Mention the phrase “head shop” and immediately anyone over the age of 30 tends to get nervous. They of course, are chugging back in their memories of the hole in the wall, semi-sketchy places of their youth, the kind of place that makes you want to be in and out quickly, so that no one can see you. Now Smoke Cartel ? Couldn’t be farther from the case.
Run by the 20-something wunderkinds, Sean Geng and Darby Cox, Smoke Cartel is one of the most successful online head shops in a growing industry that is feeling less and less taboo as each day passes. Smoke Cartel is the leading online retailer of glass water pipes, vaporizers (the list goes on) that gets even more impressive when you learn that the business-started with $600.00- has now morphed into a business bringing in $5 million in revenue.
Yes. $5, Million. Dollars. Right here. In little old Savannah.
But what’s more impressive is that Sean and Darby are just so dang likable. The two identify themselves as change agents, rather than CEO’s, speaking honestly about the hoops one has to jump through in their industry, as well as the stigmas that are still very much alive. But even more so, they are employers that are working to set themselves apart, relying on the talents of millennial galore, much to dismay of think-pieces quick to denounce the generation bracket. We were lucky enough to catch the two juggernauts for a quick interview on how Smoke Cartel is breaking the mold now and how they are thinking about the future.
The Creative Coast: Talk to us a bit about why y’all decided to start your business in Savannah. Looking at y’alls skill set and product, you really could have gone anywhere.
Sean Geng: I was attending SCAD so I was already here. Savannah was a big difference from where I’ve lived in the past, which is Beijing and Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. I really liked it here. It was vastly different and I think part of me really liked the change and being so far away from my family, who lives all the way across the world, and my immediate family, my mom and dad who live in Pittsburgh and not having that safety net almost to fall on, made me a little bit more ambitious in trying to do something.
In the past, I’d done work doing freelance development work for a number of tech industry companies and start-ups. And I had decided at some point, after I had sold one of the tech companies, that I was like, “I’m gonna do screen printing here in Savannah,” because me and my artist friends here in the community here are so great, that I wanted to really showcase their work and build a brand here.
Screen printing was not for me. It was tedious, difficult and required long, long hours. It just didn’t fit with my schedule and it just wasn’t for me. So I sold all my equipment to a close friend of mine who now does do what I intended to do. I started an E-commerce website when I saw that there was a gap in the market. We’re not in California, we’re not in Colorado, a lot of people are shocked to find the largest cannabis accessories brand here in Savannah, Georgia. But that’s the beauty of it; we live in a remote world where information is easily accessible and Savannah, I consider to be my home so I’m not leaving, I’m gonna stay here and we’re gonna build our company here and we’re going to fulfill all of the country and internationally.
CC: One thing that we really love on your website is your origin story, which is the story of y’all being like “Oh my god, our credit cards weren’t going through and we really thought we were going to have to close up shop.” That’s such an honest truthful story that doesn’t get told a lot about businesses. Can you talk about why you decided to publish that?
Darby Cox: For us in our industry, the discrimination is something that people face a lot. We’re in a topic that people look twice at when you say it out loud. I think that in my experience at least when you’re honest about something and you just talk about it people tend to respond much better towards that. So for me it was always about being honest. It needed to be authentic. It needed to be truthful.
CC: Take us through like a day to day of what y’all do at Smoke Cartel.
DC: I spend most of my days helping everyone else get their tasks done. So I kind of keep everything operating. I see my job is removing obstacle courses from the day to day work flow. Keep everyone moving smoothly and growing forward ahead.
SG: Darby’s responsibility is to ensure that our day to day operations continue operating. That they continue improving. She improves the efficiency of those operations and comes up with strategies.
DC: It’s kind of a broad thing. Most recently, I revamped our customer service program. Our lead agent was having trouble getting our response time down. And when we went over it together we just realized that we didn’t have people working at the right time. So we found remote agents that worked from different parts of the country and now we have 24/7 support. And she’s got her goals met.
