BudSense’s David Thomas On Why His Start-Up Built Its Own Digital Signage Solution For Cannabis Retailing

December 8, 2023 by Dave Haynes

When cannabis started being legalized in US states like Colorado, and more recently across Canada, it struck me that it was a very interesting new vertical for digital signage companies to chase – because it was a greenfields industry that had retail environments offering up products wholly unfamiliar to a lot of the people walking in the door.

It’s grown pretty clear, though, that while there may indeed be big long-term opportunity, cannabis retailing is also a very complicated industry – with rules and regulations changing by jurisdiction, a whole bunch of vendors and SKUs, and widely variable supply chains.

While there might be a common perception that getting the OK to sell cannabis is a license to print money, a lot of operators are struggling financially, and both retailers and the tech ecosystem underpinning cannabis are coming in and dropping out all the time.

A Canadian company called BudSense has a particularly interesting story to tell. The company, based in Regina, Saskatchewan, started out as a retailer, but found its way into technology to fill the gaps in what they needed to effectively manage stores and communicate to customers.

Now, software is the main business, and BudSense has a SaaS software product that is all about managing menus and other screens around dispensaries, and is very specifically tuned to cannabis retailing – as opposed to general digital signage software that could also drive cannabis store menus.

Canada has been the main focus to date, but co-founder David Thomas says BudSense has business in the US, and plans to grow that.

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(These transcripts are AI captured and then cleaned up by a staffed service. There will still be some boo-boos here and there, though, especially with unfamiliar corporate names or similar sounds, like sign and side … Honestly, I don’t have the time to carefully pick through the transcripts looking for small errors.)

David, thank you for joining me. Can you tell me a little bit about BudSense?

David Thomas: Yeah. Thanks for having me, Dave. BudSense is a menu merchandising company in the cannabis industry. It solves the problem for our retailers of menu management.

And are you focused just on menus or are you doing in-store promotion, all kinds of other things within these dispensaries? 

David Thomas: Yeah, we do some in-store promotion tool sets as well, pretty much anything that involves merchandising is the solution that we want to solve. 

Your company’s in Saskatchewan, right?

David Thomas: Yes, we’re based out of Regina, Saskatchewan, where we got our start in dispensary operation. 

So when you say dispensary operations, you mean you’re actually running a dispensary? 

David Thomas: We were, and we still are. I partnered with my brother, John, around legalization in Canada. We started by running four stores in Saskatchewan. We’ve since sold those stores and moved on to other retail footprints but that’s when we started developing the software that is now BudSense. 

What set you down that path? Because being a retailer is very different from being a software company?

David Thomas: Absolutely. So I have a background in engineering. My brother has a background in pharmacy. We actually started our business partnership before cannabis in real estate and we have an entrepreneurial spirit. We were always looking for opportunities and when cannabis was announced for legalization, we saw it as a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity and we wanted to participate so that was the catalyst that pushed us into the cannabis space. We went into retail because of our real estate and pharmacy background.

I have a lot of experience running teams and building systems. So we just put our skill set to use in a brand new industry. 

So did you write your own software to run your store and that’s what got you down the path or was it the absence of good software to do what you needed? 

David Thomas: It was both. We solved whatever problem was directly in front of us. So it wasn’t like we wanted to solve digital menus. It was more of a necessity and then we had the skillset to do it in that way. So when we started, we had four stores to run and that’s very atypical from a normal business where you start with one and then progress if you’re successful.

So from day one, I knew that we needed a system to manage merchandising from a central location. So we could know what was happening in the stores and there were some solutions on the market but they were pretty flimsy at that point and we just felt more comfortable building our own.

So, that’s where we started down the path of digital menus.

At what point did you decide that you’d rather be a tech company than a retailer? 

I think the perception when cannabis was legalized in Canada was if you managed to get permits, particularly in those provinces where they allowed for private operators, it was a license to print money.

David Thomas: Yeah, absolutely. The markets are very interesting with cannabis. I’ve watched them develop in our region, in the U.S., and other places and that’s certainly the perception from the outside looking in and that happens a lot in an early market, whereas some of the permits are protected and ours were in the early days.

