Today, Rick and Jeff “unpack” their experience at the MJ Unpacked conference at the Hilton Hotel in Midtown Manhattan as they share their thoughts, highlights, and the sights and sounds from the event.
At this high-energy event, they saw more deals get done than ever before, tons of new brands working to enter the space, and a huge number of opportunities taking shape as New York and New Jersey grow into the gigantic markets they’re inevitably going to become.
While they were there, they caught up with Rusty Wilenkin, CEO of Old Pal. In his words, Old Pal is aiming to create the “Bud Light of weed”–a cannabis product for the everyman that’s accessible, affordable, and simple, reminiscent of the era when weed was weed.
In this episode, you’ll hear more from MJ Unpacked and learn about a ton of exciting brands we discovered at the conference. Then, in our interview with Rusty, we get into how he transitioned out of the legacy market and invented a category, how he’s building a cannabis brand at a massive national scale, and his long game for growing Old Pal’s portfolio in a fast-moving industry.
- Why the cannabis industry is maturing so rapidly, attracting more capital than ever before, and on track to skyrocket with legalization on the East Coast.
- How Rusty defines the “core user” in the world of cannabis–and why so many brands aren’t reaching those people.
- Why great brands often fail to achieve success at scale–and how Rusty learned from the critical mistakes he made in the first year of Old Pal.
- What Old Pal is doing to get themselves into emerging markets as they open up.
- What it means to launch the “Four Loko” of cannabis products–and why Rusty is so excited about it.
- “I think for whatever reason, this is an industry where maybe the tumultuous nature of it, maybe how much opportunity is out there, a lot of people try to do everything and I just think it’s really missing the mark.” – Rusty Wilenkin
- “We would rather not be the biggest in California because being the biggest in California means 200 of your retail partners don’t even pay their bills.” – Rusty Wilenkin
- MJ Unpacked
- Old Pal
- Old Pal on Instagram
- Old Pal Provisions
- Dr. Norm’s
- House of Puff
- Fruit Slabs
- Alien Labs
- Space Coyote
- Ladybug Farms
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Rick Kiley: Hello, everyone, and welcome to another episode of The Green Repeal. I’m Rick Kiley coming to you live, recorded from Brooklyn. I’m with my business partner, Jeffrey Boedges, who is in his home aviary, it seems.
Jeffrey Boedges: Yes, I’m in the greenhouse. It’s a beautiful day here in beautiful North New Jersey.
Rick Kiley: Yeah. We got some nice weather. We got some nice weather. We’re recording Memorial Day weekend. See, we work over the weekends.
Jeffrey Boedges: That’s right.
Rick Kiley: And doing a little recap of MJ Unpacked and introduce our second interview that’ll come to you towards after this intro with Rusty from Old Pal, who we interviewed while on-site at the MJ Unpacked Conference at the Hilton Hotel in Midtown Manhattan. And it’s a great interview. Rusty’s got a great brand. Old Pal is, you know.
Jeffrey Boedges: One of the stalwarts. One of the…
Rick Kiley: Yeah. It’s a brand designed around the everyman. I mean, that’s just what I would say. And even out of his own mouth, their aspirational goal is to be the Bud Light of weed and, look, hey, man, somebody’s got to. It’s a big brand. You know, it’s good.
Jeffrey Boedges: Why not?
Rick Kiley: He’s a great guy to talk to, really knowledgeable. So, stay tuned for that. And, Jeff, just I thought what we would do here is just wrap up any of the thoughts that you had from attending the conference that I had from attending the conference. And I guess I’ll just start with you. You know, we are at MJ Unpacked in the fall in Vegas, where I thought I was going to get COVID the whole time to the one here in New York where I also thought I was going to get COVID the whole time.
Jeffrey Boedges: Yeah, yeah, yeah.
Rick Kiley: Well, so that thread’s there. I’m just curious what you thought. Maybe there are some differences. What were your top few things that you noticed?
Jeffrey Boedges: I mean, just right out of the gate, the energy I thought in the New York one was just a lot higher. And this is no slander on Las Vegas. Las Vegas was great. It was a good time. But in New York, it had more of a feeling of like people wanting to get deals done. Yeah. It was just really, I guess, aggressive maybe would be even a better kind of label on it but the New York bustle and hustle was going on in full force.
Rick Kiley: Yeah. I agree with that. I think it was a lot more about the money this time around. Everybody here and again this may be kudos to George Jage and his MJ Unpacked team. They brought a roomful of people together that seemed to be aligned in their common need to either raise capital. I mean, everyone I talked to was either raising capital or they had a brand that they were looking to try to license to somebody in the northeast as it opens up. They have a brand they created in California but it definitely seemed well-positioned for anyone who was trying to raise capital. You were either a VC, someone who was an investor, or someone who was in need of investment in this space. And there were other things going on but that seemed to be the singular focus.
