Sometimes you just need to walk away even if it means taking a loss. The thing about money is that you can always make money. You can always recover from a financial loss. Your reputation can’t be bought and sold unless you’re the one selling it.
Aspart of my series about “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started Leading a Cannabis Business” I had the pleasure of interviewing Avis Bulbulyan, CEO of SIVA Enterprises.
Avis Bulbulyan is the Chief Executive Officer of SIVA Enterprises, a full-service cannabis business development and solutions firm that provides full-service consulting, state license application support, venture opportunities, product and brand development, and licensing to entrepreneurs across the United States.
Avis is serving his 3rd year as a member of CA state’s Cannabis Advisory Committee under the Bureau of Cannabis Control advising the 3 state agencies on the development of CA’s regulations. He previously served as the President of the Los Angeles Cannabis Task Force and the Education Chair for Cannabis Legal Accounting Law.
As one of the industry’s leading cannabis business authorities, Avis is a highly sought-after speaker and a valued expert resource for many national news sources and publications. Avis oversees corporate direction, business development and strategy at SIVA Enterprises, facilitating company activity in consulting, alliances and channels, marketing, investments and operations. Avis leads a high-caliber team who collectively provides clients with the highest level of support from idea and concept, through execution. SIVA’s clients are some of the most well-known, respected, and highest-grossing companies in the cannabis industry.
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?
Acombination of events catalyzed my career. I initially stumbled upon cannabis’ health and wellness applications from some other research I was doing and initially went down that rabbit hole learning all I could about its medicinal properties. On the business side, the one incident that really piqued my curiosity about cannabis as a business — -the pivotal moment that brought me to this point — happened around 2007–2008. I’m hanging out with the guys late one night and another friend stops by excited to show us what he had. He pulls out an eighth in a plastic pill container and tells us he bought it at a store in Encino. I’m thinking, “you can’t buy weed at a store,” but sure enough he had.
The guys lit up and in a couple of minutes the conversation turned to something else but my mind was fixated on the fact that someone could buy marijuana at a store. A couple of days later, an almost identical scenario unfolded with a different set of friends. When it happened the second time, I had already been down deep in the rabbithole on the subject and with the homework I had been doing for the past year, it kind of all clicked and came together. The thought that came to mind was that “prohibition took the Kennedy’s to the White House and they’re still there.”
Coming from a pretty conservative upbringing in the 80’s and growing up with the DARE programs of the early 90’s presented a learning curve. I actually had to figure out how to go about visiting one of these stores that sell cannabis. While I was trying to figure out the different pieces of the puzzle that makes a cannabis business function I got a call from a friend that asked me to do a walk through of a new store he was starting. He needed my insights regarding compliance and risk issues. I showed up to the retail space and sure enough, it was a dispensary. Once I figured out the different parts of the supply chain, the legalities, the nuances, the medicinal applications, cannabis was evolving into an industry. I decided I needed to understand the culture first, the history, and wanted to start from the ground up so I started off in the cultivation sector of the industry and it’s been one evolution after another since.
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?
Back in 2012, I was deep in the cultivation sector and besides running my operations, I was helping out a lot of others that were starting their own grows or having trouble. The landlord started to notice because growers that were having trouble with their operations were almost always behind on rent. When they were successful, they started paying rent on time. One day, I got a call from the landlord telling me that he had a friend of a friend out in Massachusetts that was looking to start a cannabis grow operation, and was wondering if I could help them out.
I got on a call with them that ended up in an agreement that I would fly out to Massachusetts, fully compensated for travel expenses, and spend a couple of days with them to develop their strategy. If they felt that I was effective at the end of my time in Massachusetts, we could continue the business relationship and finalize an agreement. I didn’t hear from them for a couple of months until I received a call to take me up on my offer. I headed out to Massachusetts for a couple of days and next thing I knew, I was sitting around a table with the former US Congressman from Massachusetts discussing a partnership in the cannabis industry.
That single meeting rewired my entire thought process on what’s possible. In today’s hustle culture, everyone wants to get paid for every time they open their mouths. Sometimes, you just need to put yourself out there. Taking that free phone call that lasted over 2 hours, flying out to Massachusetts for a couple of days without charging, and just putting myself out there like that, started a series of events that ultimately gave life to SIVA and my “formal” career in cannabis.
