Puffco’s Roger Volodarsky: Scaling the Peak

With his big beard and stoic countenance, Roger Volodarsky has the air of an educated Russian revolutionary. At 35, he’s also young (i.e., tech-smart) enough to be able to disrupt the universe. So, it makes sense the Brooklyn, New York, native founded Puffco, a company on a mission to create the cannabis industry of the future one vaporizer at a time. Volodarsky already has made his mark on the concentrates universe as a designer and manufacturer of high-quality devices. But to know him even a little is to understand when he says he is “obsessed,” he means it. It’s as though he cannot escape a recurring nightmare: “I want to make something, and I know it’s possible, and I can’t do it.” But he and his team keep doing it, one hit at a time, driven by the guiding principle to make only what is best for them. As Volodarsky the Romantic put it in mid-May, “I wake up thinking about what I love and lose sleep thinking about what I love.”

Brooklyn born
Roger Volodarsky, Puffco CEO, mg Magazine July 2018
Photo: James Banasiak

Volodarsky founded Puffco in 2013 in the basement of his mother’s New Jersey apartment, where he lived while the company was getting on its feet. Puffco was and continues to be a self-funded venture that literally was jump-started by Volodarsky’s mom. “I was thinking about names, like Dabco, even before I was incorporated,” he said. “Then I looked to see if Puffco.com was available, and it was, for $1,300. I asked my mom if I could borrow the money. Once I bought [the domain name] I incorporated [in Brooklyn], and the race was on. I spent my first year developing a product called the Puffco Classic.”

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Developing vaporizers for cannabis concentrates was not Volodarsky’s lifelong dream. Born and raised in Brooklyn and New Jersey, fate intervened when his dad left the family around 2002, forcing Volodarsky to become the breadwinner for his mother and two brothers. He fell into mortage finance. The market was good at the time, and he was good at selling. With good mentoring, he soon was successful enough to open his own firm and hire a few friends. Taking a page out of Wolf of Wall Street, the business skyrocketed. “I was making more money than any 21-year-old should,” he recalled. Like any other self-respecting New Yorker, he supported the family and blew the rest. By 2008, the Great Recession had blown a hole in the real estate market, wiping him out. “It put me into a bit of a depression,” he said. He questioned whether he had ever been good at sales and what his future might be.

Supported by a wealthier side of the family, Volodarsky went to college to study business management. “I was doing well, but after a year it wasn’t as fun as being an entrepreneur,” he said. “I felt like I was doing things not directly applicable to what I wanted to do. Then the prize at the end of the day would be more hours doing something I didn’t want to do, just to make money.”

After dropping out, he moved from job to job. He had a taste for success, a sense of what he was good at, and the drive to succeed— “I was always reaching and pushing”—but he needed something to wrap his talents around. Naturally, cannabis became that component; weed had been a part of his life for years.

Blowing vapor
Roger Volodarsky, Puffco CEO, mg Magazine July 2018
Photo: James Banasiak

“I first smoked cannabis at 13, but it was something I hid,” said Volodarsky, who went to high school in New Jersey and still has an instinctive fear of being busted. “It’s weird to be in a place where—forget about the stigma of cannabis—there is a real fear of the repercussions for consuming. It’s still a very new feeling for me to be out here in California, where, if someone steals your weed, you feel like you can complain to the police. That doesn’t happen back East.”

The idea to create a professional life in cannabis was understandably a long time coming. “I remember walking around the neighborhood, smoking with my friend and having the random thought, ‘Could you imagine owning just 1 percent of cannabis use? Give people something they could use to consume—just 1 percent? You’d probably be worth a billion dollars,’” said Volodarsky. “That was the first time I had the thought, ‘What if money can be made in cannabis?’”

That was 2009. Fast forward to 2012, which Volodarsky calls “one of the most disruptive years in my life, but in a good way.” His liberation came in the form of a G Pen, made by Grenco Science.

“I credit the owner of G Pen all the time,” he said. “They were the first company that inspired me.”

The quality of the early pens was poor, but irrelevant. “The quality of the first generation of pens is not the point,” said Volodarsky. “Now I could go to the Met and blow vapor and no one had any idea. Now I was a liberated cannabis user.”