We actually sold what turned out to be the peak of the market which was an excellent catalyst for our next chapters. So now a lot of the markets in Canada are oversaturated. I’ve heard numbers thrown around something like 70% of dispensaries in Canada are unprofitable and that has to do with market saturation, but it also has to do with operations being a little bit bloated and not really having the efficiency needed. 

BudSense is focused on driving some extra revenue but also tries to make sure your costs are under control and you’re running an efficient operation.

I’ve also heard a number of times that the big challenge of a lot of the people who get into launching dispensaries is they know they’re cannabis, but they don’t really know retailing. 

David Thomas: You’ve hit on something really interesting because even if they do know retail, which is very rare, cannabis is different. So you have this situation where no one has the perfect skillset so it’s going to take innovation and learning regardless of what your background is because it’s new and it has new problems. 

So what happens is, regardless of your background, you go into it, you start trying things and if you’re not mindful then your first go at it isn’t going to be perfect. You’re going to need to change your strategy. That’s where people get into trouble with switching costs, with building systems that aren’t necessarily malleable enough to change. So there’s a ton of different backgrounds. Some people are more experienced with the product. Some people are more experienced with retail. Some people are more experienced with purchasing. It’s really interesting because you essentially have to lean on your strengths while understanding your weaknesses and kind of build the business that way. There are a lot of different paths to success in cannabis and we see that with our different customers of BudSense where there’s not one way to do this but it is challenging regardless of what your background is. 

One of the big challenges that I’ve perceived is how things are licensed and regulated changes by jurisdiction. So for instance, In Saskatchewan, where your company is based, it sounds like it’s privatized. Where I live in Nova Scotia, it’s run by the Provincial Liquor Corporation. So it’s very much regulated and I can go in and buy a bottle of wine around the corner and buy whatever you buy there, I don’t terribly know but it’s all incorporated and much more heavily regulated perhaps than in a private situation and I guess it’s the same in the states where it can change state by state. 

David Thomas: Yeah, you’ve hit on another one where it’s interesting because your operation depends on the municipality (based on zoning) and the region you’re in because one of the most important parts of it is your location and how protected it is from other competition, and then your purchasing is different based on your region. But one thing that we excelled at is it’s very simple. We read the rules, and we read the regulations, and we understood them. And a lot of other times people would go in based on what they’re doing in the U.S. or what they’re doing in another market. 

The problem with that, like a concrete example, was when we opened our stores in Saskatchewan, we didn’t have a security guard at the front door because the regulations didn’t say you had to, we were treating our customers as customers and a lot of people looked at what the U.S. was doing and they saw these security guards at the front door and they didn’t necessarily understand the purpose of the security. The security guards were there because it’s not legal federally. So it’s purely a cash business and the insurance is extremely expensive. So when you have a cash business, your store is filled with cash, and it’s a target for crime. So for those reasons and the illegality of it at a federal level, that’s why the security guard is there. But when you read the regulations, there’s no reason for one.

So it’s little things like that where if you’re not focused on the details of the regulations and respect the regulations, it’s really hard to create a dynamic business without understanding them. 

So if I’m a cannabis dispensary and I’ve just opened up, or I’m about to open up, and I determine I need digital menu displays and I would like some promotional displays as well, could I just use any old digital signage CMS software to run the store or would I be just buying into a whole bunch of work that I don’t need to? 

David Thomas: It depends how large your organization is and it depends how highly you value your menus. If it goes back to our conversation earlier, what is your skill set what do you value and how are you going to create value in your business?

If you’re willing to enter all of your product information daily and keep it up to date on your menu, which some people do, there is a viable reason to do that if you want expanded information that says something BudSense doesn’t offer. If you want a clean, tight operation, that runs your menus a little bit more efficiently and automated, that’s where BudSense really starts to shine. BudSense manages scale really well. So you may be able to have an owner-operated store that uses a chalkboard that understands every product that’s coming in, but when you get 5-30 stores under a banner that falls apart really fast. It again depends, but like we offer some powerful menu solutions that go beyond that kind of out-of-the-box, digital signage stuff that you’re referring to.

