Have An Open Mind To Make Major Changes Relatively Quickly To Survive In The Cannabis Industry
I had the pleasure of interviewing Chris Young. Chris is a person of many backgrounds, he started his career in law for a short period as a transactional attorney in film finance. He eventually invested and built multiple companies in the fashion and event production spaces, turning his last company public in an RTO. He has worked as a commis chef and built two software companies that have serviced millions of clients. Most recently, he’s segued into venture capital as an investor and strategic advisor. Currently, he serves as an advisor to Amplify.LA in addition to holding a role on the board of the publicly traded company, Cannabis Strategic Ventures. On the side, Chris loves videography, travel, and food, maintaining a lifestyle blog to showcase these hobbies and endeavors.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you share with us the story of what first introduced you into this business or helped you get interested in the business?
My initial foray into the business occurred in 2017 when a friend was speaking to my commercial broker about real estate opportunities. He casually mentioned that he was helping find properties for a client of his in the “green zone.” After a quick conversation, I was introduced to the client and from there, decided to assist in developing a vape brand for them. Beyond that, my grandmother and a close friend were diagnosed with cancer and I knew that they had been using CBD and THC alongside their treatments and it was helping improve their quality of life.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?
It took a long time for me to publicly acknowledge that I was in the Cannabis space because of my background as an attorney, and coming from the world of Venture Capital, I was very averse to being associated with what was previously perceived as a highly illegal and illegitimate sector. When I finally came out with what I was doing, I remember being most afraid to tell my family. When I confessed to my parents, without skipping a beat, they responded that they had tried Cannabis back in the 70’s and that they were very interested in how far it had come.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
We acquired a company earlier this year that makes Cannabis filters. According to the National Institute of Health, when combusted, Cannabis actually can have more tar and heavy metals than tobacco smoke; the difference is that no one smokes two packs of Cannabis and there are other ways to intake it. While we were developing a filter, we decided we wanted to print an emoji happy face on one side so that people would have something fun to look at while they were using it. Unfortunately, when we received 15,000 sample units without proofing, we realized that they used the Android smiley face, which when printed on the filters in a very small format, looked like toothless smiles. Luckily it wasn’t an expensive error and didn’t cost very much to change. However, we make it a part of our policies and procedures now to never allow anything to be sampled unless we do proofing, no matter how quickly a product needs to get to market.
Are you working on any exciting projects now?
I can’t disclose too much about what we are working on since we are a publicly traded entity, but I can say that this industry as a whole constantly has exciting projects. For example, when it comes to entrepreneurship, everything is about problems and solutions. I like to joke that toilet paper came about as a solution because leaves were a bit too rough, and in many other industries, the solutions that are coming about are so specialized and niche. Take the semiconductor industry as an example — they are attempting to create chipsets that are maybe 3% more efficient in power or in size. In Cannabis and the Hemp world, you are looking at major problems that need to be solved like, how do we make THC 100% water soluble? How do we create fast offset cannabinoids? These are large problems we are just beginning to approach, so as an entrepreneur, it’s incredible to be given chances to solve large problems across many different areas.
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?
My greatest heroes have been my father and mother. My father built his own business from scratch working 120 hour weeks, from 0 to a $250MM yearly enterprise. My mother is also an entrepreneur, having built and sold a chain of health food stores with a successful exit and even at 70, is still running her own little real estate empire. Without learning from their mistakes and successes and having the luck of being born into an entrepreneurial family, I don’t think I’d be where I am now.
One particular story I remember is from my childhood. Our family had a handyman who was an incredible woodworker. At the time, he had just gotten married, had a newborn on the way and as a result, was in some financial hardship. My family took a liking to him, and my parents felt that he was resourceful and should be given more opportunity. They brought him into the family business and he eventually worked his way up to a managerial role where he still resides to this day. As family friends, we have been able to help him raise his family, buy a house in Los Angeles and help put his kids through college. My takeaway from that as a child is that employees are everything to a company and that when you find great people to work alongside you, you should do everything in your power to make sure that you can help them as they help you. The difference between the entrepreneurial world and the corporate world is that there are no layers of separation — you are personally responsible for the livelihood of everyone around you.
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?