Jeffrey Boedges: Yeah, you’re right about the money piece. The keynote speaker whose name escapes me, I’m sure if anyone wants to find out, you can look it up online but he was a statistician. You know, this is a guy that does MRI data for the cannabis industry. And it was really fascinating just to hear how big he predicts that – we’re getting a lot of geese in the background here.
Rick Kiley: Yeah.
Jeffrey Boedges: Oh man. It happens. It happens. Sorry about that.
Rick Kiley: That’s alright. I just don’t want the geese to be more audit, you know.
Jeffrey Boedges: Auditory or audible.
Rick Kiley: Than your actual sage words.
Jeffrey Boedges: Anyway, so end of the day, the guy was talking about just how big it’s going to be and really because California sort of dwarfs the rest of the country right now. But when New York and New Jersey come fully online, they’re going to rival that. And I think that’s not lost on everybody who’s trying to get into the game in the East Coast right now. There’s a huge, huge sense of urgency for people to try and get in on the ground floor. And it makes sense. It’s going to have its bumps just like the rest of the country as they come online with things that aren’t quite right and things that are go slower than people want them to, especially on the legalization side and get licenses out and get grows done and all that stuff. But when it does, it’s going to be massive and that’s exciting. And that’s what I kind of was picking up from everybody, just how excited they were to get going.
Rick Kiley: Yeah. A lot of questions around when is the New York licensing process going to come to fruition? So, there’s a lot of excitement around New York. And I also did notice, I’ll say when I was in Vegas, there were a lot more people attending in what I would call casual attire but New York people dusted off those blazers and they were – sorry. It’s a metaphorical blazer but people looked dressed to make a deal happen. They had the professional attire on and it was moving fast.
Jeffrey Boedges: Yeah. Fewer masks, more blazers would be the…
Rick Kiley: Fewer masks, more blazers. Nice. And also, we were kind of there for different parts of it. I think you probably attended more sessions than I did. I stayed an extra half-day and had some cool meetings. I did see a few of the folks that we had met before. I think you ran into Sam Hollander, who we interviewed. I saw Jesce Horton from LOWD. He was there and I ran into some really cool brands. I really like the folks from Dr. Norm’s. They had a really interesting brand story about it’s a brother and sister who run the company. Their mother was well known in their neighborhood for making the best chocolate chip cookies in the neighborhood. Their father was a doctor and their parents are gone and they’re looking to honor them, and sort of just had this haphazard idea of recreating the mother’s cookie recipe. It started off as a cookie business. And one day it was just like, “We should put weed in these,” a little bit of a lighting bulb and they’ve really turned it into a really great edible brand and they just have such a nice, authentic, unique story. And you can tell that’s a brand that’s going to do well because there are going to be people that can connect with that story. And it’s really nice to see the buds of really, really nice brand storytelling starting to emerge.
Jeffrey Boedges: Yeah. We had a couple of nice conversations that way that I thought where people were doing innovative things which is great to see. And innovation obviously continues to drive this industry. But I mean, we saw chewing tobacco made out of cannabis and I was like, “Wow. Really?” Yeah.
Rick Kiley: I missed that one.
Jeffrey Boedges: That’s going to play in Missouri, dude. Yeah.
Rick Kiley: So, I met a guy and I’m forgetting the name of the brand right now but he’s developed something for the on-premise, which looks like, I mean, it’s like a black bottle but it’s 1,000 milligrams of THC in a bottle that looks like a bottle of tequila or anything else in the world. So, you would just like you either mix it with your drink or you’d pour it into a cocktail or a mocktail because it’s not to be mixed with alcohol, of course, but it’s designed it looks like it would sit on a back bar and you would drink it. And I was like, “I can’t imagine us having a bottle of 1,000 milligrams of THC sitting around.”
Jeffrey Boedges: Should we dust off our collecting dust thing and see if the two of us could polish off one bottle of that in one sitting?
Rick Kiley: No. I would be, I don’t, I think we’d be on the – I don’t know what would happen.
Jeffrey Boedges: That we would be calling 911.
Rick Kiley: Sure. It might be an SNL skit where all the grown-ups gone and one say, “Am I dead?”
Jeffrey Boedges: Yeah, exactly.
Rick Kiley: I met someone from the House of Puff. They have a really cool, you know, this is not a cannabis product but it’s things that you would smoke with, smoking accoutrement, if you will, that are quite elegant, nice, and something that you would not be embarrassed to like show people the way that you might display your fancy wine or whiskey collection. So, I think there’s a lot of people who are in the world of trying to craft brands around the socialized consumption ritual and the stuff and paraphernalia that goes along with it and really trying to elevate that game. There’s a lot of that happening. I think that’s cool to see.
Jeffrey Boedges: Yeah. Elizabeth Becker was cool, too, with her idea on the HiBnb. I thought that was just…
Rick Kiley: Well, that was a great interview that we had. Yeah. I mean, I think we’re going to see the start of, I mean, the cannabis economy. You can kind of see all the different places to start from. I mean, she’s on the ground floor of tourism.
