Justin Robinson, of Drizly & Lantern: “Be There”

by Jerome Knyszewski
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Justin Robinson Drizly Lantern

Justin Robinson, Drizly and Lantern co-founder, does not run from the grind. The former is an alcohol delivery service, while the latter is a cannabis delivery platform. While trying to get Drizly going, he and the other co-founders worked at a liquor store for 6 months.

With the founding of Drizly, Justin Robinson took on the grind. He says he had a “lack of network and mentors when starting Drizly.” During the months they were trying to push Drizly off the ground, they got their hands dirty in the industry. This helped them understand “all parts of your supply chain—suppliers, distributors, managers, and customers.”

During this period before Drizly, Justin Robinson also tried his hand “at all aspects of the business,” which “gave him unrivaled customer insight when pitching and promoting to potential vendors.” To prove his knowledge, he says he could enter any liquor store and “prove he knew exactly what he was talking about.”

This method also proved useful when Justin Robinson founded Lantern, the sister company of Drizly. This time, he worked at a cannabis dispensary for another 6 months “to gain a comprehensive perspective on the retail side of the cannabis industry.”

Through founding Drizly and Lantern, Justin Robinson learned an important lesson: “success is a product of embracing the unglamorous side of founding a company.”

Check out more interviews with hardworking executives here.

Eight years ago, Drizly started as a simple text from one friend to another: “Why can’t you get alcohol delivered?” Justin Robinson, Drizly & Lantern

Jerome Knyszewski: Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dive in, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started?

Justin Robinson: Eight years ago, Drizly started as a simple text from one friend to another: “Why can’t you get alcohol delivered?” When we realized that alcohol delivery was, in fact, legal, we set out with a little bit of luck and a lotta bit of determination to build a three-tier compliant technology company that would change the way we shop for beer, wine, and spirits.

Jerome Knyszewski: What was the “Aha Moment” that led to the idea for your current company? Can you share that story with us?

Justin Robinson: We started Drizly in 2012 to make alcohol delivery a reality. As state-by-state cannabis legalization became increasingly normalized, we found that people started to ask us about entering the category. At that time, the answer was always no.

However, in July 2017 when the law legalizing recreational cannabis in Massachusetts (our home state) was signed into effect, we began to reconsider. In 2018 and 2019, we really started looking at data for consumer crossover and regulatory crossover. There are plenty of regulations on the cannabis side, especially with delivery, that are the same as alcohol regulations. We also looked at data around consumer crossover in states where recreational cannabis is legal.

Those two things helped us decide that it was time to enter the cannabis market. In May 2020, we launched Lantern as the first on-demand cannabis e-commerce company in the state of Massachusetts, and we now operate in additional states such as Michigan and Colorado. Lantern is a separate company that operates independently under the Drizly umbrella.

Jerome Knyszewski: Can you tell us a story about the hard times that you faced when you first started your journey? Did you ever consider giving up? Where did you get the drive to continue even though things were so hard?

Justin Robinson: The early days were tough for sure. To start, everyone (friends and family included) were doubtful that we could pull it off. When we started Drizly, we didn’t have a retailer onboard for the first nine months. It was extremely difficult to not have one side of the marketplace say “yes.”

Once we officially launched, I can’t count the number of days we went without an order for the first six months. We’d be in the store or at the Starbucks down the street working, hoping and praying for orders. The hope came from our early customers — they were small but mighty. The ones that were repeat customers, who would put up with our suboptimal app and sometimes suboptimal delivery experience, kept us going. It wasn’t a group of people congregated in one place. They were dispersed, but we knew when we showed up at their house, we saw their smiles, we saw them repeat for date night and then for a party with friends or at work. That always kept us going.

Our purpose is to be there when it matters — committed to life’s moments and the people who create them.

Jerome Knyszewski: So, how are things going today? How did your grit and resilience lead to your eventual success?

Justin Robinson: Today, Drizly is the largest online marketplace for alcohol in North America. Our purpose is to be there when it matters — committed to life’s moments and the people who create them. We partner with thousands of retailers in more than 1,400 cities to empower them to grow their businesses and make our customers’ good times better. Drizly is available to 100M+ customers and counting across the U.S. and Canada, offering a rich e-commerce shopping experience with personalized content, competitive and transparent pricing, and an unrivaled selection.

Drizly’s leadership in alcohol e-commerce delivery and 350% YoY growth in 2020, paired with Lantern’s launch in two markets and anticipated expansion to serve adult-use consumers in MA, MI and CO, positions us among the leading cannabis delivery services in the U.S.

Jerome Knyszewski: Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lessons or ‘takeaways’ you learned from that?

Justin Robinson: We used the walls of our first $150/month office as a whiteboard — sharpy everywhere. We learned that one coat of white paint doesn’t cover sharpy. For Lantern, we were teed up to launch around the second week of March 2020. That didn’t happen, but wow did we learn a lot about cannabis delivery through the pandemic.

We believe in the value of ratings and reviews to increase conversion rates, which allow consumers to have a sense of how someone likes a product with similar preferences and needs. Justin Robinson

Jerome Knyszewski: As you know, “conversion” means to convert a visit into a sale. In your experience what are the best strategies an eCommerce business should use to increase conversion rates?

Justin Robinson: The benefit of Lantern’s marketplace model is that it puts the power in consumers’ hands to choose what they prioritize on their cannabis journey: effects, product, price, availability, retailer, brand. The challenges facing the cannabis industry are unlike those of any traditional industry. Today, dispensaries (retailers) are the core customer interaction moments in understanding products and effects, but there’s little to no consistency in recommendations or service. This is only made more complicated by the fact that the product itself is always changing, and the ways that a product impacts a customer is unique to their DNA.

It’s so important for us to understand consumers’ preferences to develop an intuitive, personalized front-end and education-rich ecommerce experience. Notably lacking in cannabis, as with many other industries, is the ability to understand, at an individual level, what products are right for each customer. Because of this, the quality of product information is imperative to our customers’ ability to understand what products are right for them. We believe in the value of ratings and reviews to increase conversion rates, which allow consumers to have a sense of how someone likes a product with similar preferences and needs.

Jerome Knyszewski: Of course, the main way to increase conversion rates is to create a trusted and beloved brand. Can you share a few ways that an eCommerce business can earn a reputation as a trusted and beloved brand?

Justin Robinson: To start, by being a trusted brand and earning that consumer confidence. For instance, cannabis is still an emerging market — there’s still little standardization and consumers don’t have brand affinity (yet) for cannabis brands in the way they do in alcohol. The cannabis consumer shops differently and needs to know a lot more about the products, consumption methods, and the effects in order to make an informed purchase decision.

Cannabis is also an industry that’s been politically weaponized for so long, and those stigmas and stereotypes still exist today. Our role as a brand is to help customers navigate their cannabis journey with transparency and knowledge they can have confidence in. As well, to change these perceptions, and to empower our customers with the knowledge they need to understand what type of cannabis products are best suited for their needs.

At Lantern, We have an incredible opportunity to connect our customers’ personal needs through technology and elevate service in a way that allows us to understand and deliver on those needs in a personal and responsible manner.

Jerome Knyszewski: How can our readers further follow you online?

Justin Robinson: Check out Lantern on our website.

Jerome Knyszewski: This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for the time you spent with this!



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