Dylan Livingearth of Backbone: 5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started Leading a Cannabis Business
People in newly onboarded states have limited access to products operating in a closed market, which can result in lack of competition hence lack of quality and creativity. As most states have harsh winters, they grow indoors. The amount of fossil fuels burned to generate the electricity needed in those states that are closed is harmful to the environment. When they can buy from sun growing states all indoor can be ended if chosen, no pressure.
As part of my series about “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started Leading a Cannabis Business” I had the pleasure of interviewing Dylan Livingearth, Senior Solutions Architect at Backbone.
A self-described “Cannabis Data Perfectionist and Babylon Sherpa,” Dylan Livingearth is a Senior Implementation Specialist and Solutions Architect who is committed to radical transparency in monitoring and reporting as a strategy for cannabis industry success. He is uniquely qualified with a background in Government as CTO for the Illinois Dept of Human Services. Prior to that, he was known as the “Impact Tracking Czar” for the Mayor’s office of Economic Development in the City of Chicago where he managed monitoring and reporting projects and data capture applications for the City of Chicago, the Chicago Housing Authority and Chicago Public Schools.
Dylan spent the last 15 years in the legal cannabis industry acquiring licenses and acting in executive capacities for a long list of Humboldt brands including Talking Trees, Emerald Family, Redwood Roots, Space Gem, Headwaters, Humboldt’s Finest and Wonderland. He typically served as Chief Compliance Officer (CCO), CFO, COO, CEO, bookkeeper, and consultant as needed.
Dylan is most passionate about creating transparency that results in building trust between industry players. As public service administrator, turned cannabis business professional, turned Backbone software Solutions Architect, Dylan has a unique perspective when it comes to highlighting the importance of data integrity, real-time monitoring / reporting, and operator advanced level expertise. Dylan aspires to implement Backbone for every cannabis brand seeking radical transparency and extreme data integrity. In his free time Dylan enjoys being a cannabis zone coordinator for large music festivals in CA.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you share with us the story about what brought you to this specific career path?
I feel fortunate to have worked as a compliance professional in Illinois from 1993 through 2007. During that time I worked as a director for the housing authority, public school, city of Chicago and became the Chief Information Officer for the Illinois Department of Human Services in 2003.
In 2008, I was invited to be a legal grower in Mendocino by a group of people I had known from an annual Rainbow Gathering event and from my constant trips to visit Northern California. This group understood that compliance and organization were going to be a key to longevity for California cultivators and therefore invited me to join their team.
When I arrived in Mendocino, I was concerned about breaking the law since regulations were interpreted in various ways and compliance was a new word in cultivation at the time. Compliance before MCRSA, during SB420 Prop215, meant not having too many plants and maintaining medicinal “prescriptions” in a binder as cultivators were considered “care providers.” Law enforcement was able to define what was compliant in the field as they saw fit, which created confusion and fear.
One day everything changed. The Mendocino Sheriff’s office announced a program called “Zip Ties.” They invited growers to bring their binder of prescriptions to the Sheriff’s office (the jail) and sign up as a “known grower.” Needless to say, my partners were not as keen as I was on sharing all the details of their operation, being I had been there 5 minutes and they 5 years.
They understood, though, that I had just come from the government with an extensive compliance background, and that I was championing this as potential protection for our families and products. In any case, I went into the Sheriff’s office with full transparency as a protection and walked out with 18 zip ties at a cost of a few hundred each. I can’t recall the exact amount; though I do recall it was much of the money we needed for the garden at the time.
At the end of the season, five or so months later we were harvesting all the plants and had an extensive “trim scene” of more than twenty seasonal labor friends working. We looked up and saw a caravan of police heading down the long driveway. I jumped up and sprinted out to meet them with the binder of California “scripts” and receipt for the local Mendocino zip ties.
The lead officer greeted me: “It appears you are all going to jail today and we are confiscating all this illegal cannabis.” I responded, “Officer, here’s the binder of prescriptions, to which he said, “We don’t care about these.” “Officer, here is the receipt from the Sheriff’s office for the zip ties” to which he responded, “You have the zip ties?” Then he asked if he could see them on the plants. I said yes and he headed to the garden with his colleagues while we waited. They came back and said, “This is perfect, thank you.” They turned all their cars around and headed back out. I said out loud something like, “Thank you California (or maybe really Califu**ingfornia!).” It was then I officially became the first Chief Compliance Officer in Northern California and realized my future was to assist families in compliance and regulations coming fast.
