High Spirits

#021 - How to Build an Iconic Cannabis Brand like Old Pal w/ Rusty Wilenkin

December 07, 2023 AnnaRae Grabstein and Ben Larson Episode 21
High Spirits
#021 - How to Build an Iconic Cannabis Brand like Old Pal w/ Rusty Wilenkin
Show Notes Transcript Chapter Markers

Grab a seat and prepare for a 360-degree view into the world of cannabis branding and marketing, as we welcome the CEO of leading cannabis brand Old Pal, Rusty Wilenkin. Rusty shares the rollercoaster ride of his professional journey, leading us from the bustling streets of New York to the vibrant West Coast. We dive into Rusty's successful creation of Old Pal, highlighting the struggles of scaling and dissecting strategies that helped the brand stand out in a competitive market.

We're not just talking business, but more specifically, Old Pal's identity-driven success. Discover how Old Pal resonates with its audience and became the renowned brand it is today across so many markets. You'll hear the benefits of an asset-light model and the uncertainties that come with it, and learn how focusing on building a brand can fundamentally shift the game in the nascent cannabis industry. 

We wrap up our conversation with Rusty providing a valuable perspective on marketing strategies across different states and the significance of local adaptations. Hear about Old Pal's commitment to authenticity, their approach to inclusivity, and how they maintain a strong community presence. We also explore the brand's plans for geographic expansion and how they manage to stay ahead of competitors in such a dynamic industry. Get ready for an episode packed with insights and actionable tips from one of the top CEOs in the space.

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Remember to always stay curious, stay informed, and most importantly, keep your spirits high.



Speaker 1:

Hey everybody, welcome to High Spirits. We are back. I am Ben, and with me, as always, is my Smarter and what I know, now more stylish half and a Ray and Ray. We have a show today. Oh, that's a rhyme. This is going to be fun. We are talking branding, marketing, asset, like expansion, with one of the top brands, the CEO in the space Super excited this is. I love this stuff, so we're going to really dig in. But man, oh man and Ray, are you? Are you recovered from Vegas yet?

Speaker 2:

Yeah, you know, I didn't even need to recover. I mostly just had lots of work to do when I got home. I did a really good job of exercising and staying healthy in Vegas, so that's been good. How about?

Speaker 1:

you Did, you have a great time I did. Yeah, yeah, I did, and, as I noted on the show last week, I was pretty well behaved in Vegas, but it just didn't stop, like the schedule didn't stop. I got home on Friday. I had some social things to attend to, which was not the top of the list of things I wanted to do. So, yeah, it took the weekend and then real life just came back really fast, as it tends to do in the cannabis industry.

Speaker 2:

Yeah, it sure has, and this week has just been.

Speaker 1:

you know, I thought December was supposed to slow down a little bit, but it seems to be accelerating into the end of the year, Like it's refusing to let 2023 end, but it's going to. I think it's inevitable.

Speaker 2:

Old stuff going on in cannabis news that we could touch on for just like a quick sec before quick sec started.

Speaker 2:

We talked about Ohio a few weeks back and the excitement around Ohio and also how there's this sort of mysterious element to Ohio adult use legalization, because the way that the voter initiative was drafted leaves the ability for elected representatives to change the kind of the terms of legalization, and it was actually proposed. There is now a bill that is moving through or has been proposed by some Ohio legislatures, which will eliminate the home grow that was allowed. It will change where the taxes go and really like defund a lot of the social equity intentions and then, and also, which I think is really a big deal, will allow local level opt out for cannabis retail by cities. So that doesn't seem like a great amount of progress, but at the same time, at least they're not canceling adult use in Ohio, which is a market where we're excited about. So, yeah, that was something that was on my radar this week. How about you? What were you?

Speaker 1:

paying attention to Just very recently and, speaking of not diving too deeply into things, I think there's still a number of people I need to talk to, but it looks like there's a lawsuit that has dropped that is attacking kind of the intoxicating nature of some of the compounds in the hemp plant that are on the open market.

Speaker 1:

This lawsuit was filed by Attach and the folks at Dwayne Morris and was quickly responded to by none other than Rod Kite, who has kind of been labeled as a polarizing voice in the space. But I think the article that he wrote about this being kind of prohibitionist and all that is not too far off the mark. So, like I said, I don't want to dive too much into it because I'll get fired up and probably drop a bunch of F bombs, but like we'll save that for another episode, maybe in towards the end of the year, sounds great. I think. The one thing that stands out to me is that the term civil war has been being tossed around and I thought it was being used a little, you know, frivolously, but maybe not. Maybe 2024 is going to be a lot of fireworks.

Speaker 2:

Yeah, it's a wild time. We will continue talking about hemp on this podcast, unquestionably.

Speaker 1:

Absolutely.

Speaker 2:

Avoid it.

Speaker 1:

But before we jump in, I just want to say that, like last week, the high spirits morning mixer that we held was just magical and I'm incredibly grateful for that. Everyone showed up. Huge shout out to Sarah Falvo at Wildfire Coalition Just throwing an amazing event. Genetica, you know, this amazing AI platform, that just a lot of tech words. We're going to have them on later as well to talk about their amazing offering and just supporting that. And then the plethora of infused beverages.

Speaker 1:

And what I loved about the event was that there were people consuming and trying all these different beverages 9.30, 10.30, 11.30 in the morning and it was totally normal and that was super cool. I feel like it would have been a much different appeal if someone walked in the room like a politician did right and if people were smoking joints and vapes. That would probably been received a little bit different. But we had people from all corners of the industry investors, japan tobacco was there and all the feedback that we've gotten has been extremely positive. So for our inaugural event, I think we did pretty well and I'm looking forward to the next one.

