Welcome to another edition of The Cannabis Reporter Pro-Series! I’m Snowden Bishop and I’m here with Sunstate Technology Group’s Head of Operations, Dustin Byars.
For more than 15 years, Sunstate Technology Group has delivered competitively priced IT support and computer network consulting to small, medium and enterprise-level businesses. Sunstate has also provided IT services to municipal agencies like police departments, fire departments, emergency medical services and other government offices across the southwestern United States. Today, they provide a wide range of technology solutions for the cannabis industry, including IT and security systems for Copperstate Farms, Arizona’s largest cannabis cultivation operation.
Dustin has spent over a decade in the technology industry, including successfully managing one of the busiest Verizon stores in Arizona. In his role as Head of Operations – MSP / Client, Dustin’s leadership, technical expertise and dedication to customer service have been integral to Sunstate’s success as an IT solutions provider. He fervently adheres to the service philosophy: “If we don’t take care of our customers, someone else will.”
Read the Interview
Snowden Bishop: Thank you for joining me today, Dustin. I’m glad you’re here.
Dustin Byars: Hey no problem. Thanks for having us.
Snowden: Before we go into the advantages of Sunstate Technology Group’s I.T. solutions, please tell me a little bit about what you do in your role as operations manager at Sunstate Technology Group.
Dustin: Sure. Definitely. You mentioned Copperstate. I’m actually at Copperstate installing cameras on their south 20 acres.
Dustin: I’ve been with Sunstate for about six years now. And, in that time, I think I’ve held and worked in every position of the company besides the technical, hands on work with computers. I’d like to think I’m smart, but I’m not that smart!
Dustin: As far as the day-to-day, we’re definitely entrenched in sales installs so making sure that what we’re selling to the client I’m able to make sure that the service delivery to the customer is matched with what we originally agreed to and then as was that adamant things you know such as creating and perfecting SOP’s and things like that to help drive the business more strategically.
Snowden: You mentioned that you’re actually at Copperstate. Tell me a little bit about the solutions that you provide for Copperstate, now that you’ve got basically all of their technology needs covered. What is it exactly that you’re doing?
Dustin: Sure. And you’re correct, I’m at Copperstate today, where I’m helping our team here oversee, assemble and install cameras in the southern portion of their 40-acre glass greenhouse grow located in Snowflake, Arizona. The facility is split into two 20-acre glass greenhouse sections. Originally, about two years ago, we installed 150 cameras in eight acres of the north 20-acre greenhouse, and that’s what it has taken Copperstate through their current lifecycle as a business as far as growing that extraction and premiums top shelf flower for their brand-new processing facility to process and get out to sell to the patients. Now, they’ve made the decision to grow in the southern 20-acre green house facility and that will be in a natural light setting. So, instead of using the Luma-grow type of lighting to control how much light deprivation the plants get, the Southern section will be natural light growth, which will make it to where they can grow a lot more without as many hands on a product.
Dustin: The way that Sunstate is involved with that 20-acre section is we’re currently mounting 80 to 90 cameras in that area, which will feed back to the main server room via fiber optic cable. When we first started at the beginning of the relationship, one of the leaders in our company, Stuart Hensley, was on the Snowflake City Council. And when Copperstate was proposing buying this facility in Snowflake, I went to every council meeting to try to position ourselves so that, when the council voted it to come in, Sunstate was positioned to get cameras and access control and computers and whatnot. In the beginning, our relationship started out really small. In fact, we were only invoicing them 500 dollars a month with probably three or four computers, no cameras, no doors, and nothing else. Fast forward two and a half to three years later, by the time the end of this year hits, Copperstate now has 28 grown acres plus two dispensaries and their headquarters in Phoenix. We’ll be maintaining four locations. And at this specific point in time, we’re not only doing the cameras in the southern 20 acres of their facility in Snowflake, but we also have people onsite today at the Thunderbird facility and they’re also at the Tempe facility getting the cameras and access control set up so that we can get those locations up and going.
