LDP: Great Work Compounds Exponentially — It can take years, but consistent work and adaptation will always win. Also, don’t be upset if your company hasn’t taken off after a few years, this is normal. Just focus on making quality improvements to your products and services. Eventually the dam will break and when it does it will do so in a big way. I worked on different ideas for years and failed countless times before that, but I consistently got back up and tried something new. You’re always learning and with every failure is a new lesson etched into your brain. It may be a stereotype, but it’s an earnest one at that. Eventually, if you work hard continue to be creative and apply discipline, your life will take the shape you design for it. Solace Technologies looked like an abject failure for our first 2 years and then in our 3rd year it finally took off.
EA: Enjoy every moment — Starting a business will be an unpredictable ride, but the early days are the best days. It’s hard to recognize that when you’re in the heat of it, but looking back at the journey is the most rewarding part of it all. All of the downtimes will create some great stories or lessons for you to look back on. If everything worked perfect it would be fairytale. One thing I wish we would have done better is document our journey, it would have been cool to take more photos and videos to look back at.
As part of our series called “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Began Leading My Company” I had the pleasure of interviewing Eric Anwar & Lorenzo De Plano, Co-Founders of Solace Vapor, the first open bottle nicotine salt company. In their early twenties, they bootstrapped Solace into a leading player in the market, and were acquired by Turning Point Brands (NYSE: TPB) in 2019. Since the acquisition they joined the TPB marketing leadership team to head up their New Ventures (Nu-X) department. Both Anwar and De Plano are First Generation Americans and avid entrepreneurs, passionate about innovation in the active ingredient space.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dive in, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started?
Lorenzo De Plano (LDP): I always admired the intersection between the arts and sciences. The concept of leveraging macro level thinking — often associated with creativity — and applying it to micro level analytical problem solving excited me from an early age. I found that business — and entrepreneurship more specifically — was the most conducive environment to enable this ambidextrous focus in 21st century America.
Before and during college I worked for a number of different startups, which ranged from tech companies to traditional product focused businesses. I used this time to learn about how different organizations worked and also to try out different roles within an organization. Towards the end of my time at college, I started a business with Eric Anwar (DPGW) that specialized in marketing, branding and research for both startups and large organizations. After building DPGW up to a satisfactory size, we handed it off to our next in command Ben Logan and invested in and started Solace Technologies with Brendan McDermott and Jomie Raymond.
We subsequently built Solace Technologies up to doing 1 dollar — 2m dollars / month in revenue before selling it to Turning Point Brands in 2019 (NYSE: TPB). The purpose of our sale was largely centered around enabling us to build a first ever, all in one: product accelerator, marketing engine and investment vehicle within a larger organization like Turning Point Brands. So far, the results have been very exciting.
Eric Anwar (EA): Both of my parents are immigrants from two different parts of the world (Russia and Bangladesh), so I grew up in a household that was very diverse. Overall, education was the main core agenda my parents had for my brother and I, but they embraced a lot of our risk taking and encouraged us to try new things, it was very much so “go to college and then do what you want to do”, which really shaped my thinking.
Early on, I realized I was very interested in both art and business and finding a synergy between the two became a large ambition of mine. I loved the concept of branding and creating a product that people can relate to and interact with on a daily basis. I think that concept is really what drew me to create product companies. During college, I started my first product company (Current Bag Co.) that infused design with functionality, Current became the stepping stone to my road of entrepreneurship. Shortly after, Lorenzo and I had spent a lot of time discussing new ventures, we shared the same vision for business and creativity which led us to create our advertising agency and eventually Solace.
What was the “Aha Moment” that led to the idea for Solace Vapor? Can you share that story with us?
LDP: We started Solace Technologies in early 2015 before cannabis and nicotine vaping had become everyday products. At the time, we saw vaping as a disruptive technological force with amazing benefits to everyday smokers.
