Don’t chase too many shiny objects. This lesson I’m still learning to this day but I feel I have a better grip on my priorities and I take this advice extremely seriously now after dropping the ball on a major project because I was distracted chasing another opportunity in the cannabis industry. The fallout caused a lot of both financial and professional pain for family and close business partners alike.
I had the pleasure of interviewing Stephen Verbeek, the CEO of Hello Cannabis, a Canadian cannabis company with operations across three continents. After a freak accident in his mid 20’s left him hospitalized for months, Verbeek came to fully understand the devastatingly addictive properties of opioids. During his recovery, he went against his doctors orders and switched to cannabis as a way to manage his pain. That’s when he decided to merge his extensive investment banking experience with his understanding of the power of cannabis to help build better options for patients. After starting with just one medical cannabis clinic, Hello Cannabis has now expanded into global cannabis consulting, education and retail.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you share with the ‘backstory” about what brought you to the cannabis space?
At 27 years old, I had a terrible accident.
I fell 22 feet and shattered both feet. The x-rays of both of my heels looked like cracked egg shells and the doctors said that fewer than 5% of people who suffer this type of injury can ever walk again.
The recovery was excruciating, with multiple surgeries, and I even ended up in the ICU after one particularly delicate surgery to reset the bones in my feet. While I was there in ICU to avoid an infection, I began to feel strange and alerted my girlfriend, who was beside me. We both looked to see that I was bleeding heavily through my bandages. I distinctly remember my girlfriend calling for the nurse, who came in and I’ll never forget the look on her face. It was that distinct look of “holy shit” and it still makes me pretty emotional when I think about it to this day.
I didn’t know it right in that moment, but she thought she was looking at a dead man because I was losing blood FAST. A blood vessel had opened which meant that every single heartbeat caused me to shoot blood through my foot, which was bandaged. The bandage had turned completely red by this point and they called a code in the hospital. Doctors came rushing in, tore off the cast, and sealed the leak. I lost almost 2L of blood within 30 minutes but the doctors saved me.
In the hospital, I was prescribed 6 mg of dilaudid every 4 hours, which is one of the strongest painkillers on earth. It’s essentially synthetic heroin. It’s stronger than morphine. It’s stronger than fentanyl. They use this stuff in hospice. The max that doctors can prescribe is 8 mg and that’s pretty much only when you are terminal. And I was at 6mg.
I’m not exaggerating when I say that I was addicted within 4 hours. I was prescribed a three month supply but I quit after two months because I had become a shell of myself. I was a competitive soccer player at the time of the injury so I ran a lot and had a low body fat percentage. But the dilaudid left me with no appetite so I began to look like a skeleton.
Honestly, the accident was nothing compared to the withdrawal from the dilaudid. That was the most brutal experience of my life.
During the withdrawal, I didn’t sleep and I could hardly eat for 4 days. I had reached complete delirium, like the hallucinatory scene in Trainspotting, but thankfully I had a wound care specialist visiting my house twice a day to treat an infected surgical wound to avoid amputation. She witnessed my recovery and withdrawal and flat out had a heart to heart that was rather direct.
She said, “you know you’re dying right?”
And I didn’t quite know what she meant.
She saw that I was trying to cold turkey my way off dilaudid, and she stepped in to save my life.
She said, look you have no appetite so you’re wasting away, and everything hurts right now right? What takes away pain and makes you hungry?
I’m a dutch guy from Vancouver so I’d obviously smoked weed but I’d never thought of it as medicine before, so when she suggested it, I immediately asked a friend to bring some.
I started eating, I started feeling better, my willingness to wake up and get better grew everyday and I wasn’t the zombie I had been while I was on dilaudid all those months.
I started walking again after 6 months, and today I’m able to walk, run, play soccer and do whatever I want. I still have tremendous pain in my feet, I still have screws and plates in my feet, but I live my life the way I want to live it and I owe a tremendous debt to cannabis for helping me do that.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?
Meeting the royal family of a secret country in the Himalayan mountains to source land raised genetics and teach them about the benefits of cannabis. Our meeting was set with the hopes of one day cultivating in that country. I truly believe its the closest thing to the garden of Eden that this planet has.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
Ironically, I’m in Berlin for a cannabis conference as I write this, and the airline that brought me here just announced bankruptcy and cancelled all flights. Its planes are being seized by bailiffs so it looks like we’re not flying home with them!
But looking back on it, there is one specific incident that made me laugh in the way that you laugh when something is so ludicrous that you just have to laugh.
Last year, the government of Ontario had a plan to create a merit based rollout of private retail stores selling cannabis. This meant that people who wanted to open a store would have the ability to apply for a license, and that application would be thoroughly vetted and the licenses to open stores would be awarded to the most capable groups. That meant the groups who had experience in retail, had financial backing, had strong teams, etc.
With that in mind, we put on a full court press and spent months (full time) assembling our application. We had people able and willing to leave their careers and join, we were developing sales decks, we were raising the money, we were incorporating and developing the shareholders agreements with a range of different stakeholders. We pitched people that we were one of the strongest merit based applicants for a private retail cannabis store in Hamilton. I genuinely believed that.
Here’s where it gets funny.
Very shortly before the applications were to be submitted, the government changed its mind and decided that they would just run a lottery instead. Instead of a merit based system, they decided they would just issue 25 licenses to 25 lucky lottery winners. That decision meant that all the work we’d done in the past few months was worthless. All we could do now was put a ticket into a raffle and hope. You can’t plan for something like that.
