How Berner Built a Cannabis Brand Empire
When Berner (née Gilbert Milam Jr) was 18, he worked at the front desk of a cannabis dispensary in the Bay Area, checking IDs and filling out requisition forms. Most teens would view this kind of low-level job as a means to video game money – or possibly some discounted weed. Not Berner. Long before the Green Rush, long before Prop 42 made recreational marijuana legal in his home state, he saw business opportunities on those bland dispensary shelves.
That was 18 years ago. These days Berner has a cannabis, clothing, and lifestyle empire called Cookies, as well as prolific and successful career as a rapper and record label founder.
We sat down with him at the Hall of Flowers show last month to get the scoop on how he grew his business.
What did you learn working at a dispensary?
I went from a front desk guy to budtender to managing the shop. I learned the business 100 percent from the beginning to end, just purchasing, merchandising, quality, flower -- everything about running a cannabis store. It was like going to college, just doing it hands-on.
What was a problem you saw in the industry at that time?
When I was first in the game, I realized early on that there was no brand. It was just people coming in with turkey bags with really good flower. I would have to make a sign for it and display it. I'd get creative with making the signs. If you look at some of the earlier strains, like OG Cush, even Blue Dream, Super Silver Haze, there's no face. There's no identity, there's no story behind it. This was the early 2000s. I was like, "None of this flower is coming in packaging like alcohol or cigarettes or food. One day there's going to be brands out there."
Did that lead to you creating your own brand?
Yeah. Cookies started off as a strain, and then I decided to build a brand around it. I knew we needed our own identity, so I decided to bring it into clothing and music and everything I was doing. It was like a gumbo.
Why did you call it 'Cookies'?
It was from the taste. You know, the first strain tasted like Thin Mint Girl Scout cookies. Then we came up with Cherry Pie, Cherry Cush, then, later on, came with the sherbets and enchiladas.
How has your music career tied into your cannabis business?
It just happened naturally. I've been making music for a while and, you know people like to rap about all the new shit, whether it be cars or alcohol or clothes. My thing was weed. I just rapped about the new weed. And naturally, it started building and growing faster than we had ever imagined. It wasn't planned.
What do you make of the business now as compared to when you were first starting?
It's more cutthroat because people have more money, and they can play games. I'm not worried about it. I feel like we started one of the coolest, most unique grassroots brands in the world. I feel like I got a damn good head start and I got a lot of knowledge that's priceless.
Unlike a lot of celebrities with cannabis brands, you seem very involved with the business? Do. Do you make most of the decisions?
Every f***ing decision. That's why my hair is starting to fall out. But I feel like the key to success is being hands-on with your business. If you're not hands-on, a lot of shit will slip through the cracks, and it won't be you anymore. Cookies is me. It's me and my partners' vision, and I make sure to stay in every aspect to keep that vision alive.
How do you balance between the creative and business side of your careers?
I'm Mexican and Italian -- it's just in my blood. But I love this shit. Some people like to sit in the house and drink beer and watch TV. My whole passion is working. I love to work.
Do you sleep at all?
No. Maybe like three or four hours a night. My goal is to leave a legacy behind, man. I got a lot of shit I want to get done before I go. So, I look at sleeping as you got to do it, but I'm trying to be grinding as much as I can.
What do you tell people who are trying to get into this game now? Is it too late to get in?
It's never too late. Just know what you want to do and how you're going to do it. Don't try to spread too thin too fast and be passionate about what you're doing. If you're passionate about what you're doing, you could never fail.
Where do you see cannabis in five years? Do you think it's going to be federally legal?
I hope so. I want it to be treated like any other business. I'm a father; I got children. I want to be just like every other businessman. I want to be able to put my money in the bank and buy property for my children and have fun. I feel like, right now, there's this big grey area. And for some reason, the billionaires that come from real estate aren't worried. But I don't come from real estate, I come from the game, so I'm still worried.
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So, federal legalization will mean two things. 1) That people will be able to experience cannabis normal. 2) I don't have to worry about shit anymore. So, make that shit pop.
Make that shit pop.
Make that shit pop for your boy.