When I looked at the data, there were — and still are — more than 400,000 people in the United States and 6 million globally that die every year from smoking cigarettes. These were staggering numbers. When we investigated cannabis, we saw similar jaw dropping statistics. For example, from 2001–2008 ACLU reported that over 8 million people had been arrested for cannabis possession. We believed that researching, developing and deploying technologies in these burgeoning fields could help mitigate these issues.
Ultimately, whether or not we changed the world for the better will be determined over a long span of time. However, one thing is certain. We were able to disrupt the status quo in our industry and become a globally recognized company in a very short period of time and with very few resources.
Can you tell us a story about the hard times that you faced when you first started your journey? Did you ever consider giving up? Where did you get the drive to continue even though things were so hard?
EA: There are countless stories about the hard times we faced when we began our journey and ultimately, I believe that it is similar to the narrative of most entrepreneurs. We launched our first company (DPGW) in my apartment in downtown LA and soon after “upgraded” to a 500sqft basement janitors’ closet in the TransAmerica building downtown, this is where Solace was born. We worked out of that office for 18 months and that period was by far the most challenging since the inception of our journey. Between the lack of sunlight, long work hours and the natural ups and downs with starting a company, that office was the true war room for us.
I think the thought of giving up crosses every entrepreneur’s mind and the difference between continuing forward, and pushing through the down times, boils down to the long-term vision. It’s very easy to give up when you’re focused on immediate success or immediate gratitude, but if you instead focus on incremental progress daily, it compounds into something special and is a much more sustainable lifestyle. The drive to continue moving forward was simply following that long term vision and telling ourselves “one more day” when days were gloomy. If you keep telling yourself one more day on all of the hard days, eventually many of those great days will come. Ultimately, through all of the ups and downs, it was a journey that molded us and I’m grateful that we got to experience those impactful moments in our career.
So, how are things going today? How did your grit and resilience lead to your eventual success?
EA: I like to believe that our resilience has paid off in a number of ways and in many cases, we did achieve the success we were looking for at a specific period of time, but that journey is never ending. I don’t believe that I will ever feel like I have achieved success, I think it’s a subjective term and as you succeed in one aspect there is always excitement to grow into a new challenge. I think maintaining a level of gratitude for what you have accomplished, while retaining the curiosity to see what is next is the balanced formula to keep an individual mentally stimulated.
It’s funny, in the early days, Lorenzo would say “once we achieve 20k in monthly revenue, we will have made it” and then after we accomplished that milestone, he would say “once we achieve 100k in monthly revenue we will have made it”. To this day, he continues to say these “Once we achieve (enter whatever goal is top of mind) we will have made it” things to me and we laugh because we both know it’s never ending, and that’s the beauty of it.
Nonetheless, I’m happy with where we are at and we’re both excited to continue to grow and flip through our life story one page at a time.
What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
LDP: We made more mistakes than probably most companies starting out, but it was our ability to adapt and pivot from those mistakes that made us successful. Many entrepreneurs get married to a successful practice of doing business and forget that the world is an ever-changing landscape. Unfortunately, if you don’t adapt, you will get eliminated.
When we sold Solace Technologies in 2019 it was with the intention of focusing on a wider range of active ingredients beyond simply nicotine, CBD, etc. We believed the future was moving towards an evolving landscape of active ingredients that would include a host of nutraceuticals and data driven nutrigenomics platforms. Many of our competitors in the industry thought we were crazy for moving our focus away from such a profitable business and selling it for the price we did (15.25m dollars). Now, most of those competitors are out of business.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lessons or ‘takeaways’ you learned from that?
EA: This is an easy one…and honestly quite embarrassing. After we had gained some significant market share for Solace in the United States, we began planning our expansion into foreign markets. Around this time, we had received inquiries from a China based e-liquid distributor who wanted to partner with us for our Asia expansion. Fast forward 2 weeks, we ended up in the middle of mainland China with no distributor in sight. It turned out that it was a total scam (he was a professional, like Leim Nielson in Taken). We ended up making the most of the trip, enjoyed some nice scenery and left the big loss with a smile on our face.
