The Real Dirt on Investing in Cannabis with Narbe Alexandrian
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There’s those with a passion for cannabis, and those with a passion for money.
In Narbe Alexandrian’s experience, both have been successful in the cannabis industry. But those with more passion for money rarely stay around as long as those with a passion for the plant.
Narbe is the President and CEO of Canopy Rivers, a venture capital firm specializing in cannabis. Prior to joining Canopy Rivers, Narbé was a Venture Capitalist at OMERS Ventures, one of the most prominent technology venture capital funds in Canada. During his tenure, Narbe helped fundraise for two funds ($520M of capital), sourced and led multiple debt/equity financings, and acted as a Board Observer for several portfolio companies.
Now he has turned his focus to cannabis and securing financing for cannabis startups, and investing in cannabis businesses across the country. Narbe knows a thing or two about what investors are looking for in a cannabis business or startup, and has valuable information to share on new and emerging markets.
From how Canada’s market exploded and businesses scrambled to take advantage, to the step by step process of investing and growing a business portfolio simplified, Narbe and Chip talk about it all in this episode of The Real Dirt Podcast.
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Chip: Once again you have reached The Real Dirt, and on today’s dirt we have Narbe Alexandrian. Narbe, he is the President and CEO of Canopy Rivers. They’re the largest cannabis venture capital company. They’ve invested in some of the largest cannabis operations in the world. Thanks for joining me today.
Narbe: Thanks for having me. Really excited.
Chip: I love Canada. I love Toronto. There’s so many polite and pleasant people there. I’ve been to Toronto a handful of occasions, and even the police officers that were trying to arrest me were really polite.
Narbe: Yeah, there’s a lot of sorry’s, a lot of thank you’s, that’s for sure.
Chip: Just for the record, I didn’t go to jail, I never have been. It was a totally misunderstanding and they let me go.
Narbe: Awesome. Glad the city was nice to you.
Chip: Yeah. You know I was really excited that you know, we were able to organize a conversation, because you know, cannabis business is the most important part about the cannabis industry. You know, everyone thinks just cultivation, growing weed like you know, that’s all it’s about. But like, that’s only where it starts. And ultimately that’s, the point is to provide that product. But business in cannabis is so much more complex than it used to be.
Narbe: Absolutely. I mean, the beginning piece is cultivation, like you need to grow it out of the ground in order to be able to do all the things that you can to it. So when we look at the industry, we see it as seed to sale of what are all the different steps that are needed to go from the initial idea of I want to cultivate cannabis, all the way to the products that you see on the shelves today, and all the post retail services and products that you see on the shelves for cannabis businesses as well as consumers out there.
Chip: I talk to people all the time, I talk to, especially here in Oklahoma. You know, one of the things about Okla- we were speaking earlier about Oklahoma, and California, and Colorado. One of the really different things here as opposed to other states, is it’s so many mom and pops. And there, there are some like small investment type structure, and there’s some big companies that have moved down here. But when you look at the stats, there’s 7000, 8000 cultivation licenses issued so far. And most of those people are just small mom and pop people that their only interest in is growing cannabis. But other places, like Canada, or California, or now even Colorado, and kind of the only way you can get involved in the cannabis industry is by, you know, coming at it with lots of capital resources. And that’s kind of where you guys come in, because you tell me kind of some of the stuff you guys have done in the past.
Narbe: So we’re a venture capital vehicle, like our job is to invest capital into the cannabis industry, specifically into companies early on, and watch them and help them grow, hook them into the ecosystem of what Canopy River’s in and its partners, including Canopy Growth have, to put fuel on the fire and get them towards some sort of a monetization event naturally. So, get them big enough that some large company wants to buy them, get them big enough so that they can go public on their own, get them big enough so that they’re just driving cash, and there’s a dividend potential in there as well. So that’s our idea. Like we’re looking for companies that want to grow and can continue to grow. So, there’s two types of businesses out there, successful businesses. One are the ones that want to grow, grow, grow, and then sell the company, and get a financial profit. There’s other types of businesses that aren’t that interested in hypergrowth, or blitzscaling like we call it in the industry, but they’re more so looking for a lifestyle. They’re looking to build a company, get a good income off of it, enjoy it every single day, not necessarily looking at growth at all costs, but more so looking at just simply growing and earning a paycheck off of it, and potentially building some equity into the business over a period of time. The latter businesses, like those businesses that are more lifestyle, they’re harder to invest into because as an investor, you don’t get the same bang for your buck as you do for the ones that really want to pour out oil on the fire, and just keep going, and going, and going. So whenever we look at a company, we’re looking at how they fit into each of those molds, and how we can help them out. We don’t ever say no to a single call or an email or anything of that sort. We want to talk to every single person we can, every single entrepreneur we can. We’re very grateful to have had the opportunity to have seen over 2200 deals come in. So 2200 companies, over 2200 companies, have pitched us to date, telling us what they do, how they fit into the ecosystem, why they’re so different from each other. And through that process, we’ve met over 4000 entrepreneurs, or founders or founding teams that have a specific thesis about where this industry is going. So having that many conversations, and we do a great job of codifying that information, those discussions, in order for us to really understand how things are playing out gives us a lot of domain expertise in terms of where we think this industry is headed. So, love to talk more about that as well, and get a bit more deeper into where things are going.
Chip: Man, you know, one of the things you just said that struck me. You’ve talked to 4000 people who had the confidence and the desire, and to seek investment in order to grow their cannabis business. That just seems like an incredible position to be, like just to be able to like, talk to so many people in the almost the exact same position, even if they were doing, you know, different things from extraction to, you know, business development. Is there something about, I’m really intrigued about the people you talk to. Is there something about them that is all similar, you know, or that’s surprising?
