Get used to hearing the word “no.” Entrepreneurs must have thick skin, as “no” is a word we hear commonly. If you are easily influenced or demotivated by people saying no to you, then you must work on getting used to hearing it. In the early years, Simplifya was not easy. From potential clients to investors — so many people came up with reasons to say “no” to us. But we knew that what we were building would eventually start to make a difference and that bet has certainly paid off.
As a part of my series about “5 things I wish someone had told me before I became a founder” I had the pleasure of interviewing Marion Mariathasan, CEO and Co-founder of Simplifya, the leading regulatory and operational compliance software platform serving the cannabis industry. Marion is also a serial entrepreneur who has founded or advised numerous startups. He is an investor in 22 domestic and international companies, four of which he serves as a board member: Ceylon Solutions, a cannabis and non-cannabis software development company; Leafwire, the largest cannabis social network; ilios, a relationship app that matches users based on characteristics derived from astrology and numerology algorithms; and Simplifya. Marion is a regular guest speaker at events such as Denver Start-Up Week, Colorado University’s program on social entrepreneurship and the United Nations Global Accelerator Initiative.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?
I’m an entrepreneur who has spent the last 15+ years starting, building and selling companies. In 2015, I took an exit from my last venture and was looking for the next big opportunity. That’s when I serendipitously had a catch-up conversation with a couple of my friends over at Vicente Sederberg LLP who told me about how exciting the cannabis industry was and all the opportunities that were ahead. Vicente Sederberg is one of the leading law firms when it comes to cannabis; they had the foresight to realize that the industry lacked a simple, easy and cost-effective solution to help license operators stay compliant with the ever-changing regulations. It was from those conversations that Simplifya was born.
More broadly speaking, what brought me to the path of entrepreneurship was that I like to solve problems through strategic thinking, create software solutions to problems, and then build a roadmap, assemble a team, find the right investors and execute. Driving towards a vision while celebrating little wins is a major adrenaline rush for me.
Can you tell us a story about the hard times that you faced when you first started your journey?
It seems like so long ago when I look back to the beginning. While in my junior year of college, I started wondering about how big companies got their start. Who founded them, how they went from a small company to a successful company, and so forth. A friend told me about the Harvard Business Review and I started reading it avidly. I was so intrigued by the case studies and the wealth of information that it contained. I also started reading TechCrunch and was inspired by all the articles about various companies, the problems they solved, their founders, their paths, etc. This was truly the beginning for me. However, I had a massive hurdle to overcome. I didn’t go to an Ivy League college, nor did I have any direct or personal connections to investors or entrepreneurs, and lastly, I didn’t come from money. My parents were typical immigrant parents who worked six days a week, 16+ hours a day, to simply make ends meet. Nevertheless, I started my journey of learning everything I could about startups and entrepreneurship, and slowly trying to build connections so that I could at least sit down and speak with someone who would give me 30 minutes of their time to ask questions. I had many ideas for companies, but most of what I knew when I started my first company was self-taught; I had no mentors or anyone to guide me. I learned everything from reading and trial and error on my first idea. It was a long and painful process, but it’s one that has taught me a lot and I’m grateful for it.
Where did you get the drive to continue even though things were so hard?
When I initially started down the path of entrepreneurship, my drive was a mix of three things; my inner desire to solve problems, the need to make money so I could get my parents to retirement, and finally, to prove to myself that I didn’t need an Ivy League education, a wealthy family or a massive network to pave my own path to success.
So, how are things going today? How did grit and resilience lead to your eventual success?
Today, I feel like I live in a dream. I have the absolute honor of captaining the leading regulatory and operational compliance company in the cannabis industry, Simplifya. I am currently invested in 22 companies — cannabis and non-cannabis — and serve on the board of five companies. Together, my brother and I have been able to get my parents to retire; we bought the house literally next door to mine and moved them in. I have an amazing group of people around me that consists of my kids, family, friends, colleagues, investors and partners, and I have been able to slowly fulfill my philanthropic desires to work behind the scenes helping children and animals. I can’t think of anything more I could want at this point in my life.
I think success is a very relative term. For me, success was measured by being able to prove something to myself and find a path where I could become an entrepreneur to solve problems, pave my own way, take care of the people around me, and eventually, create jobs and take care of those I don’t yet know. While I think “success” in whatever form comes easier for some than others, what I’ve learned is that if you really want something badly enough, patience, passion and persistence will eventually pay off. But I do think that the good energies one puts out into the world also play an important role. I believe that as long as one continues to work hard, treat people kindly (regardless of whether you have anything to gain from them or not), and do things ethically and with integrity, dreams can come true.
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?
I made the simple mistake of thinking that everyone reads every email that lands in their inbox. In my earlier years I spent countless hours emailing and messaging people I didn’t know, trying to meet with them, trying to ask them questions about entrepreneurship, how they built their companies, if they would be interested in hearing my idea and so on. Little did I know that the best way to get in touch with someone you don’t know — especially people who are super busy — is to have a mutual contact facilitate an introduction. After receiving virtually no response to the thousands of emails, I finally learned that it was time to get out there and start networking to actually get to know people.
What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
I think what makes Simplifya so unique is purely around what we do. We took probably one of the most difficult tasks in the industry and tried to make it easy; keeping license operators compliant. We’ve since expanded on that mission and have created solutions for government, financial institutions, insurance and more. We have ingested over 12 million words of regulation to-date. We built our own proprietary technology platform from the ground up and we filled the company with incredible people who are not only passionate about the industry, but also about solving problems. Additionally, we are now launching what we think is the most amount of compliant payments, commerce and loyalty products for the industry.