And from what I understand, there’s a whole sort of technology ecosystem focused around the cannabis dispensary business, including point of sale systems, information systems, inventory management systems, all that stuff that maybe you would never find in an apparel store or hardware store or something like that, but it’s tuned to cannabis. Is that accurate? 

David Thomas: It’s very accurate and I’m fascinated by it because I think it’s partly to do with our time in modern technology, where if hardware stores were legalized today or if hardware stores were invented today, I believe they would have a stronger tech ecosystem. I believe that we’re using tech in cannabis more so than in other verticals at the start of their run because it’s available to us and it’s helpful.

That said, the nature of cannabis and the instability of the supply chain leads really well to these niche products. You mentioned point of sale, and for example, there’s a seed-to-sale regulation needed where you’re monitoring individual products from the time that they’re grown to packaged, delivered to the store, accepted at the store, to sell to the customer, meaning seed to sale and that regulation is over and above most just out of the box point of sale systems, so that’s why. 

And that, again is down to the region. So these point-of-sale companies have to change their technology to support region-by-region regulations based on that seat to sell tracking and other things.

Wow. So it gets very complicated. 

David Thomas: It does. It is certainly a unique set of challenges, and it’s a really early stage too. So a lot of these challenges and underdeveloped technology fall on the lap of operators, and it’s challenging. 

As a tech provider in this ecosystem, is it challenging to get to scale because you’ve got all of these operators and as you said, 70 percent of them maybe aren’t profitable, so they come in, they come out, they’re cash constrained, and everything else? 

David Thomas: It is challenging.. That being said, this is my first software-as-a-service company that I’ve built so I’d imagine that it’s always challenging, but I do think it’s particularly challenging in cannabis. 

That said, I think it requires the right approach for this industry, and it’s back to what I was saying, where just understanding the rules and, as you said, understanding the conditions that these operators are trying to run their business in is really important. For those reasons, we spend all of our capital on the product. A lot of our competitors spend more on sales than we do. And the reason why we spend on products is because exactly what you’re saying, there’s a lot of problems to solve and if people are going to go to business, I don’t really value early market share that much.

That being said, it lowers the revenue that we can create out of the bat, but I feel like focusing on the product and focusing on trying to help our customers create success, drive revenue, and clean up their costs. I feel like that’s a winning formula long term. It’s just a little bit rocky at the start.

And where are we in that sort of evolution of the industry? Did legalization happen 10-plus years ago in Colorado?

David Thomas: Yeah, 10 years ago, Colorado. Five years ago, Canada. The Colorado legalization, like the legacy in the US, is interesting because they’ve been in an eye on an island.

So, tools such as BudSense haven’t really hit them. They made do with what they had, and it created interesting market conditions. It’s all in the US, also I don’t think they’ve seen the growth and consumption expected and that’s because without federal legalization they really won’t see that three decade increase of consumption that we’re expecting and when you go nationally legalized like Canada would see. But yeah, where are we from a tech standpoint overall? I think we’re really early. I don’t think it’s been proven that a point-of-sale system can have international dominance.

It still seems to be region by region. I don’t really think many people have realized how taxing regulation is on technology. For that reason, BudSense is what I call decoupled from the transaction, and this is counter to most traditional tech thinking where you want to get as close to the transaction as possible because that’s where the money is but in cannabis, that’s also where the regulation is.

So, by decoupling from that, we can spray it a little thinner and build solutions that are easier to scale across the entire industry. So industry as a whole, I think we have a long way to go. BudSense is making pretty significant strides in building powerful tools that take some of these retailers out of the dark ages, of the challenging period of cannabis retail.

And some of the surf riders have come in and out of the space as well or you contacted me because one of them was basically backing out of the digital signage. 

David Thomas: Yeah, I’ve seen a lot of significant decisions of pulling out, coming back in, investing, divesting. It’s tough for me to speculate, but yes, our main competitor in the US has dropped out of digital signage in the cannabis industry. 

And you’re speculating again, but I’m curious: why would they do that? It strikes me as if you get into something with them, then you’ve got recurring revenue.