Narbe: Yeah, I mean, I’d say that they all have a passion for cannabis, or they have a passion for money. I see that those are probably the two different pieces that you do see. The best businesses are the ones that are just hyperfocused on solving a problem. So they come to you and they pitch to you and they say, instead of saying, “This is what my product is, this is what my company is,” they don’t start it off like that. They say, “This is the issue at hand in the cannabis industry today.” If we’re looking at a certain state, call it Colorado, they would say, “There’s too many small cultivators out there, there’s too many small retail stores out there. And to get these cultivators to talk to these retail stores, means that there’s a lot of phone calls and emails flying around everywhere, trying to get product on the shelf, and trying to get distribution. And there’s no broker to go through, there’s no channels to go through, it’s very hard to do that. So that’s the problem at hand. Now, our company, our product is to create a marketplace where cultivators can talk to stores, and get their product listed on there without having any friction, without having any human interaction. And they can send samples, they can send mass shipments, so like a wholesale business to business platform.” Those are the types of companies I’m more intrigued with, because they’re actually trying to solve a problem that’s out there, instead of trying to create what everyone else is creating. That’s kind of like, the best case scenario of when you hear a pitch. And then there’s the two other sides of it. You see the one side where people are so invested into making money in this industry that they don’t, they don’t consume cannabis. They don’t understand the consumer of cannabis, they don’t understand the intrigue of it. They build product that nobody really wants to buy, because they just don’t get it, and they don’t make money off of it either. And then there’s another set of, kinds of companies and entrepreneurs that are very passionate about cannabis, but aren’t as willing to do the homework to understand how to build a business around it. So they take bad advice, they don’t really think through their decisions. And they get into deals where they can’t get out of, and then it becomes much harder for them to operate, and much harder for them to grow. And my background has been in technology I spent up close to a decade in the tech industry. And when I see the cannabis industry, there’s just so much sophistication that’s still needed. We’re so early in the game, that it’s pretty intriguing to see where we are. It’s pretty exciting to know that we’re all trying to help this industry grow and mature to what it will become in the future.
Chip: You really did identify my customer, for sure. The passion and the get rich quick person. Those are the people that we commonly come into contact with, you know, their technique, or they love the plant, or they have a healing story about it. They say something like, “Oh man, me and my best friend from Google and Microsoft, we all got together, we had an [9:18 inaudible] on something. And we bought these other team of people in, we’re going to build this big thing. We’re going to exit it out in three years and be billionaires.” And some of them do it, right?
Narbe: Absolutely. And then I think they missed the mark on that, at the most parties. I mean, I’d see a few of them that actually do succeed, and I call those the lucky ones. But for the most part, it’s very hard to do so. So as an investor, like one of the things that we’re so focused on is, can we work with this company, with this individual for a very long time? Because you might see the stories about the Instagrams or like the Canopy Growths that just go from a nothing to a huge company in a short period of time. But those are Cinderella stories in the grand scheme of things, because for most entrepreneurs, it is a huge grind to get to, from the beginning towards building an empire or a huge business. And that period of time takes a long time. I like to use an anecdote of a US marriage. And a US marriage on average is about ten and a half years. Similarly, the period of time between founding and exit of a company, on average is about 9.6 years. So it’s 9.6 versus 10.4 years. when you make an investment into a company, you’re basically getting married to the company, the entrepreneur needs to understand how to work with them. You need to understand what strengths they have, what weaknesses they have, where they want to really focus in on, and you have to really see it as a ten-year relationship that you’re building off of. And if you can’t do that, then it just, you shouldn’t put the money in. And even if it means that you’re missing out on a Facebook type opportunity where you can make 100 times your money, you just don’t want that risk of working with someone you just don’t understand, and who does doesn’t understand you.
Chip: Yeah, bad partner relationships are, if you get into the wrong one of those, they can just be a nightmare, absolutely. Partnerships are often made to break up. I’m glad you really brought that point up. You know, I’ve talked about this with my other partners, whenever we start a new business, there’s always, you know, an understood exit plan for everyone involved. And if anyone wants to pull the parachute cord, they can. But it’s really important that you do that for people, and be very clear at the very beginning. I just had a partner exit from our business, and you know, it was time for him to go. He wanted to get paid, he didn’t quite know how to bring it up. We figured it all out really kind of amicably, and he walked away with you know, with what he exactly, what he wanted. We didn’t quite figure it out at the beginning of the business, because we didn’t know any better. You know, but yeah, that relationship lasted about 10 years, right? That’s a really interesting point you bring up.
Narbe: I’m going to use that point any time I bring up this anecdote again.
Chip: You know, you start out a business, you got these ideas. And you know, of course, like, you know, you’re younger than when you exit it, unless you’re just, it just happens in months. You have these long periods of time between changing your idea of what that business started out to be, to realizing like, what the business is really good at, and focusing on that, and turning it into something successful. And few people, I’ve seen few people that started out with like, the idea that they maintain ten years later.
Narbe: Yeah, absolutely. And things change a lot. People’s personal lives change, their professional lives change, they want to move, they want to, they want to build a family, they don’t want to spend as much time. So, when you’re starting off a business, it’s really important to think about structuring it so that all partners within the company have a way in, and have a way out. So, I’ve always believed that on day one, you shouldn’t be splitting the pie between all the partners and saying, “You own 25%, I own 30%, so and so owns 40%.” You shouldn’t be doing that on day one. Instead, you should be thinking about where you want to end up, and putting everyone on a vesting schedule so that over a period of time, people have to work for that equity. So, if you and I, and someone else, we partner together, and we all split the pie evenly, so 33% each. And then tomorrow, I decide I don’t want to be part of this anymore, I shouldn’t have the ability to walk away with my 33%. Those are some very fundamental aspects of growing a business in the early days that honestly a lot of entrepreneurs miss out on. Again, because the sophistication of this industry just isn’t there. And the onus is really on entrepreneurs to listen to shows like The Real Dirt, and read publications on the internet to really understand the pitfalls that they can avoid.
