My guest today is Darren Bondar, Founder of Spiritleaf - Canada's largest recreational cannabis brand, which he sold in May of 2021 for $131 million dollars.
Not one to sit still, it didn't take long for Darren to start a new company called HEMPALTA - an agricultural technology company focused on innovative hemp processing and product creation.
During our fun conversation, we cover everything from building brands to building exit strategies. Other topics we cover include:
I hope you enjoy my conversation with Darren, and hopefully you'll learn a few things to help you with your branding.
𝗕𝗿𝗮𝗻𝗱𝗶𝗻𝗴 𝗠𝗮𝘁𝘁𝗲𝗿𝘀 𝗶𝘀 𝗯𝗿𝗼𝘂𝗴𝗵𝘁 𝘁𝗼 𝘆𝗼𝘂 𝗯𝘆 𝗚𝗲𝗻𝘂𝗺𝗮𝗿𝗸 - 𝗢𝗻𝗲 𝗼𝗳 𝗡𝗼𝗿𝘁𝗵 𝗔𝗺𝗲𝗿𝗶𝗰𝗮’𝘀 𝗺𝗼𝘀𝘁 𝘁𝗿𝘂𝘀𝘁𝗲𝗱 𝗺𝗲𝗿𝗰𝗵 𝗺𝗮𝗸𝗲𝗿𝘀 𝗳𝗼𝗿 𝗼𝘃𝗲𝗿 𝟰𝟬 𝘆𝗲𝗮𝗿𝘀.From promotional products, custom uniforms, and clothing, to sports co-branding, web stores and warehousing - Genumark is your #1 partner for creating brand awareness. And being ISO certified – you can rest assured ethical sourcing and sustainability are front and center.
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Hey there, I'm Joelly - the Branding Badass. My badass superpower is helping you build a brand that matters. From branded merch to brand consulting, when you work with me, you get results!
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[00:00:00] Joelly: Hi, I'm Joelly, your branding badass and welcome to Branding Matters. A podcast I created and host to help you create brand equity.
[00:00:20] Joelly: My guest today is Darren Bondar, founder of Spirit Leaf, Canada's largest recreational cannabis brand, which he sold in May of 2021 for get this 131 million. Not one to sit still. It didn't take long for Darren to start a new company called HEMPALTA, an agricultural technology company focused on innovative hemp processing and product creation. During our fun conversation, we cover everything from building brands to building communities. Other topics we cover include why it's so important to have a good brand strategy, how to set yourself apart from your competition, and the dos and don'ts of selling. I hope you enjoyed my conversation with Darren, and hopefully you'll learn a few things to help you with your branding.
[00:01:03] Joelly: Branding Matters is brought to you by Genumark, one of North America's most trusted merch makers for over 40 years. Did you know brand of merch is one of the best ways to create brand awareness? It's true from promotional products, custom uniforms and clothing to sports, co-branding, web stores, and warehousing. Genumark is your number one partner for creating brand awareness and being ISO certified. You can rest assured, ethical sourcing and sustainability are front and center. If you're looking for help with your next project, email email@example.com. That's branding matters @ g-e-n-u-m-a-r-k.com. And now on with our show. Darren, welcome to Branding Matters.
[00:01:47] Darren: Thanks, Joelly. Great to be here. Very excited, honored.
[00:01:50] Joelly: Oh, well I'm very excited and honored to have you here as well. I just wanna give our audience a little background cuz I love when things like this happen.So the way that you and I met was so cool. I went to the fuck up nights in Calgary, which is a great event. It sells out every time, and I'm not surprised why. And basically fuck up nights is where they bring on. Successful entrepreneurs to share, not necessarily about their successes, but about their failures.
[00:02:15] Joelly: And so it's, I love it. It's such a great event. And so I went there and they have a panel. I think it's usually four speakers and you're one of the speakers. Your speech by far stood out. You were amazing. I loved your presentation, I loved your story. There was just something about you that I really liked and I thought, I gotta have this guy on my podcast.
[00:02:32] Joelly: I came up to you, I introduced myself, I told you about my podcast, and I think you were like, I'm not really sure who this chick is. Maybe. And then we connected on LinkedIn and I found out we went to the same university together, which was wild, and there was all these connections and so it was serendipitous, I think that we did end up meeting.
