“As a kid, I lived in New York City. My dad, who was a sweater maker, used to do magic tricks during the holidays. He would light a rolling paper on fire and throw it in the air, and, poof, it would vanish. That was the only trick my dad knew, but it blew my mind. As a kid you see magic and you think there’s an entire other universe you don’t know about,” sets off Josh Kesselman, a man so passionate about paper he makes The Office seem boring.
His is the tale of a life-long love turned into a business that sells its products in almost every country on earth; the tale of RAW.
Out of just a handful of counterculture brands to be known in every corner of the globe, RAW is a crucial member of a select elite that has achieved legendary cultural status. Referenced in countless songs and movies, and revered by the largest stars in the world, the brand is a staple for cannabis connoisseurs and smoking enthusiasts alike.
But just like any good story, the movie-worthy tale of how RAW got where it is today, is not an easy one to tell. It’s a meandrous ride, and in order to get it right we will have to travel through space and time, to World War II, and then back to the present. So buckle up.
The Tom Sawyer Picket Fence Theory
It was the awe his dad’s magic trick instilled in young Joshy that awoke a love and fascination for rolling papers at the tender age of five.
“I was obsessed with them. As soon as I was old enough to go into stores, I would buy every brand I saw. I couldn’t even use all of them. But it didn’t matter. I just wanted to have as many as I could. I had become a collector,” he reminisces.
During his college years in the early 90s, Josh decided to post his rolling papers collection online. He was one of the few Americans doing this, sharing knowledge and trading packs with European collectors.
A young Josh Kesselman – Courtesy Photo
Forget about baseball cards: this would prove to be the foundation of what would become a global empire three decades later.
“As part of a college project, I researched opening a very small smoke shop in Gainesville, Florida. I got an A on the project and then I decided I was going to immediately open the store. I was trading rolling papers with collectors in Europe. To them, what they sent me was trash they had bought at a random German gas station, but to me it was mind-blowing. And I knew I could sell them.”
What seemed like a fairly simple endeavor –open a scrappy retail store, would prove to not be easy, at all. Nobody wanted to lease their place to a hippie-looking, Harley-riding (oh, yeah, Josh rolled with an African-American motorcycle gang at the time), wannabe entrepreneur attracting a stoner clientele.
Finally, the owner of a run-down little shop that used to be a record store agreed to lease it for the astounding figure of $400 a month.
“I sold everything I owned, except for a $500 van and this piece-of-crap Harley Davidson I had built myself. And I named the store Knuckleheads after its engine,” he voices.
Josh’s first store- Courtesy Photo
In fact, in order to save on his own rent, Josh moved into a friend’s storage shed – with hilarious results ranging from having to pee on the lawn to sharing his “room” with a lawnmower.
“I had no idea what the hell I was doing, no clue. But I also knew that I didn’t know, and that the town wanted this store. And I guess that’s all that really mattered. So, what I did was what I call ‘Tom Sawyer’s white picket fence theory:’ people would come to the store and they would ask for a specific smoking product and, without knowing what the hell it was, I’d ask them questions about it and promise I’d get it for them within 2 weeks. And I always did. I just carried whatever people wanted: I assumed if one guy wants it, others will too.”
As it turns out, giving people exactly what they wanted, instead of what the owner thought they should want, made the store into what, at the time, seemed to Josh like a huge success.
Driving A Premium
One of the things Josh discovered early on was that selling rare rolling papers allowed him to charge a huge premium and increase his margins. People wanted oddities.
“It didn’t matter how much European traders wanted to charge me for a pack of rare rolling papers: 10, 20 cents… it didn’t have any relevance in relation to the $5 I was selling them for,” he says.
However, the honeymoon would come to an abrupt ending when Josh unknowing sold a bong (which was illegal at the time) to the adult daughter of a high-ranking U.S. Customs Service official. This would lead to the closing of his store.
Curiously enough, the feds confiscated all of his paraphernalia (bongs, pipes, etc.) but not his rolling papers. Those were not illegal.