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 at a trade conference and someone came up to discuss joining SIVA as a CFO. One thing about trade conferences is that when you’re at a conference for a couple of days, it can feel like a blur when you get back.
We got back and about a week later, I got an email to discuss the CFO role, I thought this was a person I had spoken to at the conference. We got together and had a really great conversation that turned into me hiring that person as the CFO for SIVA. A while later, my CFO Jeff Garrison and I were having a conversation and that’s when I realized the person I spoke with at the conference was not Jeff.
To this day, Jeff has been a guiding light professionally and personally for me, a good friend, and one of the smartest people I’ve had the pleasure of knowing. Had I known the person that emailed was not the person I met at the conference, I probably wouldn’t have taken the meeting because I had kind of made up my mind to hire the guy from the trade show.
Are you working on any exciting projects now? How do you think that will help people?
Recently we were working on a really great retail management concept that would have done tremendous good for a lot of the retailers that are struggling with their operations. The Coronavirus shutdown put those plans on hold for a bit. With the way things have been unfolding throughout the shutdown, we saw an opportunity to change direction with SIVA and refocus our efforts to support the supply chain and related businesses.
The biggest differentiator for SIVA is our experience across most of the markets across the US and the access we have to different opportunities across the full supply chain vertically in those markets. With that, we decided to take a step back and provide those opportunities to those that don’t have it.
A lot of our focus coming out of the shutdown is going to be helping those struggling companies by stepping in, turning them around, and connecting them to our national network where their individual success would lead to collective success. We’re really excited about this next phase in our evolution.
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 have been so many people that have been integral to my journey and SIVA’s success; it would be difficult to name just one person. We’ve been incredibly fortunate to have had the clients we’ve had and almost all of our clients have become friends, mentors, business associates, and family. What’s interesting is that most of the guidance and help wasn’t business related but more so rooted in human-to-human interaction and just life advice. You live life right, do right, do good, and it all comes around — what you put out in the world becomes your reality.
For example, one day I flew to Buffalo, New York in the dead of winter to meet with Dr. Greg Daniel who started out as a client, then became a friend, then turned into someone I respect tremendously. He had a really nice spread and when we got to his driveway that led to the house, there were a couple of beautiful deer walking around on his property that’s completely blanketed in snow.
I made a comment about how beautiful the scene was and he made a joke about how nice it would be to wake up in the morning, sit out front drinking coffee in the crisp winter air, and shoot one of the deer for dinner. Dr. Daniel turned to me and said, “Man, how can you shoot something that gives you so much pleasure to look at?” My joke was made from a hunter’s perspective but his response really got me thinking about what he said and the significance of it — I am consistently grateful for experiences like that, they are very grounding. I would say that The Doc has been like a rock and while a lot of his advice is not always business related, his advice puts things into perspective.
When you have perspective, it doesn’t matter if the problem is a business problem or a personal one. You just need to know how to look at the problem from an angle that gives you a different viewpoint. The biggest lesson from all the different people that have been influential in my life hasn’t been what to think, but more along the lines of how to think.
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?
The industry is new and it’s young. The biggest obstacle it has is the decades of prohibition that have created a certain prejudice against it. Before you can market to the consumer, you have to educate the consumer. Where the bigger companies are lacking and coming up short is that their marketing focus is almost entirely focused on marketing their products in a sales pitch context. The average consumer doesn’t know the difference between any of the products on the market today. Instead of trying to market their products through sales pitches, these companies should focus more on educating the consumer on not just their product offering but educating them on cannabis in general, I believe they will create brand equity with the consumer this way. When you have that brand equity and brand trust with the consumer, it doesn’t matter what you’re selling because the consumer trusts you enough to buy from you. I believe that’s the biggest issue these larger Multi-State Operators have. They’re trying to sell a product to a consumer that doesn’t know any better. You may get one or two sales out of it, but it won’t last long.
Can you share 3 things that most excite you about the Cannabis industry? Can you share 3 things that most concern you?
