“How to be successful.” With Len Giancola & Evan Nison

I think the fact that this is such a young and dynamic industry is the reason we’ve been successful. We understand the current state of cannabis, the roots of the industry, and where we’re likely headed. As a part of my series about leaders in the cannabis industry, I had the pleasure of interviewing Evan […]

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I think the fact that this is such a young and dynamic industry is the reason we’ve been successful. We understand the current state of cannabis, the roots of the industry, and where we’re likely headed.

As a part of my series about leaders in the cannabis industry, I had the pleasure of interviewing Evan Nison.

Evan is the youngest member of the NORML Board of Directors and sits on the Board of Directors of Students for Sensible Drug Policy. He is the founder of the PR firm NisonCo, which connects leaders in the legal cannabis, medical marijuana, and hemp industries with influential journalists across the U.S. and world.

In 2010, while still a student, Evan took a semester off and moved to California to run the college outreach for the cannabis legalization ballot initiative Prop 19, which spanned over 40 actively managed schools state-wide. He was President of Ithaca Students for Sensible Drug Policy for 4 years, which under his leadership passed one of the first college policies in the country that equalized penalties for cannabis and alcohol on campus. He also received one of the pens used to sign the New York 911 Good Samaritan Law and New York medical marijuana law for his involvement in the passage of both bills.

During the 2016 U.S. presidential campaign Evan pressed Hillary Clinton for a firm answer on her support for legalization during a live town hall event on ABC’s Good Morning America.

More recently, as part of his mission to build socially driven businesses, he co-founded Whoopi & Maya, a women’s-focused cannabis brand with actress Whoopi Goldberg and fellow board member Rick Cusick. He then went on to co-found Emerald Farm Tours, a Northern California-based cannabis tour company to give the public a transparent hands-on view of the cannabis industry from seed to sale, and Bloody Good Vape & Smoke, a smoke shop in New Jersey he founded with a victim of cannabis prohibition who was held in jail for a year awaiting trial.

Evan has been mentioned in news sources such as the NY Times, CNN, Politico, USA Today, NBC New York, Bloomberg TV, Forbes, and has been profiled in The Cannabist, Civilized, Ithaca Times, Home News Tribune, The Marijuana Times, and the Sun Times. He also received the 2011 NORML Student Activism Award and High Times Freedom Fighter Award for his advocacy.

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 started working on cannabis and drug law reform in my freshman year of college as a volunteer. I started a ballot initiative petition in my hometown to make adult cannabis possession the lowest law enforcement priority. That led to me getting involved with NORML and SSDP, which led me to volunteer lobbying and then my lobbying ability got me my first paid lobbying and PR client. That client wound up referring me clients, which led to the start of my PR firm NisonCo. NisonCo is the first and largest cannabis-specific PR firm, starting just before the first legal sale in Colorado. The PR firm further expanded into marketing services, and we now also have NisonCo Marketing, a cannabis marketing agency.

After starting NisonCo I partnered with friends to start a few other companies including Emerald Farm Tours, a San Francisco based cannabis tourism company, and Bloody Good Vape and Smoke, a smoke and vape shop with two locations in New Jersey. The smoke shops are being run by a friend who is a victim of cannabis prohibition and spent over a year in jail for cannabis.

I’ve also stayed very involved in both NORML and SSDP since the early days of my advocacy and am now on the boards of both, and am the Treasurer of NORML National.

Now my time is spent across all of the companies but focus the majority of my time on NisonCo.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

Helping start Whoopi & Maya, the first menstrual focused cannabis product, was incredibly interesting. My PR firm did the announcement, and the story was the #1 trending thing on facebook for over a day. It was the first time my PR firm and desire to start socially driven businesses came together so perfectly. I learned how impactful having the right message at the right time can be.

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?

There were a few hard lessons I had to learn the hard way about PR etiquette, such as not to email the same pitch to more than one journalist at an outlet. When I was younger and eager I would sometimes forget the focus of PR is on the reporter relationships, get excited, and then hurt relationships accidently. I was able to mend all of the relationships caused by those mistakes though, and some are still great relationships to this day.