Yes, we certainly do. With my background in the influencer space and E-Commerce, I’ve seen many companies grow into multimillion-dollar successes overnight based on content creation alone. I think as an industry, we are limited in how we can market — we can’t do paid ads or traditional ad-spend, so we are forced to be creative. A lot of this revolves around influencer led campaigns and constant content creation. I believe content is king, and we are so inundated with messaging and content nowadays that you have to constantly be creating new, high-quality content at tremendous velocity. Experiential marketing and brand ambassadorships at the nano or micro level are things that Cannabis entrepreneurs are being forced to utilize as marketing methods and they work incredibly well.
Can you share 3 things that most excite you about the Cannabis industry? Can you share 3 things that most concern you?
1. There are very few opportunities in life to get involved in building a new industry — Cannabis is one of them. While Cannabis has been around for thousands of years, its emergence into the mainstream market allows serial entrepreneurs like myself to utilize lessons learned in other industries — venture capital, technology, e-commerce — and bring them into this burgeoning sector. To be able to actually develop and establish industry best practices that others will follow is incredibly exciting. I was recently at a Symposium in Hong Kong, the first of its type called Cannatech, and hearing and speaking to other thought leaders in the space made me realize that we are all at the tip of the spear so to say.
2. The size of the industry alone is overwhelming — in a good way! We often speak about the Cannabis industry being this multibillion-dollar industry, but whatever the estimates are, it doesn’t matter because the bigger picture is that CBD, THC, and other Cannabinoids can be plugged into other sectors. You are already seeing that with CBD being placed in beverages, skin care products and even pet supplies. You are accessing worldwide verticals that when combined are in the trillions of dollars.
3. Every day presents a new challenge as this is an ever-developing landscape. This can be frustrating at times, for example when the regulatory framework is being made day by day, but the flipside is that as an entrepreneur, you are never short of having chances to use your problem-solving skills in so many varied ways. Thinking outside of the box is always rewarded in this industry and I really appreciate that. From marketing to dealing with structures, there is always something new and different to do in this sector.
1. The lack of Cannabis-friendly leadership at the national level. Countries everywhere are adopting Cannabis-friendly legislation and the United States is staying behind. I would say that at the most logical level, no one has ever been documented to have died from a marijuana overdose, yet how many people have died from numerous other “vice” products? Take that alongside the fact that we have medical journal studies showing beneficial effects of cannabinoid compounds, and it boggles my mind that this isn’t something that has been legalized worldwide at federal levels. Legal exposure is definitely high in this field, but the best we can do is have proper procedures and policies in place to minimize risk and always stay within the regulatory framework.
2. There aren’t a lot of mentors in this space, mostly because this space is so new. Everyone is essentially building thought leadership as they go. Even the people who have been in the industry the longest still are learning as laws and the industry changes daily. This worries me only in the sense that we don’t have many best practices to follow yet, but the flipside is it allows true entrepreneurial action to happen.
3. The volatility of the market is also a concern to me. Everyone inside or outside of the Cannabis space usually has strong opinions towards it, and this means that there’s always intense debate about CBD and THC products. Luckily, I have had a long background in the startup world and learning to control volatility with enough business intelligence and logical rationale is a good way to cope with what many would consider being a highly volatile business.
Can you share your top “5 Things You Need To Know In Order To Run a Successful Cannabis Ancillary Company”? Please share a story or example for each.
1. Know your customer. This is basic across any business, but many people entering this industry sort of thing, “There’s money everywhere so I can just build something and customers will come.” Customer test, iterate and find a product market fit. This is an entrepreneurship 101 level piece of advice but something many people in this industry fail to follow because they are blinded by dollar signs and preconceived notions. We came into the field initially thinking that our consumers for our concentrates brand were going to be a specific age group, but after customer testing, found that it was an absolutely different one. Demographics can be deceiving in this industry because, for such a long time, this was a taboo subject — you will be surprised about who uses Cannabis products when you really do a deep dive.
2. Think about the big picture, but don’t plan too far ahead. This industry is constantly changing and evolving, and much like the game Whac-A-Mole, you don’t know where it will go next. The best you can do is have a high-level strategy, but be able to flex and change your strategy if road bumps come by, and they will. When we started our California vape line, we had placed a significant amount of capital into developing it, then California changed legislation requiring us to apply for different licensing and cease certain parts of our operations. This turned out to be a blessing in disguise because we developed new strategic partners and pivoted our business into something even stronger. Having an open mind to make major changes relatively quickly is the best way to survive in this industry.
