Community//

“Stay positive” with Ben Larsen of OkiToki and Len Giancola

Stay positive. As a leader, and a human, it’s easier said than done. We all have our tough days. But as the leader of an organization you are the one person that everyone looks up to day-in and day-out for guidance and motivation. Stay positive and keep moving forward and your team will too. By […]

Stay positive. As a leader, and a human, it’s easier said than done. We all have our tough days. But as the leader of an organization you are the one person that everyone looks up to day-in and day-out for guidance and motivation. Stay positive and keep moving forward and your team will too. By creating a positive work environment and a positive culture your company will be better served and go much farther, faster. I’ve heard horror stories from friends who’ve had terrible bosses in the past, and I’m thankful that I haven’t had such a bad experience. So I try to keep level headed, sometimes if you need to take a break or step out to clear your head it’s worth it for the overall betterment of everyone as a whole.

As a part of my series about “the 5 Things I Wish I Knew Before I Started Leading a Cannabis Business ”, I had the distinct pleasure of interviewing Ben Larsen, the CEO and co-founder of OkiToki. OkiToki is a premium cannabis vape brand that highlights unique terpene flavor profiles and combines taste perfection with a stylish pen design. Prior to founding OkiToki, Ben was a senior sales leader for eight years in renewable energy and automotive. Ben witnessed first-hand the TDI emissions issue at Volkswagen and from his retention efforts was named TDI Program Ambassador. Realizing the need for higher corporate social responsibility, Ben decided to pursue an MBA at USC Marshall School of Business with an emphasis in Marketing and Brand Strategy. Ben served on the Marshall Graduate Student Association as the VP of New Student Development, welcoming the incoming class with networking events and happy hours. During his MBA Ben was presented the opportunity to co-found a premium cannabis vape brand alongside friend and co-founder Sasan Salek. Ben manages the brands strategy and vision, and is deeply involved in the company’s product development, investment opportunities, marketing, and operations.


Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you share with the ‘backstory” about what brought you to the cannabis space?

I grew up in West Los Angeles. My friends and I used to smoke a lot back in high school, this is before it was legal. My friends and I had a connect that had almost every strain — blueberry, banana kush, sour diesel, OG kush, bubba kush, you name it we smoked it. This is where my business partner and I gained a lot of our industry knowledge from first hand use and experience. Fast forward almost twenty years, and I’m a sales manager at Volkswagen, looking to pivot my career into Marketing and Brand Strategy, pursuing my MBA at USC Marshall School of Business, and my business partner, Sasan Salek, has been living in China for 10 years running various businesses and managing manufacturing and export. Sasan and I usually met up during the Winter Holidays when he was in town. One day in July, Sasan calls me out of the blue and I asked him, “How’s China?” He tells me that he’s in LA and pursuing a new venture in cannabis. I was immediately intrigued. Sasan told me he had a mentor and business partner that owns a farm in Northern California and they were producing extremely high potency distillate, they had perfected the process, and Sasan could produce customized cartridges and batteries. Being in Brand Strategy I saw an opportunity to create a unique brand and perfect the taste and delivery method. That’s what I always loved about smoking, how every strain is a different experience, and I wanted to provide something new in the vape industry. A better cartridge design to maximize the flavor profile and really highlight unique flavors that taste more like fruit than like weed. There are people that have never smoked before, and if we could have flavors that they were already accustomed to tasting they might have a better experience trying it for the first time. And for seasoned smokers, there’s nothing wrong with smoking a Jack Herer that tastes like Chocolate Mint Chip ice cream. That was the root of OkiToki. We set up a meeting with my friend, also a fellow Trojan, that owned a cannabis extraction company specializing in terpene flavors. We met with him about creating a brand, customizing the delivery method, and using unique flavor profiles. We ended up partnering with the farm and with the terpene supplier to create amazing flavors with high potency oil to deliver a unique smoking experience.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?

The most interesting story that has happened since leading our company was getting our large investment. It was actually through a very close friend and previous coworker. I was telling him about our brand and the product we were developing, right before I was getting ready to leave Volkswagen, and it turned out that his cousin was in the industry. It’s amazing how many people are in the industry now, still blows my mind. We set up a meeting, his cousin loved our product, and we landed our first investment deal. It’s developing into a great partnership, he has a lot of industry insight and helps guide us in the right direction. For founders and people starting their own companies, never be scared to talk about your product for fear of your idea being stolen. If you share the excitement about what you are doing, others will share in that excitement, and you never know what it will lead to.

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?

The funniest mistake we made, which wasn’t very funny at the time, was when we offered our investor a huge valuation for our company. If you’re starting a company, cannabis or other, my best advice is to offer your investor a more than favorable valuation and have the sales numbers to back it up. We learned this the hard way. It’s pretty funny after the fact, now that we have our funding. But the first investor we pitched to, we had no sales yet, we were a brand and a concept, and we had our minimum viable product. We put together our first three years of projections and we were valuing our company based on those projections. Any business needs to value the company in this way, but you should never offer your investor this valuation without any sales or signed purchase orders. Our investor was offended by our initial offer and we lost face with that investor. It was not intentional, we were valuing the company based on fair market projections, however we were asking for a large amount of money and we needed to have something to back it up. Something other than “we think it will sell”. Once we got traction, distributors, and purchase orders in place it was a lot easier to get the funding. I hope this advice can help another entrepreneur avoid learning this the hard way.

Are you working on any exciting projects now?

