What It’s Like Starting a Family Business in the Cannabis Industry
The cannabis plant that we consume is a female plant. In cannabis breeding, the “mother plant” is what’s used for clippings that turn into clones, which are identical plants that can be grown anywhere. But cannabis is maternal beyond simply bearing offspring; some use the analogy of a mother to describe the plant: she nurtures and heals, and can bring solace to those who need it. When used socially, cannabis brings people together, creates connections, and builds bonds. When used medically, cannabis improves quality of life.
A plant that has so many parallels to motherhood and family may foster a natural transition into family business for some entrepreneurs. That was the case for Tara and Susan Phillips, the founders of Phillips Field Facility (PFF), a mother/daughter cultivation team in Oregon that specializes in high-CBD strains of cannabis. Not only does the mother/daughter partnership offer a built-in support system, but it creates a unique branding opportunity.
“We recognized the opportunity to introduce ourselves as a mother/daughter owned and operated recreational cannabis farm and curated an environment to facilitate the needs of 1:1 [THC:CBD] and higher CBD strains growing in the mid-Willamette Valley,” Tara tells Civilized.
The duo’s business partnership started when Tara began a medical grow on her mother’s farm with her now-former partner. Enthusiastic about what her daughter was doing, Susan offered to continue the grow after Tara and her partner broke up. The Phillips don’t only nurture plants, but nurture each other, a professional sense.
While it can be tricky at times to navigate such a close bond in a work setting, being able to grab lunch from your own garden and take a break with your mother is a nice job perk. Tara says that her relationship with her mother has adapted over the years to now include a business partnership — and that means figuring out each other’s personal, business-oriented, and social boundaries in a way they hadn’t before. “We do our best to support each other and encourage each other through all the challenges that this business presents,” says Tara. “Having a family farm on the site of our family home curates a space for deep rooted appreciation and gratitude, which creates a unique connection and special bond between us and the earth.”
PFF is a micro-tier craft cannabis farm of about 2,500 square feet. “The small size allows us intimate access to each one of our plants, creating an atmosphere in which we can cultivate craft cannabis,” says Tara. In addition to cultivating high-CBD strains like Blue Shark and Pennywise, PFF offers cloning workshops to educate women on how to clone their own cannabis plants.
But figuring out the dynamics of working with whom you also cohabitate can be tricky, especially when you have very different work styles. Danny Murr-Sloat, founder of Colorado cannabis company AlpinStash, says that one of the most challenging aspects of working with his wife, Kristin, can be staying calm and patient when professional approaches clash. Despite this roadblock, he says the overall experience of working together is positive and allows for the pair to constantly learn new things about one another.
Danny founded AlpinStash in 2014, when he found cannabis to be a life-saving alternative to prescription pain medicine to treat debilitating illness and chronic stomach pain. Cannabis allowed him to quit his cocktail of 19 pharmaceuticals and obtain a much better quality of life. He started AlpinStash with a childhood friend and brought on his wife after the first year; the two make up half of the four-person team.
As with any couple who works together, Danny and Kristin say they find it difficult at times to separate business from personal, and have a hard time remembering to turn off work mode once they leave the cultivation site. Danny says that in order to keep their personal time free of work stress, they focus on spending time together as partners who have interests outside their shared business: traveling, gardening at home, playing board games, camping, and rock climbing.
Even when the business side of things becomes challenging, the two are motivated by a communal vision of building a shared future — and that future seems bright, with steady demand in the marketplace for craft cannabis. Danny says that while being a small business can be intimidating in an industry that is increasingly dominated by larger, well-funded corporations, AlpinStash thrives because they deliver unique quality.
“We survive because we deliver a true connoisseur product, something corporate cannabis cannot do,” he says. “We are very fortunate that there will always be a demand for craft cannabis, one that we are happy to say is growing.”
Growth as a family business is crucial in an emerging industry like cannabis, and trust among family members is a prerequisite for professional growth. Dr. Michelle Oram, public health advisor for NUG, says that the historic uncertainty of the emerging industry made finding trustworthy employees a must, which is why most of NUG’s original team consisted of family members and close friends.
NUG is one of the largest vertically integrated seed-to-sale cannabis companies in California, whose first ever retail location opened this past March in Sacramento. It’s led by an all-women management team, and began when two brothers-in-law conspired to enter the cannabis industry.
Dr. John Oram and Jamie Besaw decided to combine their entrepreneurial motivation with previous cannabis experience (both experimented with home cultivation during college). The brothers-in-law obtained a home equity loan and started a lab in Oakland, in which they tested products (their own and other pioneering brands who wanted to ensure consistent potency).
Dr. John used his background in environmental chemistry and engineering to build a lab with Besaw that would develop quality assurance standards for cannabis products. After some time, they began cultivating and manufacturing products, as well.
Dr. Michelle says that during the inception of the business, Oakland was the epicenter of medical cannabis in California.
“They chose Oakland to start the lab and the first grow because Oakland was the most cannabis-friendly city,” she says. “They were able to find landlords willing to rent to them, and even very early on the Oakland Fire Department was willing to walk through and give them safety inspections. We were trying to be above board from the start.“
NUG is now a vertically-integrated cannabis company, which means that they have full control over the production of goods like edibles and crumble. They oversee every step of the process, from cultivation to extraction, as well as the in-store retail experience. Dr. Michelle makes educational materials for the public, and she works to make the customer experience comfortable and informative.
Dr. Michelle says that in addition to her husband and brother-in-law, her aunt Sandy is the general manager of NUG dispensaries and leads the all-women management team. Additionally, her cousin Jess if NUG’s chief technology officer, who oversees the tech of all the retail stores.
Dr. Michelle says one of the biggest challenges that comes with working with family is when the work spills over into family events. She says that the conversation at the dinner table can easily turn to business, and that she’s even had to separate certain family members or arrange seating accordingly, to keep the socializing flowing. But even with the occasional blip of tension or awkward social setting, working with family has its benefits. “No matter what the challenges are,” says Dr. Michelle, “it’s always fun to be around people you know and love.”
Photo courtesy of AlpinStash