Speaker 2:

You know I freaking love the people that work in cannabis and I have made some of my best friends in this space, so it felt really good to get to create an event where people could come together and hang out. And I think you're right, it was the inaugural event. We're going to do more and we're going to do them in the places that we are and that we are traveling to, so we can get to meet more of you and also bring the people that we already know together, and that's like how we get deals done too it's just by forming relationships, and then we can go to transact later.

Speaker 2:

But yeah, let's get to the episode because we've got so much good stuff to talk about.

Speaker 1:

All right, who do we have today?

Speaker 2:

Yeah, so we've got Rusty. Ceo of Old Pal, rusty Wilinkan. Rusty hails from New York State. He came West and worked at Kiva and Flowcona before deciding to do his own thing and build Old Pal. He's a household name for the MSOs and the independent operators, with most folks who pay attention having some familiarity with him or the brand he built, old Pal. I've personally been crossing paths with Rusty for a while. When I was operating Ease Depots under the North Cal umbrella, old Pal was one of our most popular inventory items and more recently, rusty and I got reconnected because we are both advisors to a VC fund called Journey, one founded by our friend Helene. So it's been really cool to get to hang out with Rusty and I felt really honored that he wanted to come on and have this conversation with us. So welcome, rusty. Thanks for coming.

Speaker 3:

Thanks for having me. I'm excited to be here and get to chat with y'all.

Speaker 1:

Yeah, I love the Old Pal brand. I remember I was telling you guys earlier this week. I remember seeing the bus. I was at this females to the front event. Yeah, I know, I'm notably not a female, but I was there, Lucky to be there, lucky to be invited, and this was down in Palm Springs. I think it was probably like 2019, pre-pandemic, and this bus is just epic and it's got this big like structural add-on to the back that kind of looks like someone said, hey, let's put an apartment on the back of this, like you know, 60-year-old bus and it is the Old Pal brand and everything that you guys have done with the brand has just been incredibly consistent, which I just love and appreciate so much.

Speaker 3:

Now, the funniest part about that bus is our good friends were living in it. We started Old Pal. I used to buy my business partner as a gift these surfboards from a famous surf shaper, ryan Lovelace, and him and his wife were living in that bus for the better part of five years when we started Old Pal and they were moving to their new home, which was a sailboat in Santa Barbara, and so the deal was, if we could get it running and off the property, we could have it for five years, and then five years became forever. But it's the most expensive free bus I think anyone probably has.

Speaker 2:

When I met my husband. He had a VW camper van and it was the most expensive thing to upkeep. It was like every time we took it camping or whatever, it felt like it needed a 500 or $800 repair afterward. So I feel, yeah, on the old bus maintenance. Well so, let's give. Old Pal, let's talk a little bit about the.

Speaker 1:

Is it called the Cosmic Collider? Is that what it's called?

Speaker 3:

Yeah, it's called the Cosmic Collider. And then we have the 1980s VW Westphalia that currently lives in Arizona as well. But that bus, whenever it gets left on the street, someone basically moves into it, like those old VWs, don't lock well, so we've had to make sure it gets stored in gated parking and things to make it not too much of a van for the people.

Speaker 2:

Yeah, exactly. Well, so let's just dig in. Let's talk about Old Pal and how it came to be. We know that you had some roles at other cannabis companies and then you went on your own and started Old Pal. What was the story there? How did it happen?

Speaker 3:

Yeah, so my business partner, Jason, had previously started a brand called Native, which most people probably don't remember it, but it was from the Prop 215 days in California and was a hash, rosin and pre-roll brand Almost predated brands in cannabis.

Speaker 3:

Like a time. They were typically one of the only brands you would see on the shelves and dispensary that were branding smokables. When I was at Kiva, we brought them on for wholesale distribution and, going into 2018, jason had sold native. Just ahead of the regulatory uncertainty and not having any licenses, he wasn't too sure what the future looked like for that brand and so he came to me and call it early 2018 with the idea of starting a cannabis brand and he knew he wanted to work with land, the agency that ended up doing all of our design work, but he wasn't a hundred percent sure what the brand was going to be or where it was going to be positioned.

Speaker 3:

At the time, like I lived around the block from a dispensary called LAPCG in West Hollywood, and LAPCG is one of the first dispensaries in the state and they always had a $15 eighth on the shelf, which you know working in legal cannabis as an employee and not an owner, it wasn't like I was getting rich.

Speaker 3:

In those days I was living on a pretty reasonable salary and trying to make the cost of living in LA work and that $15 eighth was sort of like my bread and butter.

Speaker 3:

As much as I loved smoking premium high-end flour, there were a lot of times I couldn't afford that or just didn't have $60 to spend on the nicest day in the store, and so in 2018 happened like that eight disappeared and Working at Kiva on the wholesale side, I was sort of back to buying weed on the street, not because I wanted to, but because I was priced out of the dispensary. That was a really weird feeling. Just like you know, I've worked in legal weed since 2013 and to have 2018 come around, this big like aha, we got adult use moment and oh, I then back to buying my weed from guys on the street because it's way cheaper was like kind of a bummer. And so when Jason came to me, I was like, yeah, like I really want to do. Like you know, call it like a weed for the people type brand. This is before. Catalyst was running around the screen and we for the people every day.

Speaker 1:

I'm for the people I love it.

Speaker 3:

Our inspiration was really like everyday man's weed, like this, this concept of shareable cannabis, like bring People together around cannabis and not necessarily making it exclusive or so premium that, like novice user can't walk in and feel comfortable. We wanted to make something that was like super approachable and you know sort of different like everyone else was trying to be, this like proverbial, like High-end brand for like the soccer mom or the cannabis 2.0 consumer.

