Grow Big or Go Home

Grow Big or Go Home

In 2015, two desert racing aficionados and a laser engineer set out to build a superior light-emitting diode (LED) grow light for the cannabis industry.

This team of friends had a bold and precarious vision in a fast-growing industry that doesn’t easily forgive nor forget. They were hyper-focused on delivering on promises to their customers and establishing trust, especially with cultivators either skeptical of LEDs or who had negative past experiences with LED technology.

It was “a huge gamble,” Fohse co-founder and chief executive officer Brett Stevens acknowledges. “But we had a strong hand. With complete dedication, unwavering integrity, and a team who thought outside the box, we created a product that would change the industry.”

Six years later, against all odds, the small, tight-knit Fohse team is thriving, and—thanks in large part to the Nevada-based company’s revolutionary designs and money-back guarantee—cannabis growers have increasingly begun to adopt LED lights within their cultivation operations. Today, Fohse has sold tens of thousands of lights to growers around the world.

“Fast-forwarding to where we are today, we set out to do exactly what we wanted,” Stevens says. “Every goal we’ve set has come to fruition. We’re making the future of cannabis brighter every day, and we’re not slowing down.”

So how did Fohse achieve such success in building high-quality fixtures and earning cultivators’ confidence?

Humble and Ambitious Beginnings.

The start of the Fohse team’s journey, like other game-changing technological innovations of recent decades, began in a garage—in this case, a garage used to store and repair the two- and four-wheel vehicles used in desert racing.

Alex Gerard, now the chief technology officer for the company, was working as an engineer in the medical industry. He’d carved out a niche research and development specialty—medical lasers—and spent his days doing hands-on work in light laboratories. By night, he found himself fixating on a different kind of research. Having grown up in a horticulture-centric family, he was well aware of the challenges growers were facing with optimizing their horticultural lighting practices. He wondered: What if he could deliver both quality and efficiency in a whole new way?

While Gerard designed and experimented, two of his close friends from high school—Stevens and future Fohse President Ben Arnet—had uprooted from the Midwest to Las Vegas with plans to immerse themselves in the cannabis industry and local desert racing scene. Stevens, an accomplished driver, had dreams of the Baja 1000, a race in which he’ll be competing in 2022.

“We moved out here to pursue the cannabis industry and our love for the desert,” Stevens says. “What better place to do it than Vegas?”

By the time Gerard approached his old friends with his new design, Stevens and Arnet had already dipped their toes into the cannabis industry. The self-described “serial entrepreneurs” had begun with cultivation, but after a “devastating” crop loss, looked to switch to a pick-and-shovel approach: investing in technology needed to produce a good—in this case, cannabis. And when their old friend approached them with a revolutionary new LED fixture, their curiosity was piqued. The trio, along with two of their friends—future chief operating officer Edwin Perez and future chief marketing officer James Bradley—built five prototypes in their garage that same weekend. They tested the prototypes within other friends’ grows with “mind-blowing” results—and the rest was history.

To engross themselves into the project more entirely, the five co-founders moved into one Las Vegas house together, along with a husky, an Akita, and two bulldogs. They pooled their money to buy a boardroom table, which they placed in the house’s upstairs mezzanine, and got to work.

To sum it up, Arnet says: “We crushed it.”

It was instantly clear that the group had the potential to change the future of growing. Immediately, Arnet, who had been an avid fan and financial supporter of desert racing, and Stevens divested from the sport and turned their entire professional attentions toward their new venture.

“I knew we were going to have to buckle down,” Stevens recalls.

To engross themselves into the project more entirely, the five co-founders moved into one Las Vegas house together, along with a husky, an Akita, and two bulldogs. They pooled their money to buy a boardroom table, which they placed in the house’s upstairs mezzanine, and got to work.

Fohse lights power Valley Pure’s multi-tiered cultivation facility in California.

“We looked at each other like, ‘How are we going to get this thing off the ground?’” Stevens remembers.

For a year, the team sat around their boardroom table each day, brainstorming ideas for the launch of their new product. The table—which remains in Fohse’s headquarters today—was also the birthplace of the company’s name. Inspired by “phos,” the Greek word for “light,” FOHSE stands for Future Of Horticultural Science and Engineering.

After a year of living and innovating together, the founders graduated to a real office in Las Vegas. But the house, like the table, is still in the team’s possession, a reminder of their beginnings.

Trust Isn’t Given, It’s Earned.

Creating and branding a revolutionary new LED light was the first, but far from the last, challenge for Fohse. In the beginning, the founders knew they’d have to face another, perhaps even more seemingly insurmountable obstacle: gaining the trust of the cannabis industry.

In the tight-knit industry, Bradley and his co-founders knew it was easier—and faster—to ruin a reputation than to build it. The founders knew integrity is everything.

“You’ve got one shot to do what you want to do,” as Arnet put it, “and if you don’t, you’re blacklisted.”

Bradley says the team had to find a way to convince people of the power behind Fohse’s technology.

Working in their favor, the Fohse team had gotten off to a strong start with their prototype and had already made solid connections in the industry through their own cultivation efforts. Their first test grows with the new lights had been a success. Their product worked—it had been proven. And they weren’t going to give up. Their brand, they knew, must be consistent, reliable, and trustworthy if they were to succeed.