3. Hire good legal representation. This is highly important and if not followed, can cost you your livelihood, or even worse. Also, do your homework when hiring legal representation. Many attorneys have suddenly overnight become “Cannabis attorneys” because they have seen the need. However, as an attorney myself, I’ve noticed many of them are learning on the client’s dime. Don’t be that victim. I’ve interviewed many law firms and luckily, thanks to my background, I can tell who is telling the truth and who is fibbing, but I know that this is a major problem in the industry.
4. Take best practices or learnings from other industries and adapt them to this one. For example, my background is in the luxury fashion space. I have built companies that have sold to retailers such as Neiman-Marcus, Nordstrom, and Revolve. One of the fashion industry’s best practices is to create co-branded partnerships, for example, “J.Crew x Timex.” We have utilized this to a great degree in testing out before fully committing, and developing joint ventures as we deploy brands to access specific niche markets without fully committing the entire direction of a brand.
5. Always have a Plan B, and C, and D. Much like what I stated about being able to pivot rapidly, it’s always top of mind when we execute strategies to have a secondary and tertiary plan at minimum. I see failures happen when all eggs are placed into one basket and you don’t have backup plans in place. One of our products is a filter for combustible flower (smoking weed by burning it). We were originally going to deploy it via a proprietary attachment to a pipe or bong, but the market rapidly changed towards pre-rolls as the preferred method of smoking. Since we had concurrently been developing a pre-rolled cone alongside the pipe attachment, we were able to deploy that product immediately. The decision from the outset to have a plan B essentially helped us get to market quicker.
Aside from your particular vertical, which other cannabis ancillary industries do you think have very strong potential in the next few years? Can you explain why?
I think the technology side, especially when it comes to scientific discoveries about the plant, is going to explode. I’m particularly excited to see new research come out about cannabinoids and how they affect the human body, as well as more about the “entourage effect.” So far, a lot of Cannabis marketing is just buzzwords and marketing speak, but when real science and the smartest minds in the scientific world come together into Cannabis, I see lots of potential in product categories we haven’t even touched yet. Examples of this are genetics or water solubility. It is currently impossible to absolutely replicate a Cannabis crop time after time, but this has already been done in other industries due to exceptional amounts of R&D in the scientific side. For water solubility, there is no current solution that is absolutely perfect in making cannabinoid compounds water soluble. However, with the ancillary R&D industry, I think the public is going to see an explosion in discovery and science in this field, which I welcome because too much of it right now is purely marketing driven with no hard data behind it.
What advice would you give to other CEOs or founders to help their employees to thrive?
Be nice to each other. In a 2 year period, I’ve seen how competitive this industry has become, but if you step back and look at it, there’s still a lot to accomplish and we are all in the same boat together. As for advice for CEO’s or founders, I think one of the best pieces of advice I can give is to be as transparent as possible — this industry is evolving rapidly, and keeping everyone on the same page goes a LONG way.
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. :-)
I am a fan of the idea of singularity, in the sense that at some point in the future (and it may be a very long time), humankind will be forced to work together as a whole. It may take something cataclysmic for us to bind together and understand that we are all on this Earth together, but I do see a lot of singularity in the camaraderie that comes from this industry. In my opinion, Cannabis not only has health benefits according to the few studies we have but also seems to be something that brings people together in a positive manner. Opioids and all of its derivatives, legal and illegal, are a major issue and having personally seen Cannabis’ effect on people who are suffering from serious illnesses has opened my eyes quite a bit to this miracle plant. Every time I’ve seen someone have a bit less pain on their face because Cannabis was there to help them through an injury or illness, or every time I’ve seen a group bond and laugh after smoking a joint, I can’t help but think that Cannabis is something that really is positive — maybe it can contribute to that idea of singularity without something cataclysmic happening.
What is the best way our readers can follow you on social media?
I have a background in content creation and have actually worked in the back of the house as a chef, so my hobbies include photography, travel and eating pretty much anything you place in front of me. You can follow my Instagram @theyoungtravelier.
This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for joining us!
Jilea Hemmings is the CEO & Co-Founder of Leaf Tyme. She is running a series on Leaders In The Cannabis Industry.