Speaker 3:

Yeah, we wanted to make something for like it was the only pitch in 2018 that investors wanted to hear and that like really anyone wanted to hear and we were lucky. You know we built something for ourselves and you know, turns out there was a massive community of people that had been smoking weed but also felt the same way we did and I think the like the concept of shareability and like bringing people together around cannabis, like we lived that from the really early days of the brand and it really helped tell people who we were and how we worked. You know we threw massive events in LA and really brought people together around cannabis and like cannabis being fun and accessible and not, you know, over complicating it with crazy strain names and things like that. You know we appreciate genetics, we appreciate where the plant comes from, but we also recognize that, like consumers Don't all understand that nuance and like the difference between an RS 11 and a RS 34 or something like is lost on quite a large portion of people that consume cannabis.

Speaker 1:

Yeah, I, as a like, just digging into like the I'm gonna use some like very like startup be like terms for this is like the customer identification that you went through, I Think is really like. It just brings me back to Kind of my tech days, right, like you start with a customer that has a problem and you solve the problem. I think so many people in the cannabis industry Start with a customer and they just want to sell to the customer. Right, it's like we're gonna sell to soccer moms, but it's like what's the pain that you're actually solving for that soccer mom and how are you meeting them where they are?

Speaker 1:

The interesting thing about you is that you identified a Consumer that has a problem and you knew exactly where they were because you were that person and like a percent you know, oftentimes when we're working with companies, it's they aren't always the consumer, right, because it's like well, how many of you are there? But in this particular case there are many because, like Leo, wheat is expensive because there's so many taxes and so many like arduous, just like processes that make the supply chain super inefficient. So I Mean that that customer base is there. They know about the product, they, they care about people that that care about the product, you know, and it's like it's kind of like a, a perfect Opportunity, right. Not easy, we will get into that in a little bit, but it's. It is actually a definable Problem statement which I think a lot of cannabis companies fail to actually establish.

Speaker 3:

The funny part of that, though, is how difficult it was to sort of convince Investors of the need for our business when we were starting it. It's like you know, we started old pal. We were really lucky. It scaled super quickly. Like we started old pal, virtually no money, and so we quickly needed to raise money, because neither Jason and myself had it, and Oftentimes the person on the other end of the table didn't understand the problem.

Speaker 3:

For the consumer, that was the price of weed, and, like you had to do the math for them of like hey, a heavy cannabis user can easily smoke one or two eighths a week. You know, if you say an average premium eighth is 50 or 60 bucks, it's a hundred dollars a week, it's fifty two hundred dollars a year. Like that's the vacation the average American family can't afford the child care they don't have. Like, when you start to like actually explain to someone with a lot of means like what an additional five thousand dollars is for the average family, it starts to really make sense of like yeah, like they would much rather like buy a great product at a great price than buy this ultra premium, exclusive thing that doesn't really fit how they consume In any other aspect of their life.

Speaker 2:

Well, and so you have this, this consumer that you identified. I think it really speaks to this kind of proverbial why and I know that we'll talk more about that, but I think one of the things in my opinion of what I think makes old pal iconic is the imagery and and like the way that you have clearly Managed that the brand itself. So you had this, why you had this consumer. You were talking with investors about it, but how did the actual brand come to be the name, the imagery logo, kind of that whole thing? Talk us through that.

Speaker 3:

We were so lucky on that side of me and myself being lucky, my partner, jason, has an eye for aesthetic that I definitely don't for lack of a better way to put it like he's a brand visionary, like really looks at aesthetics and can understand like what can play where. And he identified land is this amazing, amazing agency that we really wanted to work with on this project and land at the time, like you know, they were a couple million dollar agency. There is no way, as a start up, we were gonna go to pick a guy's, do our whole brand for us and Will pay you when we can pay you. Like it just wasn't really when we were at in terms of resources. You know we started working with land before you have a single investor in the project and so the deal with land was they were basically our co-founders. You know, when we started the business, it was me, jason, our other partner, ted, and then land. And you know those early ideation sessions before even knew the brand was going to be called old power. We're just talking about the idea of what it was going to be like. We can't share ability like we had all these like super fun sessions where it was like us land, a couple other early creative folks that really help us with the brand, and like we've rift on it for maybe a couple weeks and then it was probably I think it was Ryan one of the founders of land.

Speaker 3:

Ryan Rhodes was around the time his birthday and he went out for his birthday and I guess he does this every year but he makes a fire and goes out with his dogs and just kind of reflects on the year and just thinks about it like he's out in sort of rural Texas. And so we had a call like a day or two after his birthday and Ryan just like showed up to the call and had, you know, I think I got early sketch of the old pal shepherd and he had the words just, old pal, and for all of us it clicked, like it was just like there wasn't really a moment of Iterating or suggesting other things. It was like no, no, that like it checked all the boxes. Are biggest fear was like if we were going to be able to get the actual trademark. And Once we did a little bit of work and saw that there was like a path on that side, we it was sort of like all steam ahead on that and you know, the nice part of having lamb is our partner on the brand was like they cared about it in a way different than your typical agency customer relationship. Like they, they viewed this brand as part of their portfolio and something that reflected on them. And so, whether it was a cell sheet for the customer, whether it was a little postcard, whether it was displays and dispensaries, you know, for the first two years of old pal like Ryan and Caleb looked at literally every piece of material that ever went out with our brand name on it.