David Thomas: Yeah, my best assumption is, first of all, Enlightened was purchased by a company called Weedmaps, which I believe is the largest Cannabis company in the world. So they had a larger parent company, and when a larger parent company is involved, and you’re dealing with a subsection of that company, who knows what could have possibly happened?

But what I see time and time again is even a dominant player like Weedmaps, likely doesn’t understand the whole scope of the cannabis industry. They get their part really well, but they don’t necessarily understand the retail part or the cultivation part and the individual challenges that come with it. So when they think of digital signage, they’re probably thinking of it as simpler than what BudSense has, and when you bring a simple solution to a really complicated environment, it’s really tough to maintain and scale. So there’s a chance that they’re making the right decision for them, whereas that recurring revenue that they might have on their balance sheet, maybe it’s not sustainable. And again, I don’t know, but those are some assumptions that I could make to the decision. 

Of those retail stores, dispensaries, whatever you want to call them in Canada and the US, are most using digital screens in some way or are some of them still analog? 

David Thomas: It goes in trends. Canada has a higher digital percentage than the US. A lot of stores don’t use menus at all because they just completely simplify the problem and use their Budtenders to communicate directly with the consumer. 

But that gets challenging in terms of volume and staffing, right?

David Thomas: So many things, because then now you have personal bias too and your consumer, they don’t necessarily want to get all their information from the Budtender. Some people love it. Some people don’t like it. 

I think one of the missing pieces in that ideology is that the menu isn’t just for the consumer. It’s also for the Budtender so that they can use the menu to discuss purchasing options together. With cannabis, there’s a lot of information to process, and I think that some operators, they’re around it all day, every day, and they lose sight of what it’s like for a consumer to come into the store and just absorb and consume all of this information.

And what menus really do is help structure those conversations, regardless of how you see the customer journey happening, I think you’re missing out if you don’t have a well-thought-out merchandising plan. That said, if you’re dealing with something that’s inefficient and doesn’t really work that well and it requires more headache than it’s worth, there’s a great argument to not do it at all. 

If you’re not able to do it well, don’t do it at all. That is a methodology that I subscribe to for other parts of the business. So why not menu management? 

Yeah, that’s a long-running story in digital signage.

A lot of venue operators, whether they’re retailers or QSR or whatever, invest in the technology. They invest in the original content load, and then it just becomes an orphaned bunch of screens that never get updated. 

David Thomas: Yeah, I see that all the time, and then it’s just in the background, right?

We see that in our sales cycle too, where our potential customers are using another solution, it might just be collecting dust in the background but when they see our software, they’re more like, oh, this exists. This is out there to help me manage my menus and make it a little bit more meaningful. So it’s fascinating. There is a difference in ways that operators manage menus, whether you’re talking about ‘No menus at all’ or poorly managed menus or something more along the lines of BudSense. 

Yeah. I was excited by the prospect of digital signage in cannabis retailing because you would have a whole wash of consumers who would be walking into these stores for the first time, completely unfamiliar with the product, and maybe a little bit uncomfortable because they don’t get it. They don’t know what they’re buying. They don’t want to be sold stuff that’s overpriced or whatever. 

I saw digital signage as a way to help educate, drive awareness, and streamline operations. But I hear a variety of stories, including from you about how well that works. 

David Thomas: Yes, it’s fascinating, right?

I think back to legalization and what consumers’ expectations were of the store and what we had. They came into our store on day one, and we had 8 products for them to buy, like edibles weren’t legal, we didn’t have pre-rolls because they weren’t legal and it was just in a lot of ways disappointing.

And when you look at it up close, it feels like a struggle. But when you resume the way out, I see a 30-year improvement cycle where we’re getting better at this, and we’re starting to pull consumption away from alcohol and towards cannabis, and I think that a lot of operators are a little bit too close to it where they don’t see these new customers coming in because it might only be 2% of their customer base that is new, but that 2% over time is massive and it’s exactly what you were saying where there’s a feeling that our customers know how we do things, we know where to find the products that they want to buy and maybe they even already know what they want to buy before they come into the store. Yes, that’s all true but there is this subsection of the consumer base that is intimidated the first time that they come into the store.

