Alan Gertner is the CEO of Hiku Brands (HIKU) in Canada. Listen in as Alan goes deep on why cannabis consumers choose brands and not products. Hear how Alan’s background at Google, baking sourdough bread, and being a ski guide in Japan forged him into the brand building Jedi he is today.
Fun fact, the president of Hiku brands is Trent Kitsch who co-founded Saxx underwear. Matthew geeks out a little on this underwear and it’s fun to hear why.
What are the five major trends disrupting the cannabis industry
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– How Alan’s father grew the first legal cannabis in Canada
– Why Alan left Google for a meaningful life in cannabis
– The way Alan measures happiness
– Why customers choose brands not products
– The evolution of cannabis preferences
– Alan’s favorite book and business tool
As cannabis companies grow and prohibition ends, consumer choices abound. Our next guest believes as more and more options become available for cannabis consumers, having a brand that resonates with customers becomes increasingly important. Here to tell us about brand building in the cannabis space is Alan Gertner of Hiku brands. Alan, welcome to CannaInsider.
Alan: Matt, thanks so much for having me. I'm a longtime listener, and I'm excited to be here and have a chance to chat.
Matthew: Great. Give us a sense of geography. Where are you in the world today?
Alan: I'm in Toronto. Toronto, it's unseasonably warm, which is beautiful today. So it's in the mid-20s. I'm sitting in our office, which is our fourth office in about one year. But now, our newest and latest home for Hiku.
Matthew: Okay. And I'm in Edinburgh, Scotland today and for those who are Celsius challenged like me, you're probably in like the mid-lower to mid-70s. Is that right, 20 degrees Celsius is like 68 degrees Fahrenheit, so...
Alan: Yeah, I think that's right.
Matthew: Yeah, cool. Okay, well, tell us at a high level. What is Hiku?
Alan: Okay. So Hiku today is a publicly listed cannabis company in Canada. We are one of the only vertically-integrated cannabis companies in Canada, which means that today we have four facilities that grow cannabis and two licenses to sell medical cannabis. In addition to having a full stack retail platform, we have seven stores today across the Great White North that today sell coffee and cannabis paraphernalia. But by the end of the year we expect to be the largest chain of dispensaries in the world.
Matthew: Wow. And what's your background and journey? How did you get to this point? What were you doing before? What culminated in creating Hiku?
Alan: So, Hiku is effectively three years old. The three years ago our business was called Tokyo Smoke, which is one of the brands under the Hiku banner. And three years ago, I was incredibly lucky to begin my journey with Tokyo Smoke with my father Lorne. So I'll tell you a bit about my story first and I'll get to how Lorne convinced me to work in the cannabis industry. You know, maybe then against my better judgment, but I'm incredibly lucky to have the opportunity to be here today.
But before that, I worked at Google for the better part of a decade and worked on a corporate strategy team with Google in San Francisco and California. And then, I managed a multi-hundred million dollar business unit for Google across Asia, Singapore, Bangkok, Tokyo, across the continent. Before that, I was a management consultant. And I was 30 a couple years ago. I found myself reflecting on my life and my journey till that point. I was incredibly lucky to work at Google.
I went to computer camp as a kid. This was somewhere that was my dream to be. And I found myself in a situation where my life wasn't as meaningful as I wanted it to be. I had chased this corporate ladder and career path that seemed to be the right narrative, honestly. And I think it left me in a situation where I was happy and my life was, you know, great from an outside perspective, but it wasn't as meaningful as I wanted it to be. I didn't have the kind of fulfillment I was looking for.
I was incredibly lucky at the time to have a mentor who, you know, guided me to challenge the way I thought about life. And instead of trying to focus my life on winning at work, you know, he gave me a push to try to focus on winning at life. And I wanted to [inaudible [00:05:43] try to understand what that would be, how could I make my life more meaningful? How couldI focus my energy on winning at life? I was lucky to, you know, take a break from Google. I worked as a backcountry ski tour guide in Japan.
I bought a 20-year-old Toyota with my friends and we drove from London to Mongolia. And along this way, I had this big spreadsheet that I filled out every single morning. And the goal of the spreadsheet was to try to find out what would make my life meaningful. So every day I scored how meaningful my last day was, how fulfilled I felt. I wrote about who I talked to, what I talked to them about, what the weather was like, everything, just trying to capture what made my life meaningful.
