A Slice on John Simmons, Co-Founder of Weller
As a Boulder native, John Simmons grew up with a healthy lifestyle and was drawn to natural products from an early age. After he graduated from the University of Colorado Boulder, Simmons started a chai tea company, Third Street Chai, that he grew for over 20 years until it became one of the top three chai companies in the country. Looking for a new journey, Simmons and his new business partner, Matt Oscamou, decided to get into the CBD industry. They founded Weller in 2017, a sparkling CBD water (now with an elderberry line), which has since raised $4.3 million in funding.
Back in 1995 when Simmons was starting Third Street Chai, there were “very few natural products” and there wasn’t a “natural products network like there exists now” with Naturally Boulder and its affiliates. Some notable pioneers in the industry paving the way were Justin Gold of Justin’s Nut Butter, Steve Savage of Eco-Products, Mark Retzloff of Horizon, and Mo Siegel of Celestial Seasonings. Simmons recalls having to be creative and use his belief system to find opportunities. Because he was accustomed to finding new paths, Simmons wasn’t fearful of going into the CBD industry 20 years later.
Cannabis as a whole is an “underdeveloped” and “juvenile” category with many risks. Simmons and his partner went through a lengthy “discovery period” to figure out which part of cannabis they wanted to tackle. Though their first inclination was to go into THC, they found what was happening with CBD was more interesting. “It was really a ripe landscape for entrepreneurs because of the riskiness, which made it a barrier to entry for large companies. They weren’t going to go into THC or anything with legal risk. Entrepreneurs have less exposure to that risk, along with a higher aptitude for risk because that’s what we do, we take risk.”
Luckily, being in Colorado turned out to be an advantage. “Not only was it the first state to legalize recreational marijuana, but it also had the first protections for food and beverage.” Expanding to other states has posed difficulties, with different regulations and enforcement. That, along with disparities between federal and state laws, quickly became the biggest hurdles to face. Back in Colorado, there were companies like Charlotte’s Web paving the way for consumer education on CBD and its health benefits. Outside of the state, however, there was less education and stricter enforcement. In some states, they use the term “hemp extract” instead of CBD, to avoid getting pulled off the shelf by the health department.
In situations like those, Simmons is grateful to be an entrepreneur at heart, “being able to be small, move nimbly, and navigate risk. That’s in the entrepreneurs’ DNA. You have the opportunity to do your best to navigate that without failing.” Their objective with Weller was to be a first mover and create a brand that embraces wellness, which requires being able to adapt when necessary. One of the challenges that comes with being a pioneer is having to guess where the market will go. While many people were saying it would go one way, Oscamou and Simmons believed differently. Not many people thought CBD beverages would be a hit, but they stuck with their belief and it has paid off as their main product line, even beating out snacks.
Adding to the fire, though, was fundraising in an industry with legal risk. Simmons’ previous company was bootstrapped “by a couple of kids who were borrowing money from friends and family and maxing out credit cards” so he had limited previous experience with pitching to investors. That coupled with legal issues made it challenging, but they’ve been able to raise both a seed round and a private equity round.
Throughout his entrepreneurial journey with both Third Street Chai and Weller, Simmons has gained many insights into the natural products industry. Knowing your customer and business are his key pieces of business advice, but he also encourages entrepreneurs to be “passionate” without being “wildly reckless” and to “combine your passion with pragmatism.” He’s noticed the industry becoming more fast-paced, with less room for error and a “shorter timeline for success” due to high competition.
Ultimately, Simmons believes that “happiness is the best currency in life” and wants to do more good than harm in the world. Weller uses aluminum cans and natural ingredients to be kinder to our environment and bodies. Internally, they have a wellness coach and subsidize healthcare, promoting a healthy lifestyle. As a team, they strive to create a brand that “resonates” with people and makes a positive impact on their lives. As an entrepreneur, Simmons finds that “there’s no greater joy than working for yourself and being a part of your destiny.”
John Simmons is an entrepreneur at heart, founding his first company straight out of college, called Third Street Chai. Years later, Simmons co-founded another company, Weller. He’s also highly connected with his natural products community in Boulder, serving as a board member for Naturally Boulder. Connect with Simmons on LinkedIn.