Chip: Oh man, I should have talked to you like, ten years ago, man. You would have solved so many problems for me. Where were you? So man, I got to say, there’s a lot of confusion in the US here over the Canadian market, over venture capital. Like so many people see that or have this perception that the Canadian market rose and fall with a bubble bust on it, or man, could you give me kind of an outline on what’s happened in Canada? And what’s going on today with the Canadian cannabis market?
Narbe: Yeah, so Canadian legalization was first put on the table in 2016, when Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau was elected for prime minister, or our president in Canada equivalently. And at the time, everyone started to race to build a company. So legalization was set to be in 2018. It was 2016 at the time, and if you were a cannabis company, your evaluation wasn’t based on how much revenue you were generating, because you couldn’t sell. It was illegal at the point in time, but it was more so on how fast could you ramp up the the production of the facility, or the manufacturing of the facility in order to get ready for legalization in two years. So, a lot of the Canadian licensed producers, they went crazy in terms of trying to build as much capacity as possible. They would buy all the greenhouses and retrofit them. And these greenhouses would be filled with like, mold and like, the walls would like, be baked in with like, pests and mold. And it’d be very hard to to get, to not have that impact the plants, but they do it anyway. They did find facilities that had no water, they had to ship water in every day, no electricity, they’d have to bring generators in. But it was it was by all means, “Let me pick up the most square footage of cultivation space that I can within the country prior to legalization taking place.” And the idea there wasn’t that Canadian population was going to be booming in terms of the number of consumers that are buying cannabis, but it was more so if Canada is the first G7 country that’s going to legalize cannabis. Well, guess what? There’s another six of them out there that are going to probably follow suit and say, “If a big country like that’s doing it, why don’t we do it in the US? Or why don’t we do it in parts of Europe, or all the European Union?” So, the race for capacity was, what I’d say 2016 and 2017, was characterized that. 2018 rolled around and legalization hit. And suddenly you found out that —
Chip: And that, pardon me, pardon me. That race is really what fueled all the speculation.
Chip: Because people are going into these chutes and there’s like, “Ah, this group just bought 100 acres of greenhouses.” And the reality of it, it’s a defunct nursery, like you’re saying that needs significant amount of work. But that’s not what the market hears, and that’s not what the media picks on. It’s like, “Canadian market is huge,” is what they hear.
Narbe: Exactly, exactly. And a lot of that was driven by hedge funds. So the hedge funds were putting in money into the industry, saying that we will fund the initial asset purchases for a lot of these companies and we’ll give hundreds of millions of dollars. And the reason why they were doing that was, they were forcing these companies to go public. They knew that retail investors out there understood cannabis, understood the benefits of it. And they would say, “I’ll give you 100 million dollars right now, you need to go public.” And the way I’m going to structure it is that there’s no downside for me, because I’m going to own a piece the company. And I’ll also be using financial mechanisms in order to make sure that any downside I get covered, and I’m only working on the upside. So they made a ton of money, but they also fueled the tide of companies. And while the companies they fueled shouldn’t have been fueled with that much money at that point in time, and some of the companies that they did actually succeeded as well. So there’s wins and losses across the board.
Chip: Everybody wants to shine on the bad news, too.
Narbe : Exactly. Exactly. But I mean, I quote Benjamin Graham who is the idol of Warren Buffett, by saying that in the short run the market is a voting machine, with a long run it’s a weighing machine. So right now, we’re at a point where it’s not a voting machine anymore. It’s not about how much capacity or square footage you have. It’s about, what are you doing in terms of revenue? Are you actually selling it to the customer base? And if you take a step back from that ship, there’s two flavors of companies out there. One are the artisanal, premium quality cannabis cultivators that are doing indoor or greenhouse or outdoor, but they’re really weighing in on, “I don’t care about the yield. I care about creating the best product that I can for the consumer. High THC, beautiful bud, no crow’s feet, like it’s just stuff they can actually sell in the market, and that’s what I’m going to be working on.” And there’s another set of companies that are saying, “I want to be the lowest cost provider. I want to be the person who brings in the can to a curious customer with a $3 joint or a $4 joint, because I have the ability to cultivate at a low cost. I might not be getting the high 20 percentages in THC, I might be getting 20%, or 18%, or 23%. And it might not be the best cannabis you’ve ever consumed in your life, but it’s going to be what gets you into the market. And it’s going to be what gets you into the more premium product afterwards.” Anybody that doesn’t fit either of those two bills is stuck in the middle. And that middle is where you’re selling product that isn’t of high quality, or isn’t at the right price, and you’re just not growing anywhere. So right now, there’s a lot of companies stuck in that middle category, and they just can’t break out of it, because their infrastructure is old. And you can’t create quality cannabis, and it’s old so you can’t be the low cost provider, because you’re paying more than your competitors are in order to make sure that it’s free of pests and molds and heavy metals etc.
Chip: Worldwide, it doesn’t matter how much you put into that kilo or pound of cannabis. It really is how much someone’s willing to pay for it.
Chip: I hear people say it all the time. It’s like, “Oh, I’m organic. I have living soil, like, you know, we put all this effort into it. This is biodynamic, I, you know, have a solar powered greenhouse, we made all this stuff by hand.” And I really appreciate all of that, but it has absolutely nothing to do with the commercial value of cannabis.