I had been attracted to transparency in monitoring and reporting as proven solutions when I was a State government director and wanted to use those skills in cannabis to ensure legality of the site since several families cohabitated near there, including mine. So it was a priority for me to ensure compliance from the beginning as I am and was well aware of the decades of criminalizing and arresting growers in the Emerald Triangle.
After 5 years of being a cultivator, I began a consultancy assisting cannabis producers with books, licensing and operations in Humboldt and joined several brands over the years in various executive positions including CFO, CEO and COO. In all of these roles it has been critically important to me to present the transparent reality of cannabis operations so that government officials support the continuation of licensing and afforded protections from prosecution for those licensees.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began working with Backbone? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
I have had the good fortune of being present for several site visits from government regulators inspecting licensees. Some of those visits are pre-Backbone and some post-Backbone. Pre-Backbone site visits resulted in a series of questions surrounding data management; essentially the state seeking to understand the data management capacity of this start up. Spreadsheets are shared and reviewed by regulators, feedback is provided. Consistently the feedback from the State at that time was a question: “Are these handwritten logs and voluminous spreadsheets your long term solution to ensuring you are recording all activities accurately?” The answer at that time was as follows: “We are seeking a long term solution for data centralization and transparency.”
Post-Backbone site visits have become enjoyable. The most interesting thing that has happened since I joined Backbone was being invited for a site visit after a client had onboarded and was in full system use. I recall sitting with the client and the CA Dept of Public Health fielding questions armed with binders and with Backbone open on the screen. The interesting change from pre-Backbone to post-Backbone was that we were finding all the answers directly in the Backbone system, ultimately erasing the need for the binders of hard copies and running around the lab from station to station. Supporting documents they were seeking, like manuals, were also attached to the Backbone machines so they were available virtually at all times.
The inspectors were interested in the “logs of the machines” (cleaning, maintenance, calibration) and these were available to them with a single click. The centralization of data and supporting documents made them visibly excited as it cut the time they allocated for the visit in half.
The inspectors were also very interested in the “machine history” so they reviewed the Machine Run History in Backbone and found all the answers they were seeking for the history of all products. This moment stands out for me as the exact time that the State gained increased confidence in a licensee based on the sheer fact that they had Backbone.
Are you working on any exciting projects now? How do you think that will help people?
Right now, we are working on the very exciting movement to become a Platform. The move from being a Where in Process (WIP) supply chain system to being a platform integrating your systems is exciting. It alleviates the need for a hugely expensive Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP) structure while ensuring systems won’t go down or be affected when one component has an issue.
Backbone as a Platform allows operators to keep their successful systems — such as QuickBooks or any accounting system, their CRMs and their Sales programs — instead of replacing them with modules of a new ERP that everyone needs to learn. In essence, it allows operators to keep with tested expert systems instead of literally replacing all of them, compromising the expertise and data integrity with a time and resource consuming ERP implementation.
Becoming the central accurate “Source of Truth” helps people and increases trust based on data integrity and absolute transparency of all activities and transactions. It pulls back the curtain, so questions are answered before they need to be asked.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?
I am extremely grateful to Kevin Jodrey who owned a brand called Wonderland in Southern Humboldt. I was fortunate to be the business manager producing a series of cannabis events called the Golden Tarp Awards. Golden Tarp refers to the light deprivation tarp that is pulled over a greenhouse at dusk to make it night for the plants mimicking fall. The events were competitions / meets best practices panels commonly known as “Cups.” This one was the first to categorize by terpene styles (earth, citrus, fuel, floral) and was strictly light deprivation flowers. I am very grateful for being Wonderland’s business manager and event coordinator for at least two main reasons.
First, through the events I was introduced to world class event producers including Northern Nights and Emerald Cup. I went on to become the cannabis coordinator at Northern Nights where we were the first to make a “Cannabis Zone” directly in the music bowl that had historically been reserved for alcohol. This event has evolved into an annual showcase of cannabis brands.
Second, it was at Wonderland that I was introduced to Rajesh Chandran, Vic Patil, and Peter Huson the Backbone founders. They had come to Wonderland on a critical discovery mission of what problems were priority to solve in cannabis systems, and I was able to share that we need full transparency on every level simply to erase misinformation and confusion. I expressed that without a centralized accurate database, stakeholders are beholden to constant communication with no concise answers. I thank Kevin Jodery for pioneering in the area of cannabis production, and creating a space Backbone founders used for solving the problem that was destroying trust and relationships.
This industry is young, dynamic and creative. Do you use any clever and innovative marketing strategies that you think large legacy companies should consider adopting?
I am very grateful to professional marketing experts on our team such as Robin Francis who utilizes technology to tell our story on our website and all cannabis networks.
