Drink Like a Lady Podcast

In Conversation with Nidhi Lucky Handa of Leune

January 25, 2022 Joya Dass
Drink Like a Lady Podcast
In Conversation with Nidhi Lucky Handa of Leune
Transcript
Joya:

All right, ladies, as everyone is logging on, I want to introduce you to Nidhi Lucky Handa, who is the founder and CEO of a company called Leune it's based in California. She founded it in 2018. And I think what what's so interesting about her story, despite her background in branding and working for luxury brands, she really looked at the marketplace for cannabis and saw there was a polarity there. And so she created her product line for what is called the "Cannabis Curious." So I'm actually going to use that as a launching pad to welcome you today. Um, Nidhi, you looked at that space, you saw the polarity and what were the two ends of the spectrum that you were witnessing?

Nidhi:

Thanks, Joya. Nice to be here. Thank you for having me. Um, yeah, I, I was coming in like a consumer. I was really, really interested in the California market post recreational legalization. What was happening at the dispensary level? I've. Been a consumer, since I was a teenager, I was like everybody else really curious and also excited at the prospect that you could go to a store and there would be something pre-packaged that you could buy, um, and really disappointed to see this either very misogynistic, like booty shorts and bikinis, like, you know, very, very like one note marketing, very polarizing and stigmatic marketing, uh, targeted at men or on the other side of this spectrum, this sort of über wellness perspective, like, uh, you know, let me help you with your sleep. Let me help you with your anxiety. Let me help you pretend that you don't want to get high. Don't worry. This isn't going to get you high. I think these are both valid verticals. Uh, but I think that they're both niche verticals. I, you know, I was really intrigued by how they were occupying the middle and, you know, I was, I was so excited at the prospect of building something that actually fit into the middle. Meaning most consumers do not want to have an argument with their weed. You know, like this is like, this is the big, interesting thing. We've seen all of this sort of, you know, über masculine brand slowly really start disappearing. And largely the consumer says, "Hey, like I smoke weed to chill out, not to get into an argument with my girlfriend." Right? That's common sense. And we've seen that trajectory in alcohol. We've seen it in lots of other vice industries where if you remember when most of us were growing up, if you saw a Budweiser commercial in the summer, it was girls like. You know, in bikini is like, you know, in the summertime like pool party, we don't see that anymore. There's reason why we don't see it anymore. It's not because like, Budweiser exactly. Like we're like, oh, that's misogynistic it's because it doesn't work. It's, you know, the consumer largely does not want controversy with consumables. They want to know like all the boring stuff. Like, is it going to be consistent? Is it going to be. The same, every time that I buy it, but also is going to taste good. And the quality be good. Is it going to be available? Like this is a big thing in weed. Can you just find something that's consistently available and on the shelf so that I don't feel like an idiot when I go into the dispensary and I can find it? So that was the sort of genesis or the launch point for me to get interested in the business. But then a lot of other crazy things had to happen to actually catapult me into actually doing it. So yeah.

Joya:

We often talk about product market fit. What was your research strategy before you actually launched the products to market?

Nidhi:

The real, the real, no bullshit story of how I started this brand is this I looked at, I was very comfortable. I was running a boutique talent management agency in LA. I was really like, kind of at that stage in my career where there was no challenge. Everything was on autopilot. And I was watching weed. And you know, like, like that saying of like, when you're not, when you don't need it or want it that badly, sometimes things come more easily. The downstream, it was all downstream. Really the entire thing, I was fascinated. I was like, what is happening in this space? How are these brands succeeding and why are they succeeding in what the resounding answer that kept coming back to me from people in the industry was because it doesn't matter right now, because right now consumers just want it. They don't care. Right. Anything that's not in a plastic bag is better than what they're used to. There's novelty and novelty is only gonna last so long. I mean, that hopefully is common sense for everybody, but certainly in, in an industry like this, that has so much use case. So when I thought about Leune, I had this idea that, okay, on the business side, this is going to be very complex because cannabis is regulated state by state. And I'm angling to build something that really behaves like a brand and can exist in every legal market. And on the branding side, I want to build something with products that speak to use case that we don't even know yet, because the thing is, is that we just largely understand buckets of use case for cannabis. We understand that there's a wellness consumer or medical consumer, um, and that consumer is generally looking for something for relief. From a marketing perspective, we can't legally talk about efficacy and use case. We can't talk about legally, like this thing is good for sleeping. If you want to be compliant within this industry, but that's largely what consumers are looking for in that bucket. And then there's a recreational consumer. That consumer just wants to get high. Like we can say it in, I can sugar coat it and I can put it into like a million different words, but that's the reality. And particularly in 2018. Today, the average recreational consumer is a little bit more sophisticated and might know that hey, I like, uh, I understand that vaporizer products hit me really quickly. You know, the, the way that, the way that you consume affects you at different speeds. So if I smoke a vape or a joint, it's going to give me the fastest high, with fastest onset, fastest offset. If I take an edible, it's going to be maybe like a chiller high, but it might hit me in half an hour or in two hours. So it's a longer commitment. And use case for those different scenarios is unfolding. So a lot of the job of the brand builder is to contemplate these future use cases and help carve out for a consumer. That's very, very excited. This is the best part about cannabis. You never could find an industry where the consumer a is already familiar with the product. Everybody's been smoking weed forever. This is not new. And they want it. You're not like trying to T you know, I always make this joke with my team. We are not being tasked with like the problem of taking kale and turning it into something that human beings want to consume. That is a magician that was able to do that. That's why we all joke about the publicist of kale is like, should be everybody's publicist. Right. That was amazing. We saw that happen in front of our eyes. Same thing with something like spirulina or like these unusable things. This is a different thing altogether. This is something that people want they've been using. And the only thing that we can do as a brand is help to put it into a format that then becomes something commercialized or something that they can find consistently, something that's standardized, that's it. And we should not get confused about that. And so I'm very clear about what our job is and what our job isn't.

