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Of Unicorns and Rocket Ships: The Stuff Dreams are Made of

How One Female Powerhouse is Shaping the Emerging Cannabis Industry

Krista Whitley, CEO Altitude Products; Photo Credits: Shannon Dorn of Dope Foto
Krista Whitley, CEO Altitude Products; Photo Credits: Shannon Dorn of Dope Foto

Krista Whitley is an amazingly inspiring woman in the cannabis space. Not just because she’s created a multi-million-dollar cannabis wellness empire by the name of Altitude Products. Not because she’s been the star of a few reality TV shows. And not because she’s won a ton of awards, either. She’s inspiring because she’s relatable, she’s failed (a lot), and she’s unstoppable. In fact, the more I learn about Krista, the more energized I feel.

Recently, I had the opportunity to chat with the “Queen of Collaboration”, and as you might have guessed, she blew my mind! Krista and I talked about leadership, the challenges of running a cannabiz, and learning from failure. If you currently own a cannabis-based business or have been toying with the idea of jumping into this burgeoning industry, you’ll want to keep reading!

The Culture of Service

Let’s face it, we’ve all worked for a company (or several) where the culture didn’t feel…great. Culture is one of those nebulous, really hard to define attributes of an organization. But when you’ve worked for a company where the culture is healthy and supportive, you know it’s something truly special and you’re willing to do whatever it takes to support the mission, vision and values. Having worked at Nordstrom’s back in the day, Krista’s learned a thing or two about culture and customer experience.  Afterall, Nordstrom’s wrote the book on delivering customer service.

Krista launched Altitude Products in 2015 as a single mom on her couch.  Since that time, Altitude products has grown into a 27-person team with 11 brands and 365 products that are available in over 5,500 stores nationally.  “I remember from day one, thinking about the kind of company I wanted to created and I wanted it to be different, with unicorns and rocket ships everywhere. We foster an environment where employees’ voices are heard and we’re all in it together. We make sure to hire for character–not necessarily for skills–people who are already living our values. We have a team of people we know are going to have our backs and lift each other up”.

How does she nurture organizational culture in a time when so many canna-businesses seem to be furiously racing ahead to stake their flag in the ground? “It’s about being conscience of our core values and we have 3 of them. 1: Entrepreneurial. When we hire, we’re hiring leaders, who are already living our core values. We have one rule: act like an owner. All employees are shareholders in the company after their 90-day probationary period. 2: Sprit of service—how we can help? It’s not just about helping our customers, it’s how we can help each other. No egos here, it’s about servant leadership. 3: Having a positive attitude”. Krista adds, “It’s a family feel versus clocking in/out. That’s been the foundation to Altitude Product’s success”.

Self-Care Sundays

There’s so much talk these days about self-care, what it is and how best to do it. Is there room for self-care in the business arena? Yes! Krista believes that companies do better when they take care of their employees. “I get regular massages and chiropractic care. When I find something that helps me as a leader, I try to bring what works for me to the team. We have an on-site gym, weekly on-site licensed massage therapists and chiropractors, and concierge care 24×7. We offer our employees unlimited sick days, unlimited CBD products for their families’ use, and we have catered lunches sometimes. We believe the success of the organization can only happen when each employee is growing as leader professionally and personally”.

Learning from Failure

In entrepreneurship, the road to success (and awards!) is paved with failures. Let’s face it, sharing failure stories isn’t something our society has been want to do. We love to celebrate successes, but failure is a sticky—and painful—experience that is often kept quiet in a dark corner. One of the most impressive things, in my opinion, about Krista, is her ability to speak freely about her failures. As a serial entrepreneur, she’s had her fair share.

“I can give you a very recent example. We knew we needed to grow our sales team to expand our reach. We hadn’t thought through enough what a results-oriented sales professional looked like. Competition is a good thing, but compensation needs to be in line with the results we want. We hired several people who didn’t talk the talk/walk the walk and we offered a particular compensation structure, thinking, ‘if we pay them really well, they’ll take care of us’. Within a week, we had to let a couple of them go”.

