Mike Berro owns what could be the largest cannabis marketing agency in the Midwest — and he doesn’t even smoke weed.
“Growing up in my culture, weed was a big no,” he says. But that didn’t stop him from seeing an opportunity to get in on Michigan’s burgeoning industry.
Born and raised in Dearborn, Berro went to live in Lebanon for a couple of years before returning to metro Detroit, where he landed a marketing job. He quit after two months, he says, but soon landed a gig doing IT work for attorney Joumana Kayrouz. The two bonded over their shared Lebanese heritage, and her company hired Berro on the spot when he fixed their printers. There, he says he helped design the iconic billboards around town that Kayrouz became known for.
Then another interesting opportunity presented itself. Berro says his cousin married someone who had started a legit dispensary. In 2018, Michigan voters approved Proposal 1, which legalized cannabis for adult use.
The dispensary hired Berro to do its marketing, who worked in the back of the building on his laptop, and then gave him more money when they opened another store. Through word-of-mouth, he started getting more and more clients and moved into the cannabis industry full-time in 2019.
That’s when Berro says he decided to go all in.
“I realized that the more people I have, the more money I can get,” he says. “So I started hiring left and right.”
Then came the COVID-19 pandemic.
“Everyone was stressing out, like, ‘Oh my god, we’re gonna lose our jobs,” he says. “I went out and I told my team, ‘Hey, I’m not laying anyone off. No furloughs. No one’s getting fired. If anything, we’re gonna grow.’” Berro figured the cannabis industry would likely be deemed essential, because of the medical aspect of it. That’s exactly what happened, and business continued to explode.
“Every single dispensary in Michigan was calling, asking, ‘How fast can you get me a curbside pickup website?” he says. By the end of the year he moved his team into a Ferndale warehouse, a former ambulance repair center. Due to the pandemic, he says he got a sweet deal.
Berro says he spent all his money on renovating the office space, because banks don’t like to work with cannabis-related businesses due to the federal prohibition. He viewed it as an investment opportunity.
“I spent every single penny,” he says. “When clients walk in, the wow factor has to hit them.”
Today, Qonkur has a hip office space that looks like a Silicon Valley startup, where guests are greeted by a large glowing green logo behind a reception desk. Inside, about 50 employees sit at rows of computers, working on all aspects of cannabis marketing.
He boasts, “I will be, in the next five years, the biggest marketing agency in America, if not the world, and not just limited to cannabis.”
Berro has since expanded with Canhaus, a budget-friendly solution for cannabis websites. “So I’m kind of my own competition in a way, because I really want to have accessible marketing to cannabis companies,” he says. He’s also launched Orreb (his name spelled backward), what he describes as a low-cost platform for small businesses outside of the cannabis industry to connect with clients.
Berro says Qonkur has an edge over other marketing agencies because as a web designer, he has insight on Michigan cannabis consumer purchasing trends. “Because I see the data, I see what they like to buy,” he says, adding that his clients’ websites received 64 million visits last year.
He also remains hands-on, working on projects alongside his team.
“I’m the CEO, CFO, account manager, web designer … I’m on the ground,” he says. “I’m not sitting here and cashing checks like most agency owners that I’ve met.”
Berro says cannabis marketing has to be outside of the box. Through Qonkur, he’s helped redesign cannabis packaging when Michigan’s Marijuana Regulatory Agency started cracking down on products that looked too much like candy and launched a deal for competitively priced $420 billboards, among others. He says Qonkur has also perfected a process that involves taking thousands of photos of one nugget of cannabis at various focal points, to compile them into one high-definition composite photograph.
He recently acquired the building space next door to expand with Qonkur Labs, which will develop apps for cannabis companies to reach their customers directly. The company is even getting into what is referred to as “web3,” developing digital NFTs for cannabis clients that can provide exclusive access to specific inventory and private access events.
Berro says one of the things he loves the most about the industry is the opportunity to learn new things.
“I don’t smoke, but I’ll be able to tell you where the weed was grown, if it was grown indoors or outdoors, what strain it is, based on the smell, if it’s molded, old, or fresh,” he says. “I have learned so much about weed in the past few years, when I tell clients I don’t smoke, they’re like, how do you know all this?”
He also says his short experience in Lebanon made him appreciate a dynamic, growing industry.
“In Lebanon, I was homeless for a period of time,” he says. “So what [cannabis] has made for me, for my team … I have employees that when they started here, they were getting kicked out by their parents, who now have cars and just bought homes. So giving that opportunity and being able to end the stigma of cannabis that ended for me, and change the way people look at cannabis good or bad. … that’s important.”
He says he hopes to one day be able to have a voice with the government about cannabis policy.
“It’s so new,” he says of the industry. “No one’s an expert. As big as an expert as I am or my clients are, there’s still so much to learn.”
More information is available at qonkur.com.
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