Speaker 3:

And those guys, like you know, when you think about the work they do, it's mountain valley water, it's downtown coffee, it's a beer, it's brands that are real and big and that live in sort of like the traditional CPG world, and so we really benefited both from having those guys and their input but also from the portfolio of people around them. Like you know, we got to pick up a lot of talent that we're working on stumptown creative stuff and work on mountain valley creative stuff and like pull from that when in the early days of our brand, we got a lot more, I'd say, horsepower behind it than the average brand can afford to have behind them. And then, culturally, like we were so aligned with land that it made working together easy. Like they're, you know I'd say, closer to artists than like commercial business people. Like they know how to run a business and they're smart. Like their process is not rooted in commercialization, it's rooted in giving you the best possible design for what you're looking for. It's sort of on you, in working with them, to figure out how to massage that into a business and make those two things come together.

Speaker 3:

And so it was interesting like we we really built with them and also had to Help them come to see the light of. Like you know, we're not Stumptown, we can't have a four dollar bottle. Like we're sold in a mile or bag. So how do we make a mile or bag awesome? You know they came up with the ready to roll pouch, which was a little bit more unique and you know that little bit of special flair. But you know it was an awesome process. And like such a cool experience to work with such talented people.

Speaker 3:

Like the shop in Austin where we went out to work with them on building this brand, like there were like motorcycles hanging from the ceilings on chains and like it was just like the whole vibe of land was just like A wild group of people to get to be around and work with in terms of just what they were doing for us and what they were doing for the rest of the portfolio we were. We were really blessed to get to have them on the team that I.

Speaker 1:

So there's two things that really stood out to me one You're truly are lucky to get. I mean to have a one and done like reviving the whole business, one and done like review one design and that ends up what you end up using in trademarking. Have you guys? Have you guys either of you've been through like the arduous process of oh I mean many iterations of like five thousand designs?

Speaker 2:

and never feeling like it's just right.

Speaker 3:

Well, the nice thing of like working with people that talented is like I read the book good to great, like I'm not like blown away, like sold on it, but like the thing that stuck out to me was like letting the right people drive the boat.

Speaker 3:

Like just get good people in the boat and let them drive, and like I've had the experience before of working with like a designer that's like a friend that has Photoshop and like they're, you know, trying to make it as designer and they sort of give you things and you're like maybe I don't know, like because of the early days of a brand, I think it's hard to look at any logo and be like this is the one.

Speaker 3:

The nice thing with land was like their resume was so untouchable in terms of the brands they've worked on and what they've created and we knew we liked that old school Americana aesthetic which is sort of like their signature look when once they said it was good, it would have been foolish for like myself or Jason to argue with them just from like a.

Speaker 3:

I love that. It would be like them telling us like what we should go in the back. Like you know, we had trust that we were working with the right people and like we had put a lot of work into getting them to want to work with us where, I don't know we were really even in a position to be like. This doesn't work, even if that's what we had thought and we were super lucky, like the aesthetic, the brand, it all spoke to us out of the gate and so it was like one thing. We didn't need to call it, put all that work into which the early days of old pallets scaled so quickly that having a third partner that was just thinking about the brand really allowed us to think about everything else and make sure that the business actually worked and did what it need to.

Speaker 2:

You did really design the business and we haven't talked about this yet but as an asset-like brand, which means that you didn't invest in building operations to actually manufacture and produce the brand. You are all in on the brand and so, even though you were needing to spend time on operations and probably launching the supply chain and the sales channels and all of those things, the business from the get-go had a hypothesis about the brand being particularly valuable and that that's what you are investing in to build. Isn't that right?

Speaker 3:

Yeah, and that was like again to give my partner, jason, credit like he'd had businesses before this. This was sort of like my first go at it and a big thing that he always pushed on me was I tried to say yes to everything in the early days was focus and just like how important it was to focus and like looking back now we've been doing this almost six years. We are so lucky that we are focused on being a brand because I've seen it with our own business when cash gets tight, these sort of like other projects you're working on become less and less of a priority. And if you run a giant indoor grow or you have a giant greenhouse, if the price of biomass starts tanking, your number one objective is to just keep enough money coming your door to keep the greenhouse in business, your flower brand or whatever else, it's sort of an afterthought, because you have your factor and if your factory goes out of business, everything dies.

Speaker 3:

And so for us being able to be laser focused on being a brand, it allowed us to invest every single dollar we've invested into the brand, going to brand equity and to growing the brand, whether it's partnerships, parties, swag for consumers, whatever. It is like those dollars went to building this brand and making this brand have more awareness and more equity value behind it and more of an ability to do deals across the country. That's sort of the I would say, the biggest benefit of the asset by model. Being able to focus on just being our brand allowed us to keep it tight to make sure we work with partners that believe that we believe and to not be beholden to one specific market or asset or anything else.

Speaker 2:

Yeah, it was a pretty different and unique model. When you started doing that, I didn't know a lot of folks that were taking the asset like approach in 2018. And I think a lot of us were watching it happen and being like is that allowed, Can you do that? And then it was like, oh okay, I guess you can and wow Well there was a moment there it wasn't super clear.

Speaker 3:

There was one draft in 2018 of the regs that looked like it was going to completely forbid the model, which was a bit spooky for us. But we found the model, I would say, partially through necessity. We started, old pal, with like 20 grand of credit card debt. We didn't have $10 million to go buy a license. We had a ton of packaging show up and then Jason and I had to convince someone to put weed in it and bring it to market With our resources. We weren't going to be buying a farm, but Jason's background was like as a lawyer and I started throwing around this idea of like well, what if we just partner with people, like we're good at selling and marketing, we get a royalty. And he sort of helped massage that into a business model, if you will.

