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True North Vapors’ Origin and the Future
Like many e-cigarette companies, TNV started with my wife and I finding an e-cigarette in a local convenience store back in 2012. For many years, we both thought quitting smoking would be impossible, but we were able to kick the habit rather easily and never looked back. The business part of my brain immediately demanded further investigation!
I was so excited to promote the possibility of people quitting smoking but so very often ran into the “it’s too good to be true” response. Within a month, sales were happening, and word of mouth spread; people were quitting! I had established deals with a hardware supplier in the US and a local juice supplier in Ontario. To this day, I have never seen word of mouth travel so fast. I remember selling shipments of 500 CE4’s and CE5’s the moment they landed. Often, it was lineups of people who had already switched bringing in their friends and family or leaving their names on a waiting list with payment upfront. The popularity was huge and heavily fuelled by how little supply and competition there was. It really worked!
Money was flowing but I ran into a severe bottleneck… At that time, flavour selection was rare and acquiring nicotine was even harder. Customers demanded a wider pallet and frankly the cost back then for e-liquid was extremely expensive. We are talking 15 plus dollars/30mL wholesale. These conditions created the perfect storm for the birth of GoldSeal.
Through customer feedback from hundreds of possible flavours, we selected the big winners to induct into to the GoldSeal lineup. Trial by error and accuracy by volume made the formula we built our success upon. By the end of 2012, we had a 50-flavour list in production with good old hand bottling.
By this time, we were already dealing with Chinese manufacturers for hardware. This was truly the golden age of e-cigarettes; competition was low, production methods were still being developed and flavour profiles were still relatively unknown. Trying to perfect ‘bacon’ for example was pure disaster (meat in an e-juice: YUK!). We did however, perfect “Fresh Tobacco” that has sold millions of bottles worldwide (shout out to Adam for its creation).
In early 2013, we were getting contacted by 50+ stores DAILY who wanted to carry our product line. I spent most of my days on the road encountering my biggest objection “Is it legal to sell nicotine in a liquid form?” It was during that year we experienced our largest growth, finishing at more than 300 active stores and employing more than 30 people.
Having spent the previous ten entrepreneurial years with minor success in retail and a lot of failures, I couldn’t have been prouder of our team. It was also then that I realized despite my best efforts to be safe and clean, we still lacked the experience in manufacturing. My business partner at the time, Peter, who developed the original branding and flavour names came to me with the idea of co-packing. In those days, there was no-one capable or interested in bottling e-liquid. The fear of government intervention prevented those capable from attempting it, save all but Speedo Foods, our savior.
At the time, Speedo Foods was a small flavouring company based out of Mississauga, Ontario with a young and ambitious entrepreneur at the helm, Angela. Instantly seeing our vision, she worked with Peter to create a label standard, which is remarkably like the template we still use today. She also made our flavours proprietary rather than utilize public flavor brands which would be easily replicated. Additionally, she found a way to test and eliminate any carcinogenic properties of our recipes. This was a huge step for us, we could finally stand behind our products with documented evidence of its safety.
From 2013 to 2016, our business remained relatively static. There were many things we did to expand our products, gain and lose staff and customers, move locations, competition, trade shows, research, etc. May became an infamous month, where massive projects, decision and actions always occurred, and it soon became known as “The May Projects”.
Sadly in 2016, our relationship with Speedo Foods drifted apart as they entered aggressively into the food industry. We interviewed many competing factories, looking to maintain our quality and service standards with little luck. It wasn’t until we met Mike, the CEO of DVine Laboratories. His similar type of forward thinking changed everything.
Looking back to the last 8 years, I can tell you that Mike and I met at the perfect time. Any earlier and they wouldn’t have been prepared for us, any later and the opportunity to rocket propel each other would have been drowned out by competition. DVine changed everything with some examples being:
- Huge manufacturing facilities allowed us to grow both in volume and unique products.
- Access to Rachel Longwell, who is a gem in our world. She does a ton of things to support consumer safety and compliance with government regulations.
- They simplified our costing and supply chains.
- The responsibility and pride their management and staff brought to the industry was truly special and gave my staff a renewed sense of purpose.
- They opened the doors with many industry peers and we started growing again.
- They took the stress of manufacturing our own products off our shoulders, allowing us to do what we do best.
These changes had a dramatic impact on the way we operated. Job descriptions were clearer, staff were able to slip fully into their roles of sales, technology, warehouse and finance. We became exactly what we always were, a marketing and sales company, not an e-juice business.
The next two years were focused on creating more brands and rounding out the overall product catalogue. Regardless of what we did though, we were never able to achieve the same level of traction. Gold Seal growth was sluggish, we had a failed attempt to enter the US market and all the while, we saw our competitors gaining more ground while we remained stagnant.
Flash forward to 2018, we launched a major shift in our objectives. We had opened over 1200 accounts across Canada but couldn’t gain any new business because we simply weren’t doing anything special. We couldn’t get anyone excited because the new brands we were launching were competing with thousands of other established lines. It was time to swallow my pride. We were focused on promoting our own brands because the margins were higher. Purchasing competing liquids was exactly what we got away from in 2012 when we created Gold Seal. I thought that strengthening my competitors would be a foolish decision, but I could not have been more wrong.
Thanks to our friends at Maddog in Quebec, we formed an agreement to carry all their product lines. Costs for goods was higher but we sold more product. Stores that were already buying our house lines found it easier to purchase other products from a single supplier. We also switched to a tier pricing system to reward retailers for volume purchases, regardless of the brands they wished to stock. We established a level of loyalty with our customers and it didn’t matter what other offerings we had. Once I realized that competing brands would not poach our house brand sales, I was fired up!
Over the last nine months, we aggressively formed partnerships with other companies across Canada, the USA, the UK and most recently Mexico. Our catalogue has dramatically improved, wholesale accounts are being added to the network regularly and retailers now have access to brands they haven’t been able to reliably obtain.
We have had huge support all the way. Nick from DVine taking the lead to ensure each partnership is treated with care. Tim and Adam’s skills behind the scenes with programming and graphical design. Janice, Phil, Candy and David working tirelessly to pick, pack and ship product quickly and accurately. Jenn and Lisa managing our finances and administration along with producing the “Vaping with Lisa” series to help customers know what they’re buying. Kyle and Jared, who somehow manage all our accounts and keep the ship running smoothly. Finishing off with all the wonderful employees at DVine that do so many important tasks to keep our business running smoothly.
At present, we support 57 brands from around the world with a goal to be over 200 by the end of 2019. Moving into the future we will continue to do what we have always done; listen to our customers by bringing them the widest selection of e-liquid products we can and ensure the quality and service is firmly behind it. We will also be entering into the hardware markets, specifically pod systems with refillable options. I want to avoid the k-cup disaster by not filling our landfills with millions of empty plastic containers. The refillable options are much more environmentally friendly and affordable for everyone.
We will also be entering the slushy industry in the first quarter. We believe our experience in the flavouring world extends beautifully to slushy products and feel we can bring some great options to the consumer. As for the marijuana industry, we will see what the future brings…
CE0 – True North Vapor
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