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Keith Cich & Cameron Clarke of Sunderstorm: 5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started Leading a Cannabis or CBD Business

Cameron — Mentorship and teambuilding. Recognize that your company is primarily a team of people who you need to corral into working together to win the game. Personalities are vastly different so leverage these differences by teaching your team to understand better ways to communicate and interact with each other. Don’t hold anyone back. If someone’s motivated to grow, help them get there. You will be rewarded greatly because they will appreciate that you are looking out for them. People are your most valuable asset. Show them gratitude for their contributions and reward them personally when they excel. Invest in their futures. The dividends will be significant.

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 Cameron Clarke.

Cameron Clarke is the Co-Founder and CEO of the California cannabis manufacturer.

Sunderstorm, the parent company of Kanha gummies, Wind vapes, Nano5 oral sprays and the Solara brand of flower. He is a serial entrepreneur with a track record of transforming technical innovation into high impact applications. In 1994 he co-founded Visionary Information Systems Inc. launching the modern electronic courtroom. In 2000 he founded Vodium, an internet-based video streaming company. His other ventures include Aero Glass, a pioneering company delivering augmented reality technology to pilots, and Amazon-Mania USA, an original importer of Acai berry products from Brazil. Cameron is also founder of several social projects including the Blue Nomad Foundation, a non-profit funding algae-based research for bioremediation and biopolymer development, the Wet Lab in San Diego and Berkeley Biolabs biohacker spaces teaching synthetic biology and providing research facilities. He is a graduate of Stanford University.

Keith Cich is Co-Founder and President of Sunderstorm, a leading California cannabis company that manufactures and distributes award winning Kanha gummies. Sunderstorm self-distributes to over 500 retail locations throughout California and is a pioneer introducing nano-tech products to the cannabis industry. Mr. Cich spent more than a decade on Wall Street in fixed income sales and trading for Merrill Lynch and Barclay Investments. He moved to Northern California and managed commercial real estate projects, including retail, office, and urban in-fill development. Mr. Cich has a B.A. in Economics from Stanford University, an MBA from New York University, and a Master’s in Philosophy, Cosmology, and Consciousness from the California Institute of Integral Studies, where he also served as Chairman of the Board.

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?

Cameron — The creation of Sunderstorm is the confluence of many experiences of our lives’ journeys. As serial entrepreneurs, Keith and I learned a lot from our failures as well as our successes. Growing a business is always challenging with the daily potholes in the road that can derail the company from its trajectory. Running a California cannabis business greatly amplifies the traditional challenges because of the transition from the unregulated to regulated market, banking and tax issues, hypercompetition from passionate entrepreneurs with big $$$ in their sites, price sensitivity of consumers, limitations on marketing techniques, an extremely dynamic and evolving market, significant cash needs and investments, and significant nuanced differences from traditional CPG. We have stated many times that the complexities of this industry have required an immense amount of drive, vision, and tacking in order to navigate through these challenges. Keith has a finance and real estate background and I have engineering science and product development experience, which, when blended together, has provided a good foundation for us to build our successful company. Being in our 50’s, both of us were seeking something meaningful where we could make a difference in our communities leveraging our passion for social and environmental consciousness.

The legalization of cannabis brought us this opportunity and when we looked at it seven years ago, we realized that all of our experiences from Wall Street to molecular biology to a great appreciation for plant medicines, shamanism, and community were a perfect fit to help us achieve success in Cannabis. While in San Diego, I had created a community biotech lab and was conducting algae research to engineer it to make biopolymers. While building a CO2 extractor in my backyard I realized that small scale extractors were newly available in the Cannabis space. After short consideration I realized that our experiences and passions would fully align with the creation of a cannabis company so we quickly pivoted our lives to jump in and build our dream. Since both Keith and I had deep business experience as well as plant medicine, shamanism and community-building, we knew that we could succeed in this difficult transition from gray market to full federal legalization down the road. Successful entrepreneurs in this space need to work with the revolutionaries who started this movement as well as engineers and Wall Street investors.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

Keith — I remember the day that I walked into a local nursery wearing my Kanha merch and the middle-aged lady behind the counter smiled knowingly at my sweatshirt. She said she was a fan of our gummies, and then called over another woman who said her husband buys her Kanha gummies. Then the light went off. I realized that we had crossed the tipping point on creating a real brand, with consumers who are connected with our logo, product, and ethos. It made me understand the interconnection of marketing, merchandising, and distributing a world class cannabis product. You have to hit on all cylinders to have strangers on the street appreciate the work you have put into building your brand.

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?

Keith — Before we launched Sunderstorm I went to Hempcon in San Francisco and stopped at the first booth that was offering dabs. I had smoked weed for 40 years but never tried a dab. So I admired the flaming torch and took a giant hit. I was floored. Instead of focusing on business development, I was walking around in circles wondering how I was going to drive home. After that, I learned not to drive to cannabis trade shows.

Are you working on any exciting projects now? How do you think that will help people?

