'I Believe in People Over Profits; I Have Always Paid People Too Much': Olivia Alexander, Founder and CEO of Kush Queen
Olivia Alexander is the Founder and CEO of Kush Queen, a premier luxury lifestyle cannabis brand that launched in 2015. Renowned for providing quality, innovative cannabis wellness and lifestyle products, Olivia has become known as one of the industry’s top tastemakers, pioneering new areas of the space and creating trends at every turn. Olivia is an influencer, an advocate and a proud female contributor to the cannabis industry. Formerly a Beauty Queen who lived in Louisiana until the age of 13, she now has developed a name as the Kush Queen.
Fotis Georgiadis spoke with Alexander 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 us the story about what brought you to this specific career path?
When I was in college, I began using cannabis recreationally. Safe usage wasn’t shunned in my family, but supported, so I began learning everything I could about the flower. Shortly thereafter, I took a job as a budtender at a friend’s dispensary and loved it. I knew then cannabis was my destiny.
Before Kush Queen, I owned a company called The Crystal Cult, which made Swarovski Crystal vape pens. I started the brand with only $700 on Instagram. Within months, we had tens of thousands of followers and a healthy business. I designed a vape for dry flower/wax concentrates called “Kush Queen”. It quickly became our number one selling product. So many people would call the Cult and ask to buy cannabis from us. I realized that women really didn’t have much speaking to them in cannabis or a brand they could belong to. I then spent a few years working for other cannabis companies, mainly doing social media and digital strategy. When you go behind the scenes, you realize the issues with the products, the issues with customers, and overall I just felt like I could make better products. It took some time, because everything was self-funded, but overtime we created and formulated our products, starting with the bath bombs.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?
The truth is that as a start-up, self-funded brand in an emerging industry everyday is like being on Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride. I have been kicked out of my first real office for being in cannabis. I have had my bank account shut down. I have had my parents’ bank accounts shut down. My website has been shut down. The shut downs really stick with you because you feel the stigma and it shakes you. These were all my toughest days, but they make the good days better. They brought an overwhelming sense of gratitude for those people willing to do business with us.
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?
It wasn’t at the very beginning, but as we approached a massive scale with our bath bombs things got really crazy. We had never scaled a product before and our work room was absolutely wild. We had a new blender, new formula, and had probably been out of our garage for only a month. On top of it, we had lots of new employees. The bath bombs were practically powder and were basically covering everyone with powder. We were laughing, we were crying, and it was mayhem. We made a sign that said, “Don’t cry over broken bath bombs” for the work room. It was really a moment that bonded us and we still laugh about it. The lesson we learned is that scale is a different monster than the first phase of getting our baby moving. Scale is what you dream of, but it’s also a beast you have to learn to tame. We had to learn to laugh through the pain and keep going.
Are you working on any exciting projects now?
Kush Queen is about to release our infused cosmetics. So we are very excited to see this project come to life. KINGDM Cosmetics is going to disrupt the beauty industry in a big way.
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?
My mentor and friend Shanna Droege is a person I wouldn’t be here without. In the early days, I ran a creative agency and was working for other brands. I was in a meeting with Shanna and she asked me what was happening with Kush Queen. The answer was nothing at the time because I was too busy surviving to pursue the full dream. She told me to go for it. To stop making excuses and put all my energy into my own vision. It was with her help we started to get on the shelves of dispensaries in California and our THC products are exclusively distributed and manufactured in California by her company SOL Distro. She believed in me when I didn’t believe in myself. She has been in this industry longer than most and has championed women owned brands. More than that, she’s supported me in a way that isn’t just talk. It’s tangible and it’s given our brand so much, especially during the period of new regulations where young small brands have struggled to survive.
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?
Clever and innovative marketing strategies are a dime a dozen, but what’s not is the ability to be authentic. This is what I think makes Kush Queen stand out among the rest. Our brand authenticity and dedication to what’s right in the world is what resonates with consumers these days. For instance, it’s a common occurrence with large legacy companies to talk diversity and inclusion, but most actually do very little to back that with action. If you say you support equality then show us with more than just a one off marketing stunt. Employ diversely and support different communities with employment, funding, and representation. Millennials like myself are coming into power and we can sniff out the difference between those who do it because they have to and those who do it because it is our divine purpose.
Can you share three things that most excite you about the Cannabis industry? Can you share three things that most concern you?
First, every day is new and exciting. Being in an emerging industry is truly the most exciting part. Every day something new is being created or something is changing. This is what I love the most. It’s like being on the edge of your seat and you’ll never ever know what’s coming next. In a world where most people are doing the same thing everyday, it’s a true gift.