Snowden: And, were there a lot of compliance issues? I ask because I know that in Arizona security is a big deal and you said you were working with the city councils. What do growers need to know about that?
Dustin: You know, the challenges that I saw with Copperstate when they came into Snowflake… And, just a backstory on that, I actually live in the city of Snowflake, so from my backyard I can see at night the purple haze of the facility from the Luma-grow lights. And, it was important for me, not only from a business perspective, but also from a personal perspective, to see this project to fruition because Copperstate went from providing zero jobs to providing over 200 jobs in a period of six to eight months. And so that was crucial for the community that I am vested in. So, going back to your original question, the big issue that I saw was the Planning and Zoning Committee had to obviously consider the size of the facility. It’s probably never – you know, a 40-acre glass greenhouse in the U.S. has never been done. The Planning and Zoning Committee was really concerned about how close this was to any resident because of its size. So, [they want to know] what’s affected in the area? How close is it to a resident or a school? There were some hiccups there and, actually, if you look back at the history of Copperstate’s approval, they were denied by the Planning and Zoning Committee, which voted it down. And, as you look back at it again, they had no actual reason besides, it seemed, more moral reasons at the time to turn it down. When it got to City Council, there was one person who was a swing vote. It was tied two to two when the swing vote came up and that’s what decided it. I think, at the time, what most people are concerned about is its proximity to residents or schools or things like that.
Snowden: Right. All of it!
Dustin: So, here’s the interesting part. When we first started, of course you know Fife Symington, the owner, we were originally engaged with him and Fife and I still have a great relationship but since the company is grown obviously there’s more levels of leadership that have trickled in there. And when we first started though Fife and I met and he gave me the DHS guidelines. As I’m reading through the guidelines I’m seeing that what the state requires a facility to have for their camera setup. It’s very vague and it’s very low level if you will. You don’t need much to get going, which was interesting for me to see that. And, so, now I have to take that knowledge and trying to figure out how to put cameras to cover all the plants in an 8- to 10-acre grow area at a time. Fife made the decision that he wanted to go over and above that. He said “Whatever their requirement is, I want more. I want every square inch of this place covered.” With that knowledge, again I go back to our camera vendor who says, “Hey, this is a facility that’s unlike like any we’ve ever done before.” And they’re a national company – a global company. It took a lot of engineering and planning on our side to figure out how to mount these cameras in a way that curtains could still close to blackout this glass greenhouse because, again, the light can shine through anywhere, and these plants need 100 percent darkness in those depravation periods.
Dustin: Then, fast-forwarding to the inspection day. We have all the cameras programmed. The facility is lit up and it’s perfect. The coverage is great including all the doors, inside and out — you have to cover the inside of the door at the exit and entrance – and everything was done. DHS comes on site. We’re there the day of inspections just to make sure everything goes off without a hitch. And they looked at two camera angles. They wanted to see the inside of a door and they wanted to see the 360 degree cameras we used at Copperstate, which most people don’t use because it’s price prohibitive. The 360-degree camera – literally views 360 degrees underneath where it’s mounted. They [also] wanted to see the distance that could be viewed on that camera, which is phenomenal. So, DHS literally does only those two things. They walked through the facility. And by the time they got back which is good to walk this facility – if I came in and gave you a tour so you could see our equipment maybe a half a mile to a mile tour that you’d be walking – so by the time DHS got back, they’re like, “Oh, we forgot to look at the panic buttons.” And the lady said, “Well I’m not going back out there, so you can take pictures and send them to me.” So, it’s interesting. DHS guidelines are vague at best.
Snowden: Yeah. So, for those who don’t know DHS stands for Department of Health Services and that is the administrative arm in the Arizona government that handles all of the Arizona Medical Marijuana Act legal and oversight responsibilities in the cannabis industry. And I imagine that they were probably very impressed with the extraordinary lengths at which you went to actually cover the entire facility that way.
