What does it take to hold your own in the volatile cannabis industry? Nancy Whiteman, the co-owner of the cannabis products manufacturer Wana Brands, can tell you.
“I would say resilience, a sense of humor, and problem-solving skills—just being able to work through all the millions of crazy things that happen,” she said.
Add a healthy dose of business experience, an ability to forge strong relationships and a love for the work itself—and you have a winning recipe that has served Whiteman well since she founded the company six years ago.
The company has weathered a torrent of regulatory changes in its home state of Colorado. But despite these challenges, the brand has not only survived: It’s thriving, extending into other cannabis-friendly states with an eye to establishing a regional and even a national footprint, Whiteman said.
Whiteman’s story may not fit the plotline you’d expect to typify cannabis business owners.
“A lot of people enter the industry, I think, because they start out as activists and advocates for cannabis,” she said. By contrast, Whiteman entered the market because she thought “it was a very cool business idea.” It was only later, after receiving feedback from customers, that she realized how much they benefitted from cannabis. After that, she became a passionate supporter of cannabis medicine.
But, before that, Whiteman was simply a businesswoman, looking for a change. She’d been working as a sales and marketing consultant, and she wanted to transition out of a services-based business into a product-based one. The opportunity came when she partnered with a businessman who’d launched a cannabis-infused soda company. The partnership eventually dissolved, but it was enough to launch Whiteman’s new career. She went on to co-found Wana Brands in 2010.
In the company’s early days, Whiteman had to contend with the usual challenges associated with starting a business. “But I would say the biggest challenges overall have been adapting to and complying with increasingly strict regulations over time,” she said.
When the company launched, new regulations had just passed that prohibited edible producers from making their products in home kitchens, she said. The next wave of changes brought seed-to-sale tracking. Later, new packaging and labeling regulations were passed, followed by lab testing requirements, and then more packaging and labeling rules.
As the state’s regulatory framework changed, cannabis enterprises had to change, too. Stricter regulations winnowed out companies that lacked either the capital or the business background to adapt to the ever-evolving industry, she said.
For her part, Whiteman brought an MBA and a well-rounded business expertise, which included years working in corporate environments and experience in sales and marketing. “I was fortunate that I came to the table with that background,” she said.
Still, Whiteman doesn’t rely solely on her own experience or knowledge. She actively builds partnerships with others in the industry and seeks help from outside sources.
“The key thing for me is always knowing what I don’t know,” then finding experienced professionals who can help, she said. Whether it’s a lawyer to negotiate a contract or an accountant who’s been through an audit for the cannabis industry, finding trusted resources is key.
From her perspective, collaboration is the lifeblood of a successful industry. “There’s so much richness in those relationships and how much you can help each other,” she said. “My own personal belief is that we don’t need to compete with each other by withholding information from each other. We should be competing on the strength of our products and the strength of our service and the strength of our marketing. But other than that, we should be helping each other.”
After surviving the tumultuous early days of Colorado’s cannabis market, Wana Brands is extending its reach into other states. Earlier this month, it announced a partnership with CWNevada, which will introduce the full Wana Brands product line to medical patients in that state. CWNevada is a vertically integrated cannabis company operating in Pahrump and Las Vegas, Nev.
The two entities entered a licensing agreement, which allows CWNevada to manufacture Wana Brands products using the latter’s recipes, training, standard operating procedures, quality assurance process and other elements, Whiteman said. In this arrangement, Wana Brands is licensing its brand, which saves the company in the long run.
“We can try to obtain a license in [Nevada] ourselves, and build out a facility and do the whole thing under our own license,” Whiteman said. “But that requires a lot of capital and, generally, it also requires that a principal be a resident of the state.”
The partnership with CWNevada comes about six months after Wana Brands began rolling out its product line in Oregon. These developments play into the company’s larger game plan. Whiteman believes that sometime in the foreseeable future, cannabis may be legalized federally. If it does, she expects larger companies will rush into the market, creating a more competitive atmosphere. As it stands now, though, the state-specific nature of the cannabis industry is probably keeping those larger companies at bay.
“So I think that companies like mine, one of the ways that we can protect ourselves in a scenario where the competition will be very different is to try to build at least a regional, if not a national, footprint for our brand,” Whiteman said.
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