Jeffrey Boedges: I see what you did there. That was well played. Yeah.
Rick Kiley: It’s just that you just think about the amount of wine tourism that exists in California and the amount of business that’s going to be associated with cannabis tourism, I imagine, is going to be massive. It may take 20 years to really fully develop but it’s going to be massive.
Jeffrey Boedges: Yeah. It’s a weird place because you are going to get, in the short term, you’re going to get those people from the square states that don’t want to legalize right away, right? So, all of those people that are there that want to experience that are going to go to states where it is legal and go, especially California, where they’ve got such a rich history of wine tourism and things like that where it’s sort of a thing that people go do. But that’ll be in the short term with these people going state-to-state. Once it becomes more widely available across the country, then I think you start to see a different type of collector, you know, somebody who’s building their weed cellar, for lack of a better word, and wants to come to these different places and collect and find these sort of rare and unique strains. And also, to have something that’s geographical. You know, I imagine you go to even if you just happened to be someplace for business, you might say, “Oh, I want to go try and check out and see what they’ve got that’s local,” like local beer, local wine, things that the people really like.
Rick Kiley: Yeah. It’s really exciting. I’m interested in watching it. I love the idea of being part of it. I think we actually met some people that we might be talking about doing some work for with our agency, which is exciting that we’re getting to that point where brands are really looking to scale. And that’s just really nice to see that we can have those conversations and that it feels like they’re more meaningful now than they were a couple of years ago that they were much further along.
Jeffrey Boedges: Yeah, agreed. The sophistication level is catching up. You know, we’ve still got a ways to go but it’s still a lot better than it was two years ago.
Rick Kiley: Everyone still has a pain point with the financial raises, though, and I think one common thread and this is my appeal to everyone listening, I think we probably talked to four or five women founders of companies who are looking for capital and they are all saying the same thing that the data is supporting that people with venture capital are not supporting women-led organizations as much as they are men-run organizations. And just my appeal to anybody who wants to invest in this space, man, there are some sharp-ass women with some really great ideas and creating great brands that get your money behind them because they’re good. I think the House of Puff folks, we met the folks from Rebelle and interviewed them. There was a woman you were speaking to, Jeff, that I’m forgetting her name is right now. Meryl, right? Meryl?
Jeffrey Boedges: Meryl? Yes.
Rick Kiley: Yes. Another one she was doing like their pitch competition. There are just so many brands out there. So, anybody in the VC world, get in there.
Jeffrey Boedges: Yeah. And we met Maggie Wilson from Fruit Slabs, who I thought was delightful. You know, she’s half of a dynamic duo here with Brandon but they were great too.
Rick Kiley: Yeah. Again, and I feel like you’re right that anybody who doesn’t look at women-run businesses as being legitimate is going to miss the boat. Because, well, look at the market who’s using it and it’s at least I know it’s got to be 50/50.
Rick Kiley: And look, I am going to say cannabis were more than almost anything right now. It seems like anybody who’s having a successful business is creating it for the people they personally know and understand in the marketplace. So, those folks that are starting business from that comment are coming from the legacy market. You know, they know their consumer and they’re going to be the people that can talk to that consumer. Women who are curious about cannabis and want to do it in a legal way, they’re going to go to women-run companies like that’s where they’re going to go because those are the people who know them.
Jeffrey Boedges: And they’re going to be attracted to…
Rick Kiley: Absolutely.
Jeffrey Boedges: …women-centric brands. They’re going to look at things that are going to be more holistic and more lifestyle, more health-centric. You know, all of those things are going to be very big players in this space.
Rick Kiley: Yeah. I mean, just more elegant. I don’t know. Just they want to talk to somebody who speaks their language. And everybody that’s creating a brand is creating it for them and it really is. It’s so cool.
Jeffrey Boedges: From the guy that made the chewing tobacco to…
Rick Kiley: Right. Rusty at Old Pal, he’s just like, “We just wanted to make weed for me and my buddies.” Like, that’s the story of every origin story right now in cannabis. It’s really cool. It’s fun to see. It’s a fun time to be around the business. Cool. So, Jeff, any last thoughts? Otherwise, I think we’ll just send it to the interview here.
Jeffrey Boedges: Yeah, not really. I would just encourage everybody that’s out there that is even mildly curious about this industry to hit one of these conferences and jampacked being a great one because you learn so much. There are just so many people that really know what they’re doing. And George Jage who runs MJ Unpacked is super gracious and a great host. And again, you should go.
Rick Kiley: Yeah. And even if you’re just like, “I want a job in cannabis. I don’t know how to get it,” man, just go walk the aisles. There are tons of folks. They are all looking to hire. Hiring is happening. Cool.
Jeffrey Boedges: High, back, and hiring. Sorry. Bad joke of the day, right?
Rick Kiley: All right. And with that, enjoy the interview with Rusty from Old Pal. Cheers.
Jeffrey Boedges: Cheers.
