Building an allergy-friendly brand
The Snack Brand Bringing Peace of Mind to People With Dietary Restrictions
The founder of allergy-friendly brand Partake Foods dishes on her experience leaving Coca Cola to enter the startup world.
The Canadian cannabis expert
"Everything I’ve learned through my career translated very well in launching the company. In terms of transitioning, I was working as a freelancer at the beginning, so I was doing both my freelance job and building Wildflower. When the company started to occupy more of my time, I stopped taking freelance jobs."
Welcome to The Leap, where women (and nonbinary) entrepreneurs open up about what it took to get to where they are now. In 2018, women founders received just 2.2 percent of the $130 billion in venture money invested in the United States. Given these odds, it’s time to get real about what it’s really like to be a woman founder. From raising capital to imposter syndrome, we explore what it takes for women to enter the world of entrepreneurship.
No matter how you spin it, cannabis is a contentious topic. In some places, the plant has been legalized and is slowly becoming somewhat of a household commodity (we’re looking at you, California and Colorado). And, as more states follow suit, it’s become an interesting time to take a look at how the industry is evolving within different contexts. But, in Canada, it’s a bit of a different story. The nation legalized cannabis in one sweeping move in the fall of 2018, but there was a growing momentum of cannabis and cannabis-adjacent brands long before that—something that Amy Yamamura, founder of Wildflower Brands, knows all about.
Amy first started the company in Vancouver, after realizing someone needed to address the growing need for consistent, high-quality, plant-based wellness. From the beginning, she wanted to stand apart from the "old regime of stereotypical stoners." Today, her company, Wildflower Brands, operates several brands with the central pursuit of providing high-quality, plant-based wellness support. Wildflower now runs the largest chain of retail cannabis stores in the province of British Columbia, Canada, and is also state-side, selling hemp-based CBD products in major US retailers, including Free People and Anthropologie. We chatted with Amy to learn about what it’s been like to operate in the international cannabis industry, why scaling up is such a challenge, and what it’s been like to be a woman of color in cannabis.
Did you go to college? If so, what did you study?
Yes, I majored in Film and Television with a focus on Anthropology at Boston University. I studied film and screenwriting as well as filming techniques and editing. My passion was in experimental film, doing things like scratching or coloring the film during the edit, applying real objects like flowers on to the film and playing with conceptual ideas that were more avant-garde.
What were you doing before work before starting your company?
After graduating from university in 2000, I went back to Tokyo and started working as a freelancer doing many things like directing music videos, modeling, translating film subtitles and interpreting for celebrities and artists. With a small group of friends that I met in Boston, we started a collective of street artists with DJs, graffiti artists, performers of all sorts, which grew to be over 100 people with fully-packed monthly parties that went on for about eight years.
After my years of working as a freelancer, I joined a creative design agency and publishing start-up that was putting out super culture-forward works like art books and zines with CD-ROMs (very cutting edge back in the day!). We ran an art gallery for contemporary artists’ exhibits on the first floor of our office in Tokyo. We connected major Japanese corporations with front-line artists and undiscovered talents from around the world, to do all sorts of projects from bank card designs, store-in-store, pop-up shops, apparel collection—you name it. Because it was a small company and a startup, everybody wore many hats, from strategy and planning to pitching and event planning; we were jacks of all trades.
Then, in 2011, I moved to Canada, where I worked for the same company on a freelance contract. Around that time, I started looking to launch my own wellness business, which eventually became Wildflower.
Where did you first get the idea for Wildflower?
The legalization movement was just taking place when I came to Canada, and I was presented with an opportunity to participate with a business as a partner. I was intrigued by the opportunity because I knew (as did my partner and CEO) what I could bring to the table. I had been talking about creating an attractive wellness brand for women for a while.
I knew in my heart that the cannabis and wellness space needed a women- and wellness-focused brand that stood out amongst the loud noises from the old regime of stereotypical stoners. I had noticed the lack of attractive branding in wellness and nutraceutical products, in general, in both the US and Canada, despite being some of the biggest markets. Not only that, among the few companies that had good branding, even fewer of them were targeted for women. So I wanted to address that.
What did the transition from your previous career to launching this company look like?
Everything I’ve learned through my career translated very well in launching the company. In terms of transitioning, I was working as a freelancer at the beginning, so I was doing both my freelance job and building Wildflower. When the company started to occupy more of my time, I stopped taking freelance jobs.
Letting go of a steady paycheck is terrifying for most people, did you have a safety net or back-up plan?
