I had the pleasure of interviewing Nina Fern — Founder of The Highly, — a charming and insightful travelogue known as the ‘Michelin of Cannabis’ with tried and true reviews, meaningful conversations and light hearted comics. Nina, a New Yorker, retired from finance in 2011, and is an entrepreneur who has quickly become the tastemaker amongst sophisticated cannabis consumers .
Thank you so much for doing this with us! What is your “backstory”?
For the past 25 years, for me, bad weed was awful, and good weed was magic. Finding the ‘good stuff’ was always hit or miss — until now.
I started working in finance at a very young age and used cannabis to help me get a good night’s sleep before the 4:30am wake up call. I would wake up so relaxed and focused, it helped me stay cool, calm and collected during the chaos of the early morning trading floor. This was my little secret.
When I was 38 I took a fall on concrete, after which I was never the same. It was whiplash that slowly brewed into pain. By 40, I retired knowing I needed the time to focus on my health. A heartbreaking decision because I truly loved my job.
The moment I retired, the mild pain turned into severe chronic pain. I tried everything; NYC’s ‘top docs’, Eastern docs, osteopaths, nutritionists, acupuncture, IV drips, yoga training etc. I spent a fortune and for the first time understood how limiting healthcare in America really was. Fear escalated into frustration and that made everything worse.
I tried to get myself some ‘good weed’ (this is what I called it) and oddly, kept striking out so I gave up and went without.
It was 5 years of this hamster wheel when unsurprisingly my heart started giving me trouble. I thought it was curtains for sure. Being a mom of two teen girls, this was a process to accept. The same week I returned from hospital from the heart trouble, was when finally I got my hands on this newtype of cannabis. Organic, properly labelled, lab tested and in all different applications. Understanding exactly what I was taking gave me a comfort that took the experience to a whole new level.
I used it regularly for the first time as a real medicine. I taught myself on how to dial it in properly and combined it with meditation and a healthy lifestyle. My reliance on doctors disappeared and while I believe in doctors, (if you can find a good one), I’m my own best doctor now and I haven’t been outside of a check-up in 2 years. I felt the tension melting away and everything started to unwind. I began journaling to clear my thoughts, and put the trauma of this painful time behind me. Cannabis didn’t cure me but it rid a lot of the pain and helped me zone in on exactly what the the issues were. My life was back and it was richer in many ways.
I traveled all over North America, where it was legal, to find the absolute best cannabis for myself. During my travels I started to realize how necessary it was to have high-end city guides. The lugging of the luggage, the hotel beds, and the jet lag makes for a lousy beginning on holiday and all I had to lead me were a bunch of fluffed up reviews that sent me on inconvenient stoner excursions. That’s where the light bulb came to start The Highly — touch down, here’s where you go, what you get, and most importantly — why it’s good.
What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
Our reviews are tried and true, we don’t accept kickbacks and we feel zero pressure to list more brands than what’s deserved. We also explain why this product is good because shockingly, the sales team in dispensaries more often than not, don’t know anything about the brands they are selling, and even more unfortunate is some of the brands with higher end marketing actually have a terrible product. Learning the why it’s good, will get consumers to become savvy and ask the right questions going forward.
In our experience when people are passionate about what they do they are more successful. Where does your cannabis passion come from?
I believe in cannabis and when I look around I continually see where cannabis use could serve people of all ages on many different levels, not just as a medicine but in how we connect with each other. When two people share cannabis together, its bridges a gap and opens a channel to vulnerability that is not judged. It offers a time to connect in a deeper more intimate way, and to listen and laugh with one other. At The Highly, we often integrate cannabis into our brainstorming sessions. It lightens the mood and helps us think outside the box. It facilitates a productive work culture when used appropriately.
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?
My mom’s entire being was about self help, and a 12-step program. As a kid, every time I had a question she would give me a self-help quote and it would infuriate me. I rolled my eyes my entire childhood. But she drilled it into me, and because of that, I’m able to pivot and move past many things quickly. I embrace mistakes and see life as a puzzle, and getting better at being me is entertaining. This way of navigating through the world has allowed me to accomplish things that were against all odds again and again.
Are you working on any exciting projects now?
We are working on a new awareness campaign and event series, and creating a line of ancillary and lifestyle products. We’re also working on partnerships that will facilitate more transparency in the industry.
Where do you see your business going in the next 5 years? Where do you see the cannabis industry going in the next 5 years?
Our City Guides will be in print and we will be selling ancillary products that go with our story which is cannabis, spirituality and the intimacy of the purchasing process from beginning to end. Embracing cannabis culture and supporting the arts will come into play. But for the most part, The Highly will be a focused site. Excellent at what we do and not doing a ton of different things.
Today the story is of wellness and CBD is at the center of it. Once people get used to cannabis, I think the magic of THC will be front and center. Tourism and hospitality will explode and blockchain will be integrated properly.
How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?