Which tips would you recommend to your colleagues in your industry to help them to thrive and not “burn out”?
Because the cannabis industry is still so new, keep innovating and keep adding value as best as you can, because our industry serves a vital purpose in this world. The single thought that we are paving the way for the future — for what I think will be a global industry that heals and helps people — should drive each of us even when we want to give up.
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?
There are many people who have helped me, inspired me and believed in me along the way. My family and friends — in particular, my brother, who believed in me from the very early days and supported me financially and emotionally when I was an aspiring entrepreneur chasing my dreams. I could not have gotten past the very first phase of wanting to be an entrepreneur if it wasn’t for him. And today, I am helping my brother with his first tech startup, ilios, a relationship compatibility app based on astrology and numerology, where I’m an investor and board member.
Additionally, there was one gentleman who was instrumental in getting me to where I am today. Because he is a private man, I will refer to him only as “Mr. King.” Mr. King was an established, smart, kind and successful man who in theory should never have invested time and money in me — but he did. He mentored me and taught me more about the world of business and the people in it than anything I had learned at that phase in my life. Looking back I think I was a philanthropic project for him, because in those days I honestly didn’t have the experience, clout, team or fully-baked idea to get behind — but he supported me regardless.
How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?
Although my parents struggled to make ends meet from the day we landed in this country, they always worked hard and were always quick to help others — known and unknown. Their philosophy was that there are always people who were struggling more than they were and as a result, they were quick to help. As such, my brother and I also took on this same philosophy. I believe that goodness and helping comes in many forms. For those of us who can help monetarily, that is wonderful. But acknowledging that there are so many who are less fortunate than us is the starting point.
Additionally, I believe that goodness and helping can also come in the form of kindness. For example, smiling at people, taking a moment to open the door for a stranger, devoting time to people and other random acts of kindness are all part of the arsenal I believe that each of us can deploy to bring goodness to the world. As for me, I keep these types of “goodness” acts in mind at all times and try to engage in something kind daily. In the meantime, I have been engaging in philanthropy quietly behind the scenes for many years. My hope is that once Simplifya sells, that is when I will take my philanthropic work to the next level — I have many ideas and dreams about what I will do at that point in my life.
What are your “5 things I wish someone told me before I started leading my company” and why. Please share a story or example for each.
- For me, managing people has been the hardest part of running a company. I am easily swayed by sad stories and am quick to trust. I wish someone told me early on that based on my strengths, I shouldn’t manage people. Early on in my entrepreneurial career I had people steal from me and the company, and I was too naive to believe they were doing it until I had irrefutable evidence that it was happening. Even then, it was still very hard for me to fire these people.
- The number of hours that an entrepreneur has to put in. While it doesn’t feel like work for most of us entrepreneurs because we love what we do, it is still a time suck and leaves very little time for family, friends, hobbies and sleep. Even today, while I have amazing colleagues in the companies I’m involved in, it is still not out of the ordinary to find myself working 10–14 hour days.
- One must have patience. Patience is a virtue, as most say. However, for me, as it probably is for most entrepreneurs, we want things to happen and happen quickly. I learned the hard way that no matter how much you push, there are certain things that will only happen when the time is right. I was a very impatient entrepreneur in my early years. I’m still impatient by nature, but I have learned to adjust my expectations much more.
- Get used to hearing the word “no.” Entrepreneurs must have thick skin, as “no” is a word we hear commonly. If you are easily influenced or demotivated by people saying no to you, then you must work on getting used to hearing it. In the early years, Simplifya was not easy. From potential clients to investors — so many people came up with reasons to say “no” to us. But we knew that what we were building would eventually start to make a difference and that bet has certainly paid off.
- Finally, I wish someone had told me that building and leading a RegTech company was not going to be easy. It’s already tough enough to build a functional SaaS tech company to solve problems, but when you add the complexities of compliance and a regulatory framework that varies by state and local municipalities within a highly regulated industry that is constantly evolving, the dynamics of problem solving jumps exponentially. Now that I am on the other side of those earlier years, it feels great, but those first years were extremely challenging.
Can you share a few ideas or stories from your experience about how to successfully ride the emotional highs & lows of being a founder”?
As a founder, every single day brings varying levels of highs and lows. Every win and every “no” plays with your emotions, so one must be mentally prepared for whatever comes your way. That rollercoaster can certainly be draining. Even lots of highs can drain you. I think no matter how prepared a founder is, the ability to process the highs and lows and stay even-keeled comes from years of experience. Ultimately, recognizing that the emotional rollercoaster is an integral part of being a founder and preparing oneself to face it is crucial for what lies ahead. Being caught off guard like I was in my earlier years probably shaved some years off my life!
You are a person 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. 🙂
I have a very specific idea that I intend to put into play once Simplifya is acquired. And that idea has to do with kindness. If you look at the world today, we have hate and crime dominating just about every bit of the news. It feels like so many focus on our differences rather than our commonalities. To me, we are all like a bunch of ants running around on borrowed time, working and making money. These are great, but in my opinion, we need to get back to the basics of what makes us happy. What the world desperately needs is more kindness. If for 10 minutes a day, we forget about all the things we have to do for ourselves and just focused on kindness to others (both known and unknown), the planet, animals and everything around us, I think we would start to see a positive shift in our minds — one that might not necessarily solve all of the worlds problems, but perhaps for a moment in time could leave people, animals and the planet with a smile.
How can our readers further follow your work online?
Though I’m not as active on social media as I once was, I still use Linkedin on a regular basis — that’s the best place to follow what I’m doing.
Thank you for these fantastic insights. We greatly appreciate the time you spent on this.