Rick Kiley: Alright. Hi. We’re back interviewing at MJ Unpacked and we got Rusty from Old Pal. He says, “You just need to say that,” and Jeff’s like, “He’s a celebrity.”
Jeffrey Boedges: It’s like having Madonna of weed in your booth.
Rick Kiley: So, I gather everybody listening already knows this but Rusty is the co-founder and CEO of Old Pal, which is a cannabis brand that focuses on keeping things accessible, affordable, and simple. Old Pal is an ode to simpler times when weed was just weed and joints were passed around to old pals and new ones. Since launching the company in 2018, Rusty and his business partner, Jason, have aimed to make Old Pal a brand that focuses on products that are beautifully designed and affordable.
Rick Kiley: Rusty, it’s great to have you here. Welcome to The Great Repeal.
Rusty Wilenkin: Thanks for having me.
Rick Kiley: So, I mean, you were up on stage earlier, right?
Rusty Wilenkin: Yep.
Rick Kiley: So, only the people who are up on stage, I’m told they’re pretty important. So, obviously, your business is going pretty well. Do you want to just give our listeners a little overview of the brand story?
Rusty Wilenkin: Yeah, absolutely. Thank you for the compliment but we were really lucky in terms of Old Pal and sort of how we came to be and when we started it. You know, my partner, Jason, and myself have worked in weed for most of our adult lives. I’ve sold weed since I’m 14. I’m 31 today. I’ve worked in legal cannabis since I was 23. One of the first brands I sold in California was my partner, Jason’s brand, Native, when I was distributing at Kiva. And so, when he sold the brand in 2017, the two of us kept in touch about sort of what was next for him and what was next for me. At the time, I was helping Kiva on the sourcing side and bringing in input material for their edible products. And so, Jason called me one day and he had the brand, Old Pal, already made. He had this idea of everyone in cannabis is sort of looking to create weed for soccer moms or to create really high margin cannabis products that maximize the value of their biomass and that they were just missing the core user, my friends and myself that have used cannabis forever.
Jeffrey Boedges: A lot of the legacy market folks.
Rick Kiley: Yeah.
Rusty Wilenkin: When we went legal in 2018, I stopped buying it illegally. I made $75,000 a year and I smoked two or three days a week. You can’t spend $150 a week on weed on $70,000 a year. The math just doesn’t work. And so, we started Old Pal the whole idea is to really bring our friends back to the dispensary, bring the people who have smoked weed for generations back to the dispensary. And so, when we launched April 2018 on the Eaze menu, we launched with a $20 retail. It sort of went gangbusters. The first week we did like a couple of hundred grand in sales, and Jason and I were like, “Oh my God, we have a real business.” And I sort of had to…
Jeffrey Boedges: We’ve been there and we’re like, “Oh, crap. How am I going to get all stuff done?”
Rick Kiley: Yeah. “Oh, we sold that thing. Now we got to build it.”
Rusty Wilenkin: Yeah, it was really cool. And so, I quit my job, sort of started hiring a few of our friends. We rented a Russian grocery store around the block from my house is our first office.
Rick Kiley: Sure.
Rusty Wilenkin: And really just started taking a different approach where everyone in 2018 was so focused on the greenhouse they were building or the indoor they were building or their fancy extraction facility. We like to sell cannabis and market brands and we wanted to partner with folks that were excited about their infrastructure but for us, focus on building a brand. So, we don’t touch the plant at all. We’re not licensed anywhere in the country. We really just drive demand and market for our brand, create products and create SOPs to create those products across the country.
Rick Kiley: Got it.
Rusty Wilenkin: Today, we’re in ten states on shelves and two deals signed and hopefully after the show we get to sign a couple more. But, you know, the real focus is taking Old Pal from being call it a regional player into this national brand that we want to be. We’re launching in Massachusetts and Pennsylvania. We’re definitely getting closer.
Rick Kiley: Got it.
Jeffrey Boedges: For sure. I just have to ask, are you guys the biggest brand in the country?
Rusty Wilenkin: I don’t know that I’d say that. I think Kiva and STIIIZY are probably still a little bit ahead of us. In terms of not being vertical and doing what we’re doing, I think we’re probably one of the only people doing it at such a scale.
Rick Kiley: Yeah.
Jeffrey Boedges: Yeah.
Rusty Wilenkin: And, you know, really it’s a testament to the partners we had around the country like I say it all the time, when you don’t own a facility, our brand is our IP. It’s our people and some partners. And we’re really fortunate to have great partners to help us build the brand.
Jeffrey Boedges: You caught lightning in the bottle. And a lot of people get in the industries or in this case, cannabis, because they think they could catch lightning in a bottle. You guys actually did it. That’s impressive. So, one, congrats but, two, it’s like I think the way you laid out your value proposition is simple and easy to understand. And I think as brand marketers, that for us is like key. You know who you are, you know what you want to be, and you’re not trying to be everything to everyone. Do you feel like that is like the key?