As someone who spent too much time at Google and as a management consultant, data seemed to be the answer. And I discovered two things from this exercise. One, that my life is more meaningful when I take on a challenge. And two, that my life is more meaningful when I'm part of or building a community. So I found myself in this situation where I had these two pieces of data.
And I was talking to my father, Lorne. Lorne, for those who don't know, is one of the earliest entrance players, contributors to the Canadian cannabis industry. So 20 years ago, my father had a share of what was the only legal licensed producer of cannabis in the country. There was, 20 years ago, only 1. And we had one. We had one in a mine in the middle of our country that produced legal medical cannabis because the government wanted to sweep it under the rug as much as possible.
And Lorne was a partner in that business and they took that business public 14 years ago. He then was a co-founder of Pharmachem, which is now Kronos. So, he's co-founded two major cannabis companies along the way, and has long been a very strong believer in the value to society of medical cannabis. And so, he's been stumping this belief and disbelief in cannabis and this power to change the world for, you know, a huge portion of my life.
And when we were talking about my journey forward this desire to take on a challenge and be part of a community, and we talked about how he saw the cannabis market unfolding having been in it for a long time. But also having been someone who has, you know, truly integrated cannabis in their life, and I think really understands both the consumer journey and the, you know, continued evolution of cannabis in society.
We talked together about how we imagined this world evolving, how we imagined cannabis evolving with it. And we started on this journey and with a singular belief in thesis, which was that cannabis is a consumer product. And so, when we thought about this idea of cannabis being a consumer product, we thought that the key would be to build brands.
Because ultimately in consumer products, consumers choose these brands and they choose retail. So three years ago, with that singular thesis, my father and I together co-founded this business called Tokyo Smoke. So that's the journey in some ways that brings us to today. There's always lots of steps along the way. But that's how I ended up here.
Matthew: Wow, that's quite a background and legacy to build on in the modern era. So, when you were at Google, it seems like, you know, I worked at a big tech company and it's great because it's...there's a lot of adrenaline, and things are moving fast. And it's like, hey, you're part of this wave that's kind of changing the world. But then it's hard to sustain that, perhaps over the long run. Is that what you found, and you felt like, "Hey, I'm moving fast, but is there meaning behind it?"
Alan: So, I'll sum up my, the contrasting experiences in a simple example. When I worked at Google, I constantly dreamed of doing other things. I was lucky to be there and lucky to be part of the incredible momentum of the business. But I dreamed of the ability to live all these other lives and contribute all these other different ways to society.
Today as the CEO of Hiku, I never dream about doing other things. All I have is nightmares about this thing. This is something I believe in and I'm so incredibly lucky to get to be a part of and to work on every day. And I truly believe in what we're doing, I believe in the legal cannabis economy and the opportunity to contribute to that and play a small role. And that is so much more fulfilling and meaningful to my purpose and my higher cause than working at a big company I think ever could have been.
Matthew: Your background sounds a little bit like a Wes Anderson movie, like the guy who made "The Royal Tenenbaums" and those, you know, "Rushmore." "Oh, I was a backcountry ski guide in Japan and then did a tour to Mongolia and..." You know, that's what it sounds like to me.
Alan: I've been lucky to go on lots of journeys. And I've always been eager to take on a challenge and do new things, and it's part of my narrative and who I am. And, you know, I think part of what's fascinating to me about the cannabis market and why I'm so passionate about it is I really truly believe we have a chance to change the world. And I'm so excited to be in Canada, which to me, in some ways, is the, you know, the epicenter of the momentum that will help normalize and legalize cannabis all over the globe.
Matthew: So your grow has a bit of some interesting characteristics in kind of Canadian history from what I understand. Can you tell us about where your grow is and kind of the context of why that's important for agriculture in Canada?
Alan: Yeah. So we have two locations for our grow. One is in Kelowna, which I think is the one that you're talking about, and one is in Ontario, just outside of London, Ontario. So, just as a quick recap, we recently acquired and merged with a company called WeedMD, which has a large scale greenhouse just outside of Toronto and an indoor facility. But our first grow was our partnership with a company called DOJA. DOJA is based in Kelowna.
Kelowna, for those who haven't been there I would encourage you to go because it is one of if not the most beautiful place in Canada. It's one of the warmest places in Canada. It's one of the sunniest places in Canada. It's one of the most fertile places in Canada. And as you can imagine, with all of those factors at play, it also happens to be one of the homes of black market cannabis in Canada.
