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Jessica Billingsley has charted an impressive profession trajectory more than the previous ten years. Initial, as co-founder and chief executive officer, she steered cannabis compliance computer software platform MJ Freeway to prominence in twenty-nine states and fourteen nations. The business has processed additional than $15 billion in transactions. Then, in June 2019, MJ Freeway merged with MTech Acquisition Corp., a publicly traded business that gathered $50 million in a 2017 initial public supplying. The merger formed a new entity, Akerna Corp., and headlines hailed Billingsley as a trailblazer: “MJ Freeway Becomes Initial Female-led Cannabis Technologies Traded on NASDAQ.”
With Akerna, Billingsley and her colleagues are rapid becoming a important player—the proverbial 800-pound gorilla—in the cannabis technologies sector. The game program is to obtain and companion with other revolutionary computer software developers in order to construct the subsequent generation of digital tools and solutions for the quickest developing retail marketplace in the globe.
‘Software is consuming the world’
Even prior to Billingsley became an entrepreneur in the market, she had experiences with cannabis that shaped her point of view about the plant as each a medicinal and social phenomenon.
“Many early participants in the market, like myself, either had a private health-related connection or a social justice drive. Otherwise, it just wasn’t worth the danger,” she stated. “In my case, I have a loved ones member with a demyelinating illness.”
Though Billingsley was studying communications and laptop science—an odd mixture, maybe, but 1 that has served her nicely as a technologies entrepreneur—at the University of Georgia, she believed computer software was the future and wanted to be a element of the evolution.
“I was a fantastic student, but knew I was in no way going to be greatest of the greatest,” she recollected. “But what I could do was translate that [technical know-how]into applications and innovation and communicate how the technologies performs to other individuals.”
Early in her profession, she was struck by the phrase “software is consuming the globe,” Netscape co-founder Marc Andreesen’s blunt description of the disruptive and all-consuming influence of bits and bytes across the enterprise globe. It was then she knew her future would be consumed with ones and zeroes and kernels—the necessary constructing blocks of computer software and laptop systems. The name Akerna, she explained, plays on the word kernel, familiar to farmers and laptop scientists alike. Clearly, she delights in a fantastic play on words.
Though MJ Freeway could not be as disruptive as Uber and Airbnb, the business helped take the cannabis market from the underground to a buttoned-up retail provide chain more than the previous decade, assisting state regulators handle compliance and providing retailers a true-time understanding of customer trends in a fickle, rapid-moving market.
When Billingsley invested in 1 of Colorado’s initial cannabis operators, she was asked to pick a computer software system to assistance run the enterprise. “But I couldn’t discover something to adapt, and that is exactly where MJ Freeway was born,” she stated. “It evolved via health-related and social activism into the 3 Ps: public security, solution security (a transparent and accountable provide chain), and patient security (precise labeling).”
Created as a cloud-primarily based platform permitting each operators and regulators to handle and navigate the complicated track-and-trace method, MJ Freeway had to be custom-constructed due to the very regulated nature of the market. Billingsley noted that in other regulated businesses—alcohol, tobacco, pharmaceuticals, and agriculture—software tracking systems are somewhat productive, but none have a extensive platform that ties all the pieces with each other.
“Alcohol and tobacco do the customer-security piece fairly nicely, and agriculture does a decent job of making certain provide-chain security up to distribution, but then it is all gone,” she explained. “Cannabis necessary a hybrid model and the capability to tie with each other the idea from these models and adapt it for a solution that is brought to marketplace in a higher-worth, dry-flower type.”
Billingsley is excited about the prospect of constructing out Akerna’s platform and adding to the network of fifty integration partners MJ Freeway created more than the previous decade. When Billingsley says, “we are a accurate contemporary microservice, API-enabled, [enterprise resource planning] platform for cannabis ecosystems,” the words roll off her tongue like an individual who has spent additional than her share of time burrowing down laptop-coding rabbit holes more than the years.
Quit the drop
The cannabis market resembles the technologies market in various methods and, regrettably, 1 of these is the scarcity of girls in leadership and C-suite positions. That is a discomfort point for Billingsley, and 1 that she has taken up as a bring about.
“My perception is that cannabis is quite equivalent to the tech market, and I do think there is a cultural element,” she stated. “In technologies, girls hold a smaller sized percentage of U.S. tech jobs than they did twenty-5 years ago, and that is not going in the suitable path. One more truth is inside ten years, girls who enter technologies drop out at price of 56 %.”
Applying the tags #OneWomanChallenge and #StopTheDrop, Billingsley encourages market operators of all stripes to assistance girls get ahead in market 1 interaction at a time.
“Real modify is the outcome of a lot of, a lot of modest acts,” she stated. “Ask any individual to assistance 1 lady in some way, no matter if it is an e-mail or intro or mentoring sessions. It could look like a drop in a bucket but it creates a swell of true modify, and cannabis can certainly participate in the challenge.”
Though she constructed MJ Freeway, Billingsley was determined to recruit leading tech talent. A single of the inventive methods she did so was supplying a thirty-hour function week to girls who sought function-life balance. “It’s been amazing for us and a tool to assistance cease the drop,” she stated. “Folks are in a position to continue at decreased spend and hours and nevertheless have rewards. Each employee who has taken benefit of that has converted to complete-time.”
‘Canna will in no way let you be bored’
For a business that began as a side gig when Billingsley lived in Atlanta, MJ Freeway has grown impressively and now employs additional than 100 individuals. In fiscal year 2018, the business generated $10.five million in sales.
