Vinnie Celani of High Life Farms: 5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started Leading a Cannabis Business
Slow and steady wins the race. It’s incredibly important to organically grow and to not overextend yourself in this business. Too often, we see well-funded companies storm out the gates and build mega grows without the slightest bit of experience in operating at a smaller scale, and ultimately, they fail miserably. We got our feet wet back in 2014 with a smaller 280 light grow, which helped us prepare for the 2,000 lights we currently operate in both California and Michigan.
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 Vinnie Celani.
Vinnie Celani is the Co-Founder of High Life Farms, a privately-held, family-owned cannabis company that includes a portfolio cultivation, manufacturing, distribution, in-house brands, brand partnerships, white labeling solutions and ownership stakes in numerous dispensaries. Vinnie runs HLF’s California operations while his brother Ben runs operations in Michigan.
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?
Thank you for having me, I appreciate the opportunity. I was considering an entry into the cannabis industry while I was also going through the process to get licensed for a casino. The state would only allow me to hold either a gaming license or cannabis license, so it was a difficult choice to join either an established industry or venture into new waters. While the gaming industry presented limited ability to innovate and expand, the explosive growth of the cannabis industry was really exciting, so after weighing my options, the choice became clear. That was the beginning of my path to found High Life Farms with my brother Ben Celani, which now has operations in California and Michigan with cultivation, manufacturing, distribution, in-house brands, brand partnerships, white labeling solutions and ownership stakes in numerous dispensaries. I operate out of California while Ben is based in Michigan.
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?
My most interesting story would have to come from my time running a cultivation and dispensary in Los Angeles. We had a finite amount of time to convert our medical license to recreational back in 2017 and needed the place up and running for inspectors to grant the license. Unfortunately, we didn’t have power yet in the facility, so we had to improvise. I spent the next three months running a 600-light facility/dispensary off of a diesel generator that needed to be filled daily. Despite a lot of sleepless nights and becoming an amateur mechanic in the process, everything worked out and we were granted our recreational license.
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?
The funniest mistake I made was probably while learning extraction early on. It’s fairly easy to learn and operate but there’s a lot of repetitive steps that can be dangerous if not followed carefully in the right order. Long story short, these tubes are under a great deal of pressure and if not purged off properly, you’re going to have a bad time. I opened a tube with 10 pounds of pressure in it, which shot all 20 pounds of cannabis flower out and left a silhouette of me on the back wall of the lab. Luckily, it was just residual pressure from melting dry ice, but I definitely learned to check the readings twice before opening. That’s a lesson that can be applied to so many aspects of life.
Are you working on any exciting projects now? How do you think that will help people?
We’re constantly working on new products at High Life Farms which has helped us maintain a competitive edge over the years. My brother and I are huge on new product development and maintain the philosophy that innovation is key to our success. This starts with the strains we put in our grows, as we’re always on the hunt for the newest flavors and trends to keep the menu fresh and the customers happy.
Currently, High Life Farms is focused on expanding our internal line of edibles and coming out with new seasonal flavors. We launched with a Pumpkin Spiced Latte line for the fall, Sugar Cookie Sleigh Ride for the winter, and our newest is a Red Velvet Chocolate Bar for Valentine’s day. Products like these not only serve an adult-use market looking to get high, but also serve medical patients with chronic pain or other conditions. It’s a great feeling knowing that our products can improve quality of life while also providing fun flavors to enjoy.
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?
We wouldn’t be able to achieve the kind of success we have today without my father and the support of our family. My brother and I grew up watching his insane work ethic across many different businesses and industries, all while making sure to spend time with his family. He’s truly an inspiration to me and showed us that everything requires hard work and is earned, not given. I remember sweeping the floors and emptying the trash cans at a Harley Davidson dealership at 15 and slowly transitioning into new positions over the years. These experiences have allowed me to understand how various departments work together and how to structure a successful business operation. We truly are a family owned and operated business and I continue to learn from them every day.
