“I am the first to admit I have SO much more to learn, I’m really just at the beginning of my career. I am certainly not trying to pretend I know everything and this honesty has really helped me. You would be surprised the amount of people who are willing to help you if you just ask.”
I had the pleasure to interview Karson Humiston the Founder & CEO of Vangst, the cannabis industry’s largest recruiting resource. Karson started the company when she was 22 (actually built the first website in the St. Lawrence University library) and it has since grown to be a 25 person company — with offices in Denver, Colorado and Los Angeles, California. Through direct hire, employees on demand, career fairs, and our jobs board, they have connected over 5,000 people with jobs in the cannabis industry.
What is your backstory? How did you get involved in your industry. What led to you establish a company at such a young age?
Funny story. When I was in college I started a student travel company called On Track Adventures. Through this I generated a decent sized network and database of students and recent college graduates. As graduation approached (Spring 2015) I started asking my network about industries they were interested in working in and an overwhelming majority said they were interested in learning more about careers in the cannabis industry. This inspired me to go to a cannabis trade show where I walked around and asked companies what positions they were hiring for. I was blown away by all of the positions! Basically every type of position you can imagine was needed: chemical engineers, botanists, marketing managers, outside sales representatives, accountants, retail store managers, etc, etc. I asked the companies how they went about finding and recruiting employees and they all responded saying it was really challenging as there was no industry specific staffing / recruiting agencies or job boards. They almost all agreed that turnover was a huge problem and reliable talent was really hard to find and convince to work in the space.
I was sold! I could “easily” help companies in the cannabis industry find great talent. That night I went to Fedex, had business cards made with my original company name, “Gradujuana” and returned to the trade show the next day saying, “I am Karson Humiston, I work for Gradujuana and we (me) can help you find great employees!” I then rushed back to St. Lawrence where I made a website through Wix in the library. Not being a great student, I remember my friends asking what I was possibly doing (during senior spring) in the library for an entire weekend. When I told them I was starting a cannabis recruiting company called Gradujuana, everyone looked at me like I had 10 heads. My friends still joke and laugh about how bad the website was. I graduated college and immediately moved to Denver where I followed up with all of the companies I met at the trade show. After a lot of rejection, finally on July 12th, 2015, I landed my first client, O.penVape out of Colorado. I helped them find an accountant. It wasn’t long before I had several clients who I was helping find employees and I realized it was time to use the revenue to hire my first employee. As we brought on more and more clients and began to hire more employees, we were no longer just doing recent college graduates — we were doing Executive level roles. This inspired us to re-brand from Gradujuana to Vangst. Vangst means catch in Dutch — we were CATCHING top talent.
Fast forward to today and I have an AWESOME team of 25 people, we have hundreds of clients, and we have helped thousands of people around the country find jobs in the cannabis industry. From a revenue standpoint, we grew 567% between 2016 and 2017 and are on track for even larger growth increase between 2017 and 2018 and this is just the beginning for Vangst. We currently offer direct hire, employees on demand (temps), career fairs and recently launched a job board.
If you could give three pieces of advice to other entrepreneurs looking to start a company, what would they be?
(I have four)
1.) You don’t have to have experience or know what you’re doing to start a business, you can figure it out! I didn’t know one thing about recruiting or business when I started, in fact, I would go as far as to say I was clueless when I started. Fortunately, by not taking “no” for an answer and being committed to figuring it out, I was able to get far enough along to reach a point where I could hire people who knew more than I did.
When we first started to gain traction, we had a competitor whose Co-Founders were twice my age. They would constantly bad mouth us saying that companies should not work with us because “Karson, the Founder, is 23 and has no experience and has no idea what she is doing”. They even wrote a blog saying: “As a general rule, nobody with less than 10 years experience is qualified or has any business operating their own staffing and recruiting agency” (clearly about me). I have no idea if they’re in business anymore, but they certainly aren’t competitors anymore.
2.) Hire Great People! You’re only as good as the team you have executing your vision. You can have the best idea in the world but if you don’t have a great team executing the idea, the idea is worthless. My biggest asset is my team and I would do just about anything for the people who work for me (and I think they would do the same for me!).
3.) Stay focused on what YOU do best. I have seen a lot of companies try to go in a million directions and try to do a million things. What (typically) happens is that they get stretched so thin that they can’t do anything well. I believe it’s best to go narrow and deep — be the absolute best at what you do rather than trying to be average at a lot of things.
4.) Don’t pretend like you know everything — ask for help! I am the first to admit I have SO much more to learn, I’m really just at the beginning of my career. I am certainly not trying to pretend I know everything and this honesty has really helped me. You would be surprised the amount of people who are willing to help you if you just ask.
Have you had any hiccups that you have experienced along the way?:
SO many hiccups!!
In our early days, cash flow was a constant hiccup and stress. We had a really slow August and September of 2016 and by October 2016 (I was 23 at the time) we were running out of money. I had four employees (Jordan Smith, Kyle Arfsten, Amanda Koenig and Amanda Guererro) who I was responsible for as well as (at the time) what seemed like a lot of other business expenses. I had used all my savings and I couldn’t get a bank or anyone to give me a loan. I remember I had enough money to get through one more pay cycle and would either have to lay people off, which would have resulted in losing clients because we wouldn’t be able to service them without staff, or figure something else out. I did what goes against every business book out there — used my personal credit card (with a $15K limit) and maxed it out to pay my team and some other expenses. I was confident we were going to have a huge October and be back on track cash flow wise in November. The craziest part in all of this is that I was so confident we would have a big October, I even put an offer letter out to someone to start in early November (Andrew Freeman). THANK GOD I was right, we had a huge October, and were back on track (and better than ever) by mid November. I shared this story with my team recently and they said during all of this they had no idea.
What are your keys to success? I believe successful people are people who say “I am going to do ____ (blank)” and they go out and do it. They visualize what they want and then they go out and do whatever it takes to make it happen. I believe each person’s success can only be defined and measured by themselves, not by anyone else, and has nothing to do with money.
For example, my best friend is a teacher who specializes in teaching kids with dyslexia… she absolutely loves it and dances to work each day. From an income standpoint, she makes less than many people in other fields of work, but over 76% of people aren’t happy in their jobs. So while she might make less money, I think she’s WAY more successful than most people will ever be!
What energizes you? Coffee, tea, or do you just have natural energy? I have always had what to other people seems like an abnormal / oddly large amount of energy. Since I was a little kid I’ve always packed as much into each day as I can and I truly can’t sit still (its not uncommon for me to get up and walk out of a movie). It’s very usual for me to wake up at 2:00 or 3:00 in the morning and be so excited about something that I get up and start my day.
I think my energy stems from the fact that life is really short…. there is a limited amount of time to do awesome, meaningful things. When I die I want to feel like I have done everything I possibly can to have made a positive impact in the world, made a difference in as many other peoples lives as I can, and lived a great life. I have SO much left to do!
I also drink a lot of coffee!
Is there an entrepreneur or business leader you look up to? Why?
Sara Blakley, Founder of Spanx. Sara is a great example of someone who figured it out on her own. Sara started Spanx with $5K, zero experience, and went on to revolutionize her industry and inspire millions of women around the world. While I don’t know Sara (Sara — if you’re reading this would love love love to have lunch with you) she comes across as extremely passionate, down to earth, humble and genuine — all things that in my mind make up an amazing leader.