It is this beautiful town in the middle of the mountains. And it has in some ways been one of the epicenters or Ground Zeroes for the black market. Some of Canada's best cannabis, this competent BCBud has historically come out of the Okanagan, which is the region that Kelowna is in. Today, the best wines in Canada also happen to come out of the Okanagan. And a couple of months ago, we started a dialogue, as Tokyo Smoke, with a company called DOJA.
DOJA was founded by a couple of amazing entrepreneurs who have worked on Incredible products before and they built this business, DOJA, around the West Coast lifestyle and attribute to the amazing history of Kelowna and the reach and incredible work that people in the Okanagan have done to help push the legalization of cannabis. So let's pay tribute to that. Let's recognize how important cannabis can be to the west coast lifestyle. And let's create a product that is truly emblematic of and representative of the incredible cannabis that comes out of that region.
Matthew: Alan, circling back. How do you get products to customers in Canada? I know it's different than, you know, the dispensary model. Can you tell us a little bit about that?
Alan: Yeah. Great question, Matt. So,let's talk about today and how it works today. And then let's talk about how it will work come, the legalization of adult use cannabis in the fall. So, today there are around 250,000 medical cannabis patients or customers in Canada. And those 250,000 legal cannabis customers order their cannabis today from one of a number of licensed producers, so you get a license to grow and sell cannabis from Health Canada, our regulating authority.
And then, the only way for those 250,000 people to legally acquire cannabis today is to go on the website of one of the licensed producers and order cannabis and have it shipped to their door typically using Canada Post, our government mail service. So that's today, how you acquire legal medical cannabis, direct mail from the facility, from the cultivation site. In the future, come September, October when legalization happens, you'll be able to walk into a dispensary. Now, depending on the province, it may be a private or government-run dispensary, and you'll be able to buy cannabis in a process that's more analogous to what's currently happening in the U.S.
Matthew: Okay. I bet the postal carriers have never been more popular in Canada than they are now.
Alan: I think that it's been very, very good for also propping up the Canada Post system. I think it's a great function to get cannabis quickly around the country.
Matthew: Okay. And so, you think really deeply about branding and you and I talked offline a bit about this. And it's interesting because there's a ton of movement and capital and people coming in, and they're thinking about spreadsheets and profits and things like that. But perhaps the most important thing is, where do you fit in the customer's mind as they're making their decision process? Can you tell us how you think about branding and how perhaps others could be considering branding their own companies?
Alan: Matt, we tend to think it's one of the most important parts of a company's relationship with a consumer as the brand is the experience of the product. And I think oftentimes when we think about a consumer experience, we tend to dive right into the product itself, i.e., is the product quality good? And that's an incredibly important part of the experience. Don't get me wrong. But if we look at other consumer products, I think we can start to take a bit of guidance in the cannabis space. You look to something like coffee, I'm a huge coffee drinker. Matt, do you drink coffee?
Matthew: Oh, yes.
Alan: I love coffee. And, you know, I have a tremendous amount of love for Starbucks, right? Starbucks did to me this really, truly unbelievable thing, which introduced effectively the whole world. But let's start with North America, it basically introduced America to the latte. At scale before Starbucks, we just really all drank black coffee. Now, did Starbucks do that because their coffee was fundamentally better than everybody else's? I don't know.
People seem quite quick to malign Starbucks coffee right now, as coffee snobs. I think what they did was, they created this incredible experience. They built a nomenclature. They built this safe space where you could learn about coffee, and where your coffee purchase was, all of a sudden, less about the caffeine in that drink, but equally about the community, about what the brand said about you, about the interaction that you had in that store.
Starbucks built this additional place in life for people to spend time, for people to interact. And when you look at Starbucks, and you look at how coffees evolve, you see that it evolved, in some ways, away from and became abstracted from the agricultural input coffee beans, and became a lot more about community, and a lot more about a secondary experience than the primary input. Let's even think about frappuccino.
A frappuccino is pretty abstracted from coffee, right? But it's an experience you opt into for so many other reasons. Now, it's not a perfect analogy for cannabis, but I think it starts to provide us signals, right? Why as a consumer you choose one beer over another beer? Is it purely about taste? Or is a lot of it about the signal of that brand and what it says about you?