Cameron — Science has always been a pillar of our product development. We have been working on a project for over two years which aligns products with an individual’s genetic makeup. I’ve always been intrigued by the way cannabis interacts with my body compared to others. For Keith, he finds it energizing and focusing while I tend to get more relaxed and have trouble focusing. I’ve learned that much of this is caused by our genetics so we have partnered with Endocanna Health which has developed a very sophisticated DNA test kit measuring a host of SNPs in a person’s genome (just like 23andMe), which relate to anxiety, one’s metabolism, and other factors that influence cannabis effects. We are finally beta testing the first set of products that tie into this DNA test, which have been specifically formulated with terpenes and other compounds to manage sleep, pain, etc. These are also nanotech based so they hit quickly and are highly effective. We have more products in development, which we will continue to launch as we learn more in this exciting new field. In the end, cannabis is personal and works differently with our bodies. Sunderstorm aims to lead the charge on solving this riddle, giving consumers the medicine they need to manage conditions quickly and effectively.

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?

Cameron — I was fortunate enough to have an incredible mentor when I was first in the workforce. I began working for a billion dollar trading company in New York run by a very personable CEO/founder. I was surprised at how much time I was able to spend with him as a very junior employee in the organization. He would often spend hours mentoring and training me on the nuances of the industry and basic business practices. I’ve grown to realize how valuable this was for me and how those ideas and teachings helped me navigate normal business challenges and the value of team building. Now, I work with my team in a similar manner whenever I can. I have always told the team that only half of their compensation is monetary. The other half is mentorship. I want everyone in my company to have the opportunity to sit in a leadership role down the road. They will only get there if they have the tools and skills to overcome the challenges any business faces. As an example, we have an employee of the month program for our production team where they can choose either monetary rewards or lunch with me. Often, they choose lunch (sometimes more than once!). I’m proud to help them gain the experience they will need to grow and prosper.

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?

Cameron — We believe that authentic, yet creative collaborations are a great way to connect with new consumers. In an industry first, Sunderstorm partnered with HBO Max last year to create four custom Kanha branded gummy products that reflected the personalities of each main character in their highly anticipated Close Enough series. The reception to the partnership built a lot of excitement in the both the cannabis space and the entertainment space. It was the first time a major public media company has entered into the cannabis space with their own product. As we look to legitimize the perception of cannabis to nonusers and people outside of the legal space, this was an important step towards mainstream validation.

The creativity of this collaboration won us a Bronze Stevie® Award for Brand Experience of the Year, which is a true testament to the creative potential of the cannabis industry. We hope to see a lot more of these one-of-a-kind collaborations in the future that will not only help push the industry forward but also encourage the canna-curious to give the healing powers of this plant a chance.

Can you share 3 things that most excite you about the Cannabis industry? Can you share 3 things that most concern you?

Keith — On the positive side, the rapid growth in the industry is creating an employment juggernaut. At Sunderstorm we now have over 200 employees. We need to use this economic clout to guide regulation in a beneficial direction. Secondly, we need to research the minor cannabinoids to identify new healing properties that are natural and healthy. Third, brands will leverage the power of merchandising to promote and build national awareness. Finally, I think cannabis is paving the way for the future legal use of psychedelics, which will usher in a new era of human consciousness.

On the negative side, I am concerned that high taxes are pushing consumers to purchase potentially unsafe unlicensed products, that regulators issue laws that are so restrictive to cannabis companies that it’s hard to be profitable, and that well capitalized traditional CPG companies will enter the market and be challenging competitors.

What are 5 Things You Wish Someone Told You Before You Started Leading a Cannabis Business? Please share a story or example for each.

Keith — (1) Hire an experienced controller early in the game. It’s difficult to assist operations, manage fundraising, and be responsible for the books at the same time. Two jobs in a start-up is plenty. (2) That your kids might not be as excited about the cannabis industry as you are. My younger daughter was very skeptical about my new career, but as my older daughter entered college, she was a minor celebrity for having her dad start Kanha gummies. You win some, you lose some. (3) Pace yourself at tradeshows. The abundance of freely offered and exceptional quality cannabis products should be taken with a sense of sobriety.

What advice would you give to other CEOs or founders to help their employees to thrive?

Cameron — Mentorship and teambuilding. Recognize that your company is primarily a team of people who you need to corral into working together to win the game. Personalities are vastly different so leverage these differences by teaching your team to understand better ways to communicate and interact with each other. Don’t hold anyone back. If someone’s motivated to grow, help them get there. You will be rewarded greatly because they will appreciate that you are looking out for them. People are your most valuable asset. Show them gratitude for their contributions and reward them personally when they excel. Invest in their futures. The dividends will be significant.

You are both people 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. :-)

Keith — I would inspire a movement to build community and connect us in innovative ways. In the old days, the local church was the center of community and helped build a bridge toward common values. With that paradigm losing credence, we need to refresh the idea of community building, with an eye toward inclusiveness, unlike the old days. This will require a lot of smart ideas and a little cannabis to make the magic work.

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In-depth Interviews with Authorities in Business, Pop Culture, Wellness, Social Impact, and Tech. We use interviews to draw out stories that are both empowering and actionable.

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Candice Georgiadis

Candice Georgiadis

Candice Georgiadis is an active mother of three as well as a designer, founder, social media expert, and philanthropist.

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