True to Her Roots: An Interview with Left Coast Wholesale CEO Khanhvi Dang
Left Coast Wholesale was built on deep roots in the growing community. Since the very beginning, we have depended on our partnerships with brands that we consider our friends and family. That’s why, as part of our ongoing series of industry interviews, we wanted to shine a light on our very own Khanhvi Dang, CEO of Left Coast Wholesale and an advocate of personal connections in the cultivation industry.
In 2009, Khanhvi Dang started her journey with the launch of GeoPot, a reliable fabric pot for serious growers. As the company grew, Khanhvi discovered a preference for working directly with retail partners. She created Left Coast Wholesale in 2013 to distribute GeoPot and the science-based products of other in-house brands that followed, including Rhizoflora and Geoflora. Since then, Khanhvi has built on her commitment to quality and her strong relationships in the industry to provide reliable resources and support to the growing community, while staying true to her roots.
We spoke with Khanhvi about her journey as an entrepreneur in the cultivation industry, her experiences as a woman in a male-dominated field, and her belief in building lasting relationships in the community.
Left Coast Wholesale: Let’s start at the beginning of your professional life in the cultivation industry. What made you want to create your first product for fellow growers, the GeoPot fabric pot, back in 2009?
Khanhvi Dang: Food is such a core part of my identity, culture, and family. I grew up in San Jose, California, a concrete city where growing food was a bit of a struggle, but when I went to UC Santa Cruz, I started to really appreciate the farmer’s market culture and the idea of growing your own food.
After graduating, I eventually moved to Sonoma County. I married a grower named Dennis Hunter, and the first thing we wanted to do after buying our own house was start a vegetable garden. I went to the hardware store to buy lumber and supplies to build a garden bed and found it incredibly expensive.
Since my husband was a grower, he knew about fabric pots, a really easy product that you can just put soil in and start growing. I can’t say enough good things about fabric pots. The drainage is better, the aeration is better, and the plants don’t get root-bound. It just really makes gardening simple. All you have to worry about is what you want to plant.
I grew in fabric pots for about a year, and it was good to start with, but there were things that I found lacking, such as the thin construction of the fabric that became too stretchy over time. So we decided to make our own. I love the experience of doing things yourself and building something that I feel would be a better product.
I recruited my mom and her friends to help sew thicker, sturdier fabric pots, which we sold directly to stores out of the back of a truck. Very quickly, five stores grew to twenty, and we graduated to a warehouse with a sprinter van and a trailer.
GeoPlanter came next because the GeoPot is great, but its structure doesn’t really lend itself to every situation. We were using 100-gallon and 200-gallon pots for our tomatoes, and it’s a little hard to access the middle of a large GeoPot like that. I’m a small person, and I thought, “This is not working.” So we came out with the GeoPlanter to imitate the traditional structure of a garden bed with the benefits of the GeoPot.
What made you want to sell GeoPot fabric pots instead of just making them for yourself?
I think everybody should have access to easy backyard gardening like I did. I wasn’t an experienced grower like Dennis was, but thanks to the GeoPot, the results I got in my first and second year of my garden were great. It made me look like I knew what I was doing. And so I found a love for gardening that I think everyone should be able to experience.
How did you know where to start selling these products? Did you already have relationships with stores?
At the time, our Petaluma warehouse was right next door to Funny Farm, a hydro store where we would often purchase supplies. One day we approached the owner and asked if he would be interested in buying our fabric pots. Then we started going down the list of stores on Google and contacting them one by one.
Also, we went to every gardening trade show for the first year. There was a lot of traveling, and it was a lot of fun, but definitely a lot of hard work.
What made you want to take the next step of starting your own distribution company, Left Coast Wholesale?
When you spend a lot of time at trade shows, you start making friends. For example, that’s where we met Cutting Edge Solutions, Green Planet, and Royal Gold Soil. Eventually, we said, “We go store to store selling our products. Why not let us tell them about your product too?” And that’s how we started carrying our friends’ products.
It was informal at first, and it became a little muddy after a while because we were selling soil, nutrients, lights, and other things, so it was a bit unclear who we were, what our products were, who our vendors were, etc. So about five years ago, we decided to formalize our relationship. And that’s when we formed Left Coast Wholesale.
Was the process the same, just under a different name?
Yes, same process, different name. I don’t think we’ve ever lost the small business, homegrown relationship with our customers and vendor partners. We have a close connection with them, so if there is ever an issue, I know that I can pick up the phone and talk to somebody about it, and they know that they can do the same thing.
Some people think that we should outgrow that kind of informal approach, but for me, it’s important to have that direct relationship, and I don’t ever want to lose that connection.
How has Left Coast Wholesale changed or evolved since its early days?
I think a few things have evolved. To begin with, we have a more professional brand, and we are more consistent with our communication. It is important that the customer gets a personal relationship with our sales rep, but at the same time, they want to know that they’re getting the same quality service no matter which sales rep they talk to.
The other thing that changed is our catalog. It doesn’t sound like a big deal, but our new approach is really unique in the industry. In this market, the catalog is usually pretty dry, with line after line of products. But I feel that, as a company, we are much more colorful than that, and I think that deserves to be highlighted. Three years ago, we decided to start presenting our catalog more like a magazine than just a wholesale price sheet.