I learned in my late teens/early twenties that to be successful you have to be good in all facets of your life. It’s all connected and there are no shortcuts. Once I learned how the universe worked, this was my disciplinary measure for myself and an easier more rewarding way to live.
In every single thing I do, I think about how it affects every person involved, including those I don’t know. I don’t make any moves until there’s a solution that works for everyone, which is always there.
Which tips would you recommend to your colleagues in your industry to help them to thrive and not “burn out”?
The cannabis industry is also a start-up industry and there are times you may feel you are in a race. The best tip I have was passed onto me right before I launched The Highly: contrary to popular belief, start-up life is a’ slow venture’. I found if you skip your foundation and take shortcuts, it will come back to haunt you. Do your thing, do it right, tune out what others are doing and you will get to exactly the right place at exactly the right time.
You are a person of great influence. If you could start 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. :-)
Dial in some of the features on Instagram or better yet, create a new platform. It’s a great tool but its been taken too far. It messes with your brain, it’s hurting too many people and small businesses, and changing behaviors for the worse. Group Think is real and I’ve seen individuals and businesses destroyed by it for no valid reason. There should be no fake followers and the likes should be for your eyes only. Don’t allow people to repost without permission — we are getting too used to not paying artists, and it creates more noise and diluting of hard working brands. Stop rewarding people if they use all the features. That forces people to be on a hamster wheel 24/7. Lastly, it’s addicting. Turn it off for a few hours a day or week so people can resume their lives. I haven’t met a person who isn’t plagued by some amount of anxiety because of social media — changes need to be made.
Can you share 3 things that most excite you about the Cannabis industry? Can you share 3 things that most concern you?
1 -I’m excited about: People being empowered in their healthcare.
2 — I’m excited about: Society having a medicine that’s not harmful.
3 — I’m excited about: Blockchain and how it will add a new layer of transparency into the cannabis space.
1 — I’m concerned about: Marijuana legalization without the right laws in place for safety.
2 — I’m concerned about: Cannabis turning into a supplement fad.
3 — I’m concerned about: Claims that it cures everything. I don’t believe it cures you, but I believe when used properly it gives you the healthiest, all-natural, non-addictive relief that’s out there — all while opening your mind and looking at things in new ways.
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.
1. Stay in your own lane or you will dilute your brand.
Once upon a time, I was able to tell the difference between my favorite publications. Now I surf around, its all the same; same faces, quotes and noise. With the The Highly, we chose to express ourselves through our family of artists and illustrators to keep things special and memorable. If you are telling the same story as everyone else, why bother.
2. Work ethic trumps experience.
Initially I hired talented freelancers whose work was excellent, but their work ethic let me and my business down. There was a lot of back and forth, and a lot of entitlement. I’m now working with two young developers, one in college, and one right out of college, who are flexible, eager and enthusiastic. They helped me build my website in less than a week, listened to my feedback and we thoughtfully discuss when there are changes to be made. They are true professionals.
3. Choose your words carefully, there is no authority.
Bottom line is, the proper clinical research hasn’t been done in cannabis — yet. Some of these methods are new and there should be caution attached. A person in pain is very vulnerable and will do anything. Lets keep it real and realistic or people, as well as the the industry, will suffer. Quality, common sense, moderation and self-awareness is a good rule of thumb.
4. Feedback from the right people is a gift. Leave your ego at home.
As a founder you become too close to things to see it from an outsider’s perspective. Recently, I was told by someone they thought I was a marketing firm and I was being paid for reviews. I was shocked as I thought it was crystal clear The Highly was the exact opposite. Initially I couldn’t understand it, but I respected their vision and put in the time and effort to try and see it from their point of view. Eventually it clicked and I saw it too. I made immediate changes that were subtle but made a huge difference. Honest feedback is a gift.
5. Learn the job so you can guide, appreciate, and not be taken advantage of.
I had to learn social media, SEO and a whole slew of things I had zero interest in. In the beginning, when I didn’t know any of these things I was paying people not realizing they weren’t always doing a good job. Now I know what I need, and how to guide people in the right direction saving time and money. A healthy work culture is essential and when the team is all doing their part, it’s magic.
Do you have a favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share a story of how that was relevant to you in your life?
It’s in God’s hands. I was/am Type A+ and thought everything was in my hands. I have a real drive and survival skill in me of epic proportions, until I had health issues and I realized there was nothing I could do. When things get rough, this is what I meditate on and let everything else go.
Some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might see this.
Howard Shultz. I listen to Onward often. Especially when I’ve had a tough day. It’s my reminder of when you run a business with integrity, the reward is there, and the aches and pains are inescapable. There isn’t much Howard hasn’t experienced but he stayed true to himself, his people and his customers every step of the way even when it wasn’t reciprocated. That’s the path that resonates with me, because nothing is worth it, if you can’t sleep at night. I need my sleep. Howard, lunch on me?
This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for joining us!