I had the pleasure of interviewing Krista Whitley, award-winning CEO and founder of cannabis empire Altitude Products. Krista is at the helm of a CBD and THC wellness empire that includes Whoopi Goldberg’s Whoopi & Maya and industry legend Caviar Gold in Nevada. Known in the industry as “the Queen of Collaboration”, Krista leads a team of socially responsible women and veterans in creating premium wellness products to replace dangerous pharmaceuticals, as they seek to save lives by transforming the way Americans manage chronic pain.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! What is your “backstory”? How did you first get into this business or get interested in the business?
I spent the first thirty years of life believing everything DARE had taught me about cannabis. It wasn’t until I was in an automobile accident and prescribed every opioid and muscle relaxant that I had an epiphany that pharmaceuticals don’t help you live your best life. A trusted friend recommended that I try consuming cannabis and, after my best night’s sleep, I awoke with less pain and more alert than I had been in weeks. That one pre-roll became the catalyst for an entire shift in my life. I began questioning everything I had been taught and researched the power of plant medicine. Eventually that led me to a meeting with Jim Baudino at Snoop Dogg’s MERRY JANE and my time working with MERRY JANE provided me the opportunity to learn about plant medicine from the industry’s leading experts, while spending time on the ground in the early days of regulated adult use cannabis markets. My company started as one mother on her couch, determined to help Americans replace pills with plant medicine. More adults are killed each day in our country by opioid overdose than are lost to automobile accidents. Looking back, the scariest part of my automobile accident was that I could have ended up hooked to the pills that came after than lost to the accident itself. I know we can do better.
Can you share the funniest or most interesting story that happened to you since you started your company?
A: The funniest part of the work that I do creating THC and CBD wellness products originates in my own fear of other people’s stereotypes. At first, I was incredibly hesitant to tell my neighbors or the parents at PTA what I was doing. I was relieved after I finally told them, but that has been a double edged sword! No one has had anything negative to say, but I’m asked for advice and free samples quite often!
What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
A. Diversity makes our company stand out. Our entire leadership team is made of women, the majority of our board are women, and the majority of my employees are veterans or members of the LGBTQ community. We hear too often that the cannabis industry is run by men in suits, but I believe that we have a unique opportunity to build organizations that value diversity and use the perspective of everyone in the organization to create more effective products. A couple of months after I created the company our family went to the Las Vegas Pride parade. As I watched Capital One and MGM with their massive floats and teams, I made it a personal goal to someday build a team who could have their own float in the parade. This last October I finally had a team large enough to be in the parade and we won for best float. My team exceeds my expectations every day and I could not be prouder to work alongside them to help people.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?
A: It has taken so many people to build the company that we have today, but I am most grateful to our lead investor and board member Krista Waddell. Krista and I met early on at a critical time in the organization when we had launched our first product to market just 45 days earlier, but I shared my vision for an even bigger organization and she had my back. From that first coffee meeting to months later, she has always believed in the good that we are doing for our community and has been ride or die with my team and I. In early January we found ourselves at a stand still in both the Nevada and THC markets due to regulatory issues that had nothing to do with us. It was our near death experience, as we found ourselves with minimal cash flow and a huge payroll of production employees. I met with Krista in tears, but she guided us through the lay offs that had to happen and backed our expansion into CBD only products that could be manufactured in our warehouse. That pivot transformed our organization. CBD products will end up being 70% of our revenue this year, we have been able to rehire some of those production leaders, and our leadership team is rock solid because we know that we can weather any storm together.
Are you working on any exciting projects now?
A: The most exciting products we are working on right now are backed by an amazing team of medical professionals. Our industry doesn’t have a “Rodan & Fields”, so we are working together to create medical research based products to alleviate pain and provide optimal wellness options for consumers. I get so excited when we have the opportunity to collaborate with passionate leaders who share our love for helping people.
Can you share 3 things that most excite you about the Cannabis industry? Can you share 3 things that most concern you?