Chip: And that’s driven by other factors, you know, every state seems to be different. I’m learning more and more, but you know, here in Oklahoma, a variety is definitely important. More so than any other state, it’s a new state to cannabis, so people are really open to the different flavors and the different names. There is a smaller segment of society that will really pay for the higher end cannabis. Most people want inexpensive but good cannabis. They came from $40 an ounce Mexican import ounce, $100 is, $200, $300 is significantly more than they use, you know, you’re used to paying. So I see exactly what you mean, you know, is here specifically it’s very little at the top and then all the rest of it at the bottom.
Narbe: Exactly, exactly. And if you’re stuck in the middle then who’s gonna be looking at you, right? You’re not the, you’re not one of the cheapest, you’re not one of the best, and then what are you? Mediocre? Who would want to buy mediocre cannabis right? So —
Chip: No one ever said that. “Oh, if I had my choice, I’d buy some mediocre cannabis.”
Narbe: Exactly, exactly. And then you have other companies as well that are just so key focused on trying to teach customers about everything else outside of THC. So I understand, you understand that when you look at a cannabis bud, it’s more than just THC. It’s about the entourage effect, the terpene profile, and how it looks, and the moisture content of it. There’s just so many different attributes of it. However, you can’t expect the customer to, on day one, to know all of those with that information. You can’t expect them to know that on year five of this industry. When we go and buy a bottle of wine, for the most part, for the most part, the majority of customers don’t actually know what they’re buying. They don’t know what the difference between a Cabernet, and a Merlot, and a Malbec is. Same thing on the cannabis side. You can’t expect for the customer to know this. And so, if the customer is saying that our focus is on THC content, then that’s what you should be focused on. To think that you can educate the customer is a foolish concept in the short term. Like there’s so much going on in people’s lives like, why would they sit down and try to understand how to buy a bottle of wine, as well as how to buy a pre-roll of cannabis?
Chip: You know, that’s something that we really should strive here though. And we’ve, and we’ve done it everywhere to Colorado and here, is customer education. And you said it, it’s not something that’s immediate. For instance, when the early days of pesticide use started to come up in our store in Colorado, it was one of the states where you could buy any pesticide off the shelf. So it really kind of became up to our staff to educate people on the pesticides they were using. We did that for years. And it wasn’t until the state came out with regulations on it, that anybody paid any attention, or even cared, you know? And we put a lot of effort into it, but you know, it just wasn’t mandated. It wasn’t something they had to do, and they didn’t do it.
Narbe: Absolutely. Keep it as simple as possible. I say this to companies all the time. I say, “Why don’t you just create a cannabis product called 20%?” And it just says it right on there. Or call it sleep, or call it creative, or call it–
Narbe: Just explain what the product is. And it’s very, very much like a Soviet Union type vibe that I’m putting out there, which saying that, just make, just tell them what it is. Hiding behind the logo and expecting to teach the customer everything that exists. Instead, just give them what they want, and just be obsessed in and hyperfocused on being one thing to the customer. Don’t try to be everything.
Chip: One of the things that is kind of new to the cannabis industry is this idea of brand. In the past, you know, people just grew weed and there was other people that sold weed. And then it came to like, strains and preferred cannabis. But brands are relatively like, you know, new thing to cannabis. Do you see many people coming to you, and saying “We’re gonna make this brand of cannabis that’s internationally known?”
Narbe: Oh, yeah, for sure. For sure. So, we see the industry kind of moving in five waves. The first wave is cultivation, where if you’re one of the first ones there, and you get a heads up on building a greenhouse, or building your facility, and just getting through the experience curve of being one of the first in your state to grow cannabis, then there’s success there. As the industry progresses, it goes into wave two, which is ancillary, the picks and shovels, fertilizers, LED lights, software technology, paraphernalia, vaporizers, etc. Third Wave is CPG, which we’re currently in right now, where there’s brands coming up every single day. I think there’s about 90 new skews of products coming into the cannabis industry per week within North America. So there’s a lot of brands just being hit in front of the customer. The top five players in any given state are changing on a quarterly basis all the time. Wave four is pharmaceuticals, which we’re still not there yet, because it takes time to prove anecdotal effects are actually driven by research. And then the fifth wave is maturation, which means that like Coke and Pepsi, there’s going to be a few large giant global companies that handle majority of the market share. And there’s gonna be small, not mom and pop shops, but mom and pop shops are always medium-sized enterprises, which then take another 30, 40% of the market as well. So right now, we’re in the CPG phase, which is consumer packaged goods, brands that are being created. And to me, there’s a big disservice that companies are doing by creating cannabis brands, and not creating brands that use cannabis, because cannabis itself as an ingredient. It is becoming more standardized and commoditized every single day we go through. So, you need to, instead of looking at it as the product, think of it as an ingredient. Are you trying to help someone with sleep aid? Cannabis can help, as well as melatonin and many other products. Are you trying to help someone to be more creative? Well, there’s sativa strains that are absolutely awesome for stuff like that. So think about what the problem set of your customer is. And just hyperfocus on it. Be the sleep product that your customer wants, and don’t be anything else. And it’s a hard thing to do this early in the industry. That’s the difference we’re seeing between the companies that are growing very rapidly, and the ones that are just the me too’s of the industry, trying to create a copycat of whatever else exists.
Chip: Right. Take something and own it.
Chip: It’s hard to find that niche, that’s for sure. I’ve had it in my grasp a couple of times. It’ll slip out especially in our modern world, how everybody communicates with each other and, you know, using online applications to design you know, everything, and we can communicate with thousands of people. Yeah.