SG: We still kept of course the agents that we have here in Savannah. We just wanted to extend our service 24/7. We are fortunate enough to be in a remote place and our brand is kind of far reaching online so we have good recognition and pull in some very enthusiastic, very talented people from all over the place like South Africa, Jamaica, and the U.K. Me, on a day to day, as CEO, I handle a lot of business development. I coordinate some of the high level decision making, as far as what we decide to do with our brand strategy, our pricing, our business strategies going forward. So for me it’s mostly a lot of emailing, a lot of phone calls, a lot of meetings. We strategize, I make decisions, my team executes them.
CC: Another thing that’s really worthy of talking about is the fact that y’all have scaled up. From an outside perspective, it’s very different like being on the ground and doing what you do, but from an outside perspective of watching you all here in Savannah, you all have scaled up so quickly.
Can you kind of talk about the process of how you all managed scaling up?
DC: I think you get to this point where you realize that everything you’re doing is not operating well in the space that you’ve given it. You kind of have this feeling like well, I either downsize or I make that jump further. And you know that jump further is scary because you haven’t been there yet and you’re not for sure what you’ll need or who you’ll need to do it. But you kind of just make that decision like “Here we go.” And you just make that decision to jump and know that jumping and then hope that it kind of, you can’t have fear you just have to do it. And then having good people…
SG: I think we’re in a particular situation too. I’ve had a lot of great mentors who, in the tech industry, “I mortgaged my house to do this, I gave up everything, you know I quit my 100k a year job to do my own thing.” And I think that requires a lot of courage, a lot of dedication. I’d like to say that we are just as courageous and all that but to be honest our circumstances are different.
You know we’re young. We don’t have too many financial commitments. We have like student loans essentially, everybody does. Its not like I was betting the house, I didn’t have a house to bet. And it’s not like I have kids or any of those things that kind of make me want to think twice before making risky a decision. Which I think has been good for us and it’s lead to the growth rate.
DC: That is very true. Every time we’re at a point where most people would say “Oh you know, I have kids to feed if I make this decision I might not be able to do that.”
SG: It’s important, for me if I wake up every day, I want to at least feel like, I ask myself “Am I still having fun?” You know if I’m not, I’m going to stop doing it. If I get to a point where I feel like it’s stagnant then I’m not having any fun so I’m going to start having some fun and do something a little bit different.
CC: I think that’s so important because it’s like so many of the folks who are really like kind of going out on that limb and trying their own thing are young folks cause they’re like “Well nothing really works for me here, there’s no place for me to grow horizontally. So what can I actually do?” In a lot of ways Savannah is prime for starting your own thing.
That’s a really long winded way of asking what would you say to encourage people to follow that same path whether they’re in Savannah or they’re looking at Savannah and they’re like “I don’t know, should I make this jump here?”
SG: Whenever we talk to other vendors “Where you guys from?” We say “Savannah, Georgia.” And they’re shocked and they’re like “Are you sure?” We say “Yeah absolutely, do you want to come visit?” So number one, I think the first point that you make-why Savannah, it’s not New York. Rather than looking at it like well it’s not any of those hype cities, it is Savannah, Georgia. And I think that should be emphasized more. That it’s unique because[crosstalk 00:11:05]half of the time when we have people, we’ll fly people out here or people will visit us and I think going in a lot of them aren’t expecting anything. They’re like “Oh I’m going to the South.” And these are guys from like California, New York, other countries even, they come and visit and they fall in love with the city. I’ve had one guy,try to buy a house here. I think he ended up making an offer or something and he lives in San Francisco he’s like “Oh my god, like I could be here.”
DC: What’s are count we’re at four now? Of all the people we’ve flown out, four have stayed.
CC: That’s awesome.
DC: Because they, we tell people “Oh we’re Savannah, Georgia.” “Oh you’re not in California?” “You’re not in Colorado, why, why?” And then we say, “Come visit, come check it out.”
SG: I think just the second point, what would I say to people “Savannah, if you haven’t realized it is the perfect incubator.” You have a good labor force. You have people with talents who attend the universities around here. You have everything you need really to start a number of businesses you only need to seize the opportunity. And if it was easy enough where like you’re in a city like Boston or San Francisco where all of those are available somebody’s already done it. You need to kind of take the initiative, be the first mover and take advantage of the resources that are made available to you. And the people that do, have found themselves quite successful here in the city.
To find out more on Smoke Cartel, visit: https://www.smokecartel.com