do not support human rights, I just speak up. I let them know, ‘hey, we are better than this.’ We should be the first in line to fight for human rights.
This industry we are in is an industry that was built around a tool of oppression. that’s what cannabis has been much longer in the government’s eyes than it’s been medicine for us. Our industry, more than any other, should be standing up against fascism, should be standing up against oppression, should be standing up for anybody who has been marginalized in society. Because it doesn’t matter what you look like, or where you were born. As a cannabis user, we are all familiar with oppression, because all our buttholes have puckered when a cop pulls up behind us.
I expect them to serve the most oppressed people, because that’s what this industry is. It’s an industry full of oppressed people who have somehow found a career and a business through that oppression. For me, I wish I was seeing much more of it in the space.
These movements are experiencing so much momentum, do you believe it will force change for our industry as well as across all these structures that are begging for systematic change? Where does cannabis activism fit in post-pandemic?
Post-pandemic, my hope is that cannabis doesn’t become what every other industry becomes. Which is, a bunch of small companies get consolidated into big companies and this entrepreneurial spirit escapes us, and capitalizes reigns. It’s not about making great products to serve the community, it’s about owning as much of the industry you can to make sure you can capitalize on the market the most.
It can go either way. It can be a very diverse space, as it has been, with many different entrepreneurs creating products, services, and offering people something new. Or it could become another industry that has a few major companies at the top. No one innovating, everyone limited by the gatekeepers. I don’t know which way it will go. If it works like any other industry has, it’s going to become a really hard game to enter and a really hard game to win.
If we keep entrepreneurs on our minds, and make sure the laws we are creating are allowing people to develop healthy businesses, we could see something in this industry that I haven’t seen in my lifetime. And it’s the American Dream for anybody who wants to contribute to the space. My hope is that will happen, but I don’t have the confidence to say which way it will go.