Speaker 3:

And it's funny, in the early days of this business, the number one question we got from investors were like well, let us give you some money, you go buy a farm, you verticalize, you pick up all this margin. And we were just so resistant to it for a few reasons. One, we're not growers. I've grown weed before in houses and things, but, like you know, I've not been a scaled farmer, I've never run hundreds of thousands square feet of canopy which is like in and of itself, a massive business undertaking and skill set and we thought it would be a huge distraction from building the brand of old pal which, like you know, we sort of take a view that if you'd have a 20, 30, 40 year time horizon on this thing, like brands are what's going to matter. You know, I don't know what infrastructure matters in cannabis in 10 years. I don't know how the regulations are created. I don't know what happens with hemp. I don't know what happens with interstate commerce, international commerce. For us, like, there's just so many question marks that we want to work with the best possible people, we can work with as many markets as possible and we want to make sure that we're here for the future.

Speaker 3:

Like the brands that we looked at when we were making old pal, none of them were created in even five or 10 years like you start looking at, like truly iconic brands that create over 20, 30, 40, 50 years and like the thing that they all sort of do and do well is they stay in business for 20, 30, 40 years, continuing to deliver on that message and it becomes realer and realer and realer. Like you know, you start to look at like a Levi's or a brand like that. It's like they didn't just make great jeans for five years. And people are like, yeah, levi's, like it's like it was a, you know, 50 hundred year pursuit and we sort of wanted to build old pal in a way that we knew the brand could live on for that same amount of time. And you know, attaching it to any one specific asset in the country would just be scary.

Speaker 3:

Like you know, look at what's happening in Ohio right now. They're the voters voted to have adult use cannabis and the regulators are trying to undo that. You know who's to say that? The regulators in New York don't decide they don't want to have legal cannabis tomorrow and no one keeps their life. Like you know, just the future is so ambiguous and so unclear to us that we sort of wanted to be able to focus on building something we knew could exist in the long run. You know what it looks like and how it exists in 20 years would be really hard to say, but I think we feel confident the brand will be in as many markets as can be and, you know, pushing our message with as many consumers as possible.

Speaker 1:

Well, let's, let's, let's talk about that part a little bit, because, like, building it is one thing, but you know, building it they don't necessarily come, especially in the cannabis industry, and so marketing in the cannabis industry is unique it was, I think, the nice way to put it. How have you guys gone about successfully marketing and now approaching what 15 different markets like, yeah, what's the trick? I mean, it's not like we have access to, you know, super Bowl commercials. Well, some people have figured it out, but not broadly right, and resources are always a pain.

Speaker 3:

Yeah, no, I think. Look for us. Like marketing has always been something we want to be consistent with, but that we've always pushed locally, for lack of a better way to put it. Like the right way to market in Massachusetts isn't the right way to market in Pennsylvania, isn't the right way to market in California, and like we've had a lot of learnings around the way, you know, the simplest being like, hey, palm trees, like probably get those out of the marketing. You know we're a national brand, we're not a California brand, and you know, nothing pisses a budtender in Massachusetts off more than seeing palm trees in a beautiful beach scape. They're like dude, like it's fucking Boston. In the winter it is cold.

Speaker 1:

Like don't show me.

Speaker 3:

Literally, but like it was actually like a really like like the imagery and like getting imagery that can play across multiple markets and figuring out ways to do local photo shoots and things like that were like really big learnings. And like you know, we had an amazing VP of marketing in the past, an amazing CMO, when we started the business and like it's funny how our marketing really changed over the years. Like the first year or two of old pal it was super event heavy, like big events, driving brand awareness, making sure people sort of saw us, making noise and knew who we were. Like year two and a half three of the business we really started doing more brand collaborations and getting more it's like mainstream thing was like we did a collaboration with Igloo, we did an album collaboration to make surfboards and I'd say those first like college four years, four and a half years of old pal, we were super trade focused. Our marketing people at the time were like really amazing at executing in-store events as the brand grew up and we had to scale even more. Like our most recent VP of marketing was early hire at Hippies and then was in wine marketing after that and she really like has brought a, I'd say new level of visual merchandising to our brand. You know, one of the most difficult things over the past five years for us has been how do you consistently show up in 12 or 13 different markets with 12 or 13 different rules, with 12 or 13 different configurations of products and have them look similar, give a similar vibe to the consumer and all of those things? The past few months of our new VP has been a ton of fun of just like getting consistent displays for our shops across the country and selling in sort of like what next year's assortment looks like and really I'd say tightening up that part of our business.

Speaker 3:

But you know, we've always sort of like felt it important to get out in the field and interact with bud tenders and buyers and people in stores. You know old pal is sold nationwide somewhere between like 12 and 1500 retailers. I'd be shocked if I haven't walked through the door of 300 of them at least. You know like we as a company, like we won't sign up to be in a market if we can't have someone on the senior team be there at least once a quarter, which, when you start to think about that in terms of the number of markets we're in becomes a lot of travel. Like we're on 12 shelves today. Nationwide that's 48 trips a year for senior management outside of our people on the ground, sort of driving engagement in those local communities. You know that drives the. It'll be 20 markets by the end of Q1 of 24. You know that's like 80 trips a year just for our senior leadership team, which is three people.

Speaker 3:

You know it's a work committed to being in these markets and being local and being authentic. And I think that gets lost on bigger businesses that are more focused on all their facilities and raising money and all the things they have to do to be a business. We're able to really focus on showing up and being authentic and being in market with the people pushing our products, which I think is a, you know, a massive like advantage and like the biggest thing you can do in this industry when you're not you know we're not a celebrity brand, we're not affiliated with a celebrity, we don't have celebrity investors, like our whole following is built on sort of like being authentic and people resonating with what it is we're doing. I think it's really important, when that's who you are, that you get out there and actually do it with your partners. You know we do local give back programs through our legalized humanity brand, which is sort of like our more altruistic side of the business.