Joya:

Nidhi, I'm going to jump in there for a second. One of the things that really sets you apart, sets your products apart. If I were to walk into a dispensary now is the very strong visuals and the standards that you've set for your consumer. And we've got a woman here who heads up marketing for a hair color brand. We've got a woman here who heads up a wholesale, a apparel business. And I'm really speaking to them. When you think about your branding, what were some decisions that you made around that?

Nidhi:

It was a few things were, were motivating me one. I wanted the brand to behave like a CPG brand and I wanted it to be very IP focused. So this word Leune, I made it up. It does not mean anything. First thing I did was apply for the federal trademark, which I wanted to time it's complicated. And that in itself was like a matrix of complications. Everything inside the architecture of the brand is also mine. I'm fascinated by some of the problems in our industry. Like for example, most brands sell on strain. So imagine if you go to the supermarket and you're looking for tomatoes and it's like, there's a Roma tomato, and there's a grape tomato and there's whatever kinds of tomatoes nobody owns that. Nobody owns the type, right? What they own is, oh, I like the Driscoll farms grape tomatoes. So similarly in cannabis, the big problem is, is that unlike produce, you can't ship it across state lines. So what do you do with this problem of strain? People like girl scout, cookies, or purple Kush or whatever? It's not scalable. It's not transferable. So loon is built around this architecture where I made up all of these names for different categories or archetypes. We call them in Leune: Cloudberry, Soulberry, Desert Gold. And what that did was suddenly I own the consumer experience. So the consumer goes to the dispensary. They're either asking the bud tender, "What do you have that's Girl Scout Cookies where they're saying, what do you have? That's Desert Gold. Desert Gold is only exist in the Leuneverse. That's it? You're only gonna find it in my brand. So when I thought about brands, I really was like hyper focused on what can we own and what are we investing in? Because I'm not investing in the product because the product is going to keep evolving and changing. Supply chain is going to keep evolving and changing. What I'm investing in and what I'm building is all of those sort of like, you know, those ethereal elements of what sets a brand, apart from something that's just a commodified product.

Joya:

You've raised $5 million. What does that money allow you to do? You're about to raise another round, your Series A what is that going to allow you to do?

Nidhi:

So first $5 million, who's really just working capital. And you know, here in California, for example, I've spent the last three years and change building out the entire product assortment. So we're a multi vertical brand, meaning we do infuse joints and jarred flour and edibles and all of these different things. So everything from R and D to getting the product to market packaging, packaging timelines. I mean, I'm sure everybody here is touched by China and the nightmare that is supply chain. Um, and the big thing. We're really the reason we're going into a Series A and also, uh, what I will say part of that $5 million went towards is expansion because of this, a very complicated matrix of this we'd being regulated state by state. I can't take California weed to Arizona. We launched our brand in Arizona in December, and we had to build an entire new supply chain. Everything from marketing considerations to packaging guidelines, to everything is different. Specific to the market. So lots of things to spend money on.

Joya:

You've got some serious celebrity star power that's backing you, that have been have been your investors, um, Carmelo Anthony, the Houston's rockets player, John Wall. Those are big gets. And I remember reading Sarah Blakely story and she was very intentional that she wanted to get her first prototype in Oprah's hands. So when you think about like getting the celebrity star power behind your brand, what does that do for you?

