My Cannabis Career is a series of interviews featuring people in the cannabis industry. These stories illuminate diverse cannabis career paths, share learnings from strategic actions taken along the way, and provide insights into a green future.
Nancy Whiteman, CEO of Wana Brands, is often heralded as “The Queen of Legal Weed."
After co-founding the cannabis edibles company Wana Brands in 2010, Nancy has seen both her company and her career skyrocket. Wana has been expanding across the United States and into Canada. Canopy Growth recently paid $297.5 million for the right to acquire Wana Brands once the U.S. legalizes cannabis.
Read on for Nancy’s career story and advice for companies in the legal cannabis space.
What was the inspiration behind Wana Brands?
Wana is a classic, humble, grassroots founding story. We were literally started in the kitchen of my home.
I was running a sales and marketing consultancy when the dad of one of my kid’s friends mentioned he was getting into the infused soda pop business in Boulder, Colorado. So almost on a lark, I decided it would be interesting to try creating a product-led business with cannabis – how hard could it be? I thought.
Of course, that assumption wasn’t accurate and I quickly realized how difficult it was to start a cannabis brand, but I was also inspired by the feedback we received right off the bat. I realized that the products we made weren’t just recreational, they were enhancing people’s lives. I gained an immense appreciation for the power of the cannabis plant. I knew we found an ability to create products that could help change the world.
Wana’s tagline is “enhance your life” and this vision came to fruition in the early days just from feedback and a new understanding of what cannabis is and can become.
What decisions did you make early on that you believe had the biggest impact on Wana Brands’ success today?
The earliest example I can point to was our decision to focus on consistency.
I joined the cannabis industry in 2010 and as many know, this time period in Colorado was “the Wild West for weed.” There weren’t really any rules or regulations. There wasn’t even any required third-party lab testing for cannabis products.
But I was always deeply uncomfortable with the idea of putting out a product where I didn't know what the dosage was or what experience somebody was going to have. So from the first batch of products we made, we made sure we always lab tested.
The philosophical desire for consistency and complete understanding of our products was an aspect of Wana that set us apart almost immediately.
I also came to learn that a narrowed focus on what types of products we were making was going to help make Wana successful. At the start, we were making everything from infused almonds to beef jerky, but I saw that one of our competitors was making gummy worms and using a different model than us. They were spraying hash oil onto the gummy worms and selling them, which didn’t taste great and wasn’t a good experience for customers. I felt we could make these products better. We could infuse them with cannabis during the cooking process. We could make the product taste better. And we could implement our levels of consistency to these gummies.
As soon as we started experimenting with the gummies, the whole thing took off, so the brand became centered around those gummy products. I think that’s an important lesson for cannabis brands or really any company – keep your focus on a particular product or service that you believe you can do the best.
A quote that I love from Wayne Gretzky, goes “I skate to where the puck is going, not where it has been.” And that’s something I feel we’ve done at Wana. We watch where the industry is headed, not what’s happened previously.
What do you predict the cannabis space will look like five years?
The big question mark is whether or not cannabis will be federally legalized in 5 years. I'll answer as if it’s going to be – I believe it will.
For a company like Wana, the logistics of running our business will get easier under a federally legal scenario because we’ll be able to ship across state lines. This means we won’t have to be producing in every single state. However, I suspect that there are still going to be state-by-state differences and varying state markets. Everything that we're seeing indicates that states will retain broad discretion over their programs, which may mean there will still be dosage differences, product differences, and a less-than-easy national market to navigate.
We're also going to see an explosion of research. This has been difficult for anyone who receives any kind of federal funding right now.
Increased research is going to enable cannabis brands to make more effective products.
The third thing that I would point to is that distribution will look very different over time. Right now, dispensaries are the primary way that people get access to legal THC. But I think once we get into a federal legalization situation, cannabis will be available through a lot of additional avenues – like direct to consumer (which we’re already seeing in California).
But for any external corporations seeking a stake in the cannabis industry – whether it's tech, big alcohol, big tobacco, or big pharma – there are some complexities to cannabis that will take a bit of a learning curve. Any bigger companies coming into cannabis will do well to align themselves with a smaller company that’s established in the industry. We’re going to see a lot of acquisitions in the next few years.
How have you balanced your career, your personal life, and your passions?
The first thing I’d say about balance is that if you’re going to be an entrepreneur, work is going to be a big part of your life. So if you are not doing something that brings you joy and is intellectually stimulating then you are going to have a problem because the issue of integrating work and life will always feel like a tug of war. If you really love what you're doing there isn’t as much tension between work and life.
For my personal work-life balance, I do a few things. I try to work reasonable hours (however I don’t always succeed). I try to fill my life with interesting, fun social activities. And I also do some very mundane things in order to stay grounded. I try to take a walk every day. I meditate regularly. I take a gummy. I talk to people I love every day. I’m not sure that I would categorize them as rituals, but I certainly practice forms of self-care to enhance my life and it also plays an important role in my success at work.
Find what you do best and hone in on that skill – those who try to master it all, often end up failing completely.
Listen to Wayne Gretzky’s advice: Go where the cannabis industry is headed, not has been or even where it is now.
Understand that our current cannabis industry model won’t be around forever, but some aspects may remain relevant for years to come.
Do what you love. It may seem cliche, but you have to enjoy your work or you’ll find it incredibly difficult to succeed.
Thank you, Nancy! It was an honor to learn from one of the most successful businesswomen in cannabis. We’ll be watching Wana Brands closely to see what sort of edible magic they create next.