Stephen Ryan of Infinite CBD: “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started Leading a Cannabis or CBD Business”
It’s a small world. The cannabis industry is relatively tiny. Chances are the person you’re meeting next week already knows a few people you know and maybe even has been given some recommendations either for or against you. It’s important to understand this as the industry grows and these people who may seemingly be nobodies to you or are smaller players become more powerful within the industry. With so much potential return from the cannabis industry, the last thing you want to do is get cut out of a big deal because of a bad interaction with someone you had a few years back, but I’ve seen it happen.
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 Stephen Ryan.
Stephen Ryan is the Chief Marketing Officer at Infinite CBD, where he is responsible for researching, planning, outlining, and implementing all of the business marketing ideas and campaigns. Before Infinite CBD, Stephen finished getting his college education about graphic and web design from the Art Institute of California and began working as a graphic designer within the cannabis industry. While working as a designer he worked with many high profile brands within the industry such as Cheeba Chews, Green Dot, Head of Honey, Kind Love, and many more.
Stephen had no aspirations to become an entrepreneur himself, but when he saw Infinite CBD being created and the incredible potential it has, he was quick to make sure he secured his position as a founder of the company; contributing all branding, web, and marketing experience to the company. He contributes this decision to many of the positive changes in his life that have happened since the beginning of Infinite CBD. Outside of work, Stephen likes to play with his French Bulldog, Charlie, stay active with running, trade stocks, and, of course, lay around doing nothing but binging 6 hours of Netflix in a single sitting.
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 actually hadn’t planned to be a business owner until I already was one. I was a graphic designer right out of school and the company I was working for had been doing work in the cannabis industry. Over time and through a lot of research we had learned more about CBD and its potential. In 2016, right before the big boom of the industry, we saw an opportunity within a new and growing market. I decided to invest what money I had into the idea, and we went forward with a simple CBD brand. That brand continued to grow month over month and quickly became bigger than I had ever anticipated. Being aware of the massive potential returns from this career path over a graphic designer, I felt it was worth my time to stick around, learn the hard lessons and change career paths. It’s been the most difficult thing I’ve ever done, but I don’t regret the decision to take the opportunity for a second.
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?
One interesting thing that has actually been somewhat recurring over the years is the amount of deceit and fraud within the industry. Especially in the early days it was pretty common to hear of people selling fake products. Although we have seen instances of altered COAs recently so it definitely still is happening to some degree. The specific story that comes to mind is a time in 2017 that we had a person show up at our facility and was demanding to know why we had sold him 2 kilos of whey protein powder instead of the 2 kilos of CBD isolate he had paid $14,000 for! Obviously, we would never do that to anyone, plus we had never met or talked to this guy before — and a $14,000 customer is someone we would definitely know. After looking into it, it turns out that he had purchased 2 kilos of CBD isolate online. The people he had purchased from had used one of our isolate Certificates and posted it as their own. Then once a person paid, they shipped them the whey protein instead. Crazy right? That guy definitely lost $14,000 that day! What did I learn from that? Well, always do your research before making big purchases… and always have your own documentation, just in case someone comes and accuses you of fraud.
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?
I have one, but it certainly wasn’t funny at the time! Actually, this was one of those “I’ve ruined everything” moments for me, but it all worked out in the end. We started our company with only a few hundred dollars and no investors, so every dollar is critically important to the growth and success of the company. Because of this, we often would order our packaging in relatively small amounts so as to not tie up a bunch of cash in packaging. When we decided we were going to launch our first disposable vape pen, we thought it would be a good time to take our product branding to a higher level and get fully customized packaging and printed pens. It wasn’t until the order had been paid for and printed that we realized that we had spelled our own brand name incorrectly down the entire side of the vape pens. Instead of “Infinite CBD”, I had accidentally typed “Infinitie CBD”, but being the only one with eyes on this before printing, I assumed it was correct and didn’t see this additional “I” I had put in on accident! As a small, growing company this was obviously a devastating mistake as we now had to pay to replace all the incorrectly printed pens. When I think about this now, I think it’s funny to me that as a designer, the biggest mistake I had made at the time was incorrectly spelling my own brand name. In the end, the vapes ended up leaking, batteries would die and they wouldn’t work well anyways, so it was an all-around fail! Lesson learned though, and now we actually look over and read print proofs before approving them. Over time this experience also taught me that most things aren’t as bad as they seem in the moment and that you can’t do anything except accept it, find a solution and move on.
Are you working on any exciting projects now? How do you think that will help people?
We’re constantly working on projects that I would say are exciting. Currently we are in the process of expanding our product line to include Broad Spectrum CBD as well as some additional new products ranging from edibles to oils. This is exciting as we are able to expand our offerings to a bigger audience as well as gives us the opportunity to improve our current products. As manufacturers and chemists, we find it exciting as we have the opportunity to bring innovative and effective products to a quickly growing market. We also are working on ways of improving our nanotechnology, using it for more than only cannabinoids, making nano CBD powder, as well as a few other things we have rolling out before the end of the year!
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?
It’s mostly been my business partner John and me since the beginning. John has some previous experience in being an entrepreneur, but not to the level we are at currently. As for myself, I was a graphic designer before this so I was certainly under equipped for this journey! We didn’t have any mentors or people to guide us along the way either. We did basically everything ourselves and learned many lessons the hard way. I think the partnership between John and myself was crucial for the success of the company as we were able to push each other and complement the others weaknesses. We have also had some really awesome employees over the years who have been willing to learn and grow with us as well as share their experience and expertise from their previous positions.
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?