A: The three things that excite me most about the cannabis industry are the opportunity to create the first national brand, to blaze a trail for the benefit of future leaders, and the sheer scope of opportunities to improve people’s lives with our products. Every day is exciting in our business. The three things that concern me most are the discrimination affecting women and minorities in our industry, the lack of education throughout our industry, and the unfortunate mentality many leaders have against collaboration. When I began pitching my idea for our first product to industry leaders and experts one gentleman in a suit told me he thought it was “cute” that I wanted to make money. It’s unfortunate that some of the bad habits and cultural trends we’ve seen in established start up ecosystems like the Silicon Valley have made their way into our industry. It is not lost on me that the success my company and I have is fundamentally important to proving that women are a good investment, that their ideas have merit, and that we can build businesses that make sense financially.
Can you share your top “5 things you need to know in order to succeed in the Cannabis industry”? Please share a story or example for each.
A: The five things you need to know in order to succeed in the cannabis industry are:
1. FAIL FORWARD WITH ENTHUSIASM: The one thing that I do better than anyone else I have ever met is fail forward with enthusiasm. I think it originates from being a cheerleader for a losing team in my small team, where my dad was a football coach. If you can stand on the sidelines and smile pretty while you’re getting your butt kicked in freezing weather season after season, you’re ready for the rigors of entrepreneurship. My team does a phenomenal job of iterating an idea, getting it into R&D, and getting it to market in record time. I don’t need twenty research studies or focus groups to determine if a product is a win because we are the market. We are iterating products our community has already shared their need for. There are so many voids in our industry that the opportunities are endless.
2. BE FLEXIBLE: Don’t get married to one idea of what the experience is going to look or feel like. I am never married to how we get to the finish line, but I am married to the finish line. Listen to your team and find the laziest person in the room. They’re going to be your secret weapon because they will find the most effective method to achieve what you want. Building a fast growth organization in a fast growth industry is all about effectiveness. The most valuable commodity isn’t money or talent. It’s time. Make sure everyone in your organization is optimizing every minute of their day. This will allow them to be empowered as leaders, to solve problems in real time, and to have more valuable time to give to their friends and families.
3. BET ON YOURSELF AND BET BIG: I started my company as one mom on her couch. We were profitable and cash flow positive on day one because we had to be. Too often entrepreneurs wait to raise capital or wait to get started because they think the only way to work in the cannabis industry is if they have millions of dollars. That’s crap. There is a way. There is always an opportunity, but it is going to take ingenuity, collaboration, and hard work to make it happen. If you aren’t willing to go all in on yourself, why would anyone else bet on you? Business is a risk. It’s the ultimate gamble in life and you shouldn’t be at the table unless you are willing to win or die trying.
4. GIVE IT ALL YOU’VE GOT: My team and I often say that we look both ways to cross the street and we get hit by an airplane. Accept that you don’t know what you don’t know. Whatever you focus on will grow, so you can choose to spend your time second guessing what you think Trump or Sessions are going to do or you can get to work building your business. I’m a builder. I choose to spend my waking hours building the empire that has lived in my mind for years. I’ve been in all the uncomfortable places and paid the idiot tax. I chose the wrong partners who stole our money, who never did any work, who took advantage of our altruism, and I wouldn’t change a thing. Hindsight is always 20/20, but all of those bad people led me to amazing people who support me, who carried me when I was too weak to carry myself, and who have proven their character. It’s not going to be easy, but it will be worth it.
5. LEARN, LEARN, LEARN: Hard facts: you will never know all you need to know in this business. Commit yourself to being the most coachable student on Earth and great leaders will happily share their wisdom. Here are four books that every cannabis entrepreneur should read, study, and master: Disciplined Entrepreneurship by Bill Aulet; Pitch Anything by Oren Klaff; Scaling Up by Verne Harnish; and Hyper Sales Growth by Jack Daly. All four are my business bibles. They have all the answers to help you grow from $1 in sales to $100 million in sales.