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“Challenging a team the right way gets them to perform at their best.” With Len Giancola & Mladen Barbaric

I feel that challenging a team the right way gets them to perform at their best. And there is nothing more rewarding than producing better and better results. It becomes addictive. Just make sure to work with people who actually love their work in the first place. As part of my series about “5 Things I […]

I feel that challenging a team the right way gets them to perform at their best. And there is nothing more rewarding than producing better and better results. It becomes addictive. Just make sure to work with people who actually love their work in the first place.


As part of my series about “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started Leading a Cannabis Business” I had the pleasure of interviewing Mladen Barbaric. Mladen is a brand and product craftsman, and a serial tech entrepreneur. He is the founder of Pearl Studios, and creator of several successful brands and disruptive products. His companies have shipped millions of devices around the world to date. Barbaric now serves as founder and CEO at Airgraft, leading company strategy, brand and product direction. Having graduated from College for Creative Studies as an industrial designer in 2001, Barbaric started his career designing cars at Ford, then proceeded to work with a number of automotive brands, carving his view on the interplay between brand and product. In 2008 he founded Pearl Studios and focused on the development of brands, products and product platforms outside of automotive. He led Pearl to become a top boutique firm, working with major brands and helping launch a string of notable startups. Barbaric was involved in early development of wearables, teaming up with the likes of Qualcomm at the outset. He’s helped build Misfit, a pioneering activity tracker, amongst several innovative wearables brands. In the process, Barbaric became recognised for his ability to rapidly build lean teams made of outstanding engineers and designers, creating formidable impact while remaining small. His rigorous approach of “less and better” has resulted in a career defined by a consistent output of elegant solutions to very complex problems.


Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you share with us the story about what brought you to this specific career path?

I’m not a Cannabis guy, I’m a tech guy. I’ve built brands, products and companies in the tech space, but never imagined I’d be in any way involved in Cannabis. A few years back, some friends and investors, people who have invested in previous projects with us, suggested that I and my team have a specific skill set to address the vaporization issues. At first, I dismissed the idea. Vaporizers seemed to be simple devices and I had no interest in skinning a new me-too mechanical contraption. It took almost two years of convincing to actually get me to commit to really digging in to understand the issues and how we could help solve them. It was only then that I realized: a) there is an incredible number of people using vaporizers, b) while the idea of vaporizing (boiling liquid) is very cool, almost all vaporizers still don’t do that in a clean way, and there is a heck of a lot of questionable product, and c) there was a clear lack of transparency, accountability and control — people don’t know what they are inhaling, it’s baffling to me. What pushed me over the edge was my wife saying: “You know, having a skill set to fix a massive problem is also a responsibility. You should probably consider the fact you can create a serious net positive.” That was a point of no return for me.

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 was a schmuck. I can’t believe I’m admitting this (it’s so embarrassing and obvious), but I judged someone by their general lack of sophistication. By lack, I mean what I considered sophistication outside of their craft. I quickly learned they were an absolute wizard in their field, and gained massive respect, but it’s something I could not tell through our first discussions: they weren’t articulate explaining, and I was impatient. Lesson: don’t be a schmuck, there are a lot of people in Cannabis that while not best presenters of their knowledge, really are masters of their domain.

Are you working on any exciting projects now?

Absolutely. An evolutionary clean vaporizer: www.airgraft.com

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?

I have been extremely fortunate to have many. I couldn’t single one out because it would be very unfair. I can say that looking back, it took me a long time to realize how important these people are. Finding someone to believe in you (genuinely, not just because they’ll make a killing if you’re successful) is incredibly important. Don’t get me wrong, alignment of interest is always a great idea, but having mentors and cheerleaders is one of the most critical parts of being an entrepeneur for me.

This industry is young dynamic and creative. Do you use any clever and innovative marketing strategies that you think large legacy companies should consider adopting?

We have just launched, so not sure I’m the most qualified to answer.

Can you share 3 things that most excite you about the Cannabis industry? Can you share 3 things that most concern you?

  1. It’s a blank canvas
  2. I make people smile for living
  3. It’s a chance to do something right

Can you share your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started Leading a Cannabis Business”? Please share a story or example for each.

  1. You will meet people you are not ready to work with (I was asked once if we take cash. For 50,000 devices and 200,000 pods… Sadly, and obviously, we do not.)
  2. Every common task is 10x more complicated. (Try opening a merchant account, a bank account, getting insurance etc. Airgraft doesn’t even touch cannabis..)
  3. “Clean-ish” is something some people will say with a straight face. (I’ve heard an oil producer say this, citing that there are only low levels of pesticide in their oil) Clean-ish is not a thing!!!
  4. There are a lot of “experts” with surprisingly little knowledge. (Our way of tackling any problem is by first immersing in all aspects of it. We study, we scratch under the surface and we uncover. In the process, we of course because pretty knowledgeable. While we found a lot of people really knew their craft, we found more than a few that didn’t understand very important aspects of their industry. Do your homework and triple check information!)
  5. 4 is plenty.

What advice would you give to other CEOs or founders to help their employees to thrive?

Everyone that works with me knows I demand 2 things:

  1. Be better (The quest never ends, we can always push the bar higher)
  2. FIO (Figure it out. The best way to become a problem solver and excel is to… do it!) I feel that challenging a team the right way gets them to perform at their best. And there is nothing more rewarding than producing better and better results. It becomes addictive. Just make sure to work with people who actually love their work in the first place.

You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire 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 think we need to address what people are ingesting. No more dirty product. No more mysterious brown liquid. No solvents, cutting agents, diluents, contaminants, heavy metals, pesticides, artificial flavours, artificial …anything. Let’s give people more transparency and control. I know, we’ll call it …. Airgraft!

What is the best way our readers can follow you on social media?

I’m a hermit, I try to spend time geeking out in our labs, not on social, but you can follow:

@airgraft on instagram

This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for joining us!

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