Dustin: Yeah, I mean, going back to my previous statement, when you think about a facility of this size, you have to think that, in a typical grow, you walk down a hallway where there’re several rooms that are cordoned off by the drywall walls, and the hallways aren’t bad. You know, you get one hundred-foot hallways, Here, we have 700-foot hallways that are not viewable with the same single camera as a hallway in a normal growth facility would be. So, when you take that into consideration, you have to look at the number of cameras that you have to install to cover that whole hallway because, if there is product in there, we need to be able to see it. No matter where product goes in the facility, it has to be seen. And so that was that the main concern for us at the time. And, also, cost efficiency was a concern because, when we come into all this, I would say almost any cannabis grow or dispensary is considered a startup and so cash is king. Cash is precious. The whole time we’re going through this and, still to this day, when I have a meeting with Fife about capital outlay and those projects, the number one thing I’ve learned is we need to figure out how to do it in the most effective, and most inexpensive, and in the quickest timeline. That way, when he calls and he says, “Hey, I need something done,” I know it doesn’t need to be done two months from now. It needs to be done two weeks from now. Fortunately, we’ve been able to tighten up those timelines.
Snowden: Therein lies the nature of the cannabis industry. And I think you know that, as the laws relax, it probably won’t be so much that way. But tell me about some of the other services that you provide. For instance, I know that you have disaster backup and recovery systems for all of their I.T. needs. I know that you also offer some basic software that can help to streamline operations. Am I correct about that?
Dustin: Sure. That’s a good question. Of course, everything you just said we offer. We’re implementing disaster recovery solutions for clients almost monthly right now. And we’re not talking small, 10-office deals, we’re talking about fire departments that have a 25 million dollar-budget and 150 workstations. So, we’re trying to think about how this business continuity conversation works for every business. Obviously, in this scenario, we’re talking about a Copperstate and with them specifically, when we first came on, their CFO at the time and several other members of their senior leadership team were very concerned about backup and recovery. And, what amplified that is, at this time, MJ Freeway was hacked and their data was compromised and their servers were compromised. It’s similar to situations that you’ve seen on mainstream such as Target. At that time, backup and recovery was paramount. That way, if somebody hacked in and did anything malicious on a Copperstate server, we considered how we were going to shut that down, mitigate our losses and get a new environment up and going as soon as possible. So, we didn’t go with one option for backup and recovery, we have three options for backups and recovery at Copperstate: one that lives on sight, one offsite at another facility, one that lives off-network so it’s not even connected to the Internet. So, in the event that they are compromised in any way, we’re able to blow the old stuff away and bring it back up within a three- to four-hour period so that their business continues to run flawlessly.
Dustin: When we come into a client initially, the first thing I want to know is, if you’re down for an hour how much is that going to cost you? Right? So if the dispensary can’t take transactions for three hours, is that going to cost you — $10k, $15k or $20 thousand? What’s that worth to you? And if it happens three times in a year then we need to spend the $15k, $20k or $60 thousand dollars getting this environment up and going and getting a backup Internet and getting multiple ways to restore data. So that’s paramount to us.
Dustin: And, again, as you mentioned in the beginning, cannabis is a small sliver of Sunstate that represents a large portion of our business because of how big Copperstate is. But we’re more entrenched in fire, police and EMS, the things you spoke about in the beginning. And, could you imagine what it’d be like if those people were down? If the fire departments went down for three hours, where does that leave them for taking calls, for responding to calls, for noting case files and things like that? That’s where it’s crucial. So that’s the non-monetary things that are affected even more. So, of course, that business continuity and disaster recovery is top of mind for sure.
Snowden: Well I imagine that all of those needs do translate to the cannabis industry given the regulatory constraints that are imposed on the industry right now. I mean, until cannabis is fully legalized throughout the nation, there will be some of these considerations that other businesses don’t particularly need to think about. But, also, this includes firewall protection too, is that correct?