Rusty Wilenkin: I think focus is the key in this industry in terms of things that drive success. Like, you’ve seen it play out in California time and time again where someone starts to kill it, they get big, they start buying up retail and they open 40 retail stores, and they’re broke. Just because you’re a great brand or just because you have three great retailers, doesn’t mean you can be a retail chain expert. And for us, like we’ve stayed in our lane and stayed focused. We’ve had people pitch us on doing retail, pitches on buying a grow, owning a distributor. We don’t want to do that. We’re really good at what we do. We want to stay in our lane and work with people that are good at what they do. And I think for whatever reason, this is an industry where maybe the tumultuous nature of it, maybe how much opportunity is out there, a lot of people try to do everything and I just think it’s really missing the mark.
Rick Kiley: Yeah. Well, it’s great. It’s great to play to your strengths. It’s always a good strategy. It’s always good to focus. And I think so many clients, we come from the alcohol beverage side, so many clients who have newish brands and are launching brands, they come to us and they say, like, “Okay. We’re going to go and launch in 40 different states.”
Jeffrey Boedges: No, you’re not.
Rick Kiley: We’re like, “What?” “And we have $1 million to do it.” You’re like, “No. Pick one state and do it really, really well.” And so, I think that that’s just awesome.
Jeffrey Boedges: We’re posing for photos here.
Rusty Wilenkin: That’s our CMO.
Jeffrey Boedges: Oh, I got it. I’m like, “I know they’re not taking our photos.”
Rick Kiley: Should we all get? No. Alright.
Rusty Wilenkin: He’s at AB for like 20 years doing my favorite shots.
Jeffrey Boedges: Well, that’s funny you say that because that’s exactly where I would say you guys are. You’re like the Budweiser of cannabis.
Rusty Wilenkin: The goal is Bud Light like the two of us have worked together like three different jobs now. And the common thread was we used to sit next to each other at a bar drinking Bud Light and gambling on Battlebots. And two of us had probably 15 conversations. We were like, “Man, someone needs to do this for cannabis.” Everyone wants to be Alien Labs. Everyone wants to be this super high-end, “We have the best, craziest weed on earth,” and they’re just forgetting about like a lifestyle, cool, drinkable beer.
Rick Kiley: Right.
Jeffrey Boedges: Sessionable, as we call it. Yeah. We talk a lot about sessionable in this industry where we come from, which is the wine and spirits side because you want something you can kind of enjoy…
Rusty Wilenkin: For the longest time.
Jeffrey Boedges: For a long time, yeah.
Rusty Wilenkin: For the longest time, I pitched our marketing team on a smokeability campaign to just completely rip off the drinkability campaign of Bud Light.
Jeffrey Boedges: Right, right.
Rick Kiley: Right.
Rusty Wilenkin: No one else thought that was a good idea. You know, one day maybe.
Jeffrey Boedges: I like it, though. I don’t think it’s bad. I think it’s one of those things like it probably is just ahead of its time.
Rusty Wilenkin: And I think it’s like for us it’s been really cool to just get to have this place in the industry where like sitting in California and hearing about what’s going on in these other markets is one thing but like as you go to them and you get to see data coming in from ten different markets and like interesting things like, you know, we launched Pennsylvania where there’s no real brands, our web traffic, our website freaked out like almost 50% of the web traffic we started generating like a week later was coming out of Pennsylvania because people were walking in shocks, seeing a real brand and they were like, “Holy sh*t, this is awesome. Who are these guys?” And so, I think like we have a really privileged position in the industry to get to see data coming out of ten different markets as to what the consumer wants and where they’re looking to buy it.
Rick Kiley: I mean, we know that some of the regulations are written in such a way that vertical integration was the approach that a lot of brands and companies have taken. In fact, in a lot of states, it’s a requirement. And so, you’ve taken this very specific approach, like, “We’re marketing people, we’re branding people. We don’t care about vertical integration,” obviously, playing to your strengths. Do you find now that other people are starting to replicate the model that you’ve developed?
Rusty Wilenkin: Yeah. I mean, even just the panel I was on today, you know, Kate from and Toast, like they’re both doing a great job with the licensing model as well. You know, Cookies probably did a quasi-licensing model before.
Rick Kiley: Yeah. But they come from the retail side, right?
Rusty Wilenkin: Yep. They started at retail and sort of went to brand.
Jeffrey Boedges: Space Coyote, yeah, was another one.
Rusty Wilenkin: So, we’re seeing people doing it. I think we were really fortunate to starting it early and to have great partners early where we were able to get a little bit ahead of the pack. Charlie and I always talk about it but the first five or six days, we opened up, the phone calls, the partner was 30 minutes of us pitching the brand, who we are, why you want to work with us, what we bring to the table. Today, those conversations start a lot more operational. The partner typically knows who we are. They’ve seen the brand, they’ve heard about it, and they’re more focused on how do we work together? What does this look like?
Jeffrey Boedges: They’re selling you now at this point. You’re like, “Why do I get to be selling…”
Rick Kiley: Yeah. I mean, so you talked about focus. When it comes to your retail partnerships, are you being selective and judicious about where your brand is being sold? Or are you sort of working to be like the Bud Light model and be everywhere?
