"Find people who can keep up with the pace of this industry, who are passionate about the cause, and who are problem-solvers in the face of adversity."
As part of my series about “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started Leading a Cannabis Business” I had the pleasure of interviewing Hilary McCain. Prior to Sweet Reason, Hilary was President of Riverview Capital, a consumer-focused search fund based in Toronto. Her career has been focused on strategy and management consulting, including time at the Boston Consulting Group, Chobani and Maple Leaf Foods. She has her MBA from Harvard Business School and her HBA from Ivey Business School. Hilary is obsessed with food.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you share with us the story about what brought you to this specific career path?
I’m from Toronto, which is arguably the epicenter of all things cannabis. Cannabis is now recreationally and medically legal in Canada, so Canada is home to some of the biggest cannabis companies in the world. As cannabis legalization became imminent (it was recreationally legalized in October 2018), I became obsessed with the idea that, one day, cannabis beverages would replace our glass of wine, beer or drink of choice. The health benefits of cannabis are wide-ranging, and cannabis products will only get better and better as legalization of the plant spreads across the world. I am very passionate about mental health, so after discovering the health benefits of CBD, I never looked back.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?
I started Sweet Reason in January 2018. We were meant to launch in Toronto, and a month before our first production run, the Canadian government announced that hemp CBD would be classified as cannabis, and Sweet Reason became illegal in Canada overnight (cannabis edibles were not yet legal, and still are not yet legal today). So while recreational cannabis is legal in Canada, hemp CBD beverages are not. We had to completely start from scratch — find a new CBD partner, new manufacturer, new distributor, everything. It taught us the importance of being able to stay nimble and roll with the punches in this industry.
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?
When I hired our Chief Operations Officer (COO), Tara Stubensey, I told her that everything was in order — we had a manufacturer, product developer, and everything we needed to make the product. A week after she started, our CBD supplier fell through. Two weeks later, our product developer got cold feet and didn’t want to work with CBD anymore. Six weeks later, our manufacturer bailed. Seven weeks later, the regulations changed and we were kicked out of Canada. And basically every other thing has changed. She is a saint.
I learned that the most important part of starting a business is to find good people who you enjoy working with, so that when s*it hits the fan, you can laugh about it together. Bumps in the road only make you stronger and better.
Are you working on any exciting projects now?
Always. We are constantly thinking of new ways to introduce the health benefits of the hemp plant, and all of its extracts, to consumers.
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?
I worked with an incredible boutique creative agency called Conflict on developing the brand, packaging, website, etc. They got me through the early days when it was just me and I had no team to vent or celebrate with. They were like early business partners who cared so much about bringing this company to life and really went above and beyond any normal agency. The day I left to take two weeks off for my wedding, they brought Prosecco and chocolate truffles to our meeting. It’s the little things.
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 really try to support other small businesses by sponsoring their events, stocking their fridges with Sweet Reason and collaborating on new, fun things to do together.
Can you share 3 things that most excite you about the Cannabis industry? Can you share 3 things that most concern you?
So much excites me — making the plant more accessible through edibles and beverages; getting rid of the stigma through beautiful brands that fit into our everyday lives; more clinical research on the health benefits of some lesser known cannabinoids (CBG! CBN!).
What most concerns me — everything that concerns me stems from the regulatory environment. The FDA does not allow CBD in food and beverage, but CBD products are everywhere. They need to regulate it ASAP to make it easier for consumers to find high-quality products and easier for entrepreneurs to run a business.
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.
1. You will be shaping the industry. What you require of suppliers, how you communicate health benefits to consumers, what the right dosage is … it’s all new. When there are no rules or standards, make decisions that you can back up and defend. Go above and beyond on product quality and food safety.
1. None of the normal ‘rules’ of business apply. Don’t assume anything.
2. You will never stop talking about work — the most unassuming people are cannabis-curious these days (yes, you will walk your 82 year-old grandmother through why CBD might help her sleep).
3. The industry will change everyday. The sooner you embrace it, the better off you’ll be. Have a back-up plan for everything.
4. You will spend more money than you ever dreamt of on lawyers.
What advice would you give to other CEOs or founders to help their employees to thrive?
Find people who can keep up with the pace of this industry, who are passionate about the cause, and who are problem-solvers in the face of adversity.
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. :-)
Anxiety is a very real problem in our generation. CBD is everywhere because people are looking for things that help with stress and anxiety — whether it be meditation, social media cleanses, or self-care. All of these things can help, but I believe the biggest thing that would help would just be talking about anxiety more and normalizing it.