I think that those are critical factors to a consumer making a decision. And I think that's even more important in cannabis. Because in cannabis, we live in this world where it still has an immense amount of stigma. And if we think about overcoming that stigma, I think we need to tell stories, and hold up icons, and build brands that feel normal to help consumers understand how cannabis can integrate into their lives as opposed to them feeling like they have to move towards a pre-existing cannabis culture.
Matthew: Right. So, you don't feel like you're doing something shameful, like the company that made this doesn't believe in shameful things, this is a normal natural act. So, that makes sense. It's funny that you mentioned Starbucks because I was just reading an article about how their online rewards system, an app, is more successful than any other virtual currency out there.
Alan: Oh, it's truly amazing.
Matthew: Yeah. Once you're successful in creating that experience and trust, then you can lead in other ways that you wouldn't normally be possible.
Alan: I love your use of the word trust. I think a lot about trust, especially for a first time cannabis consumer or someone who's used cannabis before but doesn't necessarily have a relationship with it yet. I think the tipping point for them is going to be trust, and they're going to establish a trusted partner in their journey. You know, I obsess over this idea. In Canada, about 25% of Canadians currently consume cannabis, which is a lot, a quarter of Canadians.
But 85% of Canadians consume alcohol. And around 85% of Canadians consume coffee. So, there's this 60% delta between people who are otherwise willing to live a high life, because that's what you do if you consume coffee or consume alcohol. They are psychoactives, they change the way you interpret and exist in the world. But they have yet to figure out a way to integrate cannabis into their lives.
And I think there are a lot of use cases where they would be better served by using cannabis, they would be better served and we would be better served as a society. So how do we build brands? How do we tell stories? How do we offer products to those people who are comfortable drinking a glass of wine at night to relax, but would probably be better served by using cannabis?
Matthew: Good point. Well, you've got a lot of upside there, 25% is a lot, but there's still a lot of room for upside in Canada. So that's good news. So what do you think is the most important thing we talked about trust? But what's the most important thing you can do to connect your brand with prospects and existing customers if you were to focus on just one thing initially, what do you think that one thing should be?
Alan: To me, it's all about education. I think I have trusted partners built through education. Let's think about Lululemon together, another business I have an immense amount of love for and I think has done a pretty incredible thing. Lululemon in some ways helped bring yoga and that wellness category to the masses, right. And I don't think it did that because it necessarily had the world's best yoga pants, it did that through an incredible sense of community.
If you go into a Lululemon store, they're positively buzzing. The stores are often community centers for education where they often throw events and they help people understand how yoga and the wellness movement can fit into their life. You can go to the Lululemon in Toronto and the space above the store, they often have meditation classes, they'll have yoga classes or Pilates classes. They help bring this experience directly to your door and make it safe for you to understand and onboard, for you to dip your toe in a world that you didn't otherwise live.
I think education is part of that key, and I think that applies to cannabis, in some ways, even more for all of these people who want to or could benefit from cannabis but just don't have the understanding, don't have the route, don't have a path today that appeals to them. So I think education, whether one-to-one me to you or a retail store to a larger group of people, I think that's... If you're going to do one thing, to me, that's the thing that I would do.
Matthew: Yeah. Now, let's talk about authenticity. How does a brand scale without losing its authenticity? When I grew up in Chicago there was this sub sandwich shop called Potbelly, and there was only one of them. And they would heat your subs for you, and make milkshakes and put a little cookie on top of the milkshake and it was just full of all these little touches and...
Alan: It sounds great.
Matthew: Oh, it's still really good but it's now blown up into this huge franchise and they're in airports and different places. And they're still good, but in my mind I'm just like, "Gosh, I kind of go back to my experiences when it seemed like...it seems small." I mean, for how big they scaled. They've done a good job, but it's like, how do you keep the spark? How do you keep that little, that essence of what the brand is when it starts to what it scales because the company has to change because there's more people, there's more gears, there's just... it's different. How do you feel about the scaling argument?
Alan: That's it. It's a really interesting fact. And Matt, can you think of a company that scale that has remained authentic? Like, so, can we find a counterpoint to the Potbelly example like that you can think of?
Matthew: I feel like that brand TOMS, the Shoes company has done a pretty good job.