Second, it’s changing faster than we could ever imagine. I worked at a dispensary in 2005 and always told people it would change quickly, but even I didn’t expect it to move this fast. Cannabis is a runaway train and it has not slowed down. I knew millennials were all pro cannabis, but did not expect the large number of boomers to jump on the train. They have helped us move this movement forward at a rapid rate.
Third, innovation. It’s rare we get an opportunity to innovate and change the world. Cannabis is a social justice issue, grassroots movement, and medicine all tied into one. To see the innovation that lies ahead from new products, delivery methods, and technology- the potential is endless. There are tons of undiscovered cannabinoids and the future is bright. Oh, and maybe a couple self-made cannabis billionaires will be born too.
The most concerning to me?
First, monopolies. It seems like everyone is being acquired or merging in order to survive or get more capital. We need cannabis to be a fair and diverse industry. We don’t need to give this industry to the top 1%. We need the cannabis industry to be as diverse as the people who use cannabis. Companies big and small deserve a place.
Second, the environment. Our generation cannot and will not tolerate one more industry ready to destroy the planet. We must do away with the wasteful packaging and immediately do whatever we can to save mother Earth. Climate change is absolutely real and a massive problem our generation is inheriting. We can and must do better. We must use our voices to stop the wasteful over-regulated packaging for a plant. Then we need to focus all on sustainable solutions on all sides of the industry.
Third, fake News and the spread of misinformation about cannabis. Cannabis is a plant, and what we are talking about most of the time is science. I have seen a ton of misinformation being spread not just on the scientific side, but the legal side. We need journalists to do due diligence. We need education over everything right now. Consumers are confused everyday and crave real information. We only get one chance to legalize this plant the right way and that starts with education.
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.
1. Don’t worry about what everyone else is doing
There’s a huge zeitgeist of what other people are doing in cannabis and CBD. People love to send me products similar to mine or competitive brands. Early on, I was very wrapped up in what people were doing. This is no way to thrive, when you are constantly worrying about who’s doing what. Let it go. Do you, for you. Don’t waste your time on other people. Every moment is time you could be spending on your brand or idea.
2. People over Profits
I really believe in people over profits. I have always paid people “too much” per hour. I have always heard to put the profits over everything because it’s a business. But a business IS the people who work there. Our business is not just the people who make our products, but the people who use them. We always put them first. You may temporarily drive up your numbers by cutting wages, but in the long run you will lose. You may save a little if you choose a non-organic ingredient over organic, but is that what people really want?
3. Follow your intuition
Your gut is speaking to you, so listen. So many times I wish I had followed my instinct. It’s speaking to you for a reason. Why are humans trained to silence it? It’s that magic sauce that can carry you through a tough situation. It’s going to help you build a better culture inside your business. Listen to your intuition.
I really wasn’t told to bootstrap by anyone. Everyone told me I would need seed funding and then to start rounds as soon as I could. Instead, I just bootstrapped it. Sure, it went without fancy launch parties and swag, but we created abundance from nothing. Soon you will see some super funded cannabis companies fail because they will only be able to raise so much. You can’t endlessly raise money. You can however grow an organic business and bootstrap. I believe in bootstrapping and that so many good lessons lie in working with less. Abundance is great, but in survival mode, magic can happen.
5. Transparency is everything
Transparency is the future of capitalism. As millennials come into power, they will demand authenticity and transparency. This is a unique and fickle generation who won’t give our hard earned dollars to non-transparent companies. From the ingredients in your products, to the inside of your culture, be transparent. We are now in the age of “call out culture” and “scandal culture,” if you keep secrets, someone will find them.
What advice would you give to other CEOs or founders to help their employees to thrive?
Take care of your people. My very first employee was my mother, so she taught me everything I know about taking care of my employees. She left her job at Target to work for me. I will never, ever forget the way I felt the day she quit her job for my dream. There was a lot of uncertainty, but I knew I would do anything to make it work. My employees are all an extended version of my family. On Fridays we all move the tables in the production room and do yoga together. We have a culture leader, who treats them when I can’t. We have pay equity at our company and full transparency. Their success is my success. They know every day that I take care of them and do whatever I can to make this place a sanctuary. Employees spend more time at their job than at home, so take care of your people and they will take care of you.
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.]
I would love to inspire a movement to circumvent the government and tie capitalism directly to the people and causes that need it most. Cannabis has taught me of the pitfalls of the government. The truth is that it’s wildly inefficient and unfortunately serving a small few. Sure, some brands have tried to tie products to causes that matter, but I would love to see a conglomerate for good. If our products were actually benefiting people, animals, and our planet directly, a lot of the major problems we are experiencing would be solved.
What is the best way our readers can follow you on social media?
Connect with us @kushqueenshop or my personal @thelivalexander
This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for joining us!