[00:02:49] Joelly: So I'm really happy to have you here. As always, I do my research before I bring guests on, and I was doing some reading about you and I read an interview that you did, and I'll be curious to hear if you remember this or not, where you said, I have an uncanny knack for surrounding myself with the best and the brightest. Do you remember saying that?
[00:03:04] Darren: Uh, yeah, I've said that for sure. I believe it, uh, wholeheartedly.
[00:03:08] Joelly: Yeah. Can you elaborate on that and where do you think that knack comes from and how has it helped?
[00:03:13] Darren: Well, I mean, I've been very fortunate over my career to have some incredible employees work alongside me and build the various companies that we've built.I mean, ultimately the success of the companies. I'm just the guide and really it's empowering these employees to do what they do best. Perhaps, you know, Sharing some advice or asking the right questions to give 'em the runway to, to just go and be successful and, and do what they do.
[00:03:37] Joelly: Where do you think that knack comes from?I mean, is it a sixth sense that you have when you meet people and you just get a good vibe or have you always had that when you were younger?
[00:03:44] Darren: Yeah, I don't know, but like literally, I like. Sometimes meet people, uh, like out a bar or a coffee shop and, uh, who might be looking for work and just, you know, you can just tell they've got a good energy about them. Yeah. I dunno if it's a sixth sense or what exactly. It's, but most of the time I get it right. Not always.
[00:04:02] Joelly: Yeah. I love that. I love that you said energy, because I feel the same way. It's like when I came up too, like just certain people I think you meet in the world and that there's just something about their energy that you connect with and you wanna know more about them, or you wanna learn about them, or you wanna partner up with them in business or whatever.
[00:04:16] Darren: Totally. Well, as you said, you know, us meeting was kind of serendipitous and uh, I believe in that, whole.
[00:04:20] Joelly: Yeah, me too, for sure. I consider myself to be a pretty good judge of character too. What about you?
[00:04:25] Darren: Uh, I think so. Yeah. Right. 99% of times I said it that fuck up night YYC uh, night. Every time that I go against my gut on character because I want a deal or something, it always kicks me in the outs.Yeah. So now that I'm a little further ahead in my career and don't need that next deal, I'm always gonna choose people over profit and people over money.
[00:04:46] Joelly: I love that. I wanna talk about one, which is Spirit Leaf. I read that it's the largest and most recognizable cannabis brand in Canada. Is that a fair state?
[00:04:55] Darren: Yeah, well we started Spirit Leaf back in 2017, right before legalization. We kind of got an inclination when Justin Trudeau got elected that recreational cannabis was gonna be legalized. So we got ahead of it as I've been in retail for 20 years, along with my team with the first business, which was watch it.
[00:05:13] Darren: But I was also a long term cannabis enthusiast and you know, kind of always that closet smoker. If you will, everybody at the party is, you know, drinking beers and I don't drink beer, but I'd be the guy in the corner that would always be enjoying cannabis. So it just seemed like the perfect fit for myself and my team.
[00:05:31] Darren: We just knew that we could execute and do something completely different in the way people were thinking about cannabis and build this. Cool brand that we built from basically 2018 until 2021, where we built over a hundred stores like, which was insane through a franchise model. So we had incredible franchise partners until we ultimately sold it in 2021.
[00:05:53] Joelly: Right. What was your first introduction to cannabis? If you don't mind sharing, don't worry. I won't tell anyone.
[00:06:01] Darren: No, that's ok. I mean, really, I wasn't really a big user through high school or anything, but it was just always around. Yeah. Where did you grow up? Uh, I grew up in Calgary. Oh, you did? Okay. So yeah, it was a lot more hash being smoked in Calgary, I think in the, you know, seventies and eighties.
[00:06:17] Darren: But yeah, I think my first real introduction was surrounded around music and I started kind of going to getting into the Grateful Dead and Fish and University where we went UWO, Western Ontario,
[00:06:27] Joelly: And we were both in the same residence, which is even funnier, right? Soggy went all
[00:06:31] Darren: Right. Uh, that place is infamous.
[00:06:34] Darren: So yeah, so that's kind of where I got my introduction and it just kind of grew from there is like many entrepreneurs, I'm a d d and my mind goes a thousand different ways. You know, I'll see a squirrel over there and a bird up there. But cannabis actually, I found really helped me focus and bring up my creativity.
