Based in Los Angeles (and recently expanding to Denver), GeekTek is a company that looks to bring IT solutions to various types of businesses. Additionally, the company has recently begun focusing on the burgeoning cannabis industry, looking to help marijuana entrepreneurs with IT and cybersecurity. In this exclusive interview, GeekTek founder Eric Schlissel reveals how the company was launched and details the importance of cybersecurity in the cannabis space.
Cannabis & Tech Today: Tell me a bit about the formation of GeekTek.
Eric Schlissel: I started my first company in 1998 under the name BeComputing. We made hardware for the then-ascendent BeOS system. Wired highlighted at the time our innovative approach to integrating hardware and software into this system. A year later, we pivoted towards digital services and changed our name to GeekTek.
I have started and exited from several tech businesses since, but GeekTek has always accompanied me throughout my professional career. From web hosting to IT services, GeekTek has shifted and evolved to meet the needs of small and medium-sized businesses. My core passion is problem-solving, and it’s been a running constant in GeekTek since I founded it.
C&T Today: What makes the company’s approach to IT unique?
ES: We approach IT as a fundamental component to business growth, as vital to your long-term success as your customer service, your product development, and your human resources strategy. As a student in college, I shifted my major from computer science to anthropology because I discovered my passion lay in creating a natural interface between humans and technology. If you get both of those aspects of technology right, you can speed past your competitors – I have seen that time and time again. Moreover, I have done that time and time again, for clients in law, medicine, nonprofit, and entertainment, and I’ve helped protect them from cybercrime and system failures that could have otherwise destroyed their businesses. Here at GeekTek, we are all about relationships and business strategies first and foremost, not jargon and upselling our clients for services they don’t need. This is, unfortunately, rarer than you would think in our field.
C&T Today: Why are cannabis entrepreneurs such a big focus for GeekTek?
ES: A few years back, I attended the NCIA Conference in Oakland, and asked the attendees about their technology and particularly about their businesses’ relationship to it. Their responses indicated that sooner or later, many of them would hit a wall. Either they would be hacked, or they would not be able to execute on their business strategies because a legacy system set up by their friend would weigh them down. The cannabis industry is perhaps the most exciting industry in the world today, and it is poised to explode regarding growth and revenue. Our company’s mission is to manage, secure, and scale the sensitive data of rapidly growing small and medium-sized businesses. We’ve seen and solved the sorts of problems cannabis businesses are starting to face as they start to grow. Simply put, we want this industry to work, because we see incredible potential to help this industry make a lasting impact on the world at large. Those opportunities don’t come around every day, and technology can either propel a company or drag it down.
C&T Today: What are the major threats for the cannabis industry in terms of cybersecurity?
ES: Both state programs and cannabis operators have for the most part ignored cybersecurity. You will see 24/7 security and video surveillance at all cannabis operations here on the West Coast, but employees will still share their login information with each other, or store customer data unencrypted. They may have heard about Equifax, but often people in the industry practice a sort of “security through obscurity,” or naively assume they’re protected because they’re “in the cloud” (spoiler alert: they’re not. Dropbox has been hacked several times, and improperly configured S3 buckets on Amazon Web Services have exposed the data of hundreds of thousands of people.) Particularly on the West Coast, we have many legacy operators that are only now catching up to all the new regulations. If they’re not being forced to do it, they won’t, which makes them prime targets for a data breach.
And we’re starting to see it happen already. Last year one of the biggest POS systems in the country was hacked, forcing their clients to close or revert to pen and paper. A disgruntled employee of a medical doctor working with one of the largest companies in the space made off with customer data and held it for ransom. Especially with medical PHI (private health information), providers will eventually be fined once HIPAA is enforced by the federal government and in some states, like California, they can be sued up to $2500 per record. So, whether they know it or not, cybersecurity is not optional for cannabis businesses.
C&T Today: What are some of the issues facing the cannabis industry regarding IT?
ES: They don’t know what they don’t know, oftentimes. Their focus is on their products and their services, which is as it should be. However, because they and the state programs that regulate them are onboarding brand new technology, we’re starting to see growing pains. A perfect example is the METRC slowdown in Maryland last June. METRC placed upon its system a feature which allowed patients to check how much cannabis they were still able to purchase from dispensaries that month. This feature slowed down sales at dispensaries throughout the state. This is a classic network scaling problem which will repeat itself as more track-and-trace programs are implemented in newly legal states, but it’s not one cannabis operators would necessarily anticipate.
In addition, cannabis businesses often lack proper protocols regarding the safety and retention of data. CEOs are changing passwords, and businesses overall lack formal onboarding/offboarding SOPs for employees. The use of “shadow IT” – namely cloud-based apps not approved by the business’s IT department – is rampant. Overall, the digital networks for these companies are fairly porous, leading to very valuable corporate data being shared on insecure platforms. And if a business isn’t backing up each employee’s data regularly, the business can lose this data altogether if one of them leaves or is fired. The concerns are many, and tracking them all is a full-time job every mature cannabis business must fill.
C&T Today: The cannabis industry is still so young – how can IT solutions continue to change as the industry grows?
ES: As the industry expands and gains wider legitimacy, more traditional software companies will enter the market. They will develop ERPs, POS systems, human resources tools, and other digital solutions for the industry. Integrating new systems is never easy, and it will affect the industry’s growth. At this point, IT management will become increasingly valuable to the industry’s continued evolution.
C&T Today: Where do you see the future of GeekTek?
ES: This year, we opened our first branch office in Denver, and we intend to expand nationally and even internationally to serve the rapidly growing cannabis industry. We’re developing scalable, automated processes that have increased our efficiency and effectiveness for our clients. Over the past year, we have become the de facto IT department of the cannabis industry, and our future will see us expanding both our service portfolio and our reach into new markets.
For more information on GeekTek’s work in the cannabis industry, make sure to check out their official website.