Wana’s Nancy Whiteman shares 14 years of cannabis business lessons

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Image of Wana Brands product racks containing gummies

(Photo courtesy of Wana Brands)

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Image of Nancy Whiteman, founder of Wana Brands.
Nancy Whiteman (Courtesy photo)

In recognition of the recent announcement that I am stepping down as Wana Brands’ CEO, MJBizDaily was kind enough to offer me the opportunity to share some of my hard-earned learnings over the past 14 years in the cannabis industry.

Those who know me know that my favorite joke about cannabis is that there are a thousand questions but only one answer – and the answer is always the same: “It depends.”

That is my way of saying there are no hard and fast rules in cannabis; every market, partner and situation is so different that it is imperative to keep an open mind and be flexible.

So, as you will see, even my learnings are infused with “it depends” thinking.

You are not a magpie: You don’t need to chase every shiny thing you see.

If you do, you will lose focus, and you won’t get any of the shiny things.

Use your life and business experience, gut instincts and data to identify the things you think will really pay off and put your energy there.

But …

Don’t be myopic: Sometimes an epic opportunity that you were not planning on comes along.

Or, sometimes, the industry changes in a way that you weren’t expecting.

Don’t be an idiot and say “no” just because it wasn’t in your plan.

Consider changing your plan – but not every day.

Speaking of plans, forget about five-year business plans: A long-term plan probably seemed like a good idea once upon a time, but cannabis changes too quickly to lock into a rigid plan.

Flexibility and resilience are your new best friends.

Build as much optionality as you can into your planning.

But …

That’s not an excuse for lack of strategy: You need an overall direction of where you are going, a North Star of whether a given opportunity fits with your mission and brand ethos.

I call this “preparedness meets opportunism.”

You need to start getting ready for a new opportunity well before it is fully formed so that you are ready to go when the opportunity emerges.

Trust your gut: My worst mistakes over the past 14 years were all the result of either not asking enough questions or overriding my instincts because I wanted a particular deal.

If something seems off, it probably is.

If someone seems kind of shady, they probably are.

If you get red flags early, pay attention and save yourself a lot of heartache and time.

This is a small industry; ask around.

People get reputations (good and bad) for good reasons.

But …

While individuals usually don’t change much, circumstances and companies do: And so do management teams.

That company you had a bad experience with five years ago might be completely different today – or not.

But keep an open mind before you write them off.

Don’t do things you know are illegal: This is an obvious one, yet it gets ignored a surprising amount of the time.

But …

Do take a reasonable level of risk: There are a lot of legitimate gray areas in this industry.

Sometimes, you have to assess the risk and decide if it’s worth trying.

Evaluate the worst-case scenario and figure out if the juice is worth the squeeze.

Sometimes, the risk of not doing something is greater than the risk of trying something new and failing.

Don’t overthink everything: This is not an industry for people who like to have every “i” dotted and “t” crossed before proceeding.

Sometimes, the best market research is to try something and see what happens.

Jump in early, make your mistakes, learn from them and iterate quickly and intelligently.

Cannabis changes too fast for people and companies who are not nimble.

Plus, in my mind, you really fail only if you don’t learn anything from your failure.

But …

Don’t let the need for speed replace intelligent vetting: Now – much more than 14 years ago, when I started – there is actual information out there.

It’s not perfect, but it’s way better than nothing.

Make sure you use it.

Your team is everything: The most important job of a leader is to know what their organization needs and to hire great people to do it.

Set a clear vision, then get out of the way and let them do their thing.

Also, work with the best professionals you can afford and choose the best partners you can find.

There are no “buts” for this one: Finally, a lesson with no “it depends” caveat!

You and your company are only as good as the people you surround yourself with – from your team to your partners and vendors. Choose wisely.

Having people you trust, respect and like is the difference not only between success and failure but also between enjoying work and dreading work.

Someone smarter than I said that the quality of your relationships equals the quality of your life.

I couldn’t agree more.

Finally, recognize the unique opportunity that being in the cannabis industry represents.

You have the chance to be part of something new that has the power to change the world for the better.

Don’t lose your sense of mission and your sense of fun.

It’s a crazy ride, but try to lean into it and see the possibilities and the humor.

It’s cannabis, after all!

Nancy Whiteman is the founder and outgoing CEO of Colorado-based cannabis-infused product manufacturer Wana Brands. She will continue to serve on the board of managers at Canopy USA, which in May announced its plans to complete a planned acquisition of Wana and two other U.S. companies serving the regulated marijuana industry. She can be reached via her LinkedIn page.