Narbe: Totally, totally. I have companies that I speak to time to time where they say, “Well, I can’t tell you anything unless you sign an NDA.” And I say, “Well, we’re just having an introductory call. Why don’t we just talk about it before we sign anything?” And they say, “No well, if we tell you we’re scared that it’s gonna go away.” And my response to that is, “If you think within a half hour conversation, you’re gonna tell me something that is gonna, that you think that’s not going to be stolen, then I think you’re wrong. Because, not that I would ever do that, but the internet can disseminate information very quickly. And if you get to a big enough size, not too big, but you’re growing, and Forbes comes to you and asks you that question, you can’t make them sign an NDA, you’re gonna have to tell the answer. Or you’re gonna want to tell the answer, or else they’re not gonna run the story. And guess what, all of a sudden, everyone knows what your secret sauce is.” So it’s just all about just trusting the other counterparty, and really taking a step back and just being very honest with yourself and saying, “Do I have something special? Some sort of a competitive advantage that’s sustainable over time? Or do I not? And if I don’t let this go find one. And if I do, how do I hold on to this, and make sure nobody else gets to it?”
Chip: This has been an awesome conversation, man. We’re really just getting into it. And the big thing I want to chat about with you is venture capital, and how it works. So many people have, you know, different visions of it. You guys are considered, you know, the devil of the industry and to some people, other people are totally scared of venture capital, because they think that’s gonna, like, you know, take their opportunity away. Tell me how it works. If I’m a small company, and I want to, I want to get some capital, like, like, how does it work?
Narbe: Sure. So from a very general basis, a company comes in and says, “I want to raise capital.” They present us with a PowerPoint presentation or a deck that walks us through who they are, what they’re doing differently, how they stack up to competition, what their financial profile is in terms of how much they’ve raised, where they got money from, what revenues they have, what geographies they service, what categories they service, and they just basically give us this very introductory high level overview what the business is like. The next step after that is to provide us with a financial model of where they see the future going. The value of your company isn’t in what you’ve done in the past, it’s what you’re going to be doing in the future. So through that mechanism, we get to understand how they see their company evolving. There’s a lot of weight attached to that financial model, even though it is fictitious in a sense, you’re assuming a lot of numbers around it. But we want to understand, A. where the entrepreneur sees the business going? So do they see the business becoming five times as large in five years, or they see it being the same value or the same size for the next five years? And those have different motives attached to them, and they have different mechanisms of investment attached to them as well. And then once we’ve done those two conversations about the deck and the model, the next thing we do is we create a data request. Then we say, “This is the information we need to really understand, take a deep dive into the company.” And once we’ve done all that, as the investor, we proceed with the term sheet that says, “This is what the deal was that I wanted to do. This is how much money I’m gonna put in. This is what I’m going to get back, I might get a board seat, I’ll tell you If I am. What happens if the company doesn’t succeed? What do I get for that? Or what do I not get for that?” And you walk through all the high level terms. The next step after that is an important one for the entrepreneur. And for everyone listening to this show, you need to have a good lawyer in hand because you need so when —
Chip: You say that one again, please.
Narbe: You need to have a good lawyer, because you need someone to walk you through the legal jargon involved in getting to a deal with investors. Because there’s some investors out there, and I’m not going to name names or anything like that, that ask for a lot, that asked for a lot. They want to have all the upside of the business, but want to mitigate the downside of the business. And that doesn’t drive. We shouldn’t be doing that. Again, like they’re not thinking of a ten year partnership, they’re thinking about themselves in that situation. And they could be the nicest, kindest people out there, but you need to really work with a lawyer to understand what it is you’re actually signing up for, and what happens if things don’t work out. I love to really focus in on things not working out, because while everything looks rosy and awesome when you first put the money in, things can change very quickly, you need to be ready for that. So that’s kind the entire thing in a nutshell. After that investment has been made, we work with venture capitalists in general. Work with the portfolio companies in order to help them grow, link them up to other portfolio companies, and other companies they know, their network, help them with hiring by bringing in consultants, help them with legal matters by providing them with resources. And it’s really just unleashing the network that that investor has to help that company get to that next level. Build, build, build and get towards an eventual exit, which is either through acquisition or through a go public event.
Chip: But you make it sound so simple.
Narbe: I mean, I’ve done it so many times. But yes, it seems a bit simple to me. But —
Chip: Hey man, out of those 4000 individuals that have come to you, do you, you got a percentage of how many people you guys worked a deal out with?
Narbe: Yes. So we’ve seen over two 2200 deals, pitches of companies. And of course, like every time someone pitches, starting company pitches, there’s multiple entrepreneurs and operators, and we’ve done 18 deals.
Chip: All right. What’s the odds on that, do you know what the percent is?
Narbe: Venture capital is typically around 1%.
Narbe: You need to see a lot of companies in order to do the deals.
Chip: Okay. Okay.
Narbe: So we’re right around there, just under that 1%. Maybe we’re a bit more pickier than the average.
Chip: I mean, if I do an email campaign, and I get 1%, I’m usually pretty happy about it.
Narbe: Yeah, you know what? I love that topic. I was actually reading up, back in the late 90s, t by email, click through rates were like, 70%. I don’t know if you remember those days, but I got any time I got an email, I’d open it.
Chip: Oh yeah, I’d read it all.
Narbe: It was a very —
Chip: “I got an email!”
Chip: Yeah, “you’ve got mail,” right?
Narbe: Now it’s the complete opposite.
Chip: AOL really dominate- I know, absolutely. It’s like, “Please turn off my notifications. Please, please, please.” And I mean, is it just capital that you guys are, you mentioned earlier that kind of sounds like you’re a turnaround slash, do you have a description for what you guys do? Because that’s not what I would think of as venture capitalists. I mean, I know a couple people that do turnarounds. But you guys do a little bit something more than that.