Rusty Wilenkin: Yeah. So, it really depends on the state. First year of Old Pal, I was 28 years old, I’ve never done a business of any kind before. And it was growth at all costs and talent. If you wanted to buy our product, I was going to sell it to you. As a result of it, we disappointed a handful of retailers. We opened up big accounts and we couldn’t fulfill orders for them because our other big accounts needed the weed. Today, we’re a lot more intentional in terms of account growth. We won’t open a new door if we can’t always be on shelves of the new door. At our point in the market, there’s no value in FOMO. If our consumer walks in, in one of our dispensaries to buy our product and it’s not there, they get angry. And so, for us, if we’re going to open a retail relationship, we need to be on shelves every day. So, in some of the markets like Ohio, where we have limited biomass, we’re not selective in terms of who we work with. We’re open to working with anyone but once our 20 shops show up and we don’t have more biomass, those are our 20 partners.
Jeffrey Boedges: Right.
Rick Kiley: Understand. Cool.
Jeffrey Boedges: No one understands basically supply chain stress like somebody from the legacy market. I went through a lot of supply chain angst in college. I don’t know. Yeah, for sure. It seemed like there was never any biomass.
Rusty Wilenkin: Yeah.
Rick Kiley: I love using all these phrases.
Jeffrey Boedges: I like mixing them all together in the mélange.
Rick Kiley: It’s good. So, then is access to raw materials, frankly, probably your biggest challenge at this point?
Rusty Wilenkin: It’s 100% market-dependent. California, super competitive. Totally enough weeds to go around.
Jeffrey Boedges: More than enough weed.
Rusty Wilenkin: More than enough weed to go around. It’s a market that, you know, it’s our home. We need to win there but unlike a lot of folks in California, we don’t own infrastructure. Some of our competitors, they own giant greenhouses. Even if it’s close to $1 a gram, they need to sell their weed $1 a gram to keep the lights on. For us, we want to work with the partners. We can build our brand and do it sustainably for our cultivation partners. So, we would rather not be the biggest in California because being the biggest in California means 200 of your retail partners don’t even pay their bills. We deliver to the right accounts, the accounts that pay their bills and merchandise our brand and are great to work with.
Rick Kiley: Yeah.
Jeffrey Boedges: How unique. Sorry.
Rick Kiley: Well, we’ve had a little experience with some people that don’t pay the bills occasionally. And that’s really a frustrating thing.
Jeffrey Boedges: Can I ask you another question that’s sort of near and dear to my heart right now? So, you guys got to be – how many people are you now?
Rusty Wilenkin: We’re pretty small still. So, depending on the day of the week, call it between 25 and 30 people.
Jeffrey Boedges: I imagine if you’re planning to continue those states, you’re going to be a much larger operation at some point. How do you maintain this sort of amazing culture that you guys have created?
Rusty Wilenkin: Our team scales really well from the marketing side. That really lives in California and will continue to. We open new markets. It’s hiring people in those markets. Ten of those 25 people are boots on the ground. We also have 1099 like brand ambassador types. As we think about growth, it’s probably more hires on those sides of the business. The marketing team can sort of handle what it’s doing and they have contractors to support.
Jeffrey Boedges: Right, because that’s replicating it?
Rusty Wilenkin: But yet it’s not a crazy headcount growth. The thing that’s interesting about us is like we indirectly like employ or quasi-employ like 1,500 people between each of our partners and the staff they have just to support our business.
Jeffrey Boedges: But are you doing anything with them to kind of keep that culture? I mean, everybody goes out to Humboldt and gets to hang out for the week?
Rusty Wilenkin: No. We don’t bring everyone out to Humboldt, per se, but I mean, we’re swagging out everyone on the farms like you go to Ladybug Farms, our partner in California, every partner in their cultivation facility has an Old Pal hat on, an Old Pal shirt. We bring in food trucks and try to get back to the guys who are getting back to us. And then really like, we localize the sh*t out of our brand. Like, my partner and I are on an airplane two or three days a week. We throw parties in every market we’re in. Budtenders know us where we are. The buyers know us where we are.
Rick Kiley: I must have missed my invitation. I didn’t get an invitation.
Jeffrey Boedges: You know, we don’t own a dispensary.
Rick Kiley: Oh, yeah.
Rusty Wilenkin: We make a strong effort to be where we are. It’s the most insincere thing are some of these brands that they want to do licensing deals to put a package or the label on the shelf. That’s not who we are, like the person that buys our bag of weed needs to meet our brand ambassador. They need to come to one of our joint rolling competitions or one of our talent shows in the wood. Like, we do fun sh*t.
Jeffrey Boedges: Definitely, we need to come to the joint-rolling competition.