The lesson from this one is that sometimes things are out of your control.
Are you working on any exciting projects now?
We’re hosting a series of medical cannabis conferences in Asia, so we’re taking the trials and tribulations from our experience in Canada and helping the Asian market avoid some of the mistakes we’ve made.
We’re introducing our own line of legal CBD products called HelloCBD into the European and Asian markets
We’re making history by helping to open a private cannabis retail store in Ontario, which is Canada’s most populous province. It will be one of the first 25 cannabis stores in Ontario history.
Hello Cannabis is consulting clients around the world in several different avenues. For starters, we’re teaching clients how to educate their stakeholders about cannabis so we’re building entire education and training programs for organizations.
We’re also advising clients on how to implement legally adherent cannabis policies into their organizations.
We’re also consulting entrepreneurs on how to build sustainable, legal, medical cannabis operations, so things like how do you build a medical cannabis clinic.
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?
There’s too many to name to be honest and to get to where we are now, it’s really taken a small village. If i was to single out one particular person, I’d have to say Dr. Alan Greenspoon, who is a long serving physician in the city of Hamilton. He has stuck by me since day 1 when I had this crazy idea to open a legal medical cannabis clinic.
I think the reason he truly believed in us was because he was seeing the horrors of the opioid epidemic firsthand in Hamilton, which is amongst the hardest hit Canadian cities.
This industry is young dynamic and creative. Do you use any clever and innovative marketing strategies that you think large legacy companies should consider adopting?
We’re very handcuffed in what we can do, meaning we can’t use Google AdWords, we can’t run ads on Facebook, or Instagram. We can’t create commercials. We can’t do a lot of things because those avenues aren’t legally available to us. We have to be careful where we try to spread our message, and what that message is, because of the strict regulations that Health Canada has passed onto the legal cannabis industry.
So we have run grassroots campaigns that focus on education. That’s our number 1 topic of conversation. How are we going to further educate people about the power of cannabis?
I truly believe that the more we educate, the more the stereotype and stigma that comes with cannabis devolves, and the more appreciation we’ll see for its medical power. How do we do that?
We run our own social accounts and try to make them as educational as possible, we also run in store workshops, we run educational email newsletters, we attend conferences, and of course we can try hard to get our name into the media as a pillar of the community spreading the message that cannabis is beneficial to society.
Can you share 3 things that most excite you about the Cannabis industry? Can you share 3 things that most concern you?
The reduction of opioid addiction and death around the world
A clean slate and playing field for anyone, all genders, nationalities, and religions to participate in this new industry
The rapid pace and ever changing challenges that force you to make quick changes with inherent risks and rewards, without knowing the possible outcome.
The amount of misinformation being put out to the public and consumers about what is legal, what is illegal, what is medical, and what is not medical. I think the scaremongering about the effects of cannabis has largely gone away, but there’s still a lot of misinformation being publicized by both the media and public citizens who portray themselves as experts.
The sensationalism around the investment opportunities in cannabis and the amount of people that are putting an unreasonable amount of their savings into investments that they don’t understand. There’s too much potential that people are being misled, either knowingly or unknowingly in their investment decisions.
The fallout that will occur when the current supply constraints we are facing with cannabis production switches to a supply glut. I fear a lot of people are going to lose a lot of money and a lot of careers are going to be shattered. I think that a lot of people who took big risks to join this industry will succumb.
Can you share your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started Leading a Cannabis Business”? Please share a story or example for each.
You’re going to need a lot more money than you think.
I failed to raise the adequate financing to expand the medical clinic over a year ago which forced a lot of the senior partners to work for a fraction of what we needed to keep our lights on. We did that in order to prolong payroll.
Manage people’s expectations accurately and transparently
I had convinced some people to leave careers where they were successful and had learned the skill sets that I felt were needed to succeed in a similar role with Hello Cannabis. I was wrong and when targets were not met, or expectations on both sides were not met, it cost me not only some key staff but some good friends that I really respected. For what it’s worth, I still respect them and take full accountability for the failures.
Don’t chase too many shiny objects
This lesson I’m still learning to this day but I feel I have a better grip on my priorities and I take this advice extremely seriously now after dropping the ball on a major project because I was distracted chasing another opportunity in the cannabis industry. The fallout caused a lot of both financial and professional pain for family and close business partners alike.
Pick your battles
It seems that everybody that has grown up smoking weed feels like they are an inherent expert in the field and I haven’t lived a day without someone preaching their “opinions” that are stated with the confidence that they are factual. As someone who feels compelled to educate people, I find myself continually in debates that my genuine intent is to empower and educate with facts rather than an opinion backed by emotion. So the lesson is, sometimes it’s better to just smile and let it be.
Make sure to take care of yourself.
I’m still working on this one, but at least I’m learning it. There’s been progress but no perfection yet. Sorry mom!
What advice would you give to other CEOs or founders to help their employees to thrive?
Empower them instead of reprimanding them and have clear, definitive deliverables that are measurable and tangible. Anything left to subjectivity and opinion is asking for altercations that can destroy relationships both personally and professionally.
You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. :-)
I think we’re doing it right now. Stop using opioids.
What is the best way our readers can follow you on social media?
Personal account: @stims106
Hello Cannabis Medical: @hellocannabis_
Hello Cannabis Retail: @hellocannabisstore