Though her ascension in the market almost certainly had additional to do with her technical abilities, she is equally proud of her communication and individuals abilities and early on determined to construct a business individuals wanted to join and stick with for the extended haul. From the starting, she focused on producing a function atmosphere exactly where staff really feel appreciated.
A single of these staff is the “director of individuals,” who focuses on constructing corporate culture and preserving robust communication channels in between staff and leadership.
“We do concentrate a lot on employee retention and culture and have been quite intentional from inception,” Billingsley explained. “We have adjusted our north star a handful of instances, but our core values have in no way changed: Do the suitable point, be element of the answer, and show individuals you care. That indicates each inside the enterprise and for our customers.”
Billingsley’s quantity 1 and two staff are nevertheless by her side. They helped her ring the bell to open NASDAQ trading on the day Akerna produced its debut on the marketplace.
“It assists that we are undertaking new stuff each and every year and serving a rapid and explosive marketplace exactly where we have new challenges and complications innately for our group to sink their teeth into,” she stated. “So, there are a quantity of aspects and I’d like to take the credit, but some of it is the nature of our emerging market. I’m a technologist myself, and the worst point for me is to be bored. Canna will in no way let you be bored.”
As additional states across the nation legalize cannabis in 1 style or yet another, enterprise specialists from other industries have been enticed by the siren get in touch with of chance.
“We had visionaries early on, so there have been quite wise, forward-searching individuals from inception. But it is amazing to have continuous access to a pool of qualified talent who are excited to function in a rapid and developing market,” Billingsley stated. “That was a challenge early on, when we would only promote that we have been a technologies business. Then, right after the interview, we would share the complete story. About 50 % of individuals would stroll away. But now we have the chance to employ the greatest and brightest individuals who are excited to function in an expanding marketplace.”
As Akerna appears forward into the increasingly competitive space of computer software and compliance options, 1 of the greatest assets the business has could be the huge quantity of information it has collected in markets across the U.S. and abroad.
“We have an unprecedented quantity of information for customer packaged goods and the provide chain,” she stated. “The quantity of information points we track, and then offer worth and leverage and access, is fairly phenomenal.”
The principal advantage for customers is insight about customer getting trends. Billingsley noted girls in between the ages of 50 and 60 are the quickest-developing group of cannabis customers. The leading 5 motives individuals cite for making use of cannabis are well being- and wellness-associated: Sleep, anxiousness, and discomfort are driving the majority of sales across the U.S.
Applying this information to create income is a important element of Akerna’s enterprise approach and mission. A single need to have appear no additional than Facebook’s $500-billion marketplace cap to recognize how precious customer insights can be in today’s digital retail ecosphere.
“We have had the suitable due to the fact inception at MJ Freeway to aggregate and monetize our client information as extended as its anonymized,” Billingsley explained. “There is a wealth of information insights to be mined, and our assure for our platforms and enterprise clients is to offer additional worth than price and leverage information to offer insights back to the operators.”
Of course, anytime a business collects and manages terabytes of information on a day-to-day basis, hackers and competitors take notice. Inherent dangers and threats lurk in the extended network of servers and computer systems exactly where information is transferred and stored. In 2016, MJ Freeway was the victim of a cyberattack that disrupted its enterprise operations and designed a thing of a public relations crisis for the business and its core solution. The stolen information integrated customers’ get in touch with information and facts and dates of birth, but no other sensitive information and facts, according to the business. Following the dust settled, MJ Freeway was in a position to recover 90 % of the compromised information.
“We have been the victim of a vicious cyberattack on our legacy platform, which is a solution that we have due to the fact retired,” Billingsley stated. “It was a quite substantial understanding practical experience, and we’ve come out stronger on the other side with a huge investment in safety. We now invest [on security] like a business a lot of instances our size.
“We’ve created a culture of safety in our business that I’m proud of moving into the post-cloud era,” she added. “We recovered nicely and have knowledgeable double-digit development twice more than due to the fact that occurred. It was a challenging lesson, but I’m grateful to appear at issues via the lens we do now.”
Two sides of a coin
When she entered the market, Billingsley understood the challenges and complexities of beginning a business in a marketplace dealing in a federally illegal solution, even when the business does not touch the plant. Nevertheless, she was caught off guard by the extent of the complications cannabis entities continue to face day-to-day.
“I was somewhat naïve when we founded MJ Freeway and did not anticipate we would be topic to some of these challenges, but we faced our share of banking and merchant processing and insurance coverage concerns,” she stated. “Our development also was constrained by the price of regulatory modify, which presents its personal set of challenges. We had to rein in in the course of years exactly where not a lot of new regulations have been passed, and then expand quickly when important sweeping regulatory alterations across markets took spot. So, chance and challenges are two sides of the very same coin for us.”
Flash forward to 2019, and Billingsley’s Akerna finds itself in a distinctive position as 1 of the quite handful of cannabis corporations listed on a public stock exchange in the U.S., with a wholesome influx of money and new investors prepared to fuel its development.
“This merger provides us a bigger platform to execute our vision, which is to drive organic development and lead the cannabis tech consolidation that is necessary for quickly scaling market sustainability,” she stated (all in 1 breath). “So, possessing further money with this listing and decrease price of future capital does enable us to pursue that vision and approach that is not as simple in a private business.”
Like each and every other cannabis business CEO in the U.S., Billingsley appears forward to federal legalization. For the initial time in a lot of years, she feels optimistic about that prospect.
“I have been undertaking this for ten years, and MJ freeway has processed more than $15 billion in transactions, but I have not been saying federal legalization is coming in the subsequent couple years,” she stated. “Today, I do assume we are most likely to see either a states’ rights act or some true modify by way of executive order in early 2020. So, if I get that suitable, possibly they’ll say ‘she known as it!’”