Travis Tharp of Keef Brands on the Rise of Cannabis Beverages

Also, the industry's evolution of retail and the challenge of customer acquisition

Travis Tharp is CEO of Keef Brands, founded in 2010 as one of the original cannabis-infused beverage companies. Tharp first joined Keef Brands in 2017 as president and chief operating officer, and in 2020 oversaw the company's largest year-over-year growth of beverage market share—by dollars sold.

His career serves as a case study for successful growth and expansion in cannabis, tech and beyond. From 2013 to 2016, Tharp was head of city operations for Handy, overseeing more than 30 markets. In this role, Tharp built operations teams and workflows that were capable of handling hundreds of thousands of bookings per month and recruiting thousands of workers per week. He went on to serve as vice president of marketplace growth at HopSkipDrive, leading teams for marketing, inside sales and driver operations.

Tharp holds a bachelor's degree in economics from Northwestern University and an MBA with an entrepreneurship concentration from UCLA's Anderson School of Management.

We spoke with Travis for our Higher Calling series, where we chat with leaders in the cannabis space.

Travis, tell us...

Where you grew up, and where you live now.

I was born and raised in Boulder, Colorado. After many years away in Chicago and Los Angeles, I moved back to Boulder four years ago to join Keef Brands.

Your current role in the cannabis industry.

I'm the president and CEO of Keef Brands. We are one of the original Colorado edibles brands and a leader in the infused beverage space. We have multiple lines of infused beverages, ranging from our original Keef Classics line of carbonated sodas, all the way to our low calorie functional Keef Life H2O beverages that incorporate other minor cannabinoids. We are currently in seven states and Puerto Rico. We're also gearing up for our launch in Canada.

Your earliest cannabis memory.

My family went up to the mountains a lot when I was growing up. Around 8 years old, I remember walking through the covered bridge in Vail Village and catching a whiff of the strangest smelling tobacco ever. It was the '80s, and like most kids, I had a pretty good understanding of what smoke smelled like. My parents laughed a little and said that it definitely was not tobacco smoke. They didn't say anything more, but I eventually pieced it together.

A story about the positive impact cannabis has had on your life.

Cannabis has allowed me to come back to my hometown and work with some of my oldest and dearest friends. The industry challenges us daily and throws new curveballs and obstacles at us all the time. Furthermore, the products we've created have given us a viable alternative to alcohol in a social setting.

We're seeing adults of all ages embrace this and it's really fun to see this transition begin. Most of all, we get so many letters from medical cannabis patients who use our beverages for pain relief, letting us know how Keef Brands has helped to improve their quality of life during difficult times. That, I think, is the most fulfilling part of this journey.

A favorite flower, edible, product or brand.

I really enjoy the products with a CBD:THC ratio. Our partners in California—CannaCraft—have an established line of tinctures, gelcaps and other unique form factors: Care By Design. Having the flexibility to choose which ratio works best for certain use cases and relief has been a great discovery.

The biggest challenge cannabis marketers face today.

It's getting better, but there are still very limited channels for cannabis companies to leverage. There are even fewer that can provide accurate data for establishing and optimizing customer acquisition costs, for example. We are maniacal about tracking—so I challenge our team to go beyond the established practice of defaulting to just providing swag and samples to the budtenders.

Now don't get me wrong, retail sampling and budtender product education is still a core piece of our toolset, but we are always trying to build in more tools that can augment this practice and give us a full view of how to introduce new customers to infused beverages, as well as how to improve that journey.

One thing you're excited about right now in cannabis branding, partnerships or marketing.

Cannabis has been tied to a traditional retail model until recently. The opportunities created by delivery services and the ability to speak directly with consumers through online ordering is going to continue to help the industry evolve and grow. I still know a lot of people who are reluctant to enter a dispensary, even though the new stores being built are much more like a modern retail experience.

A cannabis trade/social justice organization that you support.

Keef's founder helped create ATACH, the American Trade Association for Cannabis and Hemp. Through this organization, we have been able to help build the cannabis Beverage Council and work with other industry leaders to help share best practices learned at the state level with both state and federal agencies. This has helped shorten the period between legalization and implementation in states with recent legalization and we hope it will help provide a realistic framework for legalization at the federal level.

A project you worked on recently that you're proud of.

The pandemic forced the industry to embrace online commerce and it motivated our team to build an online environment that would help educate consumers and retail teams alike on the benefits of infused beverages. We found a willing partner in Zoltrain to help us build this environment and they have been nothing short of fantastic.

We constantly push the envelope of use cases and tests to see how we can better leverage our educational content, whether it be through a partnership with a dispensary, or directly to consumers. Danny Gold and his team have been in lockstep with us from the beginning and we are extremely excited about what our teams have uncovered together.

Someone else's project you admired recently.

Cannabis beverages are still less than 1 percent of the total market, so we are very much in the evangelical stage of educating consumers. I'm a big fan of the companies that are working to normalize the cannabis beverage and make it a mainstream, everyday shopping experience like other types at retail.

Our friends at Cann, for example, have done a great job of implementing catchy phrases on their six packs that have spurred multi-unit purchasing, similar to the traditional beverage industry.

Someone you admire in cannabis who's doing great things.

I always want to give a shout-out to the folks who jumped into this industry 10 years ago and started the first licensed brands. This is by far the most challenging industry I have ever experienced, especially given the constant regulatory shifts—but it's nothing compared to what they endured at the beginning.

For these original founders to take the leap before the rest of the world took a lot of guts and intestinal fortitude. I don't think that's acknowledged enough these days.

A movie, TV show, music or food you most enjoy pairing with cannabis.

My wife and I are big fans of The Late Show with Stephen Colbert as a way to unwind at the end of the day. I'll take a little bit of our Keef Life H20 with CBN right before bed and get an extra chuckle in during his monologue before I fall asleep.

What you'd be doing if you weren't in the cannabis industry.

For some reason, I have always been drawn to chaos, which is why I have always worked in startups. The allure of building an industry from the ground up has always fascinated me. If we didn't have this wonderful opportunity, I would probably be working to build businesses and create new business models in existing ones. Utilizing technology to build a better mousetrap in legacy industries is the most likely place you would find me.

Higher Calling is a weekly series, publishing on Thursdays, where we chat with folks in the cannabis industry about their personal history and taste in cannabis and the future of cannabis marketing. For more about Higher Calling, and our Clio Cannabis program, please get in touch.

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