Speaker 3:

And, like you know, recently we did a blanket drive in Arizona for the unhoused. You know it was cold winter, all those things. It wasn't like we just put out donation bins, like our people in market were out there doing the collections and then actually going out and passing the blankets out. They partnered with Trueleave and one other dispensary chain and they got out in the field and we're giving blankets to unhoused people and like going and doing the work of being a part of that local community. I think that's really where we've stood out over the past five, six years of like showing up and doing it. You know we're a small team. We're only like 13 people. We're not necessarily able to make a million dollar donation to someone and like have the big check BRPR moment. We need to actually show up and do the work because it's sort of who we are and what our ethos are.

Speaker 1:

Was that a notable moment when you ex the number of markets you're in exceeded the number of team members you had?

Speaker 3:

So in our office there's like two people that are in office almost every day and it's me and Ardell, and that's been like the number one thing he grills me on is like when we're going to be in more markets than people. Right now I think we're like one more people than markets, but in Q1, that'll definitely flip and you know we'll do a little cheers or something to celebrate and I, like small little group over here, love it.

Speaker 2:

I want to highlight too, because, since we're talking about building a brand and there's a lot of folks that maybe are looking to learn and think about their own brand, you were talking about visual merchandising and how you've been stepping it up, and one thing that I know from the conversations that we've had is just some of the creative ways that you've thought about that. Like, for instance, in Florida, the packaging that a consumer receives the product in is very bland. Based on the rules, it's like most likely is has almost no branding on it, and so then how do you show up as a brand in a place like Florida? And what you reminded me when we talked one day was that that doesn't mean that you can't have the traditional old pal packaging on display in the store. Maybe it doesn't have product in it, and that's not what the customer might be passed by the budtunder when they purchase it, but at least when they walk into the store, they're going to see and visualize the brand as you would aspirationally like them to see the product, and I thought that was just like seemed so obvious, but also something that so many folks have forgotten, especially as we've started to see some of the the newer adult use.

Speaker 2:

Markets don't allow open retail and so there isn't an opportunity for customers, when they come in, to pick up the product, hold it in their hand and look at it, and maybe everything is behind the counter or, even worse, it has to be in a white bag. And so I think that that is really cool, that you guys realize that and and I think it's an example of kind of regulatory navigation. That that's that's really clever and I'm wondering, like, how you've come up with those ideas and yeah, yeah, we have a really collaborative work environment where I'd say up those 13 people.

Speaker 3:

Everyone's opinion gets heard and you know, when it comes to visual merchandising, like there's a lot of brainstorming that goes on, like you know. Florida is one example, canada is another, even Washington. In Washington you can't open product in a dispensary. So you know, historically we didn't sell weed in bags with windows like the Grades flower. It seemed like it wasn't the right moves to do. I understand the whole market shifted that way and maybe I was a little late there, but in Washington for the longest time, like we were selling into a market where you can't open a bag so you can't display the product and we didn't have windows so it was really hampering ourselves through. We started packing our bags at the first bag and every case pack came in a fully clear bag. People could look at the nugs and hold it under the light and at least get some information on what was in the bag besides the brand, and it really helped.

Speaker 3:

You know, new York, we went super conservative on our packaging because we printed that packaging very early, knowing we want to be in the market day one. You know we definitely could have pushed it a little more. But we know that now we've already printed the packaging. So when you look at our display, is there a little bit more fun and sort of show more the brand, eat those. The packaging catch up. You know, for us, like we've always taken the view that, like, regulations are the rules, you're not gonna fight them and if you want to be in the market you just sort of figure out how to work with them.

Speaker 3:

In Pennsylvania when we launched, the regulators had decided that medicine should come in. Soft packaging doesn't protect its integrity. So when we launched in the market, every single thing sold had to come in a plastic drum there. Hideous, I hated. It really hurt me to my core to see our brand name on one of those drums. The same time, like, we want to be in that market. It's a thriving medical market. There's a ton of patients and we believe in access to cannabis.

Speaker 3:

So we made the most beautiful looking drum we can make and the moment pouches were allowed we stopped selling the city of things and moved to pouches. You know we take the view that the consumers the most important part of this industry and so Getting in front of them early, even if it means compromising on brand aesthetic to a degree is something we've gotten comfortable with. You know, did those drums ever show up on our social media? Did we push that imagery out to the country? Hello, like we pretended it wasn't happening. But for the consumer in that market, we still merchandise them as well as we could. We still highlighted the product benefits. We did everything we could for that consumer because we wanted them to have old town, have the old pal experience, even if it was slightly different.

Speaker 2:

So I've got a question the collaborative work environment and and I think, as the CEO of old pal, that solely puts you in the chair of being a leader in this space, and I think of you as a pretty humble leader. You probably don't even like me calling you that, but I'm wondering, just like, how you approach your own leadership and how that translates back into your team and the work that you're doing. Give me some stuff about that, yeah.

