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From $600 to $5 Million in Three Years: Smoke Cartel’s Story

Sean Geng and Darby Cox, at only 23 years old, have built Smoke Cartel into one of the most successful online head shops in a growing industry. Smoke Cartel is now a leading online retailer of glass water pipes, vaporizers, and any other smoking accessory you can think of, but it started off a lot smaller.

Smoke Cartel was born in early 2014, when Geng and Cox were both students at Savannah College of Art and Design. The pair scraped together $600, bought some inventory, and started a small online glass business out of their apartment. By 2016, that business had grown to fill a 40,000 square foot warehouse and made $5 million in revenue.

Here are five factors that have helped them succeed along the way—and that they’re counting on to carry them further in the future.

Identify Your Market

“We saw a need in the industry for a clean, well-built, and professional online head shop,” says Cox. “The reaction we’ve gotten from customers shows that many other people saw that need as well.”

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Smoke Cartel’s founders feel there are a few things that set them apart from the growing pack of online head shops:  great customer service, fast and dependable shipping, and transparency in an industry that, despite burgeoning legalization efforts across the country, is subject to more than its share of scrutiny.

“Even though Smoke Cartel doesn’t touch the plant itself, our business is closely associated with cannabis, and it’s certainly not something we shrink from,” adds Geng. “That has forced us to confront numerous challenges, such as not being able to rely on advertising tools like Facebook or use Google AdWords.”

Be a Change Agent

Those challenges, though, have forced Smoke Cartel’s founding partners to get creative when it comes to getting the word out about their business. It’s also turned the duo into advocates and educators for the cannabis industry.

Smoke Cartel’s founders show off some of the site’s wares. (Courtesy of Smoke Cartel.)

“As we were getting Smoke Cartel off the ground, we were turned down for leases because of what we do and encountered plenty of banks that initially didn’t want to do business with us,” says Cox. “We’ve had to do a lot of work to overcome that stigma, but ultimately it’s been really inspiring seeing individuals who originally thought negatively of our industry begin to embrace it.”

Sweat the Details

Another factor that has contributed to Smoke Cartel’s rise is a site that’s both user-friendly and analytically minded. Thanks to his experience as a programmer, Geng knew what he had to keep in mind when developing an e-commerce site—fast load times and optimizations that make it easy to find through search—and how to execute those features.

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“When you’re selling something on the web—especially something that most customers are accustomed to buying in person—every detail counts,” explains Geng. “From making sure that people can find you to creating a platform that’s easy to use to using data to be sure you have the things people want to buy on hand, you can’t leave anything to chance.”

A look inside Smoke Cartel’s vast warehouse. (Courtesy of Smoke Cartel.)

Hire for Diverse Skillsets

While Geng spent his time focused on infrastructure and analytics, Cox took point on purchasing products, spearheading marketing efforts, and understanding their customers.  Though they now employee dozens of people, the complementary teamwork that shaped the company when it was just a two-person operation still drives their hiring practices.

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“We’ve built the company by finding people with different strengths who could support Smoke Cartel as it grows,” Cox points out.  “It is so key to find a reliable team that you trust, people will grow with you and support the company.”

Don’t Settle

As the industry grows and legalization expands across the country, Geng and Cox expect Smoke Cartel to continue growing with it. They’re always looking for opportunities to expand, but their top priority is always making their first product a little bit better every day.

“You also have to be constantly working to make things better for customers,” advises Geng. “I don’t think I’ll ever be satisfied with the our platform as-is. There’s always something to improve.”