'Often, People Get Caught Up in the Noise of the Industry': Sara Gullickson, CEO of Item 9 Labs
Sticking to a business plan is especially important in the cannabis space.
Sara Gullickson is the CEO of Item 9 Labs Corp., a national publicly traded cannabis company specializing in the development and manufacturing of innovative cannabis products and proprietary delivery platforms. Gullickson is also the owner of Strive Wellness of Nevada LLC, a medical cannabis cultivation and processing facility with distribution rights, and dispensary Strive Life of North Dakota. Prior to her executive level position at Item 9 Labs Corp., Gullickson served as the CEO and founder of Dispensary Permits, a nationally recognized cannabis consulting firm. Established in 2010, Dispensary Permits won multiple cannabis licenses across more than a dozen competitive state markets. In addition to application success, Gullickson has assisted in opening and operating cannabis facilities from the East to West Coast, helping multiple startups secure funding for new ventures.
Len Giancola spoke with Gullickson as part of his "5 Things I Wish I Knew Before I Started Leading a Cannabis Business" series.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you share with the "backstory" about what brought you to the cannabis space?
An opportunity presented itself. Being a creative, out-of-the-box thinker, I seized the opportunity. A year or so into it, I had fallen in love with the plant, the industry, and my place in it. I haven't looked back since. Sure, some days I want to quit, but I think about how I have the chance to reshape the worldview on cannabis, educate others and change lives. Having the ability to make an impact is powerful and cannabis is my vehicle to leave my mark on the world.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?
I guess the cannabis industry is pretty interesting on a daily basis, but I think one of the more compelling stories of my career is that I was able to start my business with $3 as a young woman and eventually grow it into the top 3% of women-owned businesses. Recently, I made the decision to sell my business to a public company and in turn become the CEO of that company.
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?
I always go back to the same one. When I first started working in Chicago, I didn't understand how the industry had shifted (wall street and hedge funds getting involved) so I was under-dressed and under-prepared for a meeting and was wearing a very casual west coast type outfit. My client showed up in a three-piece suit and started flaunting his private jet, that's when I knew I had to step up my game.
Are you working on any exciting projects now?
Yes, always. I guess my most exciting project to date is the dispensary in North Dakota. This project is the culmination of many ambitions because the dispensary is based on my model. The fact that it's about to come to life in its first market is extremely rewarding. The project encompasses a really nice balance of business, standard operating procedures, as well a little bit of creativity in marketing, branding, and interior design.
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 hate to say that I've done most of it alone, but since the industry was so new, there was no one I could call on who had more experience in the industry than I did. That was probably a blessing and a curse because I had to seek answers from within; however, on the flip side, I do have a few business advisors as well as a spiritual advisor that have helped me stay on track during difficult periods of time.
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?
I think those descriptors are accurate in some ways, but also misrepresent the realities of the industry. We often have to go back to basics with marketing because we can't use a lot of traditional methods like television, internet, or social media ads, since the industry is prohibited. For us, one of the secrets to success is doing good work and creating a story and narrative from those efforts to further validate the company. Public relations, editorial coverage, and overall time in the industry are some key avenues for building brand loyalty and awareness. Since it's such a new industry, whenever I go to a show or a presentation, if I say I've been in the industry for nine years, ten times out of ten, that's going to be more years than anyone around me.
Can you share three things that most excite you about the Cannabis industry? Can you share three things that most concern you?
I'm over being concerned about the industry. I think I've been in it long enough that I don't have the fear, anxiety, or anticipation that other people have. Realistically, in order to get rid of those things, it just takes time. Whenever I would worry the industry would come to end or not be lucrative, my worries would dissolve because the industry would actually grow stronger.
Funny enough, I'm still excited by the cannabis industry every day. Three things that most exciting me are:
1. The industry changes at lighting speed.
2. Not one day is the same as the next.
3. My number one passion for the industry has always been to help people and make history and I still get to do that on a yearly basis.
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.
Well, if you haven't been in the industry, you shouldn't be leading a cannabis business right off the bat.
1. Slow and steady wins the race. Often, people get caught up in the noise of the industry, rather than sticking to a business plan or strategy. One fatal flaw I see new people making is feeling like they have to do everything immediately. To combat this, I think it's best to take a step outside of yourself and really analyze the industry opportunities available. Only then will you be able to pick out what is best suited for you or the company.
2. Everybody is an expert, yet there is limited expertise. As I mentioned, don't get caught up in the noise. Lots of people like to claim they are industry experts, but it's important to do your research. Before forging a partnership, make sure the person has the credentials and background they claim they have.
3. There is not as much money in the industry as everybody thinks. Though this is one of the fastest growing industries in the nation it takes time and diligence in order to reap the rewards.
4. It's harder than everybody thinks.
5. You probably won't be successful unless you're truly committed to the industry for the right reasons. It takes hard work and you need to be prepared to do the work.
What advice would you give to other CEOs or founders to help their employees to thrive?
For me, I found a lot of success in nurturing entry-level talent because they don't have preconceived notions about the business and so you can help shape and guide their business reality and understanding. It's basically about having a clean slate. More seasoned professionals focus on how they have done things in previous industries or why our industry doesn't make sense, which often prohibits them from producing good work or ever truly understanding the industry. I would say the number one ingredient is find individuals that are flexible and fluid in their thinking, this will provide a strong foundation and allow them to thrive in all of their business endeavors.
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.
Each day we're influencing people to make healthier choices for their wellbeing or health care, which is a movement that I I will always champion. Another cause I'm passionate about is empowering women to step up and become leaders, as well as implementing diversity into the organizations we create and on a greater scale, the industry as a whole.
What is the best way our readers can follow you on social media?
Linked In: https://www.linkedin.com/in/saragullickson/
This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for joining us!
Gullickson has received multiple accolades as a cannabis industry leader. She was named to Marijuana Business Magazine's Women to Watch in 2019 list, Herb Magazine's Top Ten Cannabis Entrepreneurs, Benzinga's Top 20 Women to Dominate the International Cannabis Space, and Phoenix Business Journal's Top Forty Under 40. An industry spokesperson, Gullickson headlined cannabis tracks at the Real Estate Wealth Expos in Los Angeles and Toronto, and the XLive Conference in Las Vegas. Gullickson has also presented at MJBizCon, World Medical Cannabis Conference & Expo, Dispensary Next, Cannabis World Congress and Business Expo, MJAC Investorshub International Conference, Women Grow Leadership Summit, and other large-scale business events. Gullickson believes it is her duty to help the industry evolve successfully. She has assisted in the development of regulatory frameworks and cannabis application processes in the United States, Canada, Europe, and New Zealand. She has also volunteered her time to advocacy efforts, attending multiple political gatherings to raise medical cannabis awareness, both at Lobby Days in Washington, D.C, and at the Phoenix Capitol.