Speaker 3:

So you know, I was really blessed when we started this business. I've done most of the roles in a brand like ours previously, not on the marketing side, but I've been a sales rep. I've done the hours in the car, stuff behind tables and events. Like I've understood a lot of what the people beneath me had to do to make the brand get where it was going. I think, like from a leadership level, like we've never asked someone to do something that we wouldn't get in the car and go do ourselves, and it goes a really long way. The other thing is like we have a running joke at old pal, but I'm like the most accessible person in cannabis and like you know, while we say it as a joke, like it's kind of true. Like I respond to everyone that reaches out to me, whether it's a DM on LinkedIn, instagram. Like somebody gets my phone number, my email. Like I've been a cold outbound sales guy and like, even if it's to say like hey, I'm not interested, it's very rare that like we're not Going to respond, we're not going to speak to you, are not going to Look at working with someone because, like Our whole brand is not rooted in exclusivity, it's rooted in inclusivity and working with people and being accessible and being part of the community and being kind. And so, like I'd say, we've taken that approach from the top down. Like we have a number of partners across the country that, like, literally, we're in the process of getting their licenses, and sent us a note of like hey, love the brand, love to chat, and like we spoke about it, we spoke with our views and, like six months, a year, two years later, they got their license and they circle back like hey, we still love to license the brand and we were stoked to work with them. You know, like our CFO sort of like says that, like, as our business has matured, we become a lot more like a consulting business where we help our partners sort of Grow up their own business to be able to work with brands and to understand, like, what our needs are as a brand.

Speaker 3:

And you know, we've sort of like tried to take the approach to be kind and easy to work with. You know, our whole business is built on partnerships. We're not only selling to a consumer, like we're selling to our partners across the country. They could choose to stop making old now any day they want, and so for us like we have to be kind, we have to be fun to work with, we have to be easy going because Otherwise people just aren't going to work with us and then our consumers won't have access to our product, don't have to rethink the whole business. And so you know, we've really tried to take an approach of being a good actor, doing what we say we're going to do and like Supporting the communities that made this business possible. Like I think Five or six of us are mentors through our academy, which is the Social equity business that helps, or social equity program that helps, like match mentors and mentees.

Speaker 3:

You know, like my mentee in New York just got their license issue, I think, yesterday. They're opening up in New York in the next day or two. But like we try to sort of show up and put our not our money, because we don't have a ton of it to put our brand where our mouth is and, you know, put in the work and partner with people and sort of like be old bell because again, there's not A celebrity or a cause tied to our business. Like our business is who we are and what we're doing and we need to show people that and resonate, have it resonate with them or it's sort of a it's pretty hollow.

Speaker 1:

I think just the fact that we're talking to you today is kind of like this is resonating right, like you received a text from an array was it Monday? And in your gear today. So we really appreciate that. But there's been just a few things that have stood out to me in this conversation where I could very, very much reframe it into how another CEO might respond and how that would define their brand versus yours.

Speaker 1:

And you know I'll just pick on like Adam Bierman. Right, we know what the brand men had or has. It will just say in those days I don't think he would use words like lucky over and over again or words like blessed. And I just appreciate that about you because I think what that kind of just openness and optimism that you bring to the table is what attracts brilliant people to you, and you do have the skill set of trusting those people like there. You know there's an old adage is Hire the right people and then trust them to do their work right, and the tail of the brand is exactly exactly that. So I just I just want to say it for you because you're clearly not the type of person that's going to to your own horn that loudly. I just very much appreciate the positivity that you bring to the whole ethos of the brand.

Speaker 3:

No, I appreciate it's. Like you know, we've also been blessed that like having such a good looking brand attached like it attracts amazing talent, and the people that have worked for us, like they all speak so highly about the brand, whether they're former employees or current employees, you know we've had just such bad ass people come through the doors and go on to do ridiculous things in the industry and you know it's funny. Like our CFO like often gives this line we're hiring people. Like we're not the highest paying brand in cannabis business. In cannabis we're a small company and we're not Wildly flush with capital like we're running a great business. We have to be disciplined about every dollar you spend so the business lives on. And like we recently hired a VP marketing like he told her directly he was like hey, we're not the highest paying company in cannabis, this will be the best job you have. Like if you need the time to go pick your kids up from school, like we have the respect for that, we're not going to Be harassing you at three thirty. Be like where are you? It's like no, you have to go, do your thing. Do your thing. Like we trust you to sort of like Be a professional, get your shit done and like, as long as that's happening, everything else works, and I think that attitudes allowed us to really bring a lot of like.

Speaker 3:

I always joked like adults, but like when we started this company, jason, I were twenty eight years old, like we didn't have a world of experience to pull from. The respect we had for people that new things we didn't know is what allowed us to convince them to work with us, and those people have largely Cap the business and business. Cap the business, organize, cap the business. Going the right direction I'm and so like not to just keep you like we were lucky, but having such a beautiful brand and doing things the right way has continued to attract, I'd say, the right time.

Speaker 3:

Where is, like Other cannabis companies, talent get scared away by things like did you guys file all your eighty three hundred forms for all the cash you collected? Like, are all of your owners actually on the company or is this one guy a felon so he's did a back door deal back? I, like you, know we have a very clean business. You know we've never had a license so we can never do anything non-compliant like we've Been forced to play by the rules in a way. A lot of other folks in the space have it, and so you know we've been lucky to be able to have such great people come into our ecosystem, help with the business out.

Speaker 2:

That's a great rusty, and I just appreciate constantly the way that you, even the way that you just talk about we, like we're asking you about your leadership and you can even use the word I it's like not even a vernacular. That's amazing.

Speaker 3:

but I will ask I become a glorified.

Speaker 2:

You got it. It's cool man we all day long is an incredible ethos so. So just tell us, like as we're getting towards the end of the hour, just what's top of mind for you right now.