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 has been a challenge in an industry where the product is slowly becoming commoditized over time, especially in California. With a thousand brands out there, it’s easy to get drowned out by all the various marketing strategies currently in place by competitors. My brother and I have the same philosophy: first and foremost, the product should speak for itself to the consumer. The packaging and lifestyle message is important to the success of any brand to a degree, but we like to focus on our passion for quality as the main driver and let the brand develop organically around it.
Can you share 3 things that most excite you about the Cannabis industry? Can you share 3 things that most concern you?
What excites me:
- Being on the ground floor of a budding industry while getting to do this with my brother Ben. It’s truly incredible as connoisseurs to watch how far the cannabis industry has come in such a short period of time and to be part of history. We look forward to pushing the boundaries and creating innovative products.
- Medical innovation and research. By understanding how different cannabinoids affect different receptors in the brain, we can develop products that increase one’s quality of life.
- Watching the cities and municipalities that we build in ultimately succeed with the help of cannabis. When we first built in California, the city of Desert Hot Springs had gone bankrupt several times over the course of a decade and had a balance of $700 in their account. Today, they are sitting on $11 million and are able to build infrastructure and adequately staff both of their police and fire departments.
What concerns me:
- We need the government to pass the Safe Banking Act, which would effectively allow us to engage freely in relationships with banks and other financial institutions. Having access to traditional banking would reduce the need for companies to have large amounts of cash on hand, ultimately reducing risk.
- Lack of state and federal oversight when it comes to curbing the illicit market and holding everyone accountable to the standards that we have to abide by.
- Tax reform and the removal of 280E, which forbids cannabis companies from deducting otherwise ordinary business expenses from gross income associated with “trafficking” a Schedule 1 substance. This code affects cannabis businesses across the nation, causing unnecessary fiscal and operational stress.
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.
- Slow and steady wins the race. It’s incredibly important to organically grow and to not overextend yourself in this business. Too often, we see well-funded companies storm out the gates and build mega grows without the slightest bit of experience in operating at a smaller scale, and ultimately, they fail miserably. We got our feet wet back in 2014 with a smaller 280 light grow, which helped us prepare for the 2,000 lights we currently operate in both California and Michigan.
- Foster your employees and promote from within if possible. Too many companies use staffing services and head hunters to hire key management positions while neglecting the human capital that is right in front of them. We do our best at High Life Farms to properly manage, train and advance the careers of the people that make us successful on a daily basis.
- The ability to persevere is very important to the success of any cannabis company. This industry will find 1,000 ways to punch you in the stomach, so the ability to keep your head up and feet moving can’t be understated. This was the case for me after a failed partnership in 2019 that led to us selling our Los Angeles cultivation and dispensary.
- Innovation is key to staying relevant in this business. Our research and development department is constantly pushing the boundaries on what is possible in the cannabis field across multiple categories. From our own product lines at High Life Farms to our partners at WANA and Kiva, we’re all constantly innovating and experimenting with new products and flavor formulations.
- This business is all about making and fostering relationships and it tends to be pretty small at the top. Good business is important in the cannabis industry and is often few and far between, as many lack reliability and accountability. We have a stable base of customers and brands in California that consistently buy from us every week and pay on time without fail. Doing good business along those lines is incredibly important to having steady cash flow and allows us to build proper financial models.
What advice would you give to other CEOs or founders to help their employees to thrive?
Focus on creating a strong management team that clearly understands the company’s overall vision and objectives and learn to delegate tasks accordingly. Micromanaging every aspect of the business leads to burnout and mistakes. It’s important to trust your team’s ability to execute your overall vision and guide them throughout the process.
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 would like to challenge the cannabis community to start a discussion on how we can promote sustainability in the industry, especially on the packaging side. We generate an immense amount of waste from packaging used in the business just to meet regulatory standards. In a perfect world, I would like to see the industry as a whole move to hemp-based biodegradable packaging.
What is the best way our readers can follow you on social media?
This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for joining us!