With over fifteen years of accounting experience, Naomi Granger is the founder of NACAT Pros (the National Association of Cannabis Accounting and Tax Professionals). This first-of-its-kind organization is not only providing accountants with industry-specific training, but helping to bring an unprecedented level of consistency and standardization to the ever-changing landscape of cannabis finance. Naomi sat down with Wana to share just how she carved out this new path – and how she plans to bring other Black entrepreneurs along on her journey to success.
WANA BRANDS: Tell me about your background. How did you get involved in the cannabis industry?
NAOMI GRANGER: I am a Certified Public Accountant, a CPA. I was working in Big Four [the nickname referring to the four largest accounting firms in the U.S.] for about four years, then I went into corporate accounting, and I was working in the corporate SEC reporting offices for several different companies. I was an accountant for about twelve years, and then I got to the point where I was tired of being in the office, I was tired of being in a cubical. I felt like there was a ceiling over me, and my earning potential was determined by other people. But I knew that there was so much more out there for me, so I started doing a lot of research, taking all of the classes, and learning as much as I can about online marketing, online businesses, types of different businesses you can do online, because my idea of accounting was, it could only be done in somebody’s office under a stack of papers.
I ended up losing my job. They had to downsize. And I had already made up my mind before I lost my job that this was it, this was my last corporate job. I saved up as much money as possible, and I’m going to live off of that and give myself a chance to actually launch a business. And it actually took two years before anything worked out for me. But I downsized my living, and I lived very frugally, and I tried different things, I explored the world, and then I finally found a course online that talked about how to start an online accounting firm. I was like, oh, my gosh, that’s up my alley. I don’t have to learn anything new. I’ve been doing accounting for twelve years. So I took the program, and then within a couple of months, I landed my first client – and the first client paid for the program, so it was worth the investment. But one of the things they taught in the program was that you need to find one niche and become an expert in that one niche in order to really grow your practice. And then, ultimately, the word “cannabis” came up in the community.
So I started looking more into cannabis, and I started learning more about it, and I realized that there’s a huge opportunity in cannabis. It’s something that’s very interesting, it’s big, there’s a lot to learn – ‘cause I always just enjoyed learning. And so that’s the direction I ended up going. As soon as I made that decision and started reaching out and contacting the people that I needed to contact, it just took off from there, and I’ve been doing it for the last three years now.
WB: Well, that’s amazing, congratulations. What was it about cannabis that seemed so ripe for your services? Why do you think you’ve been so successful in the industry?
NG: It’s something that’s brand new, and there’s a lot of unknowns. It’s like the wild, wild west. And there’s a lot of opportunity out there with the unknowns. When I started going into cannabis, I realized that a lot of accountants don’t even realize that this is a viable industry. They’ve never even considered it, and they think, since it’s still federally illegal, that they can’t do it. So there’s not as much competition in cannabis. That’s another reason why I felt like, “Oh, this is a great direction to go.” Because a lot of accountants don’t even know about the opportunity, and so they’re not even gonna touch it.
WB: Tell me a little bit about – I’m gonna try to get this right, because I just wrote down the acronym – the National Association of Cannabis Accounting and Tax Professionals.
NG: Thank you! Yeah, I know it is huge, because I played with so many different ideas, and I wanted it to say in the title – I wanted to speak to exactly what it was. We do call it by “NACAT Pros.” I launched that just this year, and it’s just completely taken off. Prior to NACAT Pros, I was part of another organization, and I was teaching accountants how to do accounting in cannabis, and time and time again, accountants were coming to me and saying, “Hey, I need more, I need more. This isn’t it. This isn’t exactly what I need.” And so I listened to what issues they were having and what their pain points were, and I decided that I was gonna launch an association that was going to solve all of those missing pieces in the previous organization that I was in.
WB: And what were some of the pain points? Is it just that there’s not a lot of federal and legal guidance? It’s just still so new?
NG: Some of the pain points were, the previous organization I was part of was more of like a business-in-a-box. “This is the work paper, good luck, go try to land a client.” One of the pain points was, they need more hand-holding. They need more background. Some accountants would come to me and say, “Hey, I’ve never even smoked a joint before. Why would somebody want to hire me when I don’t know anything about the plant, I don’t know anything about the industry?” Just giving them a little bit of a background on that.