Alan: Right. Oh, I like TOMS as an example. Right? TOMS is, in some ways, about this singular founder, Blake, right, and his story, and his journey. And he still seems to remain the face of that business. And they have a very, very authentic goal in mind, right, that I think they have managed to keep and hold tightly. And for me, the key to Van der Pop remaining authentic, and Van der Pop at the time and now has cultivated this incredible community. These people who believe in April's story and message, and who are part of this subculture because they want to because they identify with it, and are willing to share, proselytize to other people about this story that means something to them because they believe they fit into this idea, this concept, this community. I think, the way we're able to keep Van der Pop, Van der Pop is April, and empowering April to continue to tell her story. To make Van der Pop, not about me, Matt.
Not about Hiku, not about this public company, but for it to continue to be about April, and for April to continue to tell the story, and tell a story that resonates with her. And then, also to bring people on to Van der Pop who that story resonates with them, and they have their own unique spin, but people who identify with that brand, not corporate soldiers who just want to milk a brand or a business for money. But instead, people who want to continue to build on a movement.
And so, when we look at the Van der Pop team, you know, we have a member in Toronto of our organization named Odessa, who I can see from my desk here. And Odessa was the fashion editor of the "Global Mail," the largest newspaper in Canada. And Odessa spends the majority of her time working on Van der Pop because this brand also resonates with her. And she can help Van der Pop tell additional authentic stories and help build that subculture even larger and larger.
But it still remains focused on these individuals who the brand is authentic to who the story resonates with. That's how we tend to approach it. And that applies across all of our brands from DOJA, the team in Kelowna that continues to build a brand about West Coast to Maitri, the team in Montreal that continues to build a brand that resonates with Quebecois. That's how we tend to approach this idea of remaining authentic.
Matthew: That's, you know, a lot of people might say, "Well," you know, "by limiting the brand to just women that you're cutting out," you know, "half the marketplace," but that's still a huge segment. And also it allows you to focus in a way that a brand that's going after a larger market segment may not, and so you can speak more directly, you know, to your customers.
And it sounds like with Van der Pop, there's a bit of an aspirational quality there too. Aspirational, both in making cannabis have less of a stigma, but also into kind of a lifestyle choice. Do you think that's accurate or no?
Alan: No. I think that's right. I mean, I think, in order to break stigma, we often will tell a narrative about lifestyle, just like in alcohol or in coffee, other psychoactives in our lives, where the majority of the storytelling is about lifestyle because I think that's often how consumers think about and understand consumer products. We tend to go down that route.
I would say with Van der Pop, it's not necessarily that we're only telling a story to women, but we're telling a story from women. So, we're making sure that the story comes from people who believe in the narrative, and I think that's what's key to authenticity. You ultimately need to have a team or an organization or individuals who truly believe in what you're doing, and their belief needs to be unmoored from money, and their belief needs to be about a higher purpose.
Matthew: Yeah. It's funny because you and I are talking about the stigma because we remember, you know, when this was all mostly black market in North America. You know, when I talk to much younger people now, they don't have that stigma at all. Like, they don't think about it, that it's like, there doesn't appear to be there. Like there's a generation that's coming up now, where it's just like, yeah, it's you know, they just don't think about it that way.
And it's refreshing to see but it's also like, I never thought in my lifetime, that would be possible. Like it just, "Wow, this is crazy." So...
Alan: Oh, it's truly amazing. I, man, I'm so spoiled. I get to stand on the shoulders of giants and participate in this industry. And the amount of work, sweat, blood, tears that people in Canada, the U.S. and around the world have put in to putting us into this situation, it's unbelievable, even talking to my father. You know, I mentioned earlier that he co-founded one of Canada's first legal cannabis companies. He'll tell stories now about 16 years ago, sitting down in a dinner with a potential investor, telling them that he was building a medical cannabis company, and the potential investor, a longtime friend saying, "This dinner is over. You are a drug dealer. We're never talking again."
And I compare that to my experience now which is so transformed and really different. We're on a podcast openly talking about, in some ways, the marketing and branding of cannabis, something so second to order relative to legalization. It's unbelievable, I'm... In fact, it's hard for me to even express how lucky I am as an individual to get to be part of this. And it's part of why we work so hard because we have a fundamental belief in Hiku, that cannabis is good. And we will work hard to prove that belief.
Matthew: Any other kind of experiences you have you think that are not typical because your dad was so involved in this business and you see it a different way. I mean, you've got all this background and anything. Has that changed your view at all? Or how does it affect you as you run Hiku?