Soon after launching the company, we decided to go public and my family was one of the very first investors. So, although it was not my own money, there was (and still is) a massive pressure to do well and succeed, not only for my family but for all the people and public that invest in us as well. This reality keeps us motivated and on our best behavior, and although it is tough when there is no way to fight the market, we do feel fortunate to have the support of so many people that believe in us.
How have your conceptions of financial stability changed since starting your own company?
I am more cautious to make assumptions about financial situations and making predictions based on trends and numbers, as there are so many uncertainties in cannabis and still with the CBD industry. Also, being a publicly trading company, we are volatile to the market trends, which often has nothing to do with our performance. This enforces us to be extra conscious of our finances.
What’s been your plan to profitability?
Our leadership team believes strongly in organic growth. For good or bad, we have raised capital as we have needed it to grow. So, unlike others in the cannabis “green rush,” we have not overcapitalized and spent money by overpaying for assets. Much of our capital has come from friends and family, and last year we began more public capital raises. Regardless, due to the roots of our capital, we respect our assets and seek to create value with each dollar we spend.
Our plan to profitability comes from investing in our brands and ensuring that we grow. We have been revenue-generating for over two years now, and if we weren’t continually investing in expansion during the past two years we would be showing a healthy profit. But instead, we have grown from a small manufacturer to a medium-sized one and now are preparing for the shift into fulfillment into large national and international big box stores. With our retail, our capital has been used to fuel our growth in high-value locations within BC and other provinces like Ontario. Profit will eventually come when we stabilize on growth, but for now, we are executing on our growth strategy.
What’s it been like being a woman of color entrepreneur in the cannabis space?
This question is an important one, especially now for those of us all who have been marginalized until now. My genuine and frank answer to this question is: awesome mostly, but crappy sometimes.
Being a woman from Japan gives me a unique perspective and fresh insight, and people are open and curious to work with me. I also find that many of the people who are in the trenches are women and non-binary people of color, and are seeking collaborations and connections with like-minded people that want to open this space up for those that have been marginalized.
Also, when it comes to women in power positions, we are the absolute minority. What is crappy is that sometimes it is hard to be heard. Or to push through your ideas the way men do. And just as sheer reality, being an odd one in the pack is never gonna feel or be the same as being the dominating majority. There’s a lot of work ahead but I’m super excited to be alive now to witness paradigm shifts in society and workplaces with high standards of equality and compassion taking place all around.
Have you ever dealt with imposter syndrome?
Um, yes! Am I doing my best? Was this the right choice? Can I do it all by myself so I don’t have to ask anybody for help? These things go through my mind, constantly. But I don’t think it’s always a bad thing—as long as you can use the pressure to motivate you. I’ve learned that people are very kind and most of the time are more than willing to help you.
What’s currently your biggest business challenge?
Scaling up! We have been growing at such a fast rate. Now we need to keep up with growth; moreover, ahead of it. Investing and expanding is a new and exciting challenge for us.
Operating in the cannabis space can come with challenges when it comes to social media marketing and marketing in general—how has this impacted your bottom line?
Due to restrictions and regulations around marketing, we have put minimal capital into traditional paid marketing, which has worked in favor of us. We were able to grow our company and products through word-of-mouth and grass-roots efforts, through hitting the road and knocking on doors to talk to vendors and buyers. Moving forward, we will be investing more capital towards paid marketing as regulations are beginning to be laxer and more mainstream media and retail outlets, and society, in general, is opening up to CBD.
What’s been your company’s biggest victory so far?
Our biggest victory is having products that people rave about. We have people who call and write to us about how our CBD Cool Stick, or soft gel CBD capsules, help them overcome challenges that have otherwise been unresolved. Our ability and willingness to help people feels like the best win of all.
What does your self-care routine look like?
I take CBD capsules every day, which truly helps keep my anxiety and stress at bay and my immunity in check. This is very important because I have a 5 and 13 years old at home! I try to sleep at least seven hours a night and recently started working with a personal trainer to work on being stronger physically.
I also practice yoga when I can, and do my best to be mindful in my day to day actions like breathing, eating, and thinking. I love to give myself foot and face massages. Epson baths are my current favorite for post-workout or just when I want to relax and unwind.
What are some resources that have helped you on your journey?
The Alchemist by Paul Coelho.
What’s your advice to someone who is considering taking “the leap”?
Do it! But try to find something unique that only you can offer to the world, whatever it is that you may be doing. There is always space for innovation, new ideas, and improvement. If you feel the itch inside you, you are already on your way. All it takes is action.