Now he also discovered his purpose. “I’m going to all my friends, trying to get them to use the G Pen. They’re first-generation [pens] and made of plastic, but I’m still turning all my friends on to them.”

In fact, the cosmic ledger for Black Friday 2012 will show a $700 order for G Pens. “They were doing a 40-percent-off sale, and I figured I would sell them to all my friends so we could all go to the Met,” said Volodarsky. “I’d make $20, and they’d save $20.”

Suddenly, he’s in the business. “I started working with another company, as an ‘unofficial advocate,’”  he said. “We have customers now who do that for our company.”

It did not take long for him to notice a void in the young marketplace. “Other than the G Pen, there was nothing for concentrates,” he said. “Everything was for herbal.” Herbal means flower, buds, weed, not the various forms of concentrates derived from the cannabis plant, which is precisely the product category Volodarsky set out to conquer, device-wise.

“I drove everywhere, including to a shop at the end of New Jersey to see this device, but it worked like shit,” he said. “So, all there was, was this one device—the G Pen—and no point of reference how it could be improved.

“I jumped on a plane to San Francisco and went straight to Haight Ashbury to visit all the head shops,” he added. “They had a bunch of vaporizers. Now I was able to start understanding how they worked and what they had in common. They all had a battery and a tiny chip. What does that chip do? What is the wire made of? Why do some [devices] make my nose burn and others don’t?  That’s how I started learning, and after asking all these questions, I said to myself, ‘I need to make a product that people will want to use more than our predecessors’.’”

Rocket to the Moon
Roger Volodarsky, Puffco CEO, mg Magazine July 2018
Roger Volodarsky examines blueprints for a Puffco Peak.

In 2013, Volodarsky began to undertake his goal in earnest, reverse-engineering the devices already on the market. “Yes, that is something I did,” he said, “though it sounds fancier than just taking a bunch of things apart and dreaming up what would make them better. This was all me sourcing products from China. I took the sum of all the different parts and combined them in such a way to make [the device] more resilient, not made of plastic.

“The Puffco Classic was released in January 2014,” he added. “I did one order, and when I got it, I tried it and thought, ‘This is better than the company that came before me, but it’s not going to change the industry.’ I would say that probably none of today’s customers have [a Puffco Classic]. Maybe there are a few of them out there.”

He only placed one order. “It had a fibrous wick, which was used at the time. It had a low-capacity chamber. It didn’t have a temperature control function. It was just very basic,” he said. “I set out to make something disruptive so that everyone who uses wax pens would want to use ours instead. My opinion, regardless what people thought—because people loved it—was that it did not meet that mission.

“I stopped everything and started re-engineering [the device] from there,” he said. “I found a guy who does 3D modeling and started working on the Puffco Pro, which is the first product people know us for.”

Volodarsky revised his tactics with the Puffco Pro. “I had learned my lesson and failed so hard the first time, but this time I had my mission and it needed to happen,” he said. He hired a U.S. firm to help coordinate his work in China. But he still was not quite sure what he was doing.

“My mission was to address the things I hated with the Puffco Classic,” he said. “It tastes like shit because it has a cotton wick, so what if we go with something ceramic? What if we triple the size of the atomizer? Some oils taste better at different temperatures, so what if we put in three different modes so people could select the one they want to use? Nobody had done it, but I knew it was possible because it was being done with e-cigarettes.

“So, I took all these ideas and my designs and brought them to a factory. I bring them all this random stuff, but I don’t know how it all fits together, and I was told it was unbuildable.”

But it was buildable. “Make it first and then figure everything else out afterward. That’s the story of the Puffco Pro,” said Volodarsky. “I gave them all these designs using this U.S. firm doing all the things I didn’t have the experience to do and was actually able to make the product I had dreamed of making. This crazy dream. The Puffco Pro was released in October 2014.”