Rusty Wilenkin: We did a 420 talent show in Santa Cruz this year. Like 4,000 people came out this field in the woods to smoke weed and like I think the kid that won did like called it a banana striptease. I’m not even sure what I was looking at. He opened the banana in a super weird way, but that’s like the stuff we want to do. Like, I look to like Red Bull and their like Flugtag event of like bringing out weird, wacky sh*t and having fun. And like, that’s what weed is about to us. It’s not about being super serious or anything.
Jeffrey Boedges: Now, you’re in our sweet spot. This is what we want to do. We want to really produce the best weed-focused events around, which is what we do for a living. Well, we produce events for them but I love that idea. Not that I would steal it.
Rusty Wilenkin: Yeah. No, but like that type of event of like get wacky, have fun with it. Like, our whole idea is like, yes, we are a business. We’re trying to get somewhere and go somewhere. We don’t want to take this thing too seriously either. Like we’re selling weed. It should be fun like we’ve done it for long enough and it was until it went legal.
Rick Kiley: Yeah. Look, when we were marketing our alcohol beverage brands and our team get stressed out, I remind them as like, “Look, at the end of the day, we’re giving out free booze. Let’s have fun. Let’s make that what it’s about.” And that’s I think…
Jeffrey Boedges: Yeah, but we’ve never, ever had a banana striptease.
Rusty Wilenkin: Yeah. I’ll send you the video.
Jeffrey Boedges: Yeah, please.
Rick Kiley: Banana striptease.
Rusty Wilenkin: I wasn’t at the talent show, so I only got to watch the TikTok of it. I was like, “I don’t know what’s going on.”
Jeffrey Boedges: We had a pretty good, I thought, pretty fun idea that we did for our 420th episode just this last April here. We’ll have to compare notes, but we did a Stump the Budtender Gameshow, which was amazing.
Rick Kiley: Because they are so good.
Jeffrey Boedges: Because the budtenders were like black belts. I mean, it was like just bringing in Bruce Lee and Chuck Norris.
Rick Kiley: You show them a strain and they would just like name it.
Rusty Wilenkin: It’s unbelievable the level of education they have.
Jeffrey Boedges: Enthusiasm and passion. I mean, it’s just…
Rick Kiley: Yeah.
Jeffrey Boedges: Unrivaled or I wouldn’t say unrivaled but on parallel or on par with any other like specialists from any other industry.
Rick Kiley: Yeah. Right.
Rusty Wilenkin: Yeah, it’s pretty awesome.
Rick Kiley: So, you’re here at this conference just you mentioned trying to strike up some licensing deals. You’re now focused on expanding to new markets essentially as they come on and become legal?
Rusty Wilenkin: Yeah. So, I mean, I said it on stage, I’ll say like I think we’re in the first inning of cannabis now. For me, like it’s kind of an impression game. The more eyeballs you get in front of and the more people you can make love your brand today, the better. I’ve sold weed since I’m 14. If I do it until 50, it doesn’t really matter. It’s sort of the only thing I got. And so, for us, like, we just want to be here in front of people. If that means we only get a pre-roll in a new market, great. We’re still delivering value to that person. We’ll grow the portfolio over time. So, being here obviously in New York, New Jersey, I’m from New York. I love an excuse to live a bi-coastal life like, you know, we’re definitely going really hard trying to seal a deal here as well as in New Jersey.
Jeffrey Boedges: Supplier first, retailer second?
Rusty Wilenkin: Supplier first, always. Retail’s great but if you don’t have weed to go in the bag, it doesn’t really matter.
Rick Kiley: Okay. Yeah.
Jeffrey Boedges: Dude, you’re like the sensei of weed.
Rusty Wilenkin: No, I just like it’s interesting. Like, I think there’s a benefit to working with retailers. You can have a lot more control over the introduction of your product, the layout of the landscape, and all of that. I’ve found that most of call it the retail-focused operators are hard to align with in terms of seeing the value and being incentivized to push our brand over using us as a carrot to push theirs.
Jeffrey Boedges: Right. Well, they’re going to get a lot better margins. Alright. Sorry.
Rick Kiley: No, no, no.
Jeffrey Boedges: I’m taking the…
Rick Kiley: Well, my computer crapped out, so all my questions went away.
Rusty Wilenkin: Oh, alright. I like long walks on the beach.
Rick Kiley: We’re close to the end here anyway.
Jeffrey Boedges: Yeah. So, what’s next?
Rusty Wilenkin: We just launched our blunt. That’s my favorite thing we’ve done in a long time.
Jeffrey Boedges: So, blunt. Compare that to a dogwalker. What are we talking about here?
Rusty Wilenkin: So, our dogwalker is a 0.35-gram pre-roll. A blunt is a 2-gram glass tip infused with diamonds.
Jeffrey Boedges: Oh, wow.
Rusty Wilenkin: Tests like 45% THC.
Jeffrey Boedges: It’s a Cadillac. It’s a gigantic…
Rusty Wilenkin: It’s a psychedelic experience.
Jeffrey Boedges: Oh, really?