I am also a huge fan of word of mouth marketing because cannabis producers historically don’t believe anything from anyone they dont trust.
I use video extensively to train and share features in order to support the sharing of Backbone success stories among clients. Empowering users with video affords them a choice when discussing Backbone within their circles. When clients have peace of mind, they tend to show off a little by sharing since their data is strong and they feel pride in solving some problem particular to them or the industry.
Can you share 3 things that most excite you about the Cannabis industry? Can you share 3 things that most concern you?
Things that excite me most:
- The disappearance of stigma associated with working in cannabis — from criminal workers to publicly stated “essential workers.
- The pace at which cannabis is being embraced as both safe for recreation and serious pain and stress relief medicine.
- The opportunities for small business owners to excel in the cannabis industry while other industries have extensive barriers for entry and the sheer amount of jobs created from cannabis production.
- I’m most excited about the potential future disappearance of borders related to cannabis distribution. Intrastate commerce can assist the health of the people and the Earth. People in newly onboarded states have limited access to products operating in a closed market, which can result in lack of competition hence lack of quality and creativity. As most states have harsh winters, they grow indoors. The amount of fossil fuels burned to generate the electricity needed in those states that are closed is harmful to the environment. When they can buy from sun growing states all indoor can be ended if chosen, no pressure.
Three things that concern me most:
- Fear has a new source called “being out of compliance.” Cannabis operators historically have high levels of PTSD as they were criminals all day every day to police while heros to cannabis users. Now they are newly terrified that their license will be revoked and they “will lose everything.” This fear has created a new group of consultants who promise to keep you in compliance while at the same time stoking the fear of non compliance to drive the need for their services.
- Barriers are emerging for entry into the cannabis production spaces. Many states structured their current laws to include a short list of typically connected licensees. Some states with open license applications neglect to highlight the cost of licensing both direct to the government and inherent in engineers and endless documents created by consultants. Technical and financial assistance to small businesses trying to navigate and overcome barriers is key. The costs are rising to consumers while prices are falling to farmers.
- Trust deteriorates when clarity does not exist. I’m concerned that start ups that do not have a centralized data solution will spend endless time reacting with confusion to every data request, impeding their ability to produce quality, affordable cannabis products.
Can you share your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started Leading a Cannabis Business”? Please share a story or example for each.
- Being a successful cannabis producer is a marathon not a sprint
- Data transparency is the key to trust and peace of mind.
- The government is on your side in cannabis because regulators want you to succeed. It benefits their goals and department mandates by showing success, and revenues.
- Spreadsheets are not a long term solution to supply chain management and are a death sentence to data integrity over time
- A centralized database as a platform is a best practice, and a solution to endless data requests and the need to integrate critical systems.
What advice would you give to other industry professionals to help them thrive?
- Embrace full transparency to the point of radicalness. Remember, we have come from a time and place where writing down cannabis production data would ensure you were going to jail if the police came to your place. This conditioned cannabis operators to have zero transparency. I embrace the term radical transparency as the exact opposite, or 100% change from previous.
- Radical transparency has benefits that are endless. Primarily, it alleviates the need for staff to answer questions all day long about everything as the data is now there for all to see when needed. This ties together departments like accounting, production, quality control, etc. When a need for data arises, you can now go direct to the system and not a person. Moreover, it empowers the client to report to their stakeholders with a push of a button instead of compiling, vetting and producing constant one off reports as needed.
You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. :-)
To quote Peter Tosh in the Wailers’ “One Foundation:” “We’ve got to build our love on one foundation” and “until then, there will be no love at all.”
The movement I seek to inspire is that of radical transparency on one foundation of data. One foundation results in trust among stakeholders (love). Cannabis operators have sacrificed endless time answering questions that other industries don’t have to answer, endless need for information from stakeholders (where in process is my stuff cause i can’t get paid until…) combined with slow cumbersome track and trace applications forced by regulators, which results in lack of production and high overhead costs.
Stakeholder’s understandable need for information (where is my stuff?) ties up administrative staff all day seeking WIP reports on yield, status, payment, etc. Radical Transparency empowers stakeholders to either view themselves or request an email export ready report. Also government systems have proven to often spin a slow wheel in peak parts of day; and by design, they don’t collect data important to operators such as yield, WIP, brand, packaging. Therefore staff spends ample time both waiting for the government system to move while they create endless spreadsheets to collect the business intelligence they are seeking. A strong centralized system like Backbone, synched to the government regulatory system, solves this dilemma and reclaims the time for admins and operators to use for cannabis production and dispensing.
This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for joining us!