An interview with Avis Bulbulyan on the intangible qualities needed to thrive as a cannabis entrepreneur

In an industry with few rules and little history, Avis Bulbulyan has carved out a name for himself as a groomer of winning teams. He started growing cannabis in 2006 to learn the industry literally from the ground up, soon added manufacturing and a dispensary, and in 2008 began consulting. Now as founder and CEO of SIVA Enterprises, he is much in demand for his ability to write winning applications after a group he mentored in Massachusetts rocked the competition with not only the highest score (160 out of 163) but also winning 3 out of 3 licenses — the maximum allowed.

In a recent interview, he discussed the character qualities of the people who are successful not only in getting a license to grow, produce, or dispense cannabis, but also in thriving in this brand new industry.

Fearlessness is a given. “This is not an industry for the faint of heart,” he said. More fundamental he said is a solid business background. “Most states like to see a CEO with experience handling a few million dollars with a couple hundred employees. They really like people who come from a non-profit background, as they often have experience dealing with a lot of compliance issues. The assumption is that if you have a non-profit background, you will understand the technical side of this industry.”

“You need to have experience in multiple disciplines — be it security, be it construction, be it planning — real estate is a big component. You need to raise capital, so you need someone with a strong financial background, a banking background.”

Bulbulyan emphasizes the need to be able to adapt. “Things can change on you in a day. Everything is going well and then the city decides they’re going to change up the rules a little bit, so you have to be prepared to react to it, or you’re not going to be able to recover.”

He says it takes a team to succeed, and the team needs one clear leader. “You need to have that synergy, but I think one of the most important things is to have a strong leader during the application process. It can be very stressful and can drag on for 6 to 12 months. Tempers flare, people step on each others’ toes, so if you have a leader who is lacking or has a hard time commanding respect, it’s going to fall apart. And I’ve seen a hell of a lot of companies fall apart like that.”

Many of those seeking to be industry leaders are younger professionals with an eye on not only cashing in, but also in truly making a difference. “Many of the younger generation are able to take an emerging industry and make it their own. A lot of them missed out on the tech boom, and they see this as their chance take something from a concept — from an idea — and turn it into a multi-million organization. It is an opportunity for many of them to impact mankind, change the world, and make a lot of money.”

“Nobody disputes that cannabis has medicinal properties, and when you get into the world of research and different product formulations for different conditions, it really creates a situation where the next cure for the next disease is just one deal away, one contract away, one partnership away, one research project away, and to be able to participate in that is mind-blowing.”

The youthful enthusiasm and innate desire to collaborate in millennials, says Bulbulyan, has some limitations. “Yes, they are very involved, but many are lacking just basic business sense. They definitely need help from the more seasoned business and financial people. They are able to see the bigger picture and put together good teams and lead the charge, but it’s a two-way street.”

Ultimately it comes down to the strength of the team. “As far as components to a winning team, there is no one thing that is most important because you do need a lot of different components, and if you are lacking in any one of them, your whole application suffers. The most important thing is for everyone to check their egos at the door. You are dealing with a lot of executives all within one company and one person has to be the dominant person. One person’s gotta lead the show. You can’t make every decision democratically. One person has to be that CEO and everyone has to check their egos at the door.”

These qualities of successful teams are what Bulbulyan looks for in the groups he agrees to work with. “I want to see they have a foundation that can be built on. No group has ever been a winning group starting out. They are molded into that. As long as they have the openness to embrace change, embrace the industry, and are decently capitalized — you can always raise additional money, but you always need that initial seed funding — as long as they have a diverse team with diverse backgrounds and egos are checked, the rest of it we can build.”

Avis Bulbulyan is a keynote speaker at the National Cannabis Industry Expert Summit on Oct 1, 2016 in Harrisburg, PA. Get tickets here. Industry Premium Members have monthly access to Avis. Find out more here.

About the Author, Sven Hosford: Currently the Editorial Director for the Pennsylvania Medical Cannabis Society, Sven Hosford has decades of experience reporting on integrated, natural, and holistic medicine.

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