Narbe: Yeah. So we’re not, we’re not turnaround. We’re not a turnaround type of an investor. And I’ll honestly say like, we don’t, we just don’t have that skill set, nor do we want that skill set. We want the entrepreneur to be running the business, we don’t want to run the business ourselves. So the key here is to find the right operator. And I’ll use the anecdote that there’s no eBay for great ideas. If you have a great idea, like a killer idea, nobody’s gonna buy an idea off of you, nobody’s gonna pay you 50 grand for an idea. If you take that idea and you execute on it, then you can sell that company. So it really comes down to the entrepreneur, the operator. What our job is, is to give the domain expertise and the relationships that we’ve developed in the industry, to our portfolio companies, and to friends of the company as well, in order to help them succeed. So, we have a group internally at Canopy Rivers. They’re called the impact team, run by the former CEO of Canopy Growth as well as, he’s a McKinsey consultant, Harvard MBA. He’s created a team of experts in life sciences and regulatory affairs in growth and scaling. And our job is to help compliment the employee, the entrepreneurs that we invest in, in terms of getting to know different people in the industry, getting to know different parties. So I’ll give you an example. If you’re a small cultivator that’s looking for capital and you go to a venture capitalist like ourselves, we would help you find proper genetics to help you with volume purchases on supplies, we’d help you with getting to know retailers and customers in order to sell your products into, we’d help you with everything in and around your business. But we wouldn’t, at any given time, run your business, because that’s not our job to do.
Chip: So it’s more like an accelerator.
Narbe: Yeah, yeah. I mean, it’s more similar to an accelerator, except that typically when you think of an accelerator, it’s usually very small companies that are built off of an idea. It’s a bit different because we’ve already picked up the company where you have revenues, you have some market share, and you want to go to that next level, that next level, and the next level.
Chip: So you’ve got, you’ve got 18 companies, do you guys have an idea of the type of company that you’re looking for, or the type of return that you’re interested in when you decide, or is everybody different?
Narbe: Typically, for venture capital funds, you’re looking at investment returns about 15% year over year. Every year, your portfolio grows by 15%. But to get that 15%, when you get into a deal, you have to think of it as being a deal, “I can give you ten times your money.” And if you believe it’s going to be 10 times your money, you’ll probably end up with 3 to 5 times your money, which then will convert to 15 to 20% return on investment. So that is kind of the mindset that you have, “Is this a 10 bagger? Is this going to be 10 times my money?” Because it’s growing very fast, it’s very competitive in nature, and it has, it’s carved out a niche for itself. In terms of where we look into across the value chain, there’s four key areas that we’re really honed into right now, and this changes all the time. One of them is on the brand side, we truly believe there’s no true customer affinity with brands that are out there. The customers aren’t only choosing one brand of edibles or one brand of pre-rolls, and not buying anything else, similar to how you see customers using Coke and Pepsi. The second piece is on the plant science side. We’re really zoned in on how to help take cannabis cultivation to the next level. So it looks a lot like what you see for vegetables and fruit cultivation around the world. The third piece is bio synthetics. Similarly, aspirin is derived from the bark of a willow tree, but you don’t see any willow tree cultivation facilities anywhere in the world. And the reason is that, the enzyme that that tree develops to help you with a headache is made in a lab. And similarly outside of THC and CBD, where the plant does give you a lot of that, the other minor cannabinoids, we have a view that they’ll be created in the lab instead of being created organically on a plant everywhere. And then the fourth area is data and technology. We really do believe that that there’s a lot of value in understanding the mindset of what consumers are buying, and as well as what retailers are buying from producers. And to understand that gives you a leg up in terms of what to develop next, and how to present it in market.
Chip: Are you looking at companies that have $1 million in revenue today and want to grow it? Or $10 million? I guess it’s kind of all over the place, tech companies might not have any sales.
Narbe: Yup, yeah. So our view is that we’re a lifecycle investor, like our smallest check has been 750,000 off of an idea, our largest check has been $50 million. So, we are very open to talking to all types of entrepreneurs and all types of businesses, not necessarily anybody with a certain threshold. To me, it’s great to just learn about how entrepreneurs view a business. So, I mean, I say this a lot to companies that are based out of Latin America, or China, or Europe where they’re looking for funding. And I say the first thing you should do is focus on teaching your prospective investor about your geography, and why it’s different than in North America, and then go into your company at the end of the day, and then that’s key. Like, it’s about the teaching piece of it. You’re a company, you’re looking for investment money, teach your investor why you’re different than anybody else. Teach them about how you see the industry as well, and build that rapport to show that you’re different than every other company that’s out there.
Chip: You know, when I started my first potting soil company years ago, a friend of mine said, “What makes you think you can do this so special?” I immediately was resistant, you know, and as a young entrepreneur it was my second business at the time, I was just literally so bold and brazen, it was like, “Oh, because it’s me, I’m doing it.” And, you know, the market was so much smaller 20 years ago, right? And no one had heard of cocoa fiber at the time, or very little people had. I was on the cusp of a revolution. But to start a business now, it seems so difficult to me, for young entrepreneurs, to be able to come into a marketplace and just immediately be able to compete with people in the cannabis industry specifically that have been doing it a long time, or just have so many resources, you know, behind them. I mean, I started my first potting soil company with literally like, $3,000, right? And I just don’t know if anybody could do that today.
Narbe: I think so. I’d challenge that. I’d say it like there’s never been a better time to start a business than it is today. Like the amount of resources, and podcasts like yourselves that entrepreneurs, young budding entrepreneurs, pun intended, could really listen to, read, understand what the pitfalls were, how people succeeded, how people screwed up, to really just really zone in on what the idea is. There’s an unprecedent amount of data out there about how to start a business that we’ve ever seen in the history of mankind. So compare starting a business now to ten years ago, [41:33 inaudible].