To demonstrate their faith in their light and their commitment to new customers, the company founders decided to offer a guarantee: Outgrow your previous fixtures with Fohse lights, or we’ll buy them back from you. To this day, no customer has asked for a refund.

“I don’t know how many times we had to sign personal guarantees in those early days, that you would grow just as much or more than a regular crop,” Arnet says. “But we never had to buy a fixture back.”

To demonstrate their faith in their light and their commitment to new customers, the company founders decided to offer a guarantee: Outgrow your previous fixtures with Fohse lights, or we’ll buy them back from you. To this day, no customer has asked for a refund.

The team’s first sale, which came shortly after the testing phase, gave them their first indication of what was to come. True Fire & Agrocan, a Canadian LP group, approached the Fohse founders and invited them to pitch their new light. After a week’s worth of meetings, Fohse left with its first sale ever.

“Right out of the gate, we got really, really fortunate,” Stevens says.

Since installing Fohse lighting, one of Fohse’s very first clients (whose name is being kept confidential at the client’s request) has tracked yield results for 40 hydroponic growing cycles and across eight different cultivars—and found consistent results. The cultivation company reported harvesting 7,130 pounds under Fohse fixtures, compared to 5,241 pounds of the same cultivars using high-pressure sodium (HPS) lighting. The THC levels of that cannabis has been higher, too, it reports: 21%, on average, compared to 17% under HPS fixtures. All in all, the cannabis grown using Fohse lighting netted the company more than $2.5 million more than the cannabis grown using a typical HPS system.

As the number of Fohse clients has grown, so have the number of success stories. The Grove, a Nevada-based cultivation and distribution company, installed Fohse lights after hearing of the record-breaking yields other Fohse customers had experienced across the country. In the fall of 2020, The Grove’s Fohse fixtures gave off 27% more light than standard HPS fixtures, leading to a 65% increase in dry yield harvest weights—and healthier, denser buds—all while using 16% less energy than HPS lighting. Green Life Productions, another Nevada-based cannabis business, harvested between 80 and 90 pounds of cannabis on average under their previous lighting system. Under Fohse lighting, the company reports a typical harvest of between 160 and 200 pounds.

Such reports have become typical for Fohse customers. Today, the company’s fixtures produce an average of 6 pounds per light, with a record grow of 8.4 pounds per light.

The Fohse team has grown since the days of six friends together in a house, with a total of 350 employees, most of whom work in the company’s manufacturing facility. Through it all, the company has managed to build upon and maintain a tight-knit and diverse core management team, with no turnover in leadership since its founding six years ago.

“We’ve built such a strong team,” Arnet says. “Most startups you see, the teams fall apart, and they don’t make it. Our team makes coming to work every day a blessing.”

Flower rooms at Green Life Productions are equipped with Fohse LEDs.

“I think we’re really a close-knit team, a family-driven team, that isn’t here for the short term,” Stevens adds. “We’re here to create value and, really, to provide value for the industry. Once people start working with Fohse, we don’t see turnover.”

Stevens describes Fohse as a “family and friends business,” with a collaborative, supportive work environment driving the company’s success. In some ways, that description is literal—Fohse was founded by a group of close friends, with additional friends and family members later joining the team. But the company also works to actively foster a family environment each day, especially as it expands to bring new team members on board.

When hiring people with no previous ties to Fohse or its founders, the company welcomes them with the usual traditions: allowing them to personalize their offices to ensure maximum comfort and inviting them to an introductory lunch to get to know the team. But the company’s unique approach to inclusion goes beyond on-boarding rituals. The founders’ philosophy, summed up by Arnet: “You want to go fast? Go alone. You want to go far? Go with a team.”

Fohse’s founders also credit their success in large part to one key principle: keeping their word.

“Do what you say you’re going to do, always,” Stevens says, when asked what words of advice he has for aspiring entrepreneurs in the cannabis industry. “If you say you’re going to do something, do it. If it’s not true, don’t say it.”

“The margin of error, the acceptance of bullshit in this industry, is very minimal,” Arnet adds.

Other ingredients for entrepreneurial success transcend industry.

“It’s kind of like every other industry, cannabis aside,” Arnet says. “If you’re going to be an entrepreneur, don’t give up. Find a problem, fix it, and work backward.”

The company’s founders also attribute their success to going above and beyond product manufacturing alone. The company doesn’t just take a “drop-off-the-lights approach,” as its founders put it—it takes a “partner approach,” by offering assistance, advice, and other helpful resources to customers before and after installation.

“It’s not just having the best technology,” says COO Edwin Perez. “It’s complementing that with the highest standard of customer service.”

As the Fohse name becomes increasingly ubiquitous in the cannabis industry, breaking down the stigma of LED lighting one fixture at a time, its founders have no plans to slow their momentum. In the coming years, they believe the LED revolution will continue to grow—with Fohse on the front lines.

“It’s the dawn of a new era for the cannabis industry,” Stevens says. “And Fohse is leading the charge.”