“Even those that were made by this hippie old dude, that were covered in cannabis leaf prints, they told me they were OK to keep,” he adds. “But the condition to let me keep them was for me to, basically, leave town. So I did.”
Josh resettled in Phoenix, Arizona, a city he describes as surprisingly liberal and a headquarters for counterculture smoking, Josh started a business educating store owners on the intricacies and complexities of rolling papers.
“Arizona is typically known for being conservative, but they are actually very libertarian. Arizona is definitely not conservative when it comes to freedom and marijuana,” the entrepreneur declares, citing the recent legalization of adult use cannabis in the state.
“Even if some Arizonans love their guns and sh*t, I fit in quite well, because we basically leave each other alone.”
Once again, Josh found a niche in high-margin European rolling papers.
A few months later, he connected with a older paper craftsman who had re opened one of the (if not the) oldest rolling papers factories in the world. The man, who had flown in from Spain to America just to meet him was sorely disappointed when he encountered a scruffy Yankee in his 20s.
But Josh won him over: “I told him the story about my dad and the papers he used, Marfíl Arroz, and he jumped up! The older craftsman told me his father made those rolling papers. His grandfather, and his great grandfather too. So, in a moment of real connection, we decided we were going to bring those rolling papers back.”
That was Josh’s first real brand: Elements.
“It was a decent success,” he says. “I deeply focused on branding and connecting with smokers. We would give papers cool names, flavors… But I also made so many mistakes along the way.
“But one thing I learned is, you don’t wanna be an ‘also ran’ and you don’t wanna be a lookalike. You’ll get nowhere. You may get some crumbs but you are not truly adding to the fabric of human society – which is what we truly get rewarded for!”
The Mishpocheh Mensch
Josh was largely raised by his grandfather, a World War II hero veteran who stood out (and was honored) for specializing in sneaking up to enemy lines and talking Germans into surrendering to spare their lives – and American lives.
“He spoke Yiddish, not German so he would creep up to the front lines and yell at German soldiers in Yiddish, telling them there was a huge American battalion behind him ready to do what was needed, that this would end badly for the Germans. But, if they surrendered, he would make sure they were taken care of and protected. He saved so many lives on both sides,” Josh recalls in tears.
“Every time I speak of my grandpa I start to cry,” he explains. And it’s genuine; actual tears run down his cheeks as his face turns into that of a little kid in despair, lost in a supermarket.
Turns out grandpa Joe Kesselman lived by a theory he called “the mousetrap theory.”
It was fairly simple: build a better mousetrap than the best that currently exists, and the world will beat a path to your door.
“What that means is,” Josh explains, “if you and I are in the mousetrap business, competing against each other, I’m supposed to make the best goddamn mousetrap in the world. When you do, the world rewards you.”
In an ideal world, this would lead your competitor to make an even better mousetrap that catches even more mice, lasts longer, and is somehow greatly improved and vice-versa, ad infinitum.
“We should go back and forth in this ladder of competition, making better, and better mousetraps until eventually we’re making a mousetrap that flies around the room like a flying Roomba, catches the mouse, flies off to a mouse sanctuary, drops it off, and then come back and looks for more mice. If we all competed this this way, which is actually the natural way of competition, humans will progress so far that we’ll end up flying through space at warp factor nine.
“But not all people abide by this ethic. Most just copy existing products but make them cheaper in a place with lower labor costs, cutting quality along the way. We end up catching less mice and we have landfills and our oceans polluted with broken cheap mousetraps. It’s anti-progression and if it continues we’ll never end up flying through space at warp factor 9!”
The Day RAW Didn’t Become A Hit
During his time in Gainesville, Josh learned about proving real value to his customers.
“You have to uplift their experience, make it better in some way.”
This is how he came up with pre-rolled rolling paper cones for people who couldn’t roll. You’d basically get a pre-rolled paper, fill it up with ground material, and smoke it. Easy-peasy, lemon-squeezy.