Speaker 3:

So I'd say, like, for me personally, the top of mind with our business are two things. The one is like we're going to grow quite a bit in twenty, twenty four, geographically speaking and you know we have an amazing culture. Managing culture from afar is really interesting because, like, who you hire is just so important and we're really like blessed right now with who we have on the East Coast, like Jamie and Vince who run mass and PA and Maryland for us are epic. But like the East Coast for us in Q one expands quite a bit, like we're going to add Vermont, new Jersey, relaunch Michigan, talking in Connecticut and like all of a sudden it goes from like a three market part of the country to like Eight market part of the country for us and just making sure the next person we hire fits in with those guys and gels real well and sort of like, can continue to have the culture we have here on the West Coast out East is really really important for us. And then I'd say, like what we've been telling most people, like everyone keeps asking what our twenty, twenty four plan looks like and I keep saying it's geo expansion and skew rationalization One of the things when you expand to so many different markets with so many different regulatory schemes is you end up with a lot of different configurations are ready to roll is five grams and some market seven grams and others and fourteen and others. It becomes just like a little bit convoluted.

Speaker 3:

And so you know we were rapidly expanding the brand. We had to get the skews out there now. I think this year will keep expanding the brand in terms of geo, but like you probably won't see Any, we have two skews coming out that are like sort of like with a partner and our cool collaborations and a lot of fun, but like in terms of like a new pre-roll configuration or something like that. I don't think 24 is the year of that for us. I think, if anything, it's tightening up what we do Set. Some of the innovation we're working on now can come out in 25. You know we just have a lot of skews in market today. We're launching something new. It can sort of miss the mark and be lost in all the noise of everything else we're already doing, where I think we wanna focus what we're doing so that we can then expand it again and do some new cool shit.

Speaker 1:

Yeah, old Pal is the first one that I saw do the pre-ground ready to roll. Has anyone tried to compete with you in that space site?

Speaker 3:

Yeah, we've seen it's usually MSOs doing it with their house brands. Truly it has their roll. One brand because we were just selling too well in their Arizona store so they had to do something. You know, we've seen a handful of people try to do it. It's weird in that, like that skew sounds so so, so simple but we've been selling a ground product for so long. There's a lot of nuance to how you store, how you dry, how you grind to achieve an optimal blend for like smokeability and, weirdly, like I think we're far ahead of the curve on that one, despite it being such a simple skew to put together. When I look at our competitors product on a regular basis, I'm like man, like we are light years ahead with this and it's become sort of our flagship product. It's the thing we have in every single market we're in. There's a handful of markets where it's called a ready to vape, because in Pennsylvania and Ohio you can't talk about combusting weed, you can only talk about vaping it.

Speaker 1:

So there's no pay proof? Have you built IP around the process?

Speaker 3:

Nothing you can actually protect, I'd say like trade secrets if you will. But you can't really get patent on grinding weed. But we've learned, just like moisture content, certain things like material, you do and don't want in the grinder to really create the optimal blend and then weirdly, depending on where you are in the country, you need a different grinding process. Just if they're not controlling for humidity and post-harvest as well, some of the more humid parts of the country. You just need to handle material differently.

Speaker 1:

Makes sense Fascinating. I'm gonna call my IP lawyers for you.

Speaker 3:

I was like I'll say, though, we also came out with our Primo blend not too long ago, which you can't do in California because it's not compliant here, but it's our infused, ready to roll, so we do that in Ohio and Arizona, and it's launching a couple other markets right now. That's like our pre-ground cannabis that everyone knows, infused with THCA, diamonds and live resin. That's been a really cool product for me, and that the shelf life of it is just so long, like the HTE, adds such a pronounced flavor that when you open that package, even if it's six months or nine months old, it still like punches you in the face, which we don't do a ton of work with extracts. So that's just been a fun product for us to bring to market.

Speaker 2:

Oh yeah, I'd love to try that. Well, unfortunately, we're getting close to the top of the hour, and so, for our regular listeners, you know what that means, which is that it's time for our last call, and this is when we turn it over to you, rusty, and this is your chance to make a lasting impression. So, rusty, what's your last call?

Speaker 3:

Man, I wish I had a better one. I just want to say thank you to you guys for having me on here. This has been a ton of fun, and if you want to learn more about our brand, check us out at oldtowcom. Our journals are really fun. We have how to roll a hash hole and all these different fun stories that Alina and the rest of the team put together. And if you want to check out any of our merch or see any of the cool stuff we sell, oldpalprovisioncom has it all. And, yeah, check us out on socials Our Instagram is a lot of fun at oldpal, and get in touch. We'd love to be helpful to anyone, however, we can be.

Speaker 1:

Love it, thank you, and we are lucky and blessed in everything to have you in our friend network. Rusty, thank you so much for coming on today. Knowledge bombs galore. I hope everyone out there building a brand listen to it. It really is how you build a brand with intention, and I just love it. It takes me back to Steve Jobs and how he would ensure that the font that was used in the emails was the same that was in the headers of corporate documents and the intentionality around. That is how a brand lasts for 30, 40, 50 years. So godspeed with that. Yeah, what a great show.

Speaker 1:

Tell us what you think, everyone. I'm so excited to be wrapping up the year. We're really gaining some steam here. We really do this for you. So these are our conversations, is what we love having to do, but who would you like to see? Introduce them to us, let us know. As always, we are a podcast. We're getting this thing going, so please subscribe, share it with your friends, your family. Maybe they'll learn a little something. We're doing this all together. Like I said, there's a lot going on. I think 2024 is going to be exciting, but a lot of the same stuff that we're used to a lot of fireworks, a lot of back and forth, a lot of two steps forward, one step back, and we're here for all of it. So until next time, that's the show. We'll talk to you soon.

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