Marketing and distribution was overseen by Chelsea, his first employee, who also set up their first Instagram account. “Chelsea would go to New York every day from New Jersey,” said Volodarsky. “We started by going everywhere in New York, and then quickly went to Colorado when it went recreational in 2014. In February 2015, we went to Denver and drove through Colorado to visit every shop we could find. Then we took a flight to Seattle and drove from Seattle to San Diego and stopped at every shop on the way down. Out of all the shops, we might have sold to three stores. Most were like, ‘Okay, you have another wax pen. What makes yours better?’ We told them ceramic, no glue, a larger atomizer. ‘Okay, that sounds interesting. How much is it?’ We told them, and they were, like, ‘Get the fuck out of here.’”

The pen cost only about $80 retail, but the unknown Puffco Pro was competing with devices promoted by Snoop Dog or “cheap shit” out of China.

In April 2015, all that changed when the phone rang. “It was one of the best calls ever,” recalled Volodarsky. “It was Jen Bernstein from High Times. ‘Roger, you’re the 2015 vaporizer of the year.’”

From Pro to Plus

With the success of the Puffco Pro came new challenges for the young company with a handful of employees. “When this happened, there was me, Chelsea, one other employee, and Daniel, for shipping, who works here now,” said Volodarsky. “We also had just gotten into our Bushwick, Brooklyn, office—smaller than this conference room. Things were going great, but a few months down the line we started seeing copies coming out. They were even using my name: ‘Just like the Puffco Pro.’”

Another calamity occurred a few months later when Puffco lost its supply chain. “The factory decided they only wanted to make their own stuff,” said Volodarsky. “We were given one months’ notice. The last order we received was for 13,000 units, which sold in a month. Now I have the most popular product in the industry—the vaporizer of the year, being copied to death—and I have nothing to sell people.”

Alarmingly, the U.S. firm employed by Puffco had failed to retain all the designs for the device. “I fired them and went immediately to China. Tom, our operations guy, also went and spent three months looking for the right factory. We finally found one and launched the Puffco Plus in May 2016.”

True to form, the Plus exists to improve upon the Pro, which was not in production when the Plus was released. At the time, the company was trying to decide whether to continue making the Pro at a new factory.  “The Plus was the first coil-less vaporizer with no oil touching the metal,” said Volodarsky. “It’s the best flavored vape pen ever. It was something that we really hit with, so I said, ‘Screw it. Let’s just make the Plus.’ It’s my new dream product, totally coil-less, and it works better than anything else out there.”

That was a decision true to the Puffco ethic, but it led to the company’s first crisis. “Once we released it, there were still people out there who said they missed the original Pro,” said Volodarsky. “And they wouldn’t shut up about it. While people recognized how innovative the Plus was and we had our most successful months ever, for every person who loved the new product there was someone who missed the old one. We decided to give the people what they wanted and gave them the Pro 2. It was one of the biggest mistakes I ever made.”

Volodarsky is not exaggerating. He is convinced the episode represented an existential threat to the company. “[The Pro 2] was a hit and made a lot of money, and still does, but it was the first time we made something for people who were not us, and it put a cancer in the company that almost killed us. I went through a huge depression and started coming in at 3 p.m. I didn’t want to do anything. I wasn’t making my dream product anymore, but something only because people wanted me to.

“It’s like making an earlier version of an iPhone because people miss it,” he added. “It’s anti-mission, even if it’s a great form of revenue. We had innovated beyond the pen and were now taking a step back. Once you’re making products that people are asking you to make, you are no longer steering the vision for the company.”

The situation got so dire there was an intervention of sorts. “Avi [Bajpai], our lead engineer, was one of many people who pulled me aside,” said Volodarsky. “‘It starts with you,’ he said. ‘Your mood and emotions are what people follow here, and if you want us all to be positive, this is what you have to do.’ It was a real awakening that I had to get back to being positive and quickly back to making the things I love.”

The Peak
Roger Volodarsky, Puffco CEO, mg Magazine July 2018
Photo: James Banasiak

The wholly unique Puffco Peak debuted at the Consumer Electronics Show in January of this year to immediate acclaim. Dubbed a “smart rig” by Puffco, its space-age design and conspicuously small size may have been what caught people’s eyes, but the device’s groundbreaking functionality caused reviewers to express practically universal appreciation. Engadget.com, for one, called it “a quick hit of concentrated genius.”