Chip: You’re saying just the sheer access people have to information just accelerates the overall growth.
Chip: And your chance to exposure to any market in the world is readily available at the stroke of your fingers, honestly, right?
Narbe: Absolutely. The [41:55 inaudible] is on the entrepreneur to really sit down and learn these things. And if you have the time of any, you can carve out the time, and I say, if you’re looking to start a business, and you don’t know where to start, just carve out an hour every day, sit at a Starbucks, and just read. Just read articles, read about that industry you want to get into, read about what other companies are doing, listen to a podcast of a successful entrepreneur, and just get your mind going. And it is a snowball effect of within the day, and I’m sure you can attest that as well, that every small move you make, somehow turns into a very tangibly big deal later on.
Narbe: And you can’t predict that, you can’t. And it gets a bit daunting when you think of the successful people and you say, “How do I get there?” You just have to show up every day and put in your work.
Chip: Yeah, no man, plants grow, man. You put a seed in the ground. You give it every single thing it wants, it gets huge and big. Sometimes you can’t water it so much, or feed it so much, it’s that much smaller. But like, if you get it everything it needs, just the potential for growth is just incredible, and that’s in businesses, and in relationships, and people as well.
Chip: Well, you’ve changed my mind. Okay, okay. I now think that it was harder when I started my business. And now I realize it was. I was literally getting phone calls from Sri Lanka at four in the morning, you know?
Narbe: I love it. I love that —
Chip: And they’re speaking broken English —
Narbe: I love hearing the grind.
Chip: Yeah, it is easier today. Like if anyone wanted to go start a potting soil company, they could look up manufacturers at the touch of their fingers. You know, when I started, I don’t know how old you are, but we’d go to the library. And there was this encyclopedia of businesses and manufacturers.
Chip: And we would search through it and find like, suppliers and nobody had websites, you would call people directly and build a relationship with them.
Narbe: Yeah just think about the long distance charges you’d incurred just to call them. Nowadays, you have Google Hangouts, and video calls, and voice calls made over the Internet that you’re not paying anything extra for. So, it’s just remarkable how much easier and cheaper it is to run a business.
Chip: Yeah no, absolutely man. The virtual assistants, the on demand workers, the sheer amount of like marketing talent, and graphic talent, and product development talent like you know, you can access all those resources for inexpensive. You just have to know how to like, who to ask and how to ask for what, and anybody today if they wanted to get involved in you know, breeding cannabis, breeding hemp, breeding, you know, high THC hemp, anybody can get involved with a two day at a high level, because they can just, you know, look up people in the industry that want a job, frankly. Somebody in India, or even in Seattle, or Vancouver, and there’s somebody who’s interested in cannabis that, you know, has a PhD in genomics, genetics, biology and wants to help you out, and will over the phone, or over Zoom, right?
Narbe: It’s just a matter of doing it right. It’s just a matter of just picking up the phone and doing it. Not many people do that actually, a lot of people sit there and just fantasize about what their company can do, instead of just learning, and it’s remarkable if you just contact someone and say, “Hey, I just want to pick your brain for five minutes on a certain topic that I have not, going to sell you anything. And I’m not going to ask you for a job. I just want to know what you did in this scenario to get to where you were.” It’s remarkable how many people actually reach out to you and say, “Yeah, I’m okay with that. Let’s do that call.” And you do that call, and that call turns into a follow up call, and that follow up call is half an hour, 45 minutes long, and soon enough, someone wants to give you a job and someone wants to buy your product. And it’s just about putting that process in and getting those at bats.
Chip: At bats. Oh man, I say it all the time, you just got to jump in, you really do. We have all this hesitation and resistance. And it’s product development, or entrepreneurs, you like, want to build this perfect thing and get it perfect and it hits the market and everybody loves it, and you know, you get a home run. But I think it’s more important to have a base it to literally just hop in the deep end and learn how to swim, right? You get great product development, you get customer feedback, you might get a lot of shit too. If you can get beyond that, like for me anyway, that is my preferred method of launching a product, starting a business. It’s just getting into it, right?
Narbe: Yeah, it is remarkable how much you’ll learn from it too. Like I remember this one time I got an investor, sorry, an entrepreneur that came to pitch me and every time I asked – it was half an hour long – and every time I asked a question, she just dumped a data dump on me of the number of people he surveyed. So I asked a question, like, “Who’s gonna buy your product?” and be like, “Oh, I used Google Search, Google Audience. I surveyed 300 people, and these people said they would pay for it.” I can’t say anything against that. “Okay. So how about the pricing?” Well, as you come up with a price, then you said, “Well, I looked up all of my competitors, then I scraped the web for their pricing, and this is the price that they’re selling it at. And I think that I can sell at this price and get better margins.” “Okay, I got that, too.” And every time I was asking questions, it was data, data data, and you can’t, the data itself, like, it really answers the question without putting any objective opinions into it. But at the same time, the data does have confirmation bias attached to it as well. So as an investor, you always worry about the best data being shown to you, not the bad stuff. But what I’m trying to get to is, if you back your idea and your thesis with data around you, it’s going to be very hard to refute that you’ve done a lot of homework on this. The best pitches that we see are the ones that the entrepreneur’s ready to answer every question, because they’ve sat back and they said, “You know what? There’s a finite number of questions, there’s a known number of questions that someone can ask me over a half hour to understand my business, and I’m gonna be ready for every single question that’s going to come out there.” And there might be some weird one that’s like, “What kitchen utensil might you be?” that they’re not prepped for. I don’t ask that question, but there’s always those random questions that they might not be prepared for, but you need to be prepared when you come into that pitch. And those are the ones, the ones that answer the questions and give you that look like, “Is this as hard as it gets? Because I live and breathe my company, and you think I can’t answer these questions. These are easy.” And those are the ones that you see the passion just glittering in the idea that they’re presenting to you.
