June 15, 2020

How Willie Franklin, a one-man entrepreneur, revamped marijuana packaging

Before he got a hold of them, patients were getting their medical marijuana in ziplock bags.

We’re highlighting stories of black business owners from our audience — and their tips for up-and-coming entrepreneurs of color. If you’re interested in being featured, fill out our survey here.

When Willie Franklin heard that BART — the Bay Area’s public transit system — was going to require all riders and employees to wear masks, he called up the authority cold. 

Franklin, a longtime packaging entrepreneur, had just pivoted to selling masks and other personal protective equipment, and he wanted to know if BART needed any. 

His first few calls went unanswered. Eventually, he reached a receptionist.

“Next thing I know I’m getting a call from the department of purchasing for BART,” he says. “I told him I’m a small businessman, and I can get you masks today.”

Soon the transit company was placing a $30k mask order. A week after those were delivered, BART bought $46k more.

Franklin first started working in sales in the ‘70s for corporations like Johnson & Johnson — even though he says he was consistently one of the top salespeople, he never got promoted.

Around 1991, he launched his own company, First In Packaging, with $25k in startup capital and a $100k line of bank credit. While he has sometimes employed contractors to help him, he mostly works on his own.

Around 2000, a friend told Franklin that the cannabis industry was distributing medical marijuana in baggies — so he decided to offer crush-proof packaging.

The cannabis industry was growing rapidly, but no one thought twice about the bags that medical marijuana came in. Franklin made himself essential. 

Franklin’s tip for young entrepreneurs of color: 

Join a networking group. When Franklin was starting out, he became a member of a northern California small business organization. It hosted events with Fortune 500 companies hoping to find new suppliers — and became a source of some of Franklin’s biggest deals. “Joining those network groups was vital,” he says.

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