Because the Peak is the first of its kind, the rollout has not been flawless. Early on, production was not able to keep up with demand, and defective devices made their way to consumers. In fact, mg’s first device for review was defective and had to be returned, but the replacement worked flawlessly. Some reviewers also commented on the lack of an interchangeable battery or extra atomizers and the inclusion of only ceramic cups.

Volodarsky takes it all with complete equanimity, confident not only in the Peak but also in the company’s determination to stand behind the product. “One of the things you’re paying for with the Peak ($379.99 retail) is a warranty,” he said. “If something breaks, we have your back. If your base breaks, swap it out for a new one. If there is a flaw in your glass, send it back and get a new one that is flawless. That is not something that you get [from other companies]. Interchangeable batteries is something the hobbyist market loves. They love putting atomizers to use oil with on big box mods and always say how much cheaper they can get the same stuff for. That is not our user. I am an iPhone user. I don’t believe I need an interchangeable battery.

“We’re also upping the resilience of our atomizers,” he said, adding the company will replace all atomizers that break even if caused by user error. “That’s just for right now. The reason we are doing it now is because we feel that as we learn how people are breaking our products, it’s on us to make them more resilient. We’re going to make it so that if you can break it, it had to be a malicious act.”

Volodarsky will say little about the next version of the Peak other than that it is expected to release next year and will be “less iPhone 7 to iPhone 8 and more iPhone 8 to iPhone 8+. We want to improve upon the things people love about it and eliminate any frustrations they have.”

Designing the future

The Peak was invented, in large part, to meet the need of a growing market and increase the number of people who consume cannabis concentrates via dabbing. “It’s the best way to consume and still live your life regularly,” said Volodarsky, who sees his mission as both vital and time-sensitive. “I love concentrates and feel like the concentrates market is shrinking. I’m starting to see some of my favorite companies sell more prefilled vape pens than they are concentrates. If we want to see interest in concentrates, there needs to be more people using them. The reason there aren’t more people using them is because the means are too rig-intense.

“I want regular cannabis users to be interested in the product,” he added. “Once they have one, concentrates will become their favorite product. I want to see normal people, not the people walking around with ten grams of hash in their pocket, but the person who gets two grams and smokes them over two weeks, and it’s their preferred method of consumption.”

He wants non-tradish celebs, too. “Justin Bieber, Whoopi Goldberg, and Madonna,” he said. “Those are people who aren’t dabbers, but that’s exactly the point. We are offering them the best form of cannabis consumption ever. I want to see the celebrities who microdose or use conventional means to jump on this new train and grow this section of the market.”

An internal debate rages within the company about whether to include an herbal option for the Peak, even though no one at the company would use the option. “The reason we are considering it is that we want to show people who consume with herbal what the experience can truly be,” explained Volodarsky. “The dream is that we sell the Peak 2 and it continues to be the best experience other than the Peak 1. We would also make it the best herbal vaporizer in the world, so that if you use it and it also has the concentrate option, you’ll think it is so much better you don’t want to use the herbal option.”

Growth is required to make those dreams come true, and Puffco is in expansion mode. “We expect to double the number of employees by the end of the year, from nineteen to about forty,” said Volodarsky. “I don’t like to talk about units sold, but I can say we are projected to do more this year than in the past five years combined.”

The company is taking global ambitions one step at a time. “International is coming,” said Volodarsky, “but right now we want to make enough units to satisfy the U.S., which should happen in the next sixty days.”

Thereafter, expect Puffco to continue scaling new peaks, always aiming for a better, purer high. “We’re seeing new types of concentrates every year—distillates, rosin, live resin, sauce—because we’re finding ways of getting more out of the plant,” said Volodarsky. “I expect it to continue as long as there are easy ways to use those products. Our goal is to make sure there is an easy way to consume them.”

Volodarsky, favorite Peak in hand, intends to personally ensure the truth of that claim for many years to come. “I want to be sixty years old taking a dab, and I want it to be with amazing concentrates in whatever consistency exists then,” he said. “That is our mentality: to create the products and trends that will give us what we want when we retire. It is how we treat the industry and how we hope other people treat it.

“The quick buck will come through commoditization,” he added, “and that doesn’t equal good cannabis.”

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