Marketing within the CBD industry is especially unique, as advertising is not allowed in many of the mainstream advertising channels. That being said, there have been some innovative marketing strategies that have been used over the years, such as building entire media companies strategized around marketing for the industry. This would allow the CBD company who owns said media company to market their own products without the push back from mainstream platforms. These platforms don’t typically allow most CBD companies to pay for promotions on their platforms, but if you are just a media company and don’t sell CBD yourself then you don’t fall into the same set of rules. As the industry continues to legitimize, the need for these types of strategies wouldn’t be needed as mainstream advertising opportunities open, although if you have the time and resources it’s not a bad idea. Outside from creating entire companies, we have found success with podcast sponsorships, high profile product reviews on sites like PopSugar and Herb, as well as with some social media influencers. Although, social influencers are hit or miss, unless you’re getting really engaging and influential partners.
Can you share 3 things that most excite you about the Cannabis industry? Can you share 3 things that most concern you?
There are more things that I am excited about than I am concerned about with the cannabis industry. Things I am excited about are:
The growth potential. The industry is still relatively young and the potential for growth over the next 5, 10, 20 years and more is incredible.
The advancements in research and legislation. As more states begin to legalize cannabis on the medical and recreational markets it will open up more people to the use of cannabis and cannabis products. This growing interest and demand will lead to great innovations within the industry to not only provide a better experience for customers overall, but also have major returns for the investors.
Removing the stigma. I also am excited about the legitimization of the cannabis industry and how it will remove the negative stigma there is around cannabis in general. This is positive because it would lead to more people using cannabis and experiencing the real benefits that it can provide.
There isn’t too much that I am really concerned about with the cannabis industry as a whole. The main thing would be surrounding regulations and how those will look at a federal level when they are finally rolled out. This is something that is both exciting and concerning to me as there is a fine line between regulating the industry in a way that encourages it to continue its expansive growth or holding the industry back with over regulation.
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.
Sure, these are in no specific order as they all are equally important in my opinion.
1. Get a backup bank & merchant. This would have saved us many headaches. In an industry that isn’t fully regulated and laws seem different on a daily basis, it is important to have a backup for your business fundamentals like banking and your online merchant. Here is a perfect example of why. We had gone through about 5–6 different bank accounts with Infinite CBD because the banks would cancel our accounts because their team would say we were selling marijuana online. Now obviously we weren’t doing that, but even with proof the banks didn’t care to listen to the technicalities of the issue. This doesn’t seem like the biggest issue in the world, until you have a bank for about a year and they suddenly decide to cancel your account with no warning, leaving you with no way to pay for operations, employees or to accept payments from customers. Simply having a backup account, you keep $100 will make this an easy transition in the case it’s needed. Same idea for your online merchant, have a backup account and process a handful of transactions through it to keep it active. It’s worth the hassle to not have to worry about how your business is going to pay its employees.
2. Nothing is certain. With the lack of regulation and what regulations there are differing from state to state, nothing is certain and nothing is guaranteed.
3. Enjoy the little wins. This isn’t cannabis industry specific, but as a new entrepreneur I think it’s important that we do our best to slow down a little bit and enjoy the process. It’s so easy to get hung up on what’s next and how this performed and who’s bringing in the most revenue growth and that type of thing. Just take some time to breathe, realize you’re just a person trying your best, and enjoy where you are right now.
4. The industry is growing, FAST! Keep up. You cannot get complacent in this industry. If you have a new innovative product, in 6 months that product will be everywhere being made by every brand. Worse yet, if you don’t have the most money for marketing then you’re going to get squeezed out and forgotten. If you’re not one of the companies on the bleeding edge and doing the innovations, then you need to set up a supply chain that would allow you to quickly adjust to the ever-changing market.
One example I have is vapes. Last year vapes went from being the most popular product in the industry to a nationwide scare due to a sudden jump in vape related deaths. If you were one of these vape only brands and were not poised to pivot when this happened then you may have been left behind. It is important to always be ready for a shift in the market and have a plan to quickly adjust.
5. It’s a small world. The cannabis industry is relatively tiny. Chances are the person you’re meeting next week already knows a few people you know and maybe even has been given some recommendations either for or against you. It’s important to understand this as the industry grows and these people who may seemingly be nobodies to you or are smaller players become more powerful within the industry. With so much potential return from the cannabis industry, the last thing you want to do is get cut out of a big deal because of a bad interaction with someone you had a few years back, but I’ve seen it happen.
What advice would you give to other CEOs or founders to help their employees to thrive?
Have a plan and communicate it well. Even the simple tasks can be done wrong because of a miscommunication. It’s difficult to get a team to consistently run smoothly. Without proper communication it becomes nearly impossible. Also, show your team that you appreciate and value them. Finally, don’t give up! You’re going to have days that you think you’ve ruined everything, there’s going to be days when it feels like you don’t know what you’re doing and that’s okay. Truth is nobody knows what they’re doing, there’s no guidebook for how to be a perfect CEO — you’re going to make mistakes, MASSIVE mistakes, and that’s fine as long as you learn and keep going.
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.
Well I’m definitely not a person of influence, let alone great influence. I do find that there are plenty of movements that I could get behind: cleaning the oceans, saving the bees, clean water for all, and reducing air pollution are all movements that I think are going to continue to grow and become increasingly important in the upcoming years.
What is the best way our readers can follow you on social media?
Personally, I am not on social media, as it helps me slow things down a bit. I find my mind constantly racing 100mph from work so I stay off social media to come back down to reality for a few hours per day. You can follow us at Infinite CBD on Instagram, Facebook and Twitter. Messages through our social channels all can come to me if you ask. Or, feel free to email me at email@example.com!