I’m excited about how the narrative around cannabis and the use of it is shifting throughout the country, it’s once again becoming normalized. In California, there are only 500 cannabis retailers, compared to the 16 thousand alcohol retailers. The high level of restriction being placed on the licenses is scary because it forces people to take extreme measures to stay in the game. Looking out into the future we hope the legislation is friendly enough to let the industry continue to grow as opposed to stifling growth.
I had the pleasure of interviewing Rusty Wilenkin, Co-founder and CEO of Old Pal, and Jason Osni, Co-founder and President of Old Pal.
Rusty Wilenkin started Old Pal after beginning his career in media lending, then spending 4+ years in the cannabis space. The concept was born out of a white space that the team began to notice throughout the industry: there wasn’t a flower product out there that was both affordable and beautifully designed. During that period he co-founded Prism Farms, in addition to negotiating all seed funding and distribution channels for the company. Rusty then built out the SoCal region for Flow Kana, doubling their sales team in Southern California. He then mirrored that success at Kiva Sales and Service, where he ran their flower and concentrate sales. Rusty began pursuing Old Pal full time in May 2018, and it’s quickly become the fastest growing cannabis company in California.
Jason Osni co-founded Old Pal with Rusty Wilenkin after four plus years as the Co-Founder of NATIV, a premiere California cannabis brand that experienced rapid growth prior to its recent acquisition. He currently sits on the board of Old Pal while also running Tongue and Groove, an incubation firm focused on the cannabis/lifestyle space. Jason began his career after graduating with honors from Fordham Law School and has consulted with many of the largest cannabis entities in the country. Jason shared the founding team’s recognition of a gap in the marketplace, and shared their passion for creating a product that is both beautiful and widely affordable.
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?
Jason: I was in law school in New York and I was writing my thesis on black market economics. At the time I had a rough idea of what was going on in the emerging west coast cannabis scene. On a surf trip with a friend of mine I walked into a dispensary and found there was an interesting dichotomy between product & customer. Many of the people walking into this particular Venice Beach dispensary seemed to be middle age and female. The products that were being sold felt hyper masculine with very little concept of brand. A couple months later after entering the legal field in NYC, I packed up my bags moved to Venice and co-founded a brand called NATIV. The goal was to create a nexus between what was the products being offered in the California Cannabis Market and the underappreciated growing female cannabis consuming demographic. I feel this was a major catalyst in the time for the California market.
Rusty: I graduated from Northeastern University in 2013 where I studied Finance and Accounting. I took job in the financial tech space that moved which brought me out to California. The cannabis industry was really starting to make moves, even though it was only medical at the time. I became wildly interested in the space and moved into sales roles with a few notable companies in the cannabis space, Kiva Confections and Flow Kana. Those sales roles were instrumental in making great connections within the industry that have continued to pay off as we’ve pushed to grow and established Old Pal.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?
Jason: I started off in this industry when it was taboo to be in cannabis. Having come from a career path in the legal field and entering the wild west of 2015 cannabis was “interesting” in its own right. With regards to Old Pal…… about 12 months ago I was in SoHo, New York and walked past an Old Pal billboard. Right then it really clicked for me that the ‘age of cannabis’ is a movement that is happening very quickly and frankly defining our generation in some ways. It also hit very close to home to be in the city where it all started for me and look up and see something we created looking down at me. Everything seems to come full circle.
Rusty: For me, the most interesting thing that has happened so far is getting to go out to Flower One in Nevada and seeing their facility. They have become a key part in terms of state expansion. In the beginning, Jason and I were running around trying to find farmers for Old Pal and now we are getting to work with folks who are best in class. It has been very interesting and rewarding and not where we expected the industry to be 5 or 6 years ago.
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?
Rusty: Well, during the early stages of Old Pal our first meeting took place in Jason’s van by the beach. We were were meant to have an in-person meeting with a potential investor that we ended up having to take from the van on a call because Jason’s Westfalia from the early 80s, broke down. We’ve been scrappy and nibble from the early days!
Are you working on any exciting projects now?
Jason: (Answering for both) Something super exciting that is in the works at OP is the vacation vape- our take on the perfect product for the casual vacationer. The vacation vape will be made of 85% recyclable and disposable material. The vape is .2 grams, which is ideal for tourists traveling for the weekend without having excess cannabis they are forced to dispose of. This product will be roughly the size of a 1g joint.
We are also in the process of moving our entire assortment of packaging to be recyclable for the end of 2020.There is something a bit ironic to me about selling this plant that has such miraculous healing properties and the potential to change the society as we think about it today, yet we are forced, due to regulation, to put it into ecologically harmful plastic packaging. It is a catch 22. We really want to be the group that perpetuates a movement towards an ecologically friendly industry.