[There were also] pain points with trying to figure out banking, because banking for their clients is one thing, and banking for themselves is another thing. I can’t go to the bank and say, “My business serves cannabis.” Even though I don’t touch the plant, they will deny my application. They will not let me open a bank account. Things about insurance, not knowing where to go to get Errors and Omission Insurance for your own business and making sure that you’re properly protected, because not all insurance providers cover cannabis. There’s just little business management things and just needing more hand-holding and better understanding of the industry.
And so, with NACAT Pros, I reached out to all of my contacts, and I have experts in different areas coming to speak to my association members. I have people who are attorneys in cannabis. There’s little things like, sometimes as an accountant, you’ll get a potential client coming to you, and they’ll describe the type of cannabis agreement they have, operating agreement, and you may question if that’s even all the way legal, the way that they have it organized. So it’s good to have attorneys in place that you can bounce that off of to give you peace of mind that you’re not doing accounting for a business that’s organized in a way that’s not totally legal. I also have bankers come on so that you can talk to the bankers and find out, “What exactly do I need to get the application approved for my client? What paperwork do I need to have in place? What position do I need, what’s the process what’s the maintenance?” I have insurance providers come. We’re having a meeting with the IRS, and we’re gonna talk directly to the IRS to ask our questions, and get those questions answered.
So it’s just bringing the professionals that support cannabis businesses directly to the accountants so that they can better serve their clients. Because now when they get a new client and that client has a legal question, they have a couple of attorneys and law firms that they can reference that they know deal directly in cannabis. And they can go to them and say, “Hey, my client might need your services,” or, “I just have a general question.” It’s just bringing all that stuff together and trying to standardize what’s going on in the industry, ‘cause right now we don’t have any real, solid guidance. The oil and gas industry has standards, the tech industry has standards, but right now, cannabis does not have standards that we can look to to ensure that we are doing things properly.
WB: Right. Your position is so interesting to me because this does feel like the most traditional business of anyone I’ve spoken to for this project, yet it’s completely trailblazing because that standardization doesn’t exist at all in this industry!
NG: Yeah, exactly! And I never would have thought that. Becoming an accountant, I was like, “Yeah, that’s the most boring thing.” But once I became a cannabis accountant, people wanna talk to me about what I do!
WB: I want to pull it back a little bit broader. This project that Wana is doing is obviously tied up in the issue of social equity. I did a little bit of research, and I did see that you’ve led at least one seminar on anti-racism and social equity in this industry. Is that correct?
NG: I did. Right at the beginning of COVID and the Black Lives Matter movement, I did lead something there because I felt like it needed to be addressed at that point.
WB: So, obviously, your business serves everybody. But do you feel like those issues of social equity are important to you and your company’s ethos? How do they show up for you in the day to day?
NG: Yeah, that is something that’s very important to me, and that’s part of the long-term goals and mission of NACAT Pros. It is a for-profit organization. However, I would like to branch out into a non-profit, and I’m hearing from a lot of different people – they have the social equity programs out there where there are some states are giving you points or putting you in the front of the line or issuing you a cannabis license if you were adversely affected by the War on Drugs. But that’s kind of the extent of it. They’ll wipe your record so that doesn’t show up and affect you any further, but they aren’t giving you the resources that you need to actually successfully run a business. “Ok, now I’ve got a cannabis license, but where do I get half a million dollars to open my dispensary? And how do I pay an attorney and an accountant and everybody else that I need to pay in order to run this dispensary? And I’ve been locked up for the past ten years, so I don’t even know how to run a business! I don’t have business acumen. And how do you market?” There’s a lot of other things that are needed for these social equity applicants so that they can be successful, and it’s something that states need to look towards, providing financial advisory services or financial training.
