Paul Joo: CEO of High Tea Cannabis Co.

Now that 2021 is finally here, many are looking to a more hopeful future, not just with the end of COVID-19, but the beginning of a new phase. The New Year always brings new resolutions, usually centered on weight loss, new identities and of course, new jobs. High Tea Cannabis Co. CEO and Founder Paul Joo is no exception to this, with the opening of his own business inspired by his time in California, and his motivation to bring something new to the cannabis landscape in Ontario. 

Now living in Toronto’s midtown area, Joo left a stable job career path in corporate finance to start his own cannabis business, a move he doesn’t regret. Like many entrepreneurs, Joo is taking a chance on himself and letting his entrepreneurial spirit and business sense drive his vision. He took time to speak with The Edge about his passion, goals, challenges, and how he plans to bring that West Coast vibe to an East Coast setting. 

You took many cues from the cannabis scene in California and applied it to your business. How did you incorporate those changes at High Tea Cannabis Co.? 

When cannabis retailers started opening up across Ontario, I noticed right away they felt very clinical—it was like walking into a neatly decorated Shoppers Drug Mart or Rexall. The stores didn’t feel welcoming and the vibe discouraged customers from sticking around. No lies, it was pretty intimidating shopping at these legal dispensaries for the first time, because there was no guidance as to where to begin. There were so many different brands available for purchase, which made the shopping experience overwhelming. Even more so, that there was no educational information for reference and Q&As with budtenders were pretty shallow for the most part. It was a very mediocre shopping experience altogether.

The cannabis scene in California is first and foremost rooted in lifestyle. The dispensaries there routinely hold events and aim to get to know their community. They are spaces where like-minded individuals come together to learn about cannabis products, keep up to date with the industry, and partake in community events such as how to cook with cannabis. I noticed this sort of interactive approach destigmatized cannabis and made it seem like a part of normal life, how alcohol is viewed by most households today. At High Tea, our mission is to embody this lifestyle through interaction with our local communities and educate our customers so that they can purchase products that meet their needs. 

What made you decide to start your own business and were you always so entrepreneurial?

Ever since my time at the University of Waterloo, I’ve always thought about starting my own business at some point. The people I was surrounded by in school were very entrepreneurial and some even went on to found their own companies. It inspired me to think about the world from more of an entrepreneurial and creative mindset. When cannabis was legalized in Canada I started to research and think about how I could participate from a business perspective. It turned out that many cannabis-licensed producers in Canada were losing money, and a big contributing factor was the shortage of retail stores (distribution) in the market. It was the perfect opportunity to combine my business experience with my interest in cannabis. 

What’s it like being founder and CEO of your own business? 

It’s a great feeling to know that people look up to me and believe in the vision I’ve created. I feel blessed. I truly believe these sorts of opportunities don’t come around too often in life. As a founder and CEO of a start-up company, it’s really cool to see my vision turn into a reality but it can also be quite daunting at times. No two days are the same because we face new challenges everyday. I have a highly capable and ambitious team that keeps the business on the right track to meeting our objectives.

What was your journey like, in entering the cannabis space?

It’s been a long journey to say the least. In Ontario, there’s a very strict regulatory process that cannabis businesses have to go through from the onset. Cannabis retail operators must be licensed with the regulator, negotiate and secure real estate for the retail store, and ensure store plans meet the cannabis retail operating guidelines set forth by the government. Having intimate knowledge of the process to start a cannabis retail business in Ontario has given us a huge advantage in planning and executing on our growth plans. We have also been able to create a new retail partnership model to scale our brand across the province with business owners looking to diversify into the cannabis sector.

You mentioned earlier about bringing a King West vibe to suburban cannabis stores. How do you plan to execute this plan? 

One of my hobbies is exploring new restaurants and bars across the city. I really enjoy going to venues in King West because of the creativity that’s brought to life in these spaces combined with the variety of food options and great customer service. It’s really rare to find venues like this in the suburbs even though there’s a huge density of people living there. A part of our business strategy is opening stores in underserved cannabis markets, many of which are located in the suburbs. I wanted to bring that King West experience to these communities across Ontario. High Tea will be engaging with a number of local artists to produce unique content for our stores, but most importantly our goal is to provide unparalleled, market leading customer service. 

How has the pandemic impacted your business and what other challenges, if any, have you experienced in helming your own startup and how have you dealt with them? 

Since cannabis retail has been deemed an essential service, we’re extremely fortunate to be able to operate in this pandemic environment. Our business model has evolved from a strict brick-and-mortar retail store to a curbside pick-up and delivery services operation, like Uber. Our team is working on delivery (route) optimization strategies to ensure we’re providing best-in-class service for our customers. We’re also very excited to announce that as part of our commitment to sustainability, we’ll be offering zero-emission delivery by utilizing our fleet of Tesla cars. Growth in e-commerce has meant that there are more delivery vehicles on the road than ever before, and we want to do our part to reduce our carbon footprint. High Tea is committed to sustainability and our goal is to expand our availability of Tesla vehicles and achieve zero emissions delivery for all orders in the future.

We operate in a highly regulated new industry so we always face the risk that our regulators will make changes to the framework we work under on any given day. When initial COVID-19 measures were lifted in Ontario, the government withdrew the ability for cannabis retailers to provide delivery services, then re-introduced it when the lockdown was reinstated more recently. It’s important for us to stay agile and informed about discussions happening within the government as it relates to cannabis laws.

You’re currently operating from a Brampton location; what future expansion plans do you have for High Tea Cannabis? 

Our inaugural store in Brampton will finally be opening to the public on February 12, 2021 (Check us out at: www.highteacann.com). We have plans to rollout 15 new stores across the province by the end of the year. We’ll be opening new stores in Scarborough, York, Hamilton, Niagara Falls, London, and Windsor, among others. We also have our sights set on expanding to the US where the cannabis market is projected to be over $40B. With the recent [Joe] Biden win and house vote to decriminalize cannabis at the federal level, we believe there’s a favorable business landscape there. 

Do you have any advice or tips for young entrepreneurs, who are looking to begin their own startups? What are the possible risks/rewards? 

As a leader starting your own business, it’s important to never lose sight of the big picture and keep the vision alive. Once you’ve found that differentiating factor that’s allowed you to begin your journey, it becomes so easy to digress into the nitty-gritty day-to-days when in fact your time and energy should be focused on executing on strategic plans with your end goal in mind. Especially as a founder, you’re going to be tempted to want to do and know everything yourself. Always surround yourself with smart people to help you make the right decisions and trust the team you’ve put together to deliver on tasks. Oh, and also, don’t forget to have fun along the way! 

Dontei Wynter | Staff Writer