In this interview, CULTA sat down with John Laurendi, founder of Peter James Leather Company Inc. and Mary John to discuss his line of canna-cases and his entrepreneurship journey.
Tell us a bit about your education and professional background before you started Peter James Leather Company Inc.
I was always interested in the creative aspect of life, so I went to college for digital media and technical production. Once I graduated, my first job was in the fenestration industry. It’s not something that really spawns creativity but it was my first time helping a business take their image to the next level.
I have an entrepreneurial spirit, and as I was working I started to get jobs that I’d do after hours and on weekends. So, I jumped on the opportunity and started JP Lauren Design & Advertising which was a brand management and media agency. From there I just started to grow, and took on bigger accounts. From my knowledge, we were the first company in North America to come up with an online booking system for restaurants and clubs.
By then the industry started to change, and it just became less fun. So I sold my book of business and moved on. I consulted for a couple of years, and picked up a book about insurance because I wasn’t content with the service I was receiving from insurance brokers at the time. I felt like I could do it better, so I started working independently for an insurance brokerage, and grew that as my main business.
How did you get into cigars?
I’ve always been into cigars, and I picked it up from my father. He’s a smoker, and the one thing I did take from him was his love for cigars. He always made them look so elegant and appealing. Along the way I started an Instagram account that documented my smoking cigars and I built quite a following.
What inspired you to start Peter James Leather Company Inc?
My friends and I would go out and have dinner and enjoy a cigar, and the common denominator was that my wife always had to carry a big purse that would fit my cigar case, lighter, and cutter because I didn’t have room in my jacket pockets. Eventually, it became inconvenient so she told me I had to hold my own shit *laughs* So, I went on the hunt for a gentlemen’s case that could hold everything...cigar, lighter, wallet, keys. I tried to find something that was masculine, but stylish, and I couldn’t find anything.
One night I was out with friends, and I brought up the idea of this case. The next day, my former partner called me and wanted to be a part of it. Our goal at that time wasn’t business- we just wanted to make a case for us guys to use when we’d meet up and smoke cigars.
Tell me about the process of getting them made.
What started as a hobby turned into a huge ordeal. It was difficult finding a supplier who would work on such a small project. I met our local manufacturer through a friend of mine. I walked into his office, explained what I wanted, and he was initially hesitant. But I persisted, and after awhile he took a leap of faith and that’s when our first Peter James product was born.
He made them. People started posting on Instagram, and the floodgates opened. So we launched a website. The market didn’t have a product like this at the time so people really gravitated to it.
What about your product do your customers find unique/essential? What sets it apart from other cases?
Around the time we made our first product, I looked at my former business partner and made him promise me one thing: quality first. This wasn’t about making a profit to me, it was about appreciating quality craftsmanship. I don’t look at costs- I look at what went into making it. And he agreed.
A lot of similar cases have popped up throughout the years, but what has kept us Peter James is that we keep manufacturing in Canada and will never sacrifice quality to make a few extra dollars. And that continues to be my mission. At the end of the day, if I’m going to create something that will be out there forever, it needs to provide value.
Every product we sell has a lifetime guarantee. If a zipper breaks or a stitch comes out, it’ll be replaced. They’re intended to be used for life. We understand it seems expensive, but if our customers buy and use one, they’ll understand. If you purchase anything from Mary John, you can rest assured that it’s been tested and vetted and is guaranteed to last a lifetime. That’s a core value of Mary John.
Your company started out selling premium cigar cases. At what point did you decide it was time to produce a line of premium Canna Cases?
I have been a medicinal user for about 10 years now. Before it was recreational I had a medicinal license and I found relief in CBD products and oils. I’ve always been a fan and an advocate for the medicine. I feel that there is a beauty in it that we can carry forward with Peter James.