[00:06:51] Darren: So it actually had a lot of benefit for me, which took years and years to accept, and I was happy to be able to share a lot of that knowledge with consumers across Canada and try and help change the stigma on what cannabis was and is.
[00:07:04] Joelly: Yeah. Yeah. You know, I actually love what you said about the stigma attached to pop, because I'm guilty of, I used to, when I was back in high school, there was the stoners on one end, and you know, the jocks on the other end, and they always got a bad rap.
[00:07:17] Joelly: Right? And I mean, look, I'm not, I have two teenage boys and so I, there's a whole thing about. Smoking or HA taking cannabis, you know, for teenagers and how it affects their prefrontal cortex and all that kind of stuff. Right? But I think when you become an adult and your fully developed brain, I've sort of now switched my whole opinion about that because I'm super healthy.
[00:07:38] Joelly: I work out, I eat healthy, I'm very healthy. And alcohol is worse for your health, right? They've been proven, and we don't have to get into the whole politics about it, but in a nutshell, alcohol is worse for you overall than. Right, and that's a known fact. You don't hear about people, you hear about cirrhosis of the liver and heart disease and cancer and all that caused by alcohol.
[00:07:58] Joelly: You don't hear about that from cannabis. So I've kind of switched now and you know, and I don't really drink. I used to drink university when I was back at Western, right? I mean, weekends started Wednesday night and ended Sunday night back in the, and now it's different, but you know, now to have a gummy or something, just one little thing and you don't feel like crap the next.
[00:08:18] Darren: No, I totally agree. I totally agree. And uh, I think that now that it's legalized, we can properly choose our dose and our strain that's right for us doesn't have to be smoke. Does he say it can be an edible or a beverage or a capsule or a mint and yeah, I think it has a lot of benefit and helps a lot of people.
[00:08:34] Darren: And it's not for everybody, but for we to judge
[00:08:36] Joelly: right. Yeah. And, but they're coming out with more and more information, how all the health benefits every day right now at night, I take it to help me sleep, right? CBD oil and all that kind of stuff. So now I'm a fan, so, and clearly I'm not the only one because of the huge success of your company.
[00:08:53] Joelly: So, congratulations. Yeah.
[00:08:54] Darren: So the first company I started was Watch It back in 1990. And that was the training ground for learning everything about business from, you know, marketing and sales to retail, to franchising. And that really set the foundation for Spirit Leaf as we used all of our people in our infrastructure that helped us build Spirit Leaf.
[00:09:12] Joelly: Right. Okay. Well, clearly you're a serial entrepreneur and you're knack for surrounding yourself with good people has come and served you well because you have these successful businesses. So you started Spirit leave in you. 2015. 17, yeah,
[00:09:28] Darren: 17 became, cannabis became legal in 2018 in Canada, so we got outta year head start and I was taking a look around the cannabis space, you know, attending a few trade shows and there are a lot of great cannabis advocates, but it was all very, I don't like to use the word mom and pop, but very rudimentary, very just the branding was what you would think of the traditional cannabis branding.
[00:09:49] Darren: And I just knew that somebody could come in and apply some different branding techniques and different. Techniques and take cannabis to a different level. So I just saw this opportunity and this tunnel for our expertise to be able to apply that to the cannabis space and really set Canada out on a good foot with the first G seven country to legalize recreational cannabis as Canadians.
[00:10:10] Darren: We wanted to be proud of that industry and we wanted to look good. Uh, now I have a bunch of crappy pot shops, you know, dope cannabis or whatever, uh, you know, sitting around every corner. And that still happened a little bit. But I think the better brands ultimately have the foundation and merged, and I think the industry's ok.
[00:10:27] Joelly: Well, I love that you just said that because that is a great segue into my next question because as we said, cannabis has grown ever since it became legalized, no pun intended. And now there's literally a shot probably on every corner. I mean, I know that's. Like that in Calgary. I don't know where it is everywhere else in Canada, but I'm sure it's probably the same.
[00:10:44] Joelly: It's kind of like when Starbucks came and there was a Starbucks in every corner. Remember that? Yeah, absolutely. So I, I think now is the same thing. So with that said, you know, you talked about branding. I mean, what is it about spirit leave? Because branding is all about differentiating yourself from your competition, right?
[00:10:59] Joelly: What is it about Spirit Leaf that differentiates the company or the business and that has made it so successful compared to some of the other.