You are successful business leaders. Which three character traits do you think were most instrumental to your success? Can you please share a story or example for each?
- Curiosity — I believe that curiosity is an important trait that allows you to continue to learn, grow and adapt. As it comes to startups, curiosity is what drives innovation and continued exploration of new ideas.
- Discipline — Although it may seem generic and cookie cutter, discipline creates a solid foundation for entrepreneurship. From the start of our first venture, we always told ourselves we would treat our business like a job — start work at the same time every day (being late was not acceptable) and don’t take days off unless you’re feeling sick or it’s an emergency. Its sounds pretty obvious, but countless times I’ve heard young individuals say, “I want to be an entrepreneur because I can work my own hours and do what I want when I want” and although that may be true, I believe that methodology creates negative habits and inhibits the growth of a company and its culture.
- Creativity — When I say creativity, I don’t necessarily use it to imply an artistic nature to the things that you do, but rather to get creative with your resources. This trait especially applies to self-funded startups. We didn’t have much capital when we started our companies, so we had to learn to be creative with the human resources and capital resources we had. At an early stage you really learn the importance of stretching a dollar.
Which tips would you recommend to your colleagues in your industry to help them to thrive and not “burn out”?
LDP: Burning out is part of the process, don’t fight it, but rather push through it. The journey is fraught with countless trials and tribulations and this is normal. In entrepreneurship happiness is fleeting, but stress is constant. One helpful tactic to manage your stress during your journey is to contextualize your life within the context of the universe. This will make you and your problems seem small, which will help you clear your mind and appreciate events as they occur. This will also enable you to make more effective and less emotional decisions.
What are the most common mistakes you have seen CEOs & founders make when they start a business? What can be done to avoid those errors?
EA: Recently, I’ve seen a growing trend among entrepreneurs to spend a lot of time and energy around equity structures and pre-money valuations. I’m not saying that this isn’t important, but I’ve noticed new founders spending too much time on it. In many cases, a lot of the founders I’ve encountered spend a lot of money on legal fees during this time as well putting them in a deeper hole before they’ve made a dollar. I think that the early stages of developing a company should be filled with excitement and passion for building and creating. My partners and I didn’t sign operating until a year into our company, our excitement and focus was spent on trying to build a business with value. I would advise new founders to button up their agreements quickly, don’t spend too much time and money during the process and move on to building the business.
In your experience, which aspect of running a company tends to be most underestimated? Can you explain or give an example?
EA: Cash flow management, 100% — especially if you’re a product company. Products are expensive to develop and understanding how to properly order raw ingredients, packaging, etc. and how to time your ordering to maximize your cash flow is key to sustaining healthy growth. The last thing that you want is to have all of your liquidity tied up in inventory creating a bottleneck for marketing spend and other operating and growth expenditures.
Ok super. Here is the main question of our interview. What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Began Leading My Company”? Please share a story or an example for each.
1. Balance data and intuition to make decisions — When starting a company, it’s easy to get bogged down by data and even easier to make impulsive decisions based on feelings. It is important to balance these sentiments to make effective decisions. When I first started out, I believed data was king and I modeled everything based on data. Over the years, I realized that the more innovative and volatile the industry, the less reliable data will be to drive effective decisions. You need to balance these two forces and learn when to place more emphasis on either side.
2. Don’t Be A Perfectionist — As an entrepreneur you always want to make the best product and create the best customer experience. It is easy to let the pursuit of brand and product perfection delay a product iteration or release, but this can be detrimental. It’s better to launch and improve a product as you go rather than spend years making it perfect. Just remember, while you’re perfecting, your competitors could be gaining market share. I remember countless times where I labored over decisions regarding one typography over another. In retrospect, some of these decisions were less pivotal than I thought they were.