And then came his greatest revelation: True smoking connoisseurs needed natural unbleached papers.
“Nobody was making natural paper with no bleach, no chalk and I wanted that! And I even knew what I was going to call them: Raw, because of a Big Daddy Kane song that got in my head in 1988. But when I went to the paper mills to pitch my idea for the materials I needed, nobody wanted to make them for me. They all laughed in my face; they told me nobody wanted to smoke a paper bag.”
Disheartened and upset, Josh was still not willing to give up. He knew people were not understanding his vision. Natural unbleached papers would be nothing like a paper bag: they would be thin and translucent, they looked naturally attractive, and they would burn beautifully.
Persistence would once again bear fruit, as Josh finally managed to convince one small mill to make what he needed for his paper.
“I knew there was a certain number, an order size big enough, to convince a mill to produce what I envisioned. So I called the mill and asked them if they’d make it for me if I ordered a million tons of it! They said yes. And so I followed that ‘yes’ ladder: got them down from a million to maybe 100,000 tons. But still, it was a LOT more than I really wanted to buy and it caused me to have to risk everything I had for this one paper!”
These were the early days of RAW, Josh’s then-newest brand, which would eventually become a huge global success.
A year later his dream product finally hit the market, and even though demand was decent, it was far from an instant success.
“And it wasn’t meant to be an instant success,” he quickly clarifies. “I was making it for a very niche market. I love niche markets because I understand them. Mass markets, I don’t understand at all. I don’t know what everybody wants, but I can empathetically connect with you and learn what YOU want; I can do the same with that person over there and give them what they want. When it comes to huge groups though, it’s harder for me to connect and understand their needs.” What I learned by connecting with individual smokers though, is that most people actually want the same thing, they all want to smoke the absolute best.”
The Smoke Circle Strategy
A few other setbacks along the way had Josh struggling with growth. But success would arrive soon enough. Around 2008, the hip-hop world started to take notice of Josh’s unique product, fueling its stellar rise to fame
“Now, here’s how RAW becomes a success. This is really important. It wasn’t just because of the hip-hop thing,” he explains. “It is a success because of the way that you and I and all of us actually smoke. We smoke in circles, bro, we always have. So all I had to do was get a pack of RAW to your headiest friend, the person who loves smoking plants beyond belief, and give it to them for free. They’d roll up with RAW, naturally fall in love with it and then pass the RAW around the circle. Each person in the circle would hit the RAW, notice how it tasted and smoked better than anything they had ever smoked before, and they’d ask what brand that was. Next thing you know they’re at the store buying packs of RAW and then sharing that same smoke circle experience with another group of friends. We grew in this beautifully connected way, working our way through smoke circles worldwide.”
This strategy was ambitious but not greedy. And it paid off big time. As more and more people started rolling up using RAW papers and sharing them with their friends, more of them were falling in love with the product.
People were losing it over how it smoked, Josh assures. And it wasn’t any different in the hip-hop world.
“It all started with Curren$y, and then his whole smoke circle group, which included Wiz Khalifa. They all started smoking RAW. And they were not smoking because I gave it to them. They were buying it in the stores, man, because they really love to smoke and they’re like, ‘I like this. It’s different. I can really taste the terps,’” the entrepreneur reminisces.
Aside from the carefully planned strategy to reach the most enthusiastic smoking consumers out there, a portion of RAW’s success came from an unexpected source. It turns out not only the biggest weed fans wanted to have the best smoking experience; by the late 2000s, most consumers wanted to smoke better and better materials. Both Cannabis and Tobacco products and their quality had evolved, and so had their consumers.
This, in turn, has kept Josh perpetually motivated to further improve his product, make it smoke better and more evenly, decrease permeability, and all kinds of nerdy stuff. The top is never in sight for this innovator, which means that, for him, there’s nowhere to go but up.
