Warren Bobrow=WB: Please tell me where you are from? Where are you now? What did you want to be when you (grew) up? Do you have a mentor? Who is that?
Justin Johnson=JJ: I grew up in Washington state, spending most of my youth in Spokane, which is pretty rural, a lot closer to Idaho and Montana than Seattle.
Obsessed with TV commercials from an early age, I attended Washington State University with the goal of becoming a creative director at a New York ad agency. That was the dream. I excelled academically in high school and at the next level, but college is where I also began to develop a deeper appreciation for cannabis, which I used regularly to manage anxiety from undiagnosed Obsessive Compulsive Disorder.
After graduating top of my class, I assumed no agency could resist me and attempted a move to New York with my best friend to pursue the dream. It resulted in a week of commuting between Manhattan and Dobbs Ferry, where we slept head to toe on a mattress in a hallway, just to interview for jobs with salaries below the poverty line. Dejected, we both agreed the New York dream would have to come later in life.
I ultimately ended up in Seattle, where I landed a job at WONGDOODY, a highly decorated creative agency I idolized in college. While my goal was always to be a “creative,” my mix of writing ability, strategic thinking, and digital savvy got me quickly recognized by Michael Hoffman, our head of business development and one of my earliest mentors.
In a previous life, Michael was responsible for the launch of a little sneaker called the Air Jordan 1 with then rookie Michael Jordan and a relatively unknown Spike Lee. Michael Hoffman himself didn’t stand much taller than 5 feet, but he was a giant to me. He passed away last year, but I was pretty lucky to have him as a boss and role model. He set the foundation for much of my professional success, teaching me how to lead with passion, empathy, and a commitment to excellence. He also taught that mentorship was a two way road, and that I had a lot to offer.
Within a couple years under Michael I was promoted to manage business development for our office in Los Angeles, where my appreciation for cannabis blossomed, and social media started to wreak havoc on the traditional agency model. As TV ad budgets dried up in 2008, my role changed from pursuing new business to building expertise in new services like web analytics, search engine optimization, social content creation, and early iterations of Facebook and Google advertising that dominate budgets today.
I ultimately left WONGDOODY in 2011 to join Lunchbox, where I’d oversee online entertainment initiatives between Walmart and Unilever, ranging from branded music videos with Slash to interviews with Kevin Hart about his new comedy special. This experience in music and film ultimately landed me back to New York, where I would lead social strategy for American Express’ branded entertainment initiatives at Digitas starting in 2012. I’ve been in New York ever since, also spending four years leading business development at Engine Group (formerly Deep Focus) and three years leading marketing at tech startup Bublup, before venturing out on my own.
Today I spend my days building BudsFeed, advocating for the rights of cannabis consumers, and consulting brands and startups. My wife and I call Brooklyn home, but started investing in upstate AirBnB’s about three years ago. We just finished remodeling a cabin in Wassaic, NY at the beginning of 2020 and have been living up here ever since the virus hit.
WB: Please tell me about your business? What is your six and twelve-month goal? What obstacles stand in your way? How do you anticipate removing them?
JJ: BudsFeed.com is a website that surfaces the best new cannabis related products through the power of community. It’s a place for cannabis enthusiasts and entrepreneurs to share and geek out over the latest products, services, and content created for the cannabis community. Any person or brand can sign up for BudsFeed and “seed” something they love, or something they actually created.
Every Monday we celebrate the “Top 5 Seeds,” based on community upvotes, featuring those products across our site, newsletter, and social content. We also work with brands on more substantial content collaborations, including blog posts, original animations, product demo videos, and features in our original web series, “Buds Unboxing.”
We spent late 2019 and early 2020 focused on listening to early users, tweaking the experience, and building features that encouraged engagement. We also focused on building a brand that is informative, fun, and creates highly shareable content across platforms. Everything we create and share is inspired by things users seed on BudsFeed – the community is the heartbeat of the business.
In the next 6 months, it’s all about growth and continued improvement in the BudsFeed user experience. While our consumer audience continues to grow organically every day, we hope to get more brands participating in the community and sharing new product drops. We believe that industry pioneers have always been at the forefront of cannabis culture, and that is no different today. Whether we’re talking about flower, glass, or even industrial distillation equipment, brands are driving innovation in the cannabis industry.
