Today, Extract Labs is a national CBD brand with operations in Colorado and Kentucky. But the company got its start in a humble garage, the pet project of founder and CEO Craig Henderson.
While the brand has ballooned to employ dozens of staff, Henderson’s DIY ethos and dedication to making cannabis products accessible to veterans and members of the military still define the company’s mission and guide its growth.
CBD By Veterans, For Veterans
Henderson’s first exposure to cannabis came during his military service, where he saw the plant demonized while alcohol consumption was encouraged, a state of affairs that didn’t make sense to him. After leaving the military, he started researching and trying cannabis himself, and the results were not what he’d been led to believe. While Henderson discovered THC was not for him, he did come to understand what others got out of cannabis and saw the impact it had in the lives of others.
“There are over a hundred cannabinoids in cannabis, and only one of them—THC—gives the psychoactive high the plant is known for. People want access to the other cannabinoids and the relief they can provide,” says Henderson. “For individuals like firefighters, police officers, and members of the military who may be struggling with issues like chronic pain and PTSD, we wanted to provide a way for them to get relief from cannabis without worrying that they’re putting their livelihoods at risk by consuming THC.”
Increasing that accessibility has guided Extract Labs’ business of turning domestic hemp into a variety of CBD products. Getting there hasn’t been a straight path, though.
The Road to Cannabis
“As I finished up college, legalization was coming to Colorado, and I knew that I wanted to be part of the industry,” says Henderson. He got the opportunity to do just that, joining the team at a leading provider of CO2 extraction equipment. Soon, he was traveling the country, teaching processors how to turn raw cannabis into oil and other extracts.
“It was an amazing experience, working with people from a lot of different backgrounds and learning about the industry while developing procedures and best practices to help improve their operations,” says Henderson.
As he built his base of knowledge and made new contacts in the industry, one common theme kept coming up—the appetite among some consumers for cannabis products that were high in CBD and low in THC. While strains and products that fit that bill are increasingly common today, they could be tough to find just a few years ago.
That appetite among consumers left many hemp farmers looking to turn their plants into the raw material for extracts like CBD oil, and found Henderson well placed to start a side business in his garage extracting concentrated CBD from hemp plants. Once word got around though, Henderson’s phone was ringing off the hook, and it became clear that his side hustle wouldn’t stay that way for long.
Bootstrapping a Business
Even as his home business was growing, Henderson was concerned that he was pigeon-holing himself by working strictly with hemp-derived CBD. He could make a modest living serving a small group of Colorado hemp farmers, he estimated, but the business seemed likely to stay pretty niche.
As CBD turned into a hot commodity across the nation, that niche just kept getting bigger. Pretty soon, that small group of farmers wasn’t alone and hemp cultivators from around the state were vying for Henderson’s attention. The calls kept coming, and business kept booming, with Henderson hiring his first employees in 2016. That’s about when the next step for Extract Labs became clear.
“I had plenty of material and the know-how to extract it, but at that point we weren’t seeing a lot of CBD product manufacturers around, so getting this oil to customers was a challenge” Henderson recalls. “That’s when we started creating our own CBD versions of products we saw having success in the THC market, from concentrates like crumble to topical salves . And once we were able to provide those products, they started selling and we kept growing.”
Evolving with Values in Mind
Just a couple years out of the garage, Extract Labs is doing tens of millions of dollars in annual revenue and employing dozens of people. That growth has helped Henderson stay true to one of the founding principles of Extract Labs—a DIY ethos that aims to keep everything the company does, from production to marketing to distribution, in-house and under one roof.
“The first few products we produced were hand-labeled with marker, and we were like, we can probably do better than this,” says Henderson. “I had never built a brand before, but I knew that I wanted the people helping me do that to be partners, not people we contracted with. We wanted to be sure we were being true to this product, and not just taking advice on marketing and branding and things like that from people outside the industry.”
So just like he did with his first garage extraction setup, Henderson and his colleagues bootstrapped what they needed, bringing in new talent and building their marketing and distribution programs from scratch.
As much as the company has grown, in recent years, though, Henderson and his team know they still have a lot of work to do, especially when it comes to outreach and education for service members.
“A lot of military and government employees are still nervous about using CBD,” says Henderson. “That makes education a real priority for us. Just letting people know that this doesn’t get you high and that there are products they don’t have to smoke—topical salves they can use on an injured knee, for instance—goes a long way.”