Dustin: Sure, yes. And all of our cybersecurity products and offerings and everything that we do to keep up to date with cybersecurity and the routers and firewalls security patches that’s I I hardly mentioned it because it’s a no brainer in any business that we. And it’s funny because, now in the industry we see a lot of people talking about cybersecurity. However, it’s always been there. It’s more of a concern now because it’s happening more often — these malicious attacks and phishing attacks and people trying to get into your equipment. However, any I.T. provider should have been protecting for this all along. There shouldn’t have been a lapse in them saying you know what. We’d better start doing this you should have always been paying attention to making sure that the receptionist isn’t clicking on a FedEx e-mail that she wasn’t expecting and getting the virus on her computer that then affects the whole network.
Snowden: It’s interesting that you mentioned that, and with the cannabis industry particularly, there’s a learning curve because it’s such a new industry. To remind people to think about these things is actually very important, especially in this competitive environment when you have IP, intellectual property, that that could easily be stolen. That could really harm a cannabis cultivation operation. So it is important.
Dustin: The other thing to consider in all of this is that we’re not talking about just protecting a grow. You know intellectual property in a grow, that is important. Your correct. Formulas, strains, all of that is important. But, also, on the dispensaries side. Look at the information that we’re now collecting from our patients. Right? We’re collecting medical records and, sometimes, their DNA cards. That kind of stuff is important as well. And that affects your view of consumers and your end users. So that’s another level of importance that can’t be missed.
Snowden: You know what? I hadn’t thought about that and thank you for mentioning it. And that is very important for this industry. Absolutely, you’re right. I understand. Also, with security for cannabis industry that’s going to involve also securing your onsite access and badges for employees and other ways to keep the public out. Basically, tell me a little bit about what those solutions look like.
Dustin: Yeah, it’s definitely important that, when we walk into a dispensary or we walk into a growth facility, no regular person that’s coming in on a tour or what have you or a contractor that’s working in that facility has any access to any areas or rooms that have product in them. So that’s key right there. Additionally, what we’ve had to do our sun is we’ve had several employees myself included have had to get our DA cards so that we could be around the product our scored it or so that we can be around the product to work around the product where we’re not having to be watched 24/7. And the way that translates to a regular contractor or what have you, when somebody is onboarded it and they’re given an access card to the facility, you can access the front door, you can access the backdoor, you can access these five doors if you will, and that’s all you can access. If you try to badger another door I’m going to get an alert. So, that alert comes directly to the director of security. And then, in addition, it attaches 10 seconds of camera footage to that alert so that I can see was it John swiping Susie’s card or whether Susie swiping John’s card or was it not any of those people that we know at all. So, if you try to access doors that you cannot, that’s when it throws those flags up and with a facility like Copperstate they in having four locations all four locations linked back to the same card. So as an employee, I can take my card from the Snowflake facility and badge the doors I’m only allowed to badge, and then go to the Tempe dispensary and badge every door but the vault, if you will, or badge every door but the server room. So it gives us access to where we can have one badge for all four locations and it’s seamless for the end user.
Snowden: That seems like it might have been a daunting task at first, when you consider there are 250 some odd employees having access to several different sites. That’s impressive.
Dustin: Another interesting point is that, as we were trying to figure out how to engineer plan and install this original camera installation to get the facility compliant, we also had several doors that are nonconventional doors. They’re big sliding doors that you can’t just go to the store and buy access control for it. So, we teamed up with the Copperstate maintenance department and we put together several locking mechanisms for these doors that, when I say several, I mean 12, that we had to mount specifically at every door. So this project has taught us that we can’t work within our normal “remove the ceiling tile and mount the camera” type of environment. You know we have to try to think outside the box to make cameras in a facility that’s made purely of glass.
Snowden: Well that’s interesting so you mentioned a D.A. card and for those of you who don’t know D.A. actually stands for dispensary agent this is a security measure taken by DHS. So can you tell me a little bit about that.
Dustin: I had to get fingerprinted and they had to send all that in. It was $500 for the year and it’s another $250 to renew it every year.
Snowden: OK. Well,…
Dustin: So if I may?