[00:11:07] Darren: Yeah, uh, it's a great question and yes, we knew that that competition was gonna come and we knew it was gonna be proliferated right across the country. So we needed to build a company that had a great brand if it was going to be successful against all that competition.
[00:11:20] Darren: And for us, what that meant is really every element of Spirit Leaf needed to be associated with that brand. And for us, we want to be. Really true to the cannabis community because we knew that if the authentic cannabis connoisseur bought into Spirit Leaf, that they were going to be our biggest fans and advocates.
[00:11:39] Darren: And then it's like if you wanted to buy cannabis from somewhere and you weren't familiar, you're gonna ask, oh, I'm gonna ask the pot guy around the corner. Where should I go? So we wanted the pot guy or gal around the corner to recommend Spear. But we also wanted it to be welcoming to the new cannabis user and the new cannabis person that was gonna come in, whether it be the soccer marriage, right, or the senior, or you know, the curious person.
[00:12:02] Darren: So it had to be authentic, but it also had to be welcoming to all. And when we took those elements, they needed to touch every part of the organization to our people. Our franchise partners, the design of the store, you know, the branding, really everything. So the entire company, we talked about it. We talked about brands from day one and how important it was gonna be to have a good brand strategy, to build the company fast, become the Canadian leader. And then ultimately be able to survive the competition.
[00:12:33] Joelly: Not only survive but surpass. Right. Like I said, yeah. I mean, you became number one. Can you be a little bit more specific for someone who is looking to start a business and create a brand, what are some key points that you need to think about or that you were thinking about that you wanted to make sure was a very strong representation of what the Spirit Leaf brand stands for? Yeah, like how would you describe the brand and what did you do?
[00:12:53] Darren: Yeah, I mean there was a lot of elements to it. I think that one, just what we stood for, and I already talked about that, just being authentic but also open and a good representative for Canada. So I guess one of the basic things here in retail, so just the store design right had to be on point and amazing.
[00:13:10] Darren: And so we found this great designer who, when we started sharing our vision with them, and they've also had this vision and passion for cannabis, which was important cuz we didn't want to go. You know, there's a lot of talk. Oh, we're building the next Apple store in cannabis. Well, look, I'm a cannabis. Easy to last place I want to do is shop at an Apple store to buy my cannabis, right?
[00:13:28] Darren: So I loved it when other CEOs who weren't familiar with the cannabis space started talking about their store designs because it was so easy to set ourselves apart by being authentic. So the store design and how. People felt when they came into the store was really important. So, you know, beyond the aesthetics and having this feeling, so it had to be the right music playing, the right sensory overload, had small cannabis, but also fresh and good.
[00:13:52] Darren: The employees had to be presentable, so everybody was wearing name tags and similar aprons. So all those little details matter and the signage, the merchandising, like the aesthetics, the lights, having a lounge so people could come sit in the store or you know, where it was allowed. We had guitars in the store, so you know, we'd have customers come in and just pick up the guitar and come and jam, uh, little educational centers.
[00:14:16] Darren: So, All of those little details matter. And that's just store design. And I think that also extends to things like our HR policies, how we talk to our employees, how we treat our employees, how we train our employees. All of those things are what help create a brand. It's not about putting a logo and choosing a color.
[00:14:35] Darren: It's your voice and, and how you talk about it, how you share it, how your employees feel about it, how customers feel about it. So you know, that extends to every single depart.
[00:14:44] Joelly: I love that you just said that. That was very articulated and very eloquently put. And I mean, it's an experience and I talk about that all the time, right? It's about how do people experience your brand or how do people experience the product or service that you're offering that is really what's gonna make you connect with them. And that's what it's all about is connection. I had a get, yeah, I had a guest on, it's interesting, and she wrote a book, it was a while ago, I don't know if you've heard of it, and it's called Aesthetic Intelligence.
[00:15:11] Joelly: And she talks about that. You know, you talked about the aesthetic and it's not just how it looks, but it's how it tastes, how it smells, what you hear. I love that you said about the music, because these are all the different sensors that help you connect with that brand. Totally. And that, right. So everything you just said is like totally on point.
[00:15:27] Darren: So it's, it's every touch point, you know, and it's really funny, we had a music system when we learned all these things from retail, we in the previous business and watch it. We let stores or employees choose their own music. Which was like, you know, you want 'em to be happy throughout the day, but sometimes you go in and, you know, one person's choice of music is different than the other person's choice.