The 3 things that most excite me about the cannabis industry are:
- The future holds many unknowns; when the future isn’t defined, it can be written
- The opportunity to truly leave behind a mark on the world
- The opportunity to be a part of something meaningful and revolutionary
The 3 things that most concern me about the cannabis industry are:
- Those that started the movement and were crucial to the effort are being left behind
- The lack of knowledge about the different nuances necessary to facilitate a viable industry by those in positions of power; often adopting regulations leading to a chaotic regulatory environment that would require years of work to undo
- Folks trying to sink the ship just because they fell off
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.
There are a lot of things I wish someone told me about running a cannabis business before I started out. The truth is, the lessons aren’t cannabis specific and they apply to any business. With cannabis, you just happen to be dealing with a schedule 1 drug at the federal level, and patchwork regulations at the state level. As for lessons, here are some interesting ones:
After working in Massachusetts for over a year, the results came out and we were the big winner with the highest ranked application and the only group to win the maximum three out of three licenses. When the results came out, it didn’t take long for the press and specifically, the Boston Globe to be all over it. Because we were the big winners and Massachusetts was the first state to have a full blown merit based competitive application process for a limited number of licenses, the reporting was far from non-biased. At the time, public perception and understanding was certainly not what it is today. With a certain bias towards the industry, the articles started to come out like clockwork. With respect to my involvement, this particular reporter kept asking for my client list from California. Besides having a no press policy as a group, I refused to release my client list because the industry then was not the industry we have now. I couldn’t, in good conscience, give up a list of clients in California to a reporter with every law enforcement eyeball in the country reading the press related to cannabis businesses. In the end, this created problems for myself and contributed to me relocating back to California. One of the last pieces of advice I got from the people in our group was to be careful when I leave my house because someone might stick a camera in my face to ask me questions because The Globe was not done writing their articles on the group. Back in California, the reporter had called pretty much every phone number ever associated with me asking about me, and had the other reporters from The Globe, retweet her initial article asking “Who’s Avis Bulbulyan?” Ultimately, I decided I wasn’t going to sit back and watch my life get turned upside down so I called the reporter to give her an interview. After speaking with her for over 90 minutes, the article came out. Of the over 90 minutes of discussion I had with her, she took 3 different things I said, spliced them together to create a single inaccurate quote attributed to me, and included me in her last piece of coverage on the group. I learned a lot from my experience in Massachusetts.
- Sometimes you have to keep your head down and endure, and sometimes you just have to take things head on. You just need to be smart enough to realize when to do one or the other.
- When dealing with media and reporters, a lot of times, the tone and narrative of the articles are already decided and what you have to say doesn’t always matter.The articles as they related to me personally weren’t necessarily bad, but being involved in that situation, it opened my eyes to what I read in the press about others and how that information is presented. These days, I try to get my information on any given issue from at least 2–3 sources.
- The pen is an incredibly powerful weapon.
- When I do interviews, I prefer long form interviews instead of direct quotes. Quotes can and are taken out of context all the time. Long form interviews give you “some” protection from being misquoted.
- A lot of reporters and journalists have good intentions. They just don’t know enough about the subject matter. When you take the time to explain things and provide context, most journalists will honor truth over headlines. In my particular case, The reporter from the Globe did her last piece and moved on to other groups and other cannabis related news. Since then, she’s written a lot of fantastic pieces that have been very accurate and credible.
Several years ago, we were speaking with several incredible business minds and their interest was to start a bank to serve the cannabis industry. If anyone could start a bank, it was these guys. After a slew of calls and discussions, we were sitting in my office having a meeting to get things organized and started. The thing about being a bank and serving the cannabis industry is that cannabis cannot be the only line of business for a bank. In this particular meeting, after about an hour or so of discussion and figuring out the cost would be anywhere from $150 million to $200 million and roughly a year or two of commitment, I got the courage to ask why that plan made more sense than buying a failing bank for a third of that amount in both time and money. Keep in mind that it was a meeting with some really powerful and high level business minds. It was like a lightbulb went off and everyone pretty much agreed that picking up a failing bank and opening a cannabis division made much more sense.
- The lesson learned is that in business, we sometimes get so caught up in the higher level solutions that we miss the simplest ones in front of us.
- The other lesson is that there are levels to everything and each level has its own set of problems and solutions. When you operate at a certain level for some time, your perspective becomes that much more limited.