I had friends that would carry their cannabis and accessories in those purple, felt Crown Royal bags and pencil cases...and I knew we could make something better. We launched them through Peter James as a soft launch, with no marketing or advertising. We just wanted to see how they’d be received, especially since they’re offered at a higher price point than many other products in the cannabis industry. They’re made by hand with imported leather, and the cost for manufacturing that is substantially higher.
What were the main differences between designing a case for cigars and a case for cannabis?
Scent and humidity. With cigars, we know that leather holds humidity well, but since it’s leather it doesn’t hold scent. So what we did was look at current technologies and materials to try to lock in the smell. However, we have to be mindful of the manufacturing process. We couldn’t use certain materials without making the cases too bulky, so we found a rubber membrane material that we thought would work. So we tried it, and it worked like a charm. It’s as close as we could get to scent-proof while still having a stylish zipper closure.
Right now there are three different cannabis travel bags for sale on your website - can we expect more designs and colors in the future?
Definitely. The next version of these cases will have child safety built into the tins. It’s something that’s important to me as a father, and I know it’s important to a lot of other people, too. They should be released around Q3, and I’m taking a more modular approach to them. They’ll be easy to accessorize and add to - something a lot of people can relate to and use for things beyond cannabis.
About how long does it take for a product to go from the design stage into a customer’s hands?
4-6 months. There’s a lot of decisions to be made, and sometimes the things I want aren’t always the most practical from a manufacturing standpoint. Every piece that we have is basically a bunch of little pieces that are made into a case, so there’s a lot of moving parts. We usually manufacture weekly.
How seriously do you take customer feedback and comments?
I’m always interested in learning how someone looks at something - it spawns more ideas and products. Aside from the cases, we have three products hitting the Mary John site in Q2 that were inspired by customer comments and pain points. The customers tell me what they want, and it helps me make products I know they’ll need.
Do you find that there were a lot of crossover customers?
Not as much as he had thought originally. Most of our customers are US-based, and it may have to do with the legalization aspect from state-to-state, but when it was released initially there was some push back from the cigar target audience. But I do know there are customers who use both; I’m a walking example of that. I find with cannabis, it can alter your palate and cigars have a great flavor, so I’m not sure if many people mix the two.
Were there any marketing surprises or challenges, specifically in marketing to cannabis users? What parallels, if any, do you see between the cigar and cannabis industries?
It’s the same- both are very limited in their ad capabilities. We have so much pushback from Facebook, Instagram, and Google because one is a tobacco-related product and the other is a cannabis-related product. So, we’ve had to really be creative. I think until cannabis is legalized on a federal level, it’ll continue to be a challenge.
Any advice for entrepreneurs who are just starting out, specifically in regards to not only maintaining a business partnership with someone, but nurturing it?
I would say, communication and boundaries are the two things that will help a partnership succeed. If one of them gets lost, that’s when the challenges arise. Both partners need to have a clear idea of their roles in the company. Also, it’s easy to get caught up in talking about business all the time, but it’s important to have conversations with your partner that don’t involve work. If you focus on business too much it can take away from the relationship.
What is the most important thing an entrepreneur can do to ensure success?
Push. Fear drives us; love drives us. Oftentimes, fear takes the reins and that’s the dangerous part. So understanding that challenges are nothing but fear, and it’s just as easy to choose love over fear. So personally, if I’m afraid of something, I try to love it. Because if I love the fear it becomes my weapon.
So I would say always push forward and don’t let the fear control you. Nothing is easy.
Where can cannasuers buy your premium canna bags?
Right now we have two websites, Peter James Leather Company Inc and Mary John. I want to go into the retail side of things, but the goal right now is to increase brand awareness. Once we establish that, we may look into retail then.
Any closing words for all the entrepreneurs out there?
A couple things. First, I know consumers can be weary about longevity, but I’m not going anywhere. This is my passion and I will continue to make products that fit both spaces. Rest assured, Peter James and Mary John will be here for the long run. Second, I encourage people to reach out! If you have questions about our products or business in general and the cannabis industry, I’m here to help. You can reach us at email@example.com.