Nidhi:

You know, I wish it was a sexier story, but the reality is, is that most of these folks, so like Melo, Carmelo, Anthony, for example, he has been an investor since day one. He came on really, really early. Um, and he was because the NBA was super anti-cannabis at the time. I was prevented from talking about it. He was prevented from even talking about it. It was, it could be a serious like interruption to his career. Um, Lala who's his ex partner slash baby mama. Um, it's a huge fan of the brand. She came on in the last fundraising round. And she's also an investor. Um, all of these, all of the, uh, the sort of arsenal of athletes, I'm still tripped out about. Fans of the brand they're invested, but because I'm in this like very precarious vice industry that also in certain industries is very taboo. There's not a lot that I can do with it outside of a press release the value to be totally frank is more in the room with an investor than it is anywhere. Um, I think that, you know, largely our industry, both on the business side and on the consumer side, biggest thing that we're battling is stigma. So what a celebrity does for stigma is very clear and obvious. It really helps get over that hunch that that's, you know, hump of. Oh, well, you know, if Lala, you know, Lala is invested in your company. That's somehow ancillary to the Kardashian universe. And so therefore this must be something that everyone should, you know, think about. That's really the value. That's the beginning of the end of the value from, from my perspective. I think that will change though. I think we're starting to see celebrities, uh, start actually, you know, sort of supersede vice clauses and be like, screw it. I want to get involved. They see the opportunity, but it's complicated.

Joya:

You say your biggest challenge is an educating the consumer about your products. Why is that?

Nidhi:

Education in general is really like at the behest of the gatekeeper, meaning the dispensary, the bud tender, usually the, the 24 year old who's super high and has very different interests than the consumer. So, you know, education then becomes a little bit challenging and we do everything we think w at Leune, my team thinks holistically about how do we jump over that, that barrier while still respecting the chain of command, if you will. Um, to that end, you know, I built out the brand 50% of the brand in California is really, we have a really strong delivery, uh, business in California. Um, I'd say 50% in, particularly during COVID this happened. Really quickly, 50% of the retail business in California and cannabis is delivery. What that enables me to do is speak directly to the consumer when they see my product on the screen. And there's no 24 year old standing in the middle of us, telling them whatever their ideas are. That's super helpful and enables me to do my job. But yeah, that is an absolute challenge. I think we've done a good job at Leune with very, very clear, transparent marketing, not trying to confuse or conflate, you know, what our products are because you know, it's a weird industry. Everything is made up. Nothing is nothing is, you know, it's like, A few years ago, somebody made up this term live resin. It doesn't actually mean anything. It's an extraction from the plan. It's the way that the oil is extracted. It's the quality of the oil, but there's no body that is saying, oh, this is live resin, but this thing isn't. So gaining the trust of the consumer is just like in any other CPG vertical. You got to put your money where your mouth is, you've gotta be willing to back it up and you can't be excited when you sell something to somebody once you gotta be focused on the retention and how am I going to earn their trust so that they come back to me again or even better refer somebody else to me. So I think we've been really lucky in the way that, uh, the way that our strategy, we, we launched the brand on ease, which is an online delivery platform. And it really bode well for us because we were able to just jump over the gatekeeper and really understand the drivers of the consumer. Um, it's a, everything in cannabis is a little bit upside down and backwards, but if it was easy, I guess everybody would be doing it.

Joya:

Nidhi, last question, before I turn it over to questions, what would you say about leadership? What would you say as a woman of color in this industry? And what would you say about leadership?

Nidhi:

I would say this very, very, uh, woo thing, which is trust your intuition more. It's like a muscle that if you don't exercise it, it does not work. Um, it is something I think that I learned and was encouraged to believe in because I grew up in a family business and my dad. Super spiritual and very, was very supportive of leaving a meeting and saying, well, well, what do you think we should do? Like, there's like the logical thing. And then there, the gut thing that's like, I don't know. I just have a bad feeling about it. It's hard to trust that gut in business. And I don't think we're often encouraged to do it. I have been leading my team with that foot. I have very much encouraged everyone on my team to really follow their intuition and I've encouraged them. If I get it, I just got a bad gut check on this person. That's enough. We don't have to touch it. If it's hot, don't touch it. It's an industry that is incredibly overrun by pirates. And if we don't have that, we don't have a lot. There's a lot of illogical stuff happening, happening in this industry. There's over capitalization in spaces that make things look very shiny. But in fact don't actually mean anything or there's nothing behind it. Um, I think in business, we don't tend to use these kinds of words or, or ideas, but it's incredibly valuable. I've never regretted it when I have followed my intuition and it's been a joy to watch my team grow into following their intuition. Um, it's, it's obviously not something that's easy to teach, but I think, you know, lead by example is, is the best way there.

Joya:

I read once that you actually have as many nerve endings in your gut, as you do in your brain, which is why we should actually pay heed to that phrase. Trust your gut because your gut is probably telling you something that your brain is not, but it's equally powerful.

Nidhi:

A hundred percent.