Are you working on any exciting projects now? How do you think that will help people?

It’s NORML’s 50th birthday year and we’re planning on doing some fun events and fundraisers to celebrate. I just turned 30, so being part of an organization that has so much history feels pretty surreal to me and I’m excited about that 50th milestone.

I’m also particularly excited about the new marketing services NisonCo is offering. We’re getting fantastic results for our clients with them and I think those services will allow us to work with a wider range of companies that may not have had PR in their budget or plans.

I’ve also started a charitable fund and hope to try to merge more of the for and non-profit work. I’m not sure how exactly that will unfold yet, but that’s the direction I’d like to take things in.

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’ve been lucky enough to have many good mentors and have had the opportunity to work with a lot of interesting people in my relatively short career. The first that comes to mind is Rick Cusick, who I’ve been working with since that first ballot initiative in my home town. He also nominated me for the board of NORML and I wouldn’t be where I am today without him.

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?

I think the fact that this is such a young and dynamic industry is the reason we’ve been successful. We understand the current state of cannabis, the roots of the industry, and where we’re likely headed.

When we started PR was really the only option for companies. Advertising and marketing was strictly prohibited nearly everywhere so first amendment press was it. Now that marketing is opening up we’ve been expanding our team to grow with the industry. Also, the fact that I operate other companies in the space gives me a good understanding of business owner’s needs and how we can best use our services to help clients at every stage.

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

The most exciting thing is how fertile of a ground this is for social entrepreneurism. I like to remind people that this is the first real industry (at least that I can think of) that was born by a social movement. If it wasn’t for people who cared about the harms of prohibition putting themselves at legal risk and fighting for decades, we wouldn’t have this industry. We’re also in the unique position of having a customer base that was just criminalized for decades. I think this industry has the potential to serve as an example of what capitalization could look like if we take advantage of this opportunity.

I’m also excited to be repealing cannabis prohibition and showing society why it is worth re-thinking all drug laws. These policies have been incredibly harmful to society, especially in more urban areas.

My biggest concern is that the industry could turn out to be like all of the others, and legalization will not have had the maximum impact it could have. We have the ability to not just improve policy but act as a model for what capitalism could look like — in a good way — and I don’t want us to waste that.

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 — Relationships are everything, especially when we’re all working together to create this new industry and change the laws at the same time. Success, both individually and as an industry, largely hinges on being able to work together and connect the necessary dots.

2 — The industry and its regulations are incredibly dynamic and change by the day. Being able to pivot and identify opportunities as they present themselves is just as important as planning.

3 — The road that the industry is on is unpredictable. While some of us have a better idea what’s likely to happen in the future and how legalization is likely to unfold, in reality no one actually knows. We don’t know how federal legalization will happen, when, or what it will look like. Starting a company in this industry is not for those who like to create and stick to a plan.

4 — Focus only on the fundamentals of your own business and not what competitors are doing. — Nearly all of my companies have had competitors pop up with a big announcement of getting funding and then seem to fade away. Businesses succeed by providing value and keeping your expenses under income, not by being propped up by investors.

5 — Know who you’re getting into business with, business partnerships are like marriage. — I’ve had a few instances, both directly in my work and that I’ve seen other companies go through that were made more difficult because of interpersonal conflicts. I’ve also seen how unstoppable a good team is that gets along well is.

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

For us the key to success has been communication and processes. We go out of our way to seek and utilize internal and external feedback. We also have SOPs and process that we can easily tweak to try new things and continuously refine for efficiency. We wouldn’t be able to do this without both a comprehensive set of systems and process or feedback from our employees and clients to tweak them.

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. 🙂

Being involved with both nonprofits and for profits, I’m a big believer that socially driven for-profit businesses can be the best vehicle to accomplish social change. That’s also why we offer a pro-bono PR program and encourage companies that are doing cool things to apply. Our ideal candidates for who we’d like to promote are doing things that are impactful and can be duplicated and scaled by other companies.

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

The best way to follow me would be to follow NisonCo, @nisoncopr on instagram and @nisonco on Twitter.

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

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