Yes. We’re currently working on a CBD vape line that will complement our THC line. Our key competency is in THC distillate, so we wanted to focus on that first. Now that we have that squared away, we are developing a full CBD vape line with complementary flavor profiles.

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 honestly don’t know where to start, our entire team has been phenomenal. We are extremely grateful to have had such a solid foundation from day one. We owe an amazing amount of gratitude to our business partners and mentors Kevin Yip and Vincent Lin, who helped us establish our relationship with our farm. They were instrumental in creating our framework and providing the resources we needed to get started. Another person that helped us astronomically was Mark Raber, who is the co-founder of our terpene supplier. He probably doesn’t even know how much he has helped us, so I hope he’s reading this. He met with us early on and shared tons of industry insight that really gave us the wherewithal to know where to start and how to differentiate ourselves as a brand. But without any one person from our team we would not be where we are today. From our designers, and chief finance officer, to our marketing director, and brand managers, it’s our collaborative effort that make us better and stronger as a team, and we truly rely on each other to make the brand run at its full potential.

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?

There are so many opportunities for change in this young industry. One marketing strategy for all companies in the industry is to put a price tag on the box. Seems like a no brainer. We were speaking with a distributor early on about this, and there are only a hand full of companies that are placing a price tag on their product. In all other retail industries, it’s common practice to have a price tag on a retail item. How much easier would it be if a shopper could pick up a box and see what the price is? We’re currently working with shops to generate prices directly on our products and I’d definitely recommend this for large legacy companies. Its more transparent for the customer and creates a much better shopping experience for the consumers.

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

I’m so excited that the cannabis industry is so young! There is so much room for growth and so much opportunity within the industry. It’s an amazing time to be in the cannabis space. And there are so many opportunities in various segments within the industry that are untapped. We will see new products come to market in the next 3–5 years that we haven’t even thought of yet. That truly excites me from a marketing standpoint. My main concern about the industry is the high concentration of vape brands. It seems like every day there is a new vape brand coming to market. So, the key for us is how we remain competitive and create the best product for our customers. How we innovate new products and stay ahead of the curve.

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.

Don’t overvalue your brand when you are a young company. We did and we learned the hard way. Definitely get proof of concept by getting some sales first.

Everything you do will take twice as long as you expect it to. In every aspect of the business, whether it’s your supply chain, investment, or operations, things will take time. Be patient and you will do well.

Be prepared to withdraw your 401k. Early on I thought we would get an investor much sooner than we did. And to keep the business running you will need funds. Your 401k becomes vulnerable at that time, I got lucky that I had some extra funds set aside, but I still tapped into my 401k to keep the business going prior to our initial investment.

The laws are ever-changing, make sure you and your team stay on top of them. The cannabis laws are always in flux with it being a relatively new industry. I’d recommend staying on top of the latest news and trends in the industry and always check the Bureau of Cannabis Control for the latest laws.

In an extremely competitive market, don’t be afraid to break in at the bottom. We had originally priced as a premium-plus product, at the very top of the spectrum, but it was very hard to gain traction at that price point. We lowered our price point and have been able to gain a lot of traction.

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

Stay positive. As a leader, and a human, it’s easier said than done. We all have our tough days. But as the leader of an organization you are the one person that everyone looks up to day-in and day-out for guidance and motivation. Stay positive and keep moving forward and your team will too. By creating a positive work environment and a positive culture your company will be better served and go much farther, faster. I’ve heard horror stories from friends who’ve had terrible bosses in the past, and I’m thankful that I haven’t had such a bad experience. So I try to keep level headed, sometimes if you need to take a break or step out to clear your head it’s worth it for the overall betterment of everyone as a whole.

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 recently traveled to Thailand, what an amazing place and culture. I had the chance to visit an elephant sanctuary when I was there, a place where they rescue elephants from hard labor and give them a healthy life in the jungle. And in Thailand you see a completely different culture, people with vast income inequality, people that have so little, yet they are content with what they have. It’s eye opening. If I could inspire a movement, it would be to create a program where youth would get a chance to experience this, to travel abroad and see what other cultures are like. It’s so important in life and in the development of youth to have experiences where you travel and learn about other cultures and income inequality so that in the future we can narrow that gap.

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

You can follow us on Facebook and Instagram @okitokioriginal. And visit our website at okitoki.com.

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

The Thrive Global Community welcomes voices from many spheres. We publish pieces written by outside contributors with a wide range of opinions, which don’t necessarily reflect our own. Learn more or join us as a community member!
Share your comments below. Please read our commenting guidelines before posting. If you have a concern about a comment, report it here.

You might also like...

Community//

“Network Like Your Business Depends On It, Because It Does” 5 Leadership Lessons With Becky Adam

by Terry Kushner
Community//

“Paid Promotion Is The Hare, Organic Is The Tortoise” 5 Startup Strategies With Marissa Ryan, Co-Founder of VisualFizz

by Terry Kushner

Sign up for the Thrive Global newsletter

Will be used in accordance with our privacy policy.

Thrive Global
People look for retreats for themselves, in the country, by the coast, or in the hills . . . There is nowhere that a person can find a more peaceful and trouble-free retreat than in his own mind. . . . So constantly give yourself this retreat, and renew yourself.

- MARCUS AURELIUS

We use cookies on our site to give you the best experience possible. By continuing to browse the site, you agree to this use. For more information on how we use cookies, see our Privacy Policy.