"Every issue, I write a business corner. It’s a thing I like to do best. I love discussing different angles for small businesses and helping when I can. Like stated in the past, there have been quite a few shops and manufacturers that really enjoy the column and I thought of doing something a little different with this issue. I wanted to highlight a company in particular that I really feel is doing something right when it comes to managerial practices and strategic team building. For this issue of my business corner, I want to highlight an incredible company: Smokeless.
Coming from Minnesota, the co-owners of Smokeless: Jesse and Angie Griffith and Tim Koester are one of a kind. For the people that have met these incredible people, they are an absolute hoot (yes, I’m really twenty four and I just used the term, hoot.)
In all seriousness, Tim, Angie, and Jesse have created an empire through many different outlets, especially across Minnesota. Most people in the region know the names: Smokeless Store Chains and Smokeless Manufacturing, the classic 503 E- Liquid, and the impeccable and impressive liquid, Float. When you visit their facilities, you’re immediately greeted by an incredible team all around. With over 40 employees strong, Smokeless has created an all around successful establishment that I’m proud to know. Here’s the story of Smokeless and how they have successfully run an empire. Take notes, people. These guys are no joke. Take it away, Jesse.
So Jesse, how did this all start for you? Your story is fascinating and we love hearing your humble beginnings.
Well, a small piece on our beginning is a bit different than others. In late 2009, well before the word ‘vaping’ would become a cultural touchstone, my wife Angie and I moved to Minnesota to start the state’s first dedicated vapor products business. Back then very few people knew what an e-cigarette was, so we picked a name which we thought would communicate what our products did, hence Smokeless Smoking was born. At that time, we couldn’t have known that we weren’t just starting a mom and pop shop; we were starting a family.
We started our business in a mall kiosk and neither of us had any real experience in retail or business sales. Angie’s background was in film production, and my background was in computer science. What we did have was a love of and fascination with the product, and a desire to treat our customers the way we’d wish to be treated. We also had a mission: To change the lives of our customers by showing them an alternative to combustible tobacco.
So you started with one kiosk and grew into this vaping empire. How the hell did that happen?
To be honest, a lot of things changed when Tim came into the mix. That’s where we found our bearings. As the business grew and we set up more kiosks around the Twin Cities, Tim was graduating from law school. He is literally my best friend and had known about this for months now.
He helped me make liquid at night and worked in the day at our kiosks while he studied for the bar exam. During that time, he saw the effect our work had (and has) on our customers, and he didn’t want to lose that. Just after becoming licensed, despite multiple offers from local law firms, he expressed an interest in joining our company as a partner. We gladly accepted and are grateful to this day for that. After joining up with us, we set upon the task to change all of our kiosks in to brick and mortar locations and the rest is really history.
For me, it’s obvious to know how momentous your company has grown. But, for some of those who aren’t sure, can you better explain your growth?
Today Smokeless employs about 40 people, with five retail locations (four in Minnesota and one in California, the state I grew up in). We are a distributor of eLiquid, servicing many of the vape shops in Minnesota and outside as well. Recently we completed construction on a thirteen thousand square foot facility where we office, manufacture our own liquid brands (FLOAT, 503, Redhead), and co-pack manufacture for a number of brands.
So your employees are loyal and great at what they do. What have you done specifically that has inspired them and created such dedication?
We try to be very careful and deliberate when hiring new staff so we can make sure we get the best people to join us. Our interview process is rather informal. Usually we sit down with a candidate and just try to start a conversation with them to get to know them, asking them questions that are open ended to give them a chance to talk about themselves so we can get a better idea of their personality. We want to know who they are and what their hopes are. We like to know what their broader goals are, and what they’re working towards in life.
That’s rather unique. Why that approach?
Well, we generally think that finding a person that fits well into our company culture is more important than finding someone with a bunch of sales experience or even a ton of product knowledge. Of course, having a passion for vapor products is very important to us as well. We always want to find people who identify with the mission of our company, people who we can tell will be excited to come to work everyday because they love doing it. These questions help us figure that out and creates a really strong bond
So after the hiring process, what role do you typically take when it comes to management and ownership of Smokeless?
So obviously, when you hire great people, the less work you have to do on the back-end in terms of management. I feel like the main part of my job as an owner and a manager is to work to support our employees; to do everything in my power to give them what they need so they can do their best work, and so they can live comfortably. Part of that is realizing that we all go through tough times and have periods where we’re prone to making more mistakes or being off our game. If you give people a chance, especially people who have previously proven themselves to be capable of excellence, and you’re patient with them and do everything you can to help them through it, the company and the team usually come out stronger in the end.
I think you guys have constructed a great culture at Smokeless with your team. What does that usually translate as time goes on for the group? Is the boost in morale evident across the company?
We really think of ourselves as a big family. We all tend to stay very close outside of work, and a lot of us spend time in our off hours with each other. For instance, every Wednesday night I host games of Magic: The Gathering at my house. There’s about 10 of us who play every week, some of them retail employees, some of them manufacturing employees.
Way! (Laughs) Yeah, in the summer, we get a little crazy and even get together on Sundays to play softball or kickball. We also have three or four company parties per year. The social aspect of our company is one of its greatest assets, and one of the things that makes me proudest. I would confidently say that the people of Smokeless are very happy.
Well, I think this is a great idea of where you guys are at and you’ve really shed some life on great points. Is there anything you want to leave with?
Yeah, it’s been a real trip, really. It’s been a really fun 7 years so far, and I remain optimistic for what the next seven years bring. Really what I want to emphasize in this is we refuse to give up on this industry. There’s just far too much at stake, from the lives of our customers, to the lives of our employees, whom I truly view as our second family. They’re responsible for building this company that we love to go to work at. Many of them have been with us for over four years, and some of them have been with us since the company’s first year. Angie, Tim and I will continue to do everything in our power to ensure we have a fun, meaningful, and fantastic place to go to work.
Lastly, I want to emphasize something. Our industry really IS worth fighting for, not just because the products are great, but because the people are great. My life is filled with wonderful people directly because of this industry and the work we do. The customer who walks through the door and and whose eyes light up because for the first time they see it’s possible to throw their cigarettes away. The people who work with us, who’ve devoted their time and energy to helping customers find the perfect product for them — the one that’s going to keep them off cigarettes that day. The entrepreneurs who work day and night to grow and improve their businesses for their families, their employees whom they treat like family, and their customers. They’re worth fighting for, so let’s not give up. This industry is still changing lives for the better every day. I know together we can change a billion of them."