Alan: I'm sure so much. Right? I'd like to say I'm probably one of the only legal second-generation cannabis entrepreneurs. You know, I'm so influenced by my father and the incredible work that he did. And I think part of the thing that impacts me the most is an incredibly strong desire to see this happen everywhere because I think about all the sweat that my father and just, you know, my father's played some very small role, especially relative to activists who spent their whole life in this.
But he believes this so strongly. And I've been so lucky to watch him work on something that he believes so strongly, that he's still passionate about, and a chance to contribute to that, to be part of that in some small way, really motivates me because I feel very grateful that because of the work of someone that I love, and know, I get to do this. And I said because of the work in some small way of someone I love and know, I get to do this. And that motivates me very much on a day to day basis.
Matthew: Tell us about your president that came over from DOJA into the Hiku family because I'm a little bit familiar with him and his other business he founded, which is really an incredible story in itself. So maybe you can tell us a little about that.
Alan: Yeah. So DOJA, D-O-J-A. So Trent is the...Trent Kitsch. It came from... DOJA...is one of the founders of DOJA. Trent is one of the most inspiring unbelievable people I'll ever meet.
Trent is a lifelong entrepreneur who has really incredible vision to see three, five years out and imagine this world we don't live in today, and he's done and demonstrated this a couple of times. One of the ways that he's contributed to our world and demonstrated his ability to have vision and execute against it, is SAXX Underwear. I mean, Trent, in some ways, single-handedly disrupted the underwear category. Think about a category that [inaudible 00:32:46] brand. It's crazy, Matt. Go ahead. Sorry.
Matthew: But here's the thing about SAXX. It's just so crazy. It's underwear for men. And the problem with traditional underwear or the boxer brief as you put it on and it kind of smashes everything like a pancake. The SAXX creates this cove for your man-parts, so they can be safely protected in their own world and not bounced around like a speed punching bag from your legs. So, sorry, any ladies out there. That's too much detail.
Alan: I thought that was quite an eloquent explanation. I liked that.
Matthew: I mean, I don't know why someone else didn't think of this. It's amazing, but then it's like you're creating a category, people aren't sure why they'd use that. He's kind of a gritty guerrilla marketer in getting the word out.
Alen: Trent honestly is an amazing guy. Think about a category that could be harder to get into than underwear, wholly unbranded, unsexy thing, and men's underwear. Something that people historically don't even really care about, because every pair is effectively the same. And Trent comes along with this different product, and then a wholly different marketing strategy. Trent thinks, "Okay, well, where would men buy underwear if they don't currently buy it?" "Well, I bet you, they'd buy it at the golf course."
So he figures out a way to sell underwear at golf courses, right? I bet you, they buy it at the baseball game. Let's figure out a way to get underwear sold at the baseball games. And then, let's do advertising to men directly. How do I tell them a story about why they should buy my underwear? I mean, it's really unbelievable.
And you can imagine how Trent can contribute to cannabis, given the rant I went on earlier about how I think this is so much of a consumer product and about brand and about experience, and the chance to offer something different, and offer a story that's new, that's refreshing, and a story that's about education. Matt, you just basically educated me on SAXX, so clearly Trent is able to get that message out there, right? It's amazing.
Matthew: Well the funny thing is is that, I heard him on a podcast, gosh, long time ago now, like at least a year or two, maybe more, and I still remember it. And I was thinking, "I haven't gotten a pair but the moment," like, "I want to get a pair." I think once I get back to the States, I'll get one because I don't see why I should be living in the underwear dark ages anymore. It's ridiculous. I was like, "My underwear now feel like a medieval torture garment, like a chastity belt. Like, I gotta some SAXX here." Okay.
So tell me, how do you see... We're kind of evolving quickly here, very quickly. The market is changing, dispensaries are coming in Canada, you're going to have to move pretty quick. I mean, not that there's like a stopwatch on you but the market's going to be moving all over the place, preferences are going to be changing, things are gonna be happening. How do you kind of orient yourself on how you wanna build this brand? Is it kind of like a build, measure, learn? Are you talking to customers or what are you thinking about there?
Alan: I'll give just two thoughts, one, perfectly okay with the stopwatch. You know, we've had a wild three years. And the chance to continue to move fast and, and evolve is part of why we get up every day. And a year and a half ago we were one coffee shop, and you know, we had done our first raise at a $4 million pre-money valuation. And today we're north of $500 million business that has nearly 100 employees. We have been lucky to move fast, and we have, you know, I think, really big aspirations.