Dustin: One other thing I just wanted to share with you is that, oftentimes, because of the size of Copperstate – they probably have as many cameras as every dispensary in Phoenix combined – and what we’ve accomplished here at the company, not only with the cameras and access controls but on the servers and backup and disaster recovery and those kinds of things, [it’s easy to think that we only] focus on access control and cameras. But, when I think about Copperstate, I think about our relationship with them as a whole. Never do I walk into a facility and see a new grower or a new owner and say, “Hey we do cameras and access control.” In fact, if they have somebody else that they like, I am all for, “Hey, use your people.” We want to be your solutions provider as a whole and we want to be a partner so that you can come to us and say, “Hey we’re getting this camera proposal. It’s 25 thousand dollars and we really want to use this guy. Can you comb through it for us? Can you look at it for us?” Hundred percent I can. And, if you want us to quote that for you, hundred percent I’ll do it for you. Either way, I want the partnership. I want the relationship. That’s what I value more with Copperstate than anything.
Dustin: And, that’s why we take so much pride in the work we do for them because the relationship we’ve built with them is more than cameras. It’s more than access control and servers sitting in a server room. It’s how are we helping you guys get to the end result of being the best you can be in the field you’re in? Right? So, when it comes to putting this camera proposal together we’re not just talking about how many cameras do we need. We’re talking about budgets. We’re talking about how this is going to affect us three to five years, and what growth we need to plan for in three to five years. Same with employees. So how many we’re going to have in the first quarter onboard? How many do they have in the second quarter? Are we going to onboard? What do we need to plan for in the next year for our budget on miscellaneous network peripherals? Like, those are the kind of conversations that I want to have with a business partner of ours, not, “Hey let me fix your printer!” Right? We’re talking about standard stuff. Where Sunstate wants to be the total solution provider that can be looked at as their I.T. department. Right? So, anytime anything goes down at Copperstate, they’re calling Sunstate in regards to their I.T. They’re calling Sunstate so that Sunstate can help guide, advise and do those things in an I.T. director’s capacity because, at the end of the day, the more successful we help make their business, the more successful Sunstate’s going to be. Goal number one.
Snowden: And I’m sure it’s beneficial for the client to have someone care that much about their business. So, well done!
Dustin: I think that for anybody who’s listening to this, if you’re just starting or you’re an entrepreneur and you’re just getting in deep, the first thing that you need to think about is who’s going to take your business to next levels three to five years from now. Right? Because, we can find anyone to install cameras and we can find anyone to engineer some locks for these doors that we’ve never seen before. But we’re not going to find the integrity in the pride that they’re going to take in your business. I’m not saying that other companies don’t have that, but what I am saying is that, in the interview with these vendors, that’s what they’re looking for — somebody that cares on a higher level.
Snowden: And that’s critically important. Thank you for sharing that. This is all really helpful information, Dustin. I appreciate your insights. And I’d also like to invite our audience to visit Sunstate Technology Goup’s Web site at sunstatetech.com. And there’s actually a case studythat was conducted on the implementation of the security and technology protocols over at Copperstate. That’s actually a really useful document so we encourage everyone to look that up. There’s also a video all about Copperstate Farm’s grow operation produced by the Growers Network for their Cannacribs show series. In some of that footage, you will see a lot of the work that was done by Sunstate Technology Group. So, Dustin, do you have any last thoughts?
Dustin: The only other thing I’d like to say is that, if you’re out there and you want to try some of that product that we’re helping protect, Copperstate has opened a couple of dispensaries, so check them out.
Snowden: Great, Dustin. Thank you so much for sharing your insights about what cannabis businesses can do to secure their operations and facilities. I think that your experience in the other industries, especially the industries that require such heavy-duty technology infrastructure and security like the fire departments and police departments, it’s so important to be able to apply that expertise to an industry that has such tight regulations. I think this is great information for people to have, so I thank you so much.
Dustin: Yeah, no problem. Thank you.