Also, over the last couple of years, we kind of grew up. For a while, we just wanted to do our thing in California, fly under the radar, and not upset the big distributors. But about three years ago, we realized that we were doing something great, and we had built great connections with our customers. We felt ready to stand up and say, “We’re here, and not only do we have a great group of products, but we are also a professional group of people, and we should be acknowledged for that. We’re going to take this spot. We’re ready.”
Left Coast Wholesale’s Core Values are an essential element of the company’s culture, both internally and externally. What do you believe makes them so meaningful?
The process of developing our Core Values was really interesting and collaborative. It took me out of the equation altogether. Representatives from every department went through a series of elaborate brainstorming exercises for three days to determine what Left Coast Wholesale means to them.
So why is it important? Our Core Values are elements that seem fairly simple but represent ideas that tie everyone together. Whether you are new to the staff or have been with us for nine years, our Core Values represent a unifying sentiment that defines who we are. And that is kind of the theme of the company as well.
How do you view Left Coast Wholesale’s role in the growing community and the cultivation industry? What impact do you hope to make?
The impact that I hope to make is to change how stores are engaging with their distributors. Some distributors force stores to spend a certain amount of money to open an account or get free shipping. Other times they make them commit to spending a specific amount in the coming year to be eligible for a discount. In other words, distributors often try to lock stores into a box, and I want to change that.
Many of the stores that work with us today have been with us since the beginning, and one reason is our flexibility. We do have policies that we have standardized over the years, but if something doesn’t work for one of our customers, we are always open to talking about it and trying to find something that does. We always want to have that flexibility with our customers.
I truly believe that we can have profitability and growth in our business and still have a human connection with each other and treat each other as if they’re not just a number. A lot of times, when a company grows, they decide that they have to disconnect their emotions and focus on the numbers. I truly believe that there is a balance and that we can do both. We can continue to expand but still remember where we came from and not lose sight of how we got here. That’s important to me.
How would you like to see the industry grow or evolve?
I’ve been involved in various aspects of the industry: as a grower, a distributor, a product manufacturer, and an end-user of the products. As a distributor, what I have seen since 2018 when California went legal, is a lot of consolidation. I started seeing big corporations coming in with more investment money and buying up stores. I also saw that happening with growers – big corporations with a lot more money buying land and pushing out smaller, grassroots growers. And it’s kind of sad for me.
The thing about the growing community that I really enjoy is that it is made up of a really innovative group of people who think outside the box. They’re a little bit weird and a little bit quirky. And I love that about the industry. What concerns me is that over the last few years, some of the uniqueness in the industry has been disappearing. But as a result of COVID, I have seen a return of some of the old growing community, which I love and support.
Why do you think COVID has had that effect?
Because of COVID, people are stuck at home, and what else are they going to do? A lot of the growers that left the market after 2018 because they couldn’t afford all the regulations and permitting returned to growing in their backyards. Being stuck at home has forced them to think about what they could do to bring joy to their lives. And so they decided to grow ten plants, which probably became twenty plants, and I think that because of COVID, they are thinking outside the box. So we’re seeing a lot of old grower friends coming back. On the legal market, it’s not great for them because they have a lot of stiff competition, but they’re continuing to innovate. And that challenge is important for this industry.
Cultivation is a predominantly male-dominated industry. What has been your experience with that? Do you have any advice for women who are interested in getting involved?
The growing industry, and the business industry in general, is very male-dominated. I think I may be the only woman CEO in the distribution market. It’s tough. I’m not going to lie. I’ve set up meetings, and people would be waiting for the CEO they’re expecting to see. Also, the way that women are portrayed in magazine ads and trade shows is not great.
It took me a long time, but you just have to push past it and not let the external voices tell you differently. What has helped me a lot is to know that I have a really great team. I enjoy everybody that works with us. I see our staff as a team, and we do this together. I feel that if I have a great team and they believe in me as much as I believe in them, we’re gonna change the world. People can say whatever they want to say, but we know who we are, and we’re just going to do it. And before long, they’ll come around, and they have. It took a little bit for the industry to see me as a CEO and not look over my shoulder, waiting for Dennis to walk in, but the proof is in the pudding.
We provide excellent service and great products, we have started to evolve our brands, and I’m not one to argue and demand my space. I don’t feel like I need to anymore because I already belong here. They just don’t know it yet.
Any exciting new plans for 2021 that you would like to share?
I am very excited to continue to build on our team, really just elevating the brand together. For me, the 10-year journey has been so exciting, building Left Coast Wholesale from a company in a small warehouse to where we are right now. We still have a lot more growing to do, coming into our own, getting to the table with the big distributors, and that’s going to be a lot of fun.
Also, this is a year where I’ll get an opportunity to build the Rhizoflora brand even more on the manufacturing and operational side. That’s going to be a great journey. It’s scary, but it’s a new challenge. Geoflora is another great product, and I’ll be focusing on making it more successful and more consistent.
Continuing to grow and do new things and face new challenges is part of what is interesting about our company. I don’t think we’re ever going to stop trying new things. We’ve gotta keep moving forward. That’s what keeps things interesting.
We thank our CEO Khanhvi Dang for taking the time to share her inspiring story with us. Learn more about the history and values of Left Coast Wholesale here.