And so, one, I'm actually excited by the pace of the Canadian cannabis movement is happening because I do think Canada will set the pace for the entire world. So it's just my first thought. Second thought in terms of like how we think about our evolution, so much of it is about this idea of launching and iterating. I think as an individual, part of my guiding light is this idea of progress over perfection and making sure that we push forward and recognizing that every step forward is a step in the right direction for cannabis legalization and cannabis normalization.
And that the integration of cannabis in society will take time, and it will be a learning process, both for businesses and for consumers. And we need to be willing to if we believe that education is key, we need to be able to be willing to teach, to learn, to react, and to evolve. And it's part of, Matt, why we're a retail business. And I think retail is the best path to do that.
It's the only way for us to really interact with one-to-one with consumers. I'm so passionate about the chance to talk to a consumer in Winnipeg or in Vancouver or in Calgary in our retail stores directly to build a relationship with them and to learn from them about how we can tell stories better and how we can help people join the legal cannabis movement.
Matthew: Yeah. It's interesting when I talk to people at dispensaries, and mostly in Colorado, there's still such a broad spectrum of what people want and identify with. Some people go to like there's one place that considers itself like the Costco of cannabis where it's premium grade, not the best top shelf, but it's premium grade, but kind of discount pricing and there's no fluff for marketing and it's very bare bones.
Then there's other people that are identifying with brands, other people that only smoke, consume vape pens and it's just like, "Wow, this..." I imagine there's gonna be some consolidation and the market's going to move towards maybe just a few things. But it's just amazing watching this happen, this starburst. So I think it's gonna be interesting watching you build this brand, and I wish you all the best. But before we close, I want to ask you a couple personal development questions, help listeners get a better sense of who you are as a person. So with that, is there a book that has had a big impact on your life or way of thinking that you would like to share?
Alan: Oh, I love that question. I'm a huge fan of reading, it's one of the ways or the best way for me to decompress at the end of the day. I find often I get so excited about what's going on in Canada, and just in cannabis generally, that I, you know, need a chance to decompress. And I often tend to move towards science fiction books because they challenge my mind and also give me this, you know, new problem or this new world to think about. So, I can think about a recent book that's been impactful for me. It's called the "The Three-Body Problem." Have you heard of this book, Matt?
Matthew: No, no. I haven't.
Alan: All right. "The Three-Body Problem" is a Chinese science fiction book. It's one of the more prolific Chinese science fiction books. And "The Three-Body Problem" is, I won't give it away but it's very briefly about this idea exploring the thought, what happens if we do contact other life in the universe? And it explores this idea and how that might work out both positively and negatively for society. And it does it in an incredibly realistic, interesting way.
And I have had lots of love for both a thought experiment and the way it asked questions about society, about who we are, about what's important to us, about why we do the things we do, and how we would react in times of happiness and times of crisis. Because I think sometimes we think as a society as people that the way we live today is the only way that people have ever lived. And we forget that almost all of our habits are new, and even something like tobacco, I mean, tobacco is only hundreds of years old in terms of its adoption in mainstream society.
There's an argument that tobacco was effectively discovered by Western Europeans who came to North America, who historically had never really even seen tobacco. And then we see how quickly both the adoption of tobacco can happen all across the globe, and then how quickly we can work to reduce it. Our behaviors are very, very, very new.
And because I'm in the cannabis industry, I have lots of love for thinking about how our behaviors could change. If we had different information, if we had different challenges, we might make different decisions. And let's be open to that, and let's recognize that the thing we do today may very well not be the thing we do tomorrow. And the thing we do today was definitely not the thing we did 100 years ago.
Matthew: Yeah. So true, especially when you look at something like Uber. It wouldn't have been possible without total smartphone immersion of the entire culture. But then as soon as it's there, boom, taxi industry transformed.
Alan: Totally gone.
Matthew: It's like...totally gone. Yeah. People used to pay 500 to 800 to a million dollars for a medallion in New York City. And now they're just plummeting, you know, people don't want them anymore, It's a liability, and it's just like, "What happened?" That was just a phase transition. Amazing how that can happen. You're right.
Alan: Yeah. It's incredible. So, "The Three-Body Problem."
Matthew: Yes, the three body parts. Haven't heard of that one.