- Speak up. You never know what the others are thinking or not thinking. What you believe to be a simple solution might be missed by others. At a minimum, even if your solution is not in fact so simple or accurate, you at least will know why and be that much smarter for it.
I was involved with an early stage company with someone back in 2016 and we raised an initial round of funding. Once the money was raised, the CEO started stroking checks to get board appointments for himself in the name of the company and went around playing the part of a big time CEO. I didn’t agree with the direction the company was headed in especially given the changing regulatory environment. I tried to course correct the company and offered several solutions and options to change direction and to refocus. Ultimately, the CEO of that company thought he knew better and had his own plans and vision. For me, I just wasn’t going to be a part of it so I stepped away. I turned over my equity without any consideration and actually spent a lot on legal fees because I didn’t want any part of it. That company lasted another 6 months after I left before going belly up and before making a single dollar.
- Sometimes you just need to walk away even if it means taking a loss. The thing about money is that you can always make money. You can always recover from a financial loss. Your reputation can’t be bought and sold unless you’re the one selling it.
I had a friend that was in the payment processing sector of the industry. His companies had just failed and he relocated his family to California. With nowhere to go, I brought him on as an employee of SIVA. It was an awkward situation for me because on one hand, he was a friend and a CEO of two companies. In the position with SIVA, he was my employee. I had a very difficult time drawing the line between the professional relationship and the personal. At SIVA, we were incredibly positioned to do some great work and as I was trying to integrate him into SIVA and what we do, he was preoccupied with trying to save his companies trying to pitch merchant services to my clients and setting up meeting to teach my staff how to sell merchant services. Before I could even begin to understand what was happening behind the scenes, he had already teamed up with a couple of other newly hired employees and poisoned the others. Within 3 months, they gutted SIVA, and took what they could get their hands on to start a competing company. In the end, the losses were in the millions and it took years to recover.
This was a big lesson in human nature but the biggest lesson was learning to draw the line in relationships.
- As CEO, you can’t let personal relationships interfere with your obligations to the company and the rest of your team. I’ve become a firm believer that it’s not always the employee you don’t hire but the one that you don’t fire that can make or break your company. A single problematic employee can turn an ember into a full blown fire in the office and among the team.
What advice would you give to other CEOs or founders to help their employees to thrive?
In my experience keeping the right personnel and building the right team helps employees thrive. It’s not always about who you hire but more about who you don’t fire. The wrong person on the team that’s allowed to stay on the team could create a lot of issues. I’ve made this mistake and it’s cost me and my team dearly.
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 would like to inspire people to move away from social media or at least be more considerate when using social platforms. Social media has provided a tremendous opportunity to share information and for people to connect with each other globally. It has come such a long way that it has created a sort of second identity for people.
Before social media, people interacted with each other on a human-to-human basis. The problem with social media is the lack of accountability and humanity that many folks operate with. If a person can say something on social media that they would not say to the person in real life, that connection is not real and the sense of identity is not real yet there can be real world implications. It’s easier to sit behind a computer, a fake name, or a fake online profile and create a persona to stand behind without having to deal with the struggles of the outside world.
When that persona is not the real you in real life, that’s incredibly problematic. I believe it’s there are many exasperated mental health issues in society — there’s the real world, and the social media realm. The real world doesn’t stop progressing and people get left behind because they forget to live their actual lives in exchange for their online ones that they think they theoretically have more control over. When the image and life they’ve created for themselves comes crashing down, they end up with a completely lost sense of identity.
Personally, I believe if you introduce a concept that holds people accountable for their actions in the social media world just like in the real world, you would probably eliminate the majority of problems online. If you can’t stand behind a statement you make online with your real name, you shouldn’t be making statements online. In today’s world, you can completely and mercilessly destroy a person’s real life online without any consequence or accountability, legal or otherwise, and that’s wrong on every level. Imagine if your social media profile was linked to a social security number, a business profile was linked to a tax ID number, social media could become an extension of the real world and there would be accountability. You would effectively do away with online trolls, people and businesses would think twice about what they put out in the world of social media because they could be tracked down and be held accountable in court. People would be much kinder to each other in their online interactions and there would be more transparency and consideration for others.
What is the best way our readers can follow you on social media?
This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for joining us!