Chip: Oh man, I’m smiling just thinking about it. I mean, I know people make the television show comparison to you guys all the time, but it must feel just like that, right?
Narbe: It is except you’re not trying to find those one-liners to stump on the entrepreneur and make yourself look good on screen.
Chip: Oh, that’s funny. You’re right. Well, you know, you gotta sell the story. You guys sound like you’re having a great time.
Narbe: Yeah, you know, I’m grateful for the opportunity to talk with so many bright minded individuals all over the world about how they see this industry progressing. I’m literally so grateful for it.
Chip: We’ve kind of talked about one side of it. We’ve talked about the, you know, the entrepreneur side and kind of how the venture capitalists work. Many people today feel like they’ve had some bad cannabis investments. And there’s more people that have gotten, lost their investment in cannabis operations, than you’d care to know. People enter it often with passion, without so much data, it’s often a brother in law, cousin, best friend type scenario. And you, things just kind of go wrong. All that is changing. Do you have a tip for the investor? On how to be wary, and how not to get involved in a bad relationship?
Narbe: Yeah, I think the first step is that you need to really understand that venture investment, or angel investing, or investing in a private company, that is most basic level, is a very high risk move. High risk because once that money goes in, that company’s going to spend that money, and there’s no way for you to take that money back out. This isn’t like buying Apple stock where every day there’s a market for it that you can sell your shares to. Instead, it’s a very difficult proposition because you need to wait 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10 years in order to get your money back and get, potentially getting return. And between that period of time, there’s a lot of areas where companies can screw up and can really change the way the outlook of that company is. So when you’re looking at an investment, and you need to kind of tell yourself like, “I’m okay losing this money, and I’m taking a risk here.” And I’ve always like, financial literature and theory tells you that for these types of investments, you should put no more than 10% of your wealth down into investments such as these, and you hear all too much that people are putting their entire nest egg into an idea that just doesn’t pan out. And this is why governments in both Canada and the US create systems in place where individuals can’t invest in these private companies, unless they’re what they call “accredited.” Which means you have, and it varies by state and by country, but in general, it means you have wealth. You have call it, $5 million of assets in hand, or you’re making a million dollars of cash flow per year. And the government then allows you to invest in these private companies. And there’s a lot of times where companies that take investments from individuals don’t do that work to make sure that those investors understand the risks that they’re going into, and it turns into a bad place. When we look at the cannabis industry itself, it’s a bit different. You’re seeing different data coming from Main Street versus Wall Street. So when you’re looking at the capital markets and stocks right now, they’re much lower than they were a couple years ago. But when you look at what’s selling in each of the states, you’re seeing monumental growth rates like 10, 15, 20, 50% within a few months. So you’re seeing the industry grow very fast, but you’re seeing companies getting smaller, smaller in terms of evaluation. And that’s just generally the nature of the stage that we’re in, in the cannabis industry, where the ones that are going to win are going to win, the ones that are going to go bankrupt are going to go bankrupt. And because of the, you don’t know which ones are which at this point in time, and because it’s so early, everyone just kind of takes a hit until those winners are figured out.
Chip: Business is so much like gambling. Serial entrepreneurs, we’re gamblers at heart. But you throw in some cannabusiness in it and wow, it sure it sure can make it exciting, that’s for sure.
Narbe: Absolutely. [53:15 inaudible].
Chip: Sounds like a good country song or Jerry Garcia song.
Narbe: Yeah, the returns aren’t as good as gambling either, though. You can’t double your money by betting on red or black.
Chip: Yeah, well, you know, that’s just a fan- it’s a fantasy. Yeah, well, I get it. Man, it’s been great talking to you today. You know, cannabusiness, like I said, is the most important part to the cannabis industry. It’s maturing so much right now. And really come in and [53:45 inaudible] it is really great to hear your perspective on the consumer packaged goods, on cultivation, and where you think the cannabis industry is going, man. I really appreciate you joining me today. If people want to get in touch with you. what’s the best way for them to do that?
Narbe: Yeah, you can reach out to me on LinkedIn, you can email me email@example.com. So if you’re interested in learning more or talking, happy to chat.
Chip: Thanks for joining us man. I really appreciate your time.
Narbe: Thanks for having me.
Chip: This has been another episode of The Real Dirt, and that was Narbe Alexandrian with Canopy Rivers. Man, it was really great speaking to them about capital investment into cannabis. You know, the only way we can grow is sometimes we get a little help from our friends, or help from others. And you know, don’t let quote unquote, big business keep you down, or think you that you can’t survive in the cannabis industry. Listen to this conversation. You know, we talked heavily about how people with just an idea can get one started. So if you’ve got an idea, man, take that first step. Just try it. If you’re thinking about growing cannabis, if you’re thinking about getting into the cannabis business, man, just hop into it. Just try it, right? Don’t let money stop you. Don’t let time stop you. Definitely don’t let your friend’s shit talking stop you. Just try man, and you know, when you get slapped down, stand up. When it’s not working, examine what you’re doing, and be determined to make it work. If you have the desire, you can stick it out long enough. If you can keep your eyes open, and make sure that you’re right, making the right economic decisions, man, chances are you’re going to do just fine. So thanks again for listening to this episode of The Real Dirt. This has been fun and exciting for me. Please, if you’re interested in other episodes like this, check us out on iTunes, The Real Dirt podcast. You can also download other episodes at therealdirt.com. Please check out cultivatecolorado.com, we can supply you with all of your propagation and equipment needs. Thanks again. This has been The Real Dirt.
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