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?
Jason: Brian Kabot, Stable Roads Chief Investment Officer. He has been there for us since day 1 as an investor, advisor, and biggest fan.
Rusty: Jason. Because he called me with the idea for Old Pal about a year and a half ago. Our conversation resonated with me in a real way and he sold me on the idea that we were going to build one of the biggest cannabis brands in the world. I had a great job and was growing within the organization and my career, I don’t know if there is anyone else besides Jason who could have convinced me to leave and start this.
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?
Jason: We have hired best in class marketing talent from outside the cannabis space and have really allowed them to come in and reinvent the wheel for the space from a marketing perspective. From our CMO Allison Pankow, our brand creative directors, LAND and other strategic partners, we have built a team that is pushing the Old Pal brand in a real way and in my opinion, revolutionizing cannabis as an industry. The industry is riddled with copy cat syndrom, someone comes up with a good idea and everyone else attempts to recreate it. We wanted to break the mold by bringing innovators from other CPG industries to change the way we approach marketing at Old Pal.
Can you share 3 things that most excite you about the Cannabis industry? Can you share 3 things that most concern you?
Jason: I am excited about the ability for cannabis to allow people to break out of some of the arbitrary social constructs that mainstream media forces down our throats. It so unfortunate to see people fall victim to an ‘expectation’ driven society… “you should be a lawyer, with a white picket fence, and a 6 figure salary.” I think this plant has the power to make people “tune back in” to what really matters and fulfills us aspirationally as individuals. My hope is that Old Pal (and cannabis generally) can flip that narrative and allow people to lead a life that is truly fulfilling. I think seeing this phenomenon come to fruition would truly by the fullest expression of this plants power.
Something that concerns me is packaging regulations. They idea of being forced to put this miraculous plant that the earth gives us into pollutive packaging based on arbitrary legal regulation is really sad to watch.
Rusty: I’m excited about how the narrative around cannabis and the use of it is shifting throughout the country, it’s once again becomig normalized. In California, there are only 500 cannabis retailers, compared to the 16 thousand alcohol retailers. The high level of restriction being placed on the licenses is scary because it forces people to take extreme measures to stay in the game. Looking out into the future we hope the legislation is friendly enough to let the industry continue to grow as opposed to stifling growth.
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.
Jason & Rusty:
First and foremost, that it wouldn’t be easy. There is constant fluctuation and change in regulations, ways of doing business and hurdles to jump just get legal cannabis in the hands of customers. For instance, we’ve seen the packaging regulations change three times. We have had some serious curve balls thrown at us that we had to adapt to. There are times where we thought our business model was not kosher in terms of regulation. We didn’t know that the regulations were going to change and complicate the business as much as it has.
It really takes a village. It is unbelievable all the people who have helped us along the way. We’d be nowhere near where we are today without the immense support from believers in Old Pal and our mission.
Partnerships are like marriages. We (Jason and Rusty) did not realize that we were going to have to spend every waking moment together. As our business grows, communicating is so important and we really need to be in lock step together. With the immense stress of the industry, there are times that it has worn our working relationship, but we are both extremely devoted to our mission of building Old Pal and providing accessible cannabis to the world, that we’ve over come any adversities because of that.
Monthly happy hours! These are a really great way to bring our team together and allow us all a minute to relax and enjoy each others company. When we were just 2 or 3 people it was easy to keep the culture solid, but as we grow it is really important to do things to bring our team together. It is really important to us that our team knows each other on both a professional and a personal level
No one told me Trump would get elected.
What advice would you give to other CEOs or founders to help their employees to thrive?
Jason: You don’t hire a team to micromanage them, you hire a team to teach you how to do your job better and make your company better. If you are hiring to overlook people you are setting your self up for failure. You need to be hiring people that make you better as a founder.
Rusty: I am pretty aligned with Jason here. I’ll add, don’t take everything too seriously. At times little things feel like make or break, but the reality is if you are on the right path it will be successful.
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. :-)
Jason: I’d inspire independence. This goes back to the idea of people following a social construct and how it decides so much of our daily routine and I believe that cannabis is a catalyst that can inspire independence and give people the ability to be themselves and hopefully, that means the world as a whole becomes a better place.
Rusty: Using the Old Pal platform to help get prisoners released from jail is near and dear to our hearts. We have both known people who have gone to jail because of cannabis. We want to use this platform to inspire change at the local and political level.
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Thank you for all of these great insights!