Alan: "The Three-Body Problem."
Matthew: "The Three-Body Problem." Is there a tool you consider helpful to your business productivity that you'd like to share?
Alan: Also a question I love. Okay. So, one very practical. One is Trello. Do you know Trello?
Alan: So, I love Trello. So Trello is like, just in terms of being productivity oriented, and having a list. Trello to me by far best digital list and project management piece of software that's out there. It's incredibly good at allowing me to say, "Here's what I need to do." Here's...I'll just very explicitly say the way I organized it. I have things I need to do in the next hour, things I need to do in the next day, things I need to do in the next week, things I need to do in the next month, things I need to do in the next quarter, things that I do in the next year.
And, you know, I have a running list of things, and probably shift between boards, because Trello is organized by boards. So it gives me this very simple way to visually see what's at stake. When I get up in the morning, what I have to do, and what I need to be ready for and, and think about. I I love Trello. So that would probably my core tool. That and I make sourdough bread. I really like baking. So, I have to work on my sourdough starter every day.
So, I think the process of getting up and getting to feed my sourdough starter and looking forward to every weekend, baking bread, is a really nice grounding mechanism for me. It's something simple, something I get to contribute, something that's in some ways both instant and takes time, something that evolves every time because it's a living thing, a sourdough starter. Every time it's sort of different but something that I can count on. I don't know, it's part of my day to day.
Matthew: You know, we're kind of in a carb bashing culture. But I've heard that there's a tremendous health benefits to the sourdough bread if made the right way. Can you talk about that at all?
Alan: Well, and there's an argument that sourdough because it's a living bacteria potentially eats a lot of the things in bread that are potential, sort of, potentially in this sort of negative bucket of things we don't necessarily want to consume a lot of. So I think there's less gluten in sourdough bread or less harmful, gluten in sourdough bread.
Honestly, I eat it because I think it's delicious. But I recognize that, you know, carbs are not for everybody. For me, it's one of the true joys in my life, is a chance to bake a loaf of bread, share it with people, get to eat this fresh living thing that I made with some butter and, you know, enjoy a sunny Saturday morning.
Matthew: Man, I'm getting hungry now. There's a huge difference between, like a store-bought, you know, Saran bagged and the fresh is just massive difference in the sourdoughs I've consumed where I don't like kind of the store in a bag version, it just doesn't taste good. And then you go someplace that's like, "Oh, I just made it fresh." And it's close to a religious experience when you get the right bread.
Alan: I love it, and so a live sourdough starter, also integrates local bacteria, right? So there is something about my sourdough starter that's local to my home or local to Toronto. And I guess I have so much love for that idea as well. Like, it's something that's both very personal as in my sourdough starter is nothing like anyone else's, and something that I can really easily share. I don't know why, but for some reason it's a part of my ritual that I find very grounding and satisfying.
Matthew: Well, Alan, we covered a lot today. Thanks for coming on the show. Before we close, can you tell listeners how they can find out more about Hiku, and your brands, and how to follow you and to see your sourdough recipe?
Alan: Matt, thank you for having me. I'm really thankful for the chance to chat. As I said, I have listened to your podcast a lot. And at some point along my journey as I was trying to understand all of the different facets of the cannabis industry, someone gave me printed transcribed notes of your podcasts.
Matthew: All right. I can't hear that enough. That was great.
Alan: It was amazing. They're like, "This is the source of truth." It's like, "Oh, okay. Well, I guess I got a lot of reading to do." So, in terms of finding Hiku, we're available at hiku.com, H-I-K-U.com. We are a publicly traded company in Canada, our stock ticker is H-I-K-U, as you could guess. We have multiple different brands, whether Tokyo Smoke, DOJA, Van der Pop, Maitri, M-A-I-R-T-R-I. So you can find all of those brands online, their individual Instagrams.
There's lots of Hiku content out there. And, you know, I would love for anyone out there to, you know, to visit Hiku, to visit our brands. And also tell us what you think. You can always email info@hiku, which I often read. And, you know, as I said earlier, and I stand by this, we have lots of work to do. And a huge part of that is learning from our consumers, our potential customers, our community, and continuing to be better.
Matthew: Alan, thanks so much for coming on the show today. We really appreciate it. And good luck to you in everything you're doing up in Canada. Keep us updated.
Alan: Thank you again, I really appreciate it. I'll come back anytime.