The Media Factor
One of the keys to RAW’s success has indisputably been tied to Josh Kesselman’s strong media presence and his very, very, unique persona. From YouTube to Instagram, Josh is omnipresent, prolific, fun, and a very engaging teacher! This drives customer interest and creates a community around the brand, its products, and the team’s thirst for innovation itself.
Josh Kesselman – Courtesy of RAW
“When I’m on social media, I do my best to bring up my energy level to make people happy,” says Josh, who is almost always as lively, silly, and playful in real life as he is in his videos. “I realized people thrive off of my energy. So I give them as much as I possibly can.
“But if you pretend to be something, you often become it. So if I’m having a bad day, then one of the things I want to do is go shoot a video because it’s going to pump me up. I’m going to do my best to uplift the audience and by doing that, I also become uplifted and the rest of my day is better.”
However, it’s not just about being fun or funny, he adds. It’s about being honest and real.
Josh’s videos are never about selling you a product. They are all about showing you something he’s passionate about, teaching about how to roll the perfect joint, the intricacies of rolling papers, or something he believes is particularly cool, whether that’s a massive joint, a cone-packer or a onesie designed for stoners.
From Picket Fences To Water Wells
Chatting with Josh for a few minutes makes one thing evident: this guy loves rolling papers. And all he does seems to be in it for pleasure, rather than the money.
Of course, RAW is a profitable company, facing much more demand than it can fulfill. But for Josh, it’s not about making more profit.
Josh Kesselman – Courtesy of RAW
“A lot of what I do is not about money. I make some products that lose money. I make them just for fun,” he says. “But sometimes, something I make as joke or something funny surprisingly takes off.
“At the same time, it’s very important for us to be profitable, or else we can’t keep inventing and creating, and giving to charity for that matter. But the focus is not on making money. The focus is on making the best smoking products that have ever been made in the history of humanity, and on making some really cool shit that’s going to blow people’s minds. What I call it is ‘capturing the imagination of the smoking public.’”
“We’ve given away millions of dollars to charity,” Josh adds, going into his charitable initiatives, but never bragging. “You can’t ask what’s the return on investment. If your goal is actually to save as many lives as possible, you’ve got to do it right. Humanitarian work is addictive, and it helps motivate me and my staff to keep pushing forward, for the sake of every life we can help.”
Although Josh didn’t want to get into details because he’s a humble guy, some research revealed the work of the RAW Foundation, a not-for-profit organization focused on improving the lives of millions through entrepreneurial phylantropy.
Among the many initiatives are:
· Water Is Life International: RAW has partnered to not only fund clean water projects for all 7 of the Sister of Mother Teresa’s hospitals in Ethiopia, but also dozens of water wells in villages throughout the region. Josh personally travels to Ethiopia to help oversee the work.
· Trees for the Future: focuses on regenerative agriculture. Since being founded in 1989, Trees.org has planted over 115 million trees in dozens of countries and revitalized hundreds of thousands of acres of soil while changing people’s lives forever.
· Wine To Water: Wine to water raises funds to combat the worldwide water crisis. It currently has three international offices in Nepal, the Dominican Republic, and Colombia.
· CarbonFund.org: “Reduce what you can. Offset what you can’t.” That’s the motto. Much of the world’s tropical rainforests have either been cut down or are indirectly threatened with imminent deforestation. Reforestation and forest preservation carbon offset projects are part of the global warming solution that CarbonFund.org are working towards.
· Home ‘Fur’ Good: The staff and volunteers at Home ‘Fur’ Good strive to give their animals a clean and comfortable place to sleep, nutritious food to eat, excellent medical care, adequate daily exercise and an overdose of love and affection.
· Kiva: Kiva is an international non-profit, founded in 2005 in San Francisco, with a mission to expand financial access to help underserved communities to thrive via crowdfunding loans and other ways to unlock capital unbanked people.
So if you too have a thriving business and want to follow in Josh’s steps, consider donating to these, or any other charitable project.
This article was originally published on Forbes and appears here with permission.