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.
Giving “crock pot” a whole new meaning
Potli is infusing CBD (and, in some states, THC) into everyday ingredients, making edibles more accessible for your every meal.
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% 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
By 2017, best friends Christine Yi and Felicity Chen were, like most Americans, surrounded by a mushrooming cannabis industry. But, despite ever-increasing offerings—edibles, pre-rolled joints, oils, vape products, and more—on the market, the pair realized that there weren’t many edible products that were healthy, versatile, and suitable for everyday use. From this need, Potli was born.
Fast forward to 2019, and Potli is a fully-fledged brand making both cannabis (available in California) and hemp CBD-infused products (which are available everywhere) like honey, olive oil, chili oil, and hot sauce that make cannabinoid-rich edibles more accessible for everyday eating. Ultimately seeing their brand as a manifestation of the normalization of cannabis use, all of Potli’s products are infused with sun-grown cannabis and hemp, allowing people to integrate the plant into their everyday cooking rituals.
Here, we talk with Christine about the challenges that come along with working in cannabis, what it’s like to start a business with your best friend, and running a bootstrapped company.
Did you go to college? If so, what did you study?
Felicity and I met as randomly paired roommates freshman year of college at Boston University where we studied business, despite both being from the Bay Area of California. I concentrated in finance and minored in philosophy, a really interesting blend of studies that continue to challenge the way I think.
What were you doing before starting Potli?
Before Potli I worked as a management consultant for several years, traveling from city to city for clients. It was great professional training, you really learn how to adapt to new situations and work with ambiguity. But I didn’t feel like I had true ownership over something, nor did I have a life in NYC—the city I’d always dreamed of living in since I was a kid. So I followed my passion for product and brands and joined ANN Inc, the parent company to the Ann Taylor, LOFT, and Lou & Grey brands in their strategy team, ideating and testing growth opportunities like new business models, product lines, and strategic initiatives. Both were incredible opportunities that I’m blessed to have had. I worked with some extremely talented people and learned a lot in a short span of time.
Where did you first get the idea for Potli? And what did the transition from your previous career to launch look like?
Felicity’s father started beekeeping for her mom, who has asthma and benefits from hyper-local honey. Cannabis is a powerful anti-inflammatory agent and, in ancient Ayurvedic medicine, honey is considered the most powerful vessel for herbal remedies. Thinking about her mother, my mother—and so many other people out there—we came up with the idea to infuse the honey itself and start selling that as our flagship product. We then realized what a need there was for products like ours—meticulously sourced, actually delicious, high-quality edibles—and expanded to other ingredients. But the honey is still our most popular product, and we still harvest it from hives in Felicity's family’s backyard.
We actually started working on this a year before either of us quit our jobs to fully pursue it. At the time, I was still working in consulting and I’d sometimes fly to San Francisco (instead of back to New York where I was living) to work on Potli with Felicity, who was working at Uber and MealPal in San Francisco and managing operations. So the transition really overlapped both our jobs.
In February of 2019, I moved back to California to work on Potli full-time. The transition was and still remains a challenge, but being our own bosses feels very natural to us, even though sometimes it can be daunting.
Letting go of a steady paycheck is terrifying for most people, did you have a financial safety net or back up plan? If so, how much did you save?
I didn’t make the final decision to quit my job and move across the country until about a month before my move. Our business was growing and I knew I had to make a decision immediately, so one of my biggest regrets is not saving a substantial amount of money before leaving. I didn’t have a back up plan, either. But what’s so incredible is the chance opportunities that have presented themselves and provided for me.
For example, about two weeks before my last day of work my boss offered to hire me as a part time contractor for a couple months after I moved. I had also loaned a few close friends and family money at a time they needed it with no expectation of when I might be repaid, but that money came back to me after I started working on Potli with no income. We just paid ourselves our first paychecks in October. It’s terrifying to take the leap, but you’ll never let the universe provide for you unless you do.
How have your conceptions of financial stability changed since starting your own company?
I might just be saying this because I’m broke and it’s a coping mechanism, but I feel freed from conceptions of financial stability and what role that plays in one’s life. I feel like we chase money because we feel it’ll offer us freedom, but an even deeper, more vivid sense of freedom can be achieved by realizing that we’re more than our net worth. With that said, of course I want nothing more than for Potli to be a huge success, and to also get to a place of true financial freedom. But my relationship with money has definitely changed for the better.
What’s been your plan to profitability? How are you financing your business?
We’ve really bootstrapped our business until now, have raised a bit of capital, and are looking to continue fundraising. It’s hard because we feel the odds are stacked against us. I was 23 when we started Potli. As women; minorities; and first-time founders raising for a plant-touching cannabis CPG company, there’s a truly narrow funnel of investors who will entertain an investment. And even then, the public markets and competition have really limited access to capital. But we’re optimistic, and every investor on our cap table is an incredible asset to the team who believes in our mission and has a clear vision for the future of this young industry.
What’s it been like being a woman entrepreneur? Have you faced any obstacles?
I can’t tell you how many times our efforts have been called “cute.” Once, someone said our entrepreneurial journey “sounded like a lot of fun,” implying that this was some sort of hobby for us. A few months ago, a potential investor introduced me to his partner as “that hot asian chick” in front of me and many colleagues which was humiliating. Another one tried to hold my hand and described a potential investment as a “conflict of interest.” But, overall, it's been a blessing to bring more representation to the fold and to work with other amazing female founders.
Have you ever dealt with imposter syndrome? If so, what do you do when it strikes?
All the time. We’re a small-but-growing bootstrapped company. Sometimes, I see what other brands bring to the table and feel so intimidated. When those moments strike, I try to change the narrative away from whether or not I deserve to properly represent my industry, to remind myself that I’m in the industry to properly represent myself and people like me: women, Asians, young people with dreams that may be a little idealistic, but have the potential to be reality, nonetheless.
What’s currently your biggest business challenge?
Everything is a challenge in the cannabis industry—everything. But right this moment, access to capital is our biggest hindrance to growing at the pace and with the strategy we need. We’ll begin fundraising again at the beginning of 2020.
What’s been your company’s biggest victory so far?
On paper, the biggest victory is probably just being a licensed cannabis company. There are very few brands that own their own manufacturing and distribution licenses, and it always takes people by surprise that we own and operate under all our own licenses. Earlier this year we were featured in an article by Well+Good as one of the highest-rated CBD products by experts. We’ve also been featured on mainstream outlets, but that article meant a lot to me, personally.
What does your self-care routine look like?
I describe myself as an outgoing introvert, and definitely need my own alone time to recharge. I love nothing more than a morning to myself, with a cup of good matcha (with a splash of oat milk and our CBD or THC honey, of course), a sheet mask, and a creative writing prompt to work on. Writing is one of the purest forms of creation, and I think it’s incredibly important to find ways to create for the sake of creating to keep our energy and inspiration alive. On the opposite end of the spectrum, if I go a few weeks without a good night out dancing I feel antsy. I love to dance with friends, there’s no better way to both hit pause on life and yet feel so alive at the same time.
What’s your advice to someone who is considering taking “the leap”?
When someone tells me they want to start a business, I always give the advice to just start with committing one hour per day to pursuing that goal. You might not know exactly how to spend that hour, but as long as you put in the time you'll end up somewhere different from origin. Start there, and then think bigger.
If you've already been thinking bigger and are considering when to go full time, no perfect time to take the leap is going to present itself to you. There’s no such thing as an ideal time to take such a big risk. If there were, it wouldn’t be considered a risk. You just have to make the decision to commit to that amazing, inspiring, brave person you envision your future self to be.