What can cannabis learn from the tech industry? Q&A with ex-Yahoo CEO and current Caliva chair Carol Bartz

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Carol Bartz has had a front-row seat to the nation’s technology boom dating back decades. The former Yahoo CEO sees parallels between today’s cannabis industry and high tech.

“It’s like being back in tech 20 years ago,” Bartz told CNBC earlier this year. “It’s like so much growth potential, so many ways to change people’s lives, and so, I’m in.”

In March, Bartz was appointed board chair of Caliva, a California-based vertically integrated cannabis company. She brings to Caliva a deep understanding of the tech industry.

Bartz programmed her first computer in 1968, managed Sun Microsystems’ global operations in the 1980s and 1990s and led Autodesk and Yahoo before being infamously dismissed by Yahoo’s board in 2011.

Last September, Bartz learned through her board connections how cannabis cream can be used to soothe tennis-related aches. A golfer who has had two knee replacements, she decided to visit California medical and recreational cannabis stores.

“It was important for me to figure out what each dispensary would recommend – and why – so I started educating myself through the consumer side,” Bartz said.

Her husband also happens to be friends with the parents of Dennis O’Malley, Caliva’s CEO, who invited the tech executive for a tour last December.

Bartz was impressed and invested in a $75 million raise the company secured in January. (Hall of Fame quarterback Joe Montana also was an investor.)

Marijuana Business Daily spoke with Bartz about branding, strategy, boards and what marijuana executives can learn from the world of tech.

What do you see as the biggest similarities and differences between today’s cannabis business and the early tech industry?

The most important thing that these have in common is A, getting the product right, and B, trying to find people.

Bringing it legally to the public in a nonthreatening and educational way is something that this industry is learning to do just like the tech industry learned to do.

How can cannabis marketers learn from tech?

In the beginning of the tech industry, all we wanted to do was shove information at people.

This meant this fast, this many bits, this many bytes – blah, blah, blah. The same thing is happening in cannabis.

I look at some of the packaging, what percent of this or that, all this stuff that most people haven’t got a clue about what it means.

Anytime you think of marketing, the most important thing you can think of is, “Who’s my audience?”

And if your audience is twenty-somethings, there’s certainly a way to do it. The color is different – the aggressiveness is different.

And as you move up the age chain, you have to say, “What am I trying to accomplish here? What is my message?”

What did you learn at Yahoo that applies to your current work with Caliva?

In tech, if there’s one thing they say, it’s people, people, people.

You can have an idea, but you’ve got to have great people driving an idea.

In California, it’s harder to hire people. You work a little harder to get good people. It just takes longer.

Finding a vice president for a tech company might take three months. It might take five months for Caliva. It’s just because you don’t have the applicants lining up.

In terms of investing in cannabis businesses, what do you see in the way of any institutional interest?

When I talk to people from various venture capital firms, some partners are anxious.

Other partners are saying, “Are we sure we want to have that on our list?”

The people that are getting in are the ones seeing that there’s real science, real product development.

I love the new lotions. I use them on my knees, my temples, the back of my neck, my lower back and, after golf, on my feet and hands.

You put those on, and the pain is gone in 10 minutes.

What have been the most challenging aspects about joining the cannabis industry?

I have to educate myself on everything. I know the basics of marketing, of sales, partnerships. I’ve been doing this stuff for almost 50 years.

But if I’m going to represent this company, I need to understand their products and their methods.

And knowing the regulations, because they’re always changing, and they’re different from one town or city to another.

What are your top priorities now that you’re board chair?

I’ve been trying to source people for them and give them some ideas on folks. I’ve been doing a lot of interviewing, so candidates will meet with me.

I think the main thing for anybody in the cannabis industry is: “What is your strategy?”

Because it’s a land grab, and you might grab too many disparate things, and then you have nothing.

Basic strategy is something you should bounce off everybody. That’s why a board is good because it’s not immersed in the day-to-day.

When anything moves this quickly – and this is the way it was in tech – deciding what is your list of priorities and how that ties into how fast you can grow or expand, is the No. 1 issue for management.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Omar Sacirbey can be reached at [email protected]

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