I’ve also spoken to a lot of attorneys and a lot of marketing people who said that they’re willing to offer free services to social equity applicants. But there’s no place where you can just go and find a database and say, “Hey, let me offer it to those five people today,” because it’s not really organized yet. That’s kind of the mission of NACAT Pros, is I want to partner with different people who have got this organized in the various different states and try to pull together a database where I we have accountants who are learning how to do accounting in cannabis, and then they can go to these different organizations and provide them with some pro bono hours, pro bono training or review, things like that, to help them in this process. That is the long-term vision of what we will be doing.
WB: You mentioned that, after this summer and the protests, you felt compelled to take some concrete action as far as educating people about anti-racism. And we saw a lot of that reaction from pretty much every brand you could think of, all over social media. As a Black business owner, how does it feel to see that? Do you feel like there are meaningful ways that brands can engage with this issue?
NG: We have a long way to go. I feel like the events of this summer were a start, a catalyst, and hopefully it doesn’t just die down and go away. Hopefully it keeps the conversation going and it keeps people doing different things. And I actually benefited recently – I was so shocked and so grateful – but recently, I was looking to do my trademarking and things for NACAT Pros. And I had been putting it off ‘cause the fees to the government alone were really high, but then you gotta pay your attorney fees, and there’s all these different classes. I was like, “I’m not doing this. I’m just gonna hope and pray that I can get to a point where I can actually afford it, and I’m still protected.” And so I reached out finally to an attorney, and he says, “It looks like you are a 100% Black-owned business.” And I said, “Yes, 100%. It’s just me, I’m doing this all by myself.” And he says, “Well, I decided that I was going to provide my services for free to Black-owned businesses for the entire year, starting in May of last year through May of this year.” And I was like, “WHAT?” But I was just so grateful. That’s something very small, but that’s very thoughtful for him to just consider that.
So businesses are trying, and they’re trying to figure out a way. There just needs to be more discussion. They need to bring the right people into the room when they’re having this discussion. But I mean, it’s a sigh of relief that – it’s almost like we’ve been in a cloud. There’s a certain population of people that knew that things are not right and things need to change, but you can’t say anything about it because people will be like, “Oh, you’re overreacting.” And then finally, it’s like, “Oh my gosh, that cloud is open. Everybody knows what’s going on, and now people can start having this conversation.”
That’s another reason why I’m so passionate about the cannabis industry, because it’s the only industry in the country that is actually taking a stance on social equity and actually trying to make movement and get people’s records expunged and get people able to start businesses. I get so many Black-owned cannabis businesses that come to me and say, “I only want a Black accountant. I only want a Black team.” And for me, I’m like, ok, that’s… it’s kind of hard to say, but it’s almost like, I understand why you want a Black team to help you run your business. And everybody is so supportive, especially in the Black community, when it comes to cannabis. I’ve been able to connect with lots of different business owners, but especially in the Black community I’ve been able to connect with a lot. And I’ve never seen such a huge movement in any other job or any other organization that I’ve been in besides what I’m seeing now in the cannabis industry.
WB: It’s really exciting. Someone else I spoke to said this is the only industry she’s been in that has really felt like it still has an ethos of, “We have to do the right thing.” And obviously there’s still a really long way to go, but it does seem like that is a shared priority for people.
NG: Yeah. Yeah.
WB: So that segues very well into my next question, which is: are you hopeful for the future of the industry?
NG: Oh, yeah. I see nothing but opportunity. I mean, it’s not even federally legal. It’s in its infancy. There’s only a little bit over half the country that’s legal medically. Even less than that has both adult-use and medical, and then it’s not federally legal. I mean, there are multimillion-dollar businesses, and they can’t get banking. There’s a lot of just regular things that you would take for granted that they don’t. And so there’s just so much opportunity. It’s one of the fastest growing and one of the biggest industries, and it’s essential. We saw from the pandemic that it’s not going anywhere. A lot of the states deemed cannabis to be an essential business, and they let them keep their doors open. It’s just gonna get bigger from here.