12 months from now, I hope that BudsFeed will be part of every cannabis-related brand’s product launch strategy.
The biggest obstacle for BudsFeed right now is awareness, but that is something you can only change with a good strategy and time or money. As a bootstrapped startup, especially one in cannabis, spending money is not the smartest path to awareness. It just takes time, education, and consistent execution of the little things that make people enjoy their experience with the platform. We’ll continue to get through obstacles like we have over the last year–keeping our head down, our ears open, and working hard.
WB: What about stigmas? Do you run into them with traditional business channels? How do you choose your clients? Do you enjoy cannabis? CBD? Entourage Effect?
JJ: I’ve consumed cannabis almost daily since I was 18-years-old, with a few length breaks in between. I’m historically a flower guy, although I enjoy the convenience vape pens, and have grown a whole new appreciation for edibles since jumping into the industry. As someone who enjoys the highs of THC products, I’m not a huge consumer of CBD, but I do find it works wonders topically for things like inflammation. If you find yourself too high, a nice tincture can also help bring you back to earth.
Having spent more than a decade at advertising agencies in Seattle, Los Angeles, and New York, I’ve surrounded myself with a lot of like-minded people when it comes to cannabis. Not surprisingly, I felt supported in my move into the cannabis industry by most. Some people have become exponentially more interested in what I’m doing. Others have grown more distant, feeling uncomfortable having a public association with the cannabis industry, but I believe the stigma is fading fast. It was definitely something I considered for a long time.
One of the biggest challenges I’ve encountered as a cannabis adjacent business–and I’m not alone–is a lack of quality paid advertising channels available. While I used to count Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat and other platforms as official partners of my agency, most make it near impossible to get cannabis-related ads approved. These platforms are missing out on hundreds of millions of advertising dollars each year due to blanket policies based on U.S. federal law, and it’s unfortunate for both sides. Even 100% legal CBD brands struggle to effectively advertise.
What it comes down to is a lack of education at the highest levels. Business leaders and politicians shaping policy need to spend time learning about the history of cannabis, why it’s illegal, the damage prohibition has done, and its broad potential if we could just research it legally. At minimum they should know the difference between hemp and marijuana. Mainstreaming of CBD and state level legalization has done a lot to reduce the stigma of cannabis overall, but many policymakers are still decades behind, concerned more about their reputation than anything.
We hope BudsFeed can do its part to end the stigma and help cannabis related brands build awareness, even when other social platforms won’t.
WB: Do you cook? What is your favorite thing to prepare? Do you have a food memory from childhood that you’d like to share? Favorite restaurant? Where?
JJ: I really enjoy cooking and spent most of my teenage years working in restaurants, where I learned enough to be dangerous in the kitchen.
My favorite thing to cook is brunch. You can’t go wrong with some bacon, over easy eggs, hash browns, and maybe some biscuits or pancakes. I feel like breakfast food is universally delicious and something I can make in mass for friends and family. This is something I definitely picked up from my dad. While mom would command the kitchen at dinner, dad took pride in whipping up a good breakfast on the weekends.
While I like cooking, I’d almost always prefer to dine out. Having spent more than a decade wining and dining advertising clients around the country, I’ve had the opportunity to visit a lot of amazing restaurants and hope I’ll have a chance to return when the pandemic is over. Sometimes I find myself dreaming of the seafood risotto from Noodle Pudding, a very small, unassuming Italian restaurant in Brooklyn Heights. It is, without a doubt in my mind, the best Italian food in New York and probably my favorite restaurant.
WB: What is your passion?
JJ: I’ve always been obsessed with creating experiences that connect people, especially online.
Dating back to my childhood, long before Giphy, I was always creating animated GIF sites that I would share with other kids in chat rooms. Even into my mid 20’s I was obsessed with platforms like Tumblr that allowed me to create meme blogs that could garner a reaction from thousands of people overnight.
Professionally I turned this passion and curiosity into creating digital entertainment experiences for big brands, and was part of a lot of firsts in social media marketing. I learned a lot about building a brand in the digital age from these experiences, and even more about the intersection of community, content, and technology working with the likes of Facebook and YouTube.
Today I apply that passion and all of my learnings into building BudsFeed, a place I hope everyone can feel welcome connecting over a mutual appreciation for cannabis-related products, services, and content.