How to Survive Building a (Cannabis) Company

Nicole Skibola is building a cannabis company
Photo of Nicole Skibola by Cayce Clifford (@cayceclifford)

Life as an entrepreneur is difficult. Life as a cannabis entrepreneur is brutal. In addition to the normal uphill climb of building a customer base, developing a product, finding retailers and scaling, there are the compounded issues of over-regulation, a race to grow (accompanied by a race to the bottom on pricing), and the wild uncertainty that only accompanies a brand new industry. In short, it’s a complete circus.

I was at a dinner party recently with several entrepreneurs who work at Facebook. One was pondering leaving to begin his fifth startup. I watched his face, his incredulous expression intensifying as I described the cannabis market and regulatory “system” (“system” in quotes, because, well there isn’t really a system yet) after he attempted to shrug off my agony as typical startup woes.

Since beginning as a company two years ago, we have had to throw into the garbage thousands of dollars of packaging (thanks to the state changing its mind on packaging requirements again and again). We’ve learned that we have almost zero tax write-offs, (yep, we’re a federally illegal company, yet the IRS is more than happy to take our tax money—IN CASH since there’s no banking yet, either) and we’re first-hand witnessing the “extinction event” of small farmers and craft family brands who are unable to survive the influx of venture capital money and market uncertainty. I can’t tell you the number of times I have sobbed uncontrollably at the steering wheel on my commute to or from work, saddened by the rampant capitalism destroying the spirit of this industry and the looming prospect of my own failure as a small business.

 
I have learned to give myself space to enjoy them and find bliss in small achievements. These are critical for sanity and survival.
 

How am I surviving you ask? Here are a few ways that I get through what feels like the most difficult feat of my life:

1. Find your friends.
Befriending other manufacturers (or similar players in your segment) is critical to deciphering obscure regulations, identifying the least horrible legally-mandated distributor or sharing supply chain tips and contacts. Being generous with your knowledge and contacts invites others to do the same. Plus, you have an opportunity to share gossip or snarkily poo poo the latest VC acquisition, together.

2. Know what makes your heart swell.
The golden rule I’ve learned is to never start a company with the sole objective of making money, especially in a very difficult industry. Rather, identify the rewarding moments that come from solving a problem for someone else. For me, hearing from a patient who has found relief from seizures, anxiety, chemo symptoms, or menstrual cramping makes my day. If you are in it for the long haul, you have to find meaning in what you do. If you don’t have that, then, well, you have a decent amount of existential suffering ahead of you.

3. Find joy.
Believe me when I tell you that this one is not easy (conjure again the image of me sobbing, wailing to Frank Ocean at the wheel of my Jetta). There are small moments that come—an award, an email from a patient, a bit of great press. I have learned to give myself space to enjoy them and find bliss in small achievements. These are critical for sanity and survival.

4. Limit fits of IG insanity / jealousy.
I periodically just delete the Instagram app from my phone so as to spare myself the inevitable rabbit hole of unworthiness any creative falls down several times a day. Taking a breather from the scroll of what everyone else is doing and achieving that I am not is seriously important for some perspective. Because after all, how much does it really matter that Kim Kardashian didn’t choose your product for her CBD-themed baby shower?

5. Know that you are more than your company.
This is a big one. Build confidence and a sense of accomplishment in diverse ways. Work on playing that guitar you put down two years ago, learn to surf, take a pottery class. Make the time to remember that you are so much greater than this thing that is consuming all of your time, emotional energy and bandwidth.

At the heart of being an entrepreneur is having the courage to make something that you’d like to see in the world, knowing that you may fail miserably. It’s a huge act of creation and just as important as the final product or service is how you get there and the values you are able to hold close to your heart. Hold onto those for dear life. And don’t forget to laugh at every possible opportunity.