And because they’re so big, they need so much support. You need your accountants, you need your attorneys, you need your marketers, you need software developers, you need packaging. It’s just like it’s opened an entire new economy. When I first started in cannabis, I would tell people, “Think back to when the car was first created, and just think about what it takes in order to now have vehicles on the road. You have this new car. Now you actually need roads, and you need gas stations and motels on the side of those roads, and you need mechanics, and you need tires, and you need engines, and you need windows, and you need tinted windows, and you need steering.” I mean, there’s just so much stuff that grows out of just that one industry, and that’s the same thing that’s happening with cannabis now.
WB: That’s such a good analogy. Now, do you have any advice for other Black professionals looking to carve out a space in the cannabis industry?
N: Yeah. I work specifically with accountants, and, you know, I’m African American, I have a lot of African American friends. And I know in our community, we’re not as big of risk takers, especially being an accountant. I’ve taught over 700 accountants in this industry, and I can see the disparity. Other races are quick to say, “Hey, this is great, and I need your training, and I need your guidance and stuff, and this is gonna pay me back.” But when you’re working with African Americans, they’re like, “Uhhh, I don’t know. That’s a lot of money. Is it worth it?” There’s way more questions about, is it worth investing in yourself? And I think it’s important that you invest in yourself and that you get the training and skillset that you need, and also think about the future. When we were going through COVID, a lot of our accountants lost clients, because their businesses were shut down. But they had their cannabis clients, and their cannabis clients were able to keep their doors open. So thank God that they took a chance in trying out a whole new industry, because if not, their business would have been closed down because they lost their other clients.
So I want other African Americans to kind of think about other different possibilities, and have your ten to fifteen next steps in place. Take risks. Invest in yourself. Continue to learn different skillsets. Know that there’s an expiration to everything, so make sure that you plan that out. And then learn how to market yourself. A lot of businesses depend on word of mouth, and that’s it. And that was the thing that took me to the next level. Coming from corporate America and coming from public accounting, I’d been told my entire life, twelve years, what I am worth, how much I’m gonna pay you for what you do. I could negotiate a couple thousand here, a couple thousand there, but I had little control to demand what I felt I was worth. The moment that I learned marketing, and the first time that I went to somebody and I pitched them and told them, “Look, this is the value I’m gonna give you, and this is the cost,” and they said yes, it was almost like I learned how to print money. Learning the skillset of being able to provide value to somebody and being able to pitch that and market that, you will never be broke. I transitioned from my previous organization and launched NACAT Pros, and during that transition period, I was at zero. And within the first two weeks of launching, I was at six figures, because I learned how to market and I learned the value and I learned how to provide value to people. That’s the number one skillset that you need to learn if you want to be an entrepreneur or you want to increase your worth, is you need to learn how to provide value to other people.
WB: Whoa. I’m still reeling over the zero to six figures. That’s so actionable and unique. I haven’t heard that from anybody else. One more question: if people want to get involved with NACAT Pros, how can they do it and what can they expect?
NG: You can just go to NACATPros.org, and we have a membership right now. It’s an association, and every two weeks we bring in an expert in the cannabis industry, whether it be an insurance provider, a banker, an attorney. This month, we’re bringing in a LinkedIn expert who will show you how to do LinkedIn marketing for your business to grow your firm, and then we’re also bringing in a cyber security expert to help you make sure that your business is protected and your clients’ information is protected.
We look at all the different aspects of running your accounting firm. We’re bringing the IRS in later on. We’re bringing the operators of multimillion-dollar cannabis companies so that you can talk to them and realize that they’re real people with real problems. A lot of times, as accountants, we’re not marketers, and we have a little bit of intimidation going to a multimillion-dollar business owner. We just kind of assume, “Oh, they’ve got it all together, there’s nothing that I can offer them.” So we bring them to you so that you can realize what their struggles are, their pain points, so that you can be in a better position when you’re talking to other business owners.
So within the organization, you get two expert interviews a month. You also get a live over-the-shoulder training where I show you exactly what I do day to day, ‘cause I also do service cannabis companies. I show you what I do, what types of issues I run into, and how I solve those issues so that when you’re first getting your clients, you can be aware of some of the things that I come across.
WB: That’s awesome. That sounds like a really worthwhile investment. I feel like we covered so much – thank you!
NG: Awesome, thank you.