Rusty Wilenkin: Like, you smoke that thing and you are freaking out. It’s awesome. For some people, it’s awesome. For the novice user, maybe not so much.
Jeffrey Boedges: Well, yeah, we kind of run with both.
Rick Kiley: Yeah. I am just a man who has a lot on his mind and I can’t get super freaky all the time.
Jeffrey Boedges: You know, we’ve had this discussion, but I don’t mind the occasional freakout.
Rusty Wilenkin: Yeah, but there’s a time and place for it.
Jeffrey Boedges: There’s a time and place, well, that’s 100% true. You got to have the time and you have to have a place where your kids aren’t going to find you. But at the end of the day, when I come out, I’m always feeling a bit better.
Rick Kiley: Yeah.
Rusty Wilenkin: And that blunt for me like it’s cool to sell such a uniform CPG product. Like, it has a cigar band on it. Like every single one looks exactly the same.
Jeffrey Boedges: How big is this thing?
Rusty Wilenkin: Looks like a cigar.
Jeffrey Boedges: It looks like a cigar because it sounds like a cigar. In my mind, it sounds like a Snoop Dogg.
Rick Kiley: It’s big.
Rusty Wilenkin: It’s a cigar.
Rick Kiley: There’s probably like there’s an eighth of an ounce of weed. I have no idea.
Rusty Wilenkin: It’s 2 grams of weed and a couple of, like, a quarter gram of extracts. It’s big.
Jeffrey Boedges: It’s kind of like that, you know, there’s a Snicker bar, but then there’s the giant Snicker bar. This sounds like the giant Snicker bar. And what does a giant Snicker bar of weed cost? And what do we call them again? The Blunt? It’s the Old Pal blunts?
Rusty Wilenkin: Old Pal blunts. They retail right around $30.
Jeffrey Boedges: It’s not bad.
Rusty Wilenkin: It’s an experience like you could share it with your friends and everyone will still have a good time.
Rick Kiley: Yeah.
Jeffrey Boedges: I’m getting one of these.
Rick Kiley: Yeah. You’re getting one right now?
Jeffrey Boedges: No, not right this minute but I’m thinking like, you know, maybe this is like, you know, how Thursday or the Wednesday night before Thanksgiving used to be like, you go and have a drink. I’m thinking maybe this year.
Rusty Wilenkin: So, our CMO, because he comes from big beer, like everything we do is a beer analogy. So, like our ounce in his mind is the 30-pack. Our ready-to-roll half-ounce is 24-pack. Our pre-rolls are the 24-ounce can that someone might put in the cupholder of their car. And so, I asked him, we’re in the car, we’ve been here in Boston and we’ve just been on the road a lot together. I was like, “Charlie, if this is the blunt like what’s the configuration of the blunt?” And he’s like, “Four Loko.” You know, with no hesitation there.
Jeffrey Boedges: So, he had it, though. He knew. He thought about it that way.
Rusty Wilenkin: He 100% knew where it fit in.
Rick Kiley: It’s cool.
Jeffrey Boedges: He comes from our kind of school. He thinks the way we do, which is always like, what’s the occasion? That? For sure.
Rick Kiley: Yeah, that’s great. Cool. So, if somebody wants to find Old Pal and they don’t live in California, per se, they can walk in any dispensary and find it, how should they get information about your brand? If you got a retailer in New York, it’s like, “I want this brand on my shelves,” how should they get in touch with you guys?
Rusty Wilenkin: Our website, OldPal.com, our Instagram @oldpal. Our Instagram is also rad if no one’s checked it out. Like, the feed is like the craziest art project you’ll ever see.
Rick Kiley: All right.
Rusty Wilenkin: And then, you know, I’m pretty easy to get a hold of, like email@example.com. I respond to everything.
Jeffrey Boedges: Cool.
Rusty Wilenkin: We’re always looking for new opportunities to expand and work with great people and just trying to expand the network and have fun growing this industry.
Rick Kiley: Awesome.
Jeffrey Boedges: Yeah. How do I get a T-shirt? That’s what I really want.
Rusty Wilenkin: Go on Old Pal Provisions. Let me know what you want. We’ll take care of that.
Jeffrey Boedges: Okay. I like that.
Rusty Wilenkin: You got to get the Unf*ck The World ashtray. You’ll love it.
Jeffrey Boedges: That’s so sweet. I made Unf*ck It buttons for people in our office because I was just like you know when you just get to that point where you’re just like you like the idea of unf*cking. That’s great. Sorry. We’ll bleep that out.
Rick Kiley: No, it’s fine. We have the explicit rating.
Rusty Wilenkin: Sorry.
Rick Kiley: But no, I just want to say thanks so much for joining us. Congrats on your success. We hope you keep growing and kicking ass.
Rusty Wilenkin: Thanks for having me. It’s been a blast.
Jeffrey Boedges: Yeah.
Rick Kiley: Looking forward to talking to you again hopefully sometime. Cheers.
Rusty Wilenkin: Cool. Thanks, guys.