3. Great Work Compounds Exponentially — It can take years, but consistent work and adaptation will always win. Also, don’t be upset if your company hasn’t taken off after a few years, this is normal. Just focus on making quality improvements to your products and services. Eventually the dam will break and when it does it will do so in a big way. I worked on different ideas for years and failed countless times before that, but I consistently got back up and tried something new. You’re always learning and with every failure is a new lesson etched into your brain. It may be a stereotype, but it’s an earnest one at that. Eventually, if you work hard continue to be creative and apply discipline, your life will take the shape you design for it. Solace Technologies looked like an abject failure for our first 2 years and then in our 3rd year it finally took off.
4. Slow Growth isn’t Bad — People are enamored with hyper growth stories and massive capital raises. However, the faster your company rises, the more susceptible it is to fall equally as fast. Whether you’re a small business or a publicly traded company slow and steady always wins the race. Focus on building a company with a strong foundation, team and unified vision and it will pay you dividends for years to come. The longer it takes to build a business the more resilient it will be in an evolving landscape. There are countless companies and startups that skyrocketed up overnight and were worth billions before crashing back down to earth. In recent times this risk has only been magnified.
5. Be Flexible and Don’t Ignore Opportunity — In your early days, if you don’t have access to capital or personal financial reserves your focus shouldn’t be to become married to any one idea in particular. Be flexible, and more importantly, cover your bases financially. Without you at the helm your startup will cease to exist. It’s important you put yourself in a position where your resources are always growing, even marginally, so that you can cease a ripe opportunity when presented with it. There were countless times where my frugal habits have enabled me to snap on unique investments or business opportunities that have made me millions as a result. Never allow yourself to be in a state of capital erosion and don’t ignore existing or new opportunities because you’re focused on one business idea in particular.
- Don’t spread yourself thin — In the early stages of launching a company, there are many different avenues for your ideas and it’s usually coupled with the excitement to do them all. Do your homework, narrow your options and do a few things very well.
- Control what you can control and don’t worry about the rest — In every company there are variables that are out of your control, you can try your best to mitigate the risk of the things you cannot control, but don’t worry about every detail. Oftentimes, when you’re in the weeds of growing a company every detail seems so detrimental, but when you take a step back and look at the broader picture, it helps eliminate the worry of each and every detail and helps you think at a macro level.
- Balance your work and life — This is probably the most difficult thing to do. There is a lot of passion involved in starting a company and generally is pretty obsessive. As much as you want to work 24/7, make sure you allocate time for yourself mentally, physically and socially. This will help you endure the roller coaster of entrepreneurship and allow for long term mental clarity.
- Accept Failure — Everyone is going to fail in some aspect of business in both small and large ways. Don’t take every failure to heart, accept and learn from the mistakes and adapt quickly to keep the engine running.
- Enjoy every moment — Starting a business will be an unpredictable ride, but the early days are the best days. It’s hard to recognize that when you’re in the heat of it, but looking back at the journey is the most rewarding part of it all. All of the downtimes will create some great stories or lessons for you to look back on. If everything worked perfect it would be fairytale. One thing I wish we would have done better is document our journey, it would have been cool to take more photos and videos to look back at.
You both are people of great influence. If you could start 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. 🙂
EA: Create one large idea pot, where everyone around the world can share cool ideas that randomly pop into their head. I think there are so many people with great ideas and so many people who can use some inspiration for their new endeavors and it would be a fun place to browse and get inspired. I’m constantly thinking of a ton of ideas that would be fun to develop, but know that I would never pursue and I think it would be a cool thing to share them with others that may be interested and vice versa. And at the very least, maybe we would all just get a good laugh from everyone’s ideas.
LDP: I think that if everyone on earth could have one psychedelically induced experience in their lives that would make the world more empathetic, mature and selfless. I always liked the idea of movements that focused on enabling people to think independently and outside of the box. A movement like this wouldn’t immediately change the world, but it would certainly inspire someone that will change it.
How can our readers further follow you two online?
Instagram — https://www.instagram.com/lorenzodeplano/?hl=en
Instagram — @ericanwar
This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for the time you spent with this!