“When there’s such a quick failure–we wasted resources and time—it’s heart breaking. We wouldn’t have brought them on in the first place, if we didn’t think they were the right fit. So, we changed the compensation structure to be in line with the goals of the organization. Every failure is a massive learning opportunity, the times things don’t work out. These are the important lessons, if we’re going to grow as entrepreneurs. It’s the roller coaster of entrepreneurship! It never feels great when learning the lessons, but if wasn’t painful, we’d keep repeating the lessons over and over.

Cashflow Woes and Growing Pains

Riding the roller coaster of entrepreneurship eventually gets easier and we stop worrying about things like cashflow and scale, right? When we’ve reached the summit, we’re good, we can kick back and relax, right? Of this rosy notion, Krista laughs and says, “worrying about cashflow never stops!”

She went on to add that “scaling is a challenge. Problems are daily. Three and a half years ago, I was on the couch, managing the business. Now we have 27 employees.  How do we ensure employees are working efficiently or knowing how to scale efficiently? How do we make sure we have the right talent to navigate around the corner and spending time preparing to be as flexible as possible as an organization? I appreciate where we’ve been, lessons we’ve learned and what we don’t know”.

The Future is in Your Medicine Cabinet

Legal cannabis certainly isn’t the same as that schwiffy duff we had in high school.  Strain potency has increased and flower isn’t the only darling in town–we have options now!  Regulations in the cannabis industry change near-daily, Boomers are intrigued by topicals and soccer moms are drinking infused waters.  Where is this industry going? Krista pulled back the curtain and gave me a view of the future.

“We’re on the cutting edge, the wild, wild west. All these big stores are coming onto the CBD rage, but I think it’s the future. We’ve identified 113 cannabinoids, but only marketing 5 out 113. The future and normalization of plant medicine is in the additional research and productization of all those other cannabinoids. When we figure out how to effectively use those and replace [conventional medications] to treat migraine symptoms with CBN and anxiety with hybrid products, that’s when we’ve achieved normalization. I don’t know if I’ll see that happen in my life time. But it’s up to us to make sure the research is happening, that we’re taking steps. Don’t fight over shelf space, fight over medicine cabinets”.

Want Change? Be the Change.

The lack of women and people of color in the cannabis space have been a hot topic in the media lately. Barriers to entry are high, capital is hard to get, and the former War on Drugs has pushed many would-be entrepreneurs underground. I asked Krista what we can do to change the current landscape. If you’ve been thinking about taking the leap, listen up!

“Do it! When I started, I was a single mom of two girls, struggling to pay my electric bills. I went out and used what I had. I’m a ride or die entrepreneur. I believe entrepreneurs can drive social change at a much far rapid pace than government. This is something I’m really passionate about.  If we’re relying on states and the Federal government to prioritize diversity, we’re destined for another Silicon Valley. It’s on those of us in the industry, as well as the individuals who don’t walk the walk. We need more people doing what they do best and taking action”.

“[Altitude Products] hires people from every background, women, men, LGBTQ. We have an all-female board. Nothing is stopping you. I say I’m the Queen of Collaboration, because collaboration was forced–I didn’t have a million dollars raised from guys in suits. I got a $4,000 check from a client and built the business from there. One client led to the next client, and I finally had my tiny nest eggs to first products cooked up in my kitchen. We wouldn’t have the opportunities we have today, if it weren’t for the lack of common sense on the government’s part. It’s a tremendous lesson and I wouldn’t have the company I have today. I have a huge responsibility to pay it forward. I’ve been able to say to our production people that they are now an owner in this company, where they might never have had that opportunity before. My hope is that this enables them to have the confidence to start their own empire. Entrepreneurs have a huge opportunity to transform the current climate”.

In Closing…

So what are you waiting for? If you want to do something big–like leaving your secure corporate gig to jump into the unknown that is the cannabis space–start taking the necessary steps to bring your vision to life. It’s not easy, it’s scary AF, but Krista Whitley shows us so brilliantly what we can do when we tap into our strengths to share with the world what each of us does best…and what can happen when we allow ourselves to step into and own our power.

Do your research and create a flexible plan. Align yourself with a network of like-minded people who will support you, encourage you and call you on your BS. Be unstoppable. Remember your ‘why’ and keep trudging along, even when being the change that you want to see means tough challenges ahead. Just. Keep. Going. You got this!

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