There are a lot of Canadians who still haven’t been into a cannabis store, or maybe they went once, and they had a negative experience. So, exactly to your point is this customer journey. We really do have to try and make it as welcoming as possible. 

And I’ve seen everything from cannabis stores that look like Apple stores, they’re sleek, they’re beautiful and I’ve seen other ones that look like Korean variety stores in suburban Toronto or something, you just run down and shabby and everything. 

David Thomas: Yeah, it’s interesting. That was the common thread of, “We want to be the Apple store of cannabis,” and I think we’ve softened that stance a little bit. A lot of those companies who had that concept in mind, they’re quite frankly, they’re bankrupt now or on their way out, and what happens is when you have a 30 percent margin packaged good product, you gotta be careful where you spend your money. 

So, I think it’s about making our customers comfortable, and the other thing is how much space do you need? I think, as a rule, even our early stores were too big and they were still half the size of some of these other ones. If you make your store small enough, you can make it as nice or as rough around the edges as you were saying, as you want. But it’s really about where you’re spending that money and how you want to design your customer experience from there.

So tell me about the company, what’s your installed base? 

David Thomas: So we have approximately 10% of the Canadian market right now. We started out focused, so we’re in over 500 locations in the US and Canada. We’re very focused on maximizing our current customers’ use of the product; that’s how we approach our development. And as we go, we build from word of mouth and inbound leads. As I said, we don’t have a ton of sales efforts. 

One of our early successes was based on my retail experience, understanding from first-hand experience what a retailer needs and building a product to suit that. But eventually, that kind of ran out, and I’m still involved in the space from a retail perspective, but what we started to realize was there are different perspectives of this, and there are different ways of doing it, and we look at every new customer as an opportunity to see a new perspective of how menu management can work in this space, and we try to build our product around those different stories. So each of our retailers might not realize it, but they have a voice in the development roadmap of our product, and that’s how we see growth because if we can save our customers’ time and then once we save them time, we can start maximizing margins, and once we maximize margins, we can start boosting their revenue. We can really take some of these companies who are struggling and make their business better, and that’s what we’re focused on rather than store count because we’re in the infancy of the industry. So, I see it as almost a waste of resources to chase early market share. I would much rather build a strong product. 

Is it easier to work in Canada than the US because it is nationally legal? 

David Thomas: I guess it really depends on what your goal is. It’s easier to do some things with cannabis in Canada. For instance, we built a database of 35,000 SKUs in Canada to help our retailers with data entry.

That’s not possible in the US. There are no barcodes from state to state, just because of the federal legality of it. That said, if you’re going to do a more simple solution, the US could be easier. The reason why we focus our development on Canada is because it’s a little bit more robust in terms of a national regulation standard. So we can build out our product in a way that kind of wraps around a nationally legalized structure, and then what we do is we take parts of that, and we distribute it in the US. So our Canada market is like an R&D farm, and then we pull out parts of our product and wrap it around a particular use case in the US, but if we focus on the US, it’s so fragmented that it’s tougher to build that cohesive system. It’s better to build the cohesive system and then only use 30% of it rather than build 30% of it and not know what that 70% is supposed to look like if that makes sense. 

The company is privately held? 

David Thomas:  Yes.

And how many people do you have? 

David Thomas:  We have 12 people right now.

And just dispersed, or do you actually have a bunch of people in Regina?

David Thomas:  We have a head office. It’s a pretty cool program. It’s called the Conexus Cultivator, and it’s a tech incubator. So we have about half of our team there, and then the rest is distributed throughout Canada and remote work.

You’re in Victoria, BC, which is a lot nicer this time of year than Regina. 

David Thomas: It is, yeah. I spent many winters in Regina. I do feel grateful to be here now in the winter. 

Yeah, I’m a Western Canada boy, so I had to get the hell out of that one. I don’t like minus 30 Celsius. 

David Thomas: I feel like I’ve spent enough time in it. 

You’ve paid your dues. 

David Thomas: Yes. 

All right. This has been great. Very insightful. 

David Thomas: Thanks a lot, Dave. I appreciate you having me on.

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