[00:15:43] Darren: Yeah. Um, and we actually got quite a bit of like pushbacks in from our franchise partners. Cause there's a fee associated with having standardized music and you know that, but it's so important to have a consistent feeling from coast to coast. Yeah. I think every touchpoint matters and I agree with your previous guest. I'd love to read that book.
[00:15:59] Joelly: Yeah. It's called Aesthetic. One more thing I wanna talk about. So you mentioned briefly about aprons and about name tags, and now you're delving into my world, right? Which is merch. What role did merch play as far as creating brand awareness for Spirit Leaf and what kind of, oh, and this before I knew you obviously, so I'm just curious, what kind of things did you do?
[00:16:15] Darren: Yeah. Oh, it's a great question. And we had the best merch program. We had Spirit Leaf t-shirts for everybody and hat and swag and socks, I mean hoodies. And we were the only company that was really doing it. And I don't know, we had great quality stuff. I still have some t-shirts, which I love to wear. And then every employee was getting them.
[00:16:34] Darren: We give them away to all of our great customers, and we had our frequent purchaser program, so you know, customers could get socks. I think our socks were like the best socks I've ever had. Oh yeah. People love the custom. Yeah, so like all that stuff, and then all of a sudden you have all these customers and your employees and your fans are wearing Spirit Leaf t-shirts.
[00:16:52] Darren: Right. Which isn't like a big, like cannabis. I smoke cannabis. It's kind of subliminal. What's Spirit Leaf like? People don't always know about it. Yeah. But so then you have all these ambassadors wearing your material across the country. So, yeah, I think merchandising is a huge, huge part of it. And then we did our own custom accessory program, so we had our own bongs and papers and quality, quality, great stuff. It was really, really contributed to the overall success of our branding efforts.
[00:17:18] Joelly: Yeah, I love that you said that. I mean, you know, merch I think is underrated a lot of times when. Customers of mine. Think about merchants an afterthought when really it should be a huge part of your strategy, right? Because like totally.
[00:17:29] Joelly: You said you're getting these brand ambassadors to walk around wearing your logo and your brand out, and you said just Canada, but really around the world. I just, yeah. Saw a post. It was so funny on Instagram where one of my clients did these really fun t-shirts and one of her, I guess, Someone who bought, or her t-shirts was in Paris and took a picture of them wearing the t-shirt in front of the Eiffel Tower, and it's like, here you go.
[00:17:50] Joelly: Right? Yeah. I mean, so it's such a good investment and I love that you're a fan of it, and obviously I'm a fan of it. I've been doing it a long time, so that's great. Okay, so Spirit Leaf, you guys did amazing success, then you sold it, so yeah, what year did you sell it and Well, can I ask, I guess, first of all, are you allowed to share like how much you made with the sale of that?
[00:18:12] Darren: Yeah, well, it was a publicly traded company, so we had thousands of shareholders, which also included a majority of our employees who all had stock options, and we had thousands of shareholders. And it was built very fast. I mean, really from 2017 to 2021, all through Covid too. Don't forget, we were opening stores and Covid. 50 different cities, all with different regulations across different province, six different provinces, coast to coast. Like it was just, it was incredible. The team executed beyond expectation and when I sat down on the first meeting with the team, with my core team, I think there were 10 or 12 of us at the time.
[00:18:45] Darren: When we talked about it, the objective was always to build a hundred stores and sell the company. I mean, there was a monetary aspect to it as well. Okay. But it was tough because it was a brand we loved. Our corporate culture was so strong, but the timing had to happen. The industry was getting competitive.
[00:19:00] Darren: We knew there was gonna be some price compression. We knew the advantages of being vertically integrated. It had to be sold to a company that had a bigger balance sheet and could provide some of those advances. So in 2021, the company sold for 131 million, which was a great outcome. Every entrepreneur's dream, for sure.
[00:19:19] Joelly: Wow Congrats. Muscle tough.
[00:19:21] Darren: Thank you. Yes, yes. That's amazing. No, of course. It was incredible. But it was also incredible, not only for myself, but to see so many of my employees who've been with me since day one get very meaningful financial rewards. Yeah, it was a great, great outcome. For that moment in time, I have no regrets when I look back, but for sure it was a difficult decision and it was a brand, we love people that I loved and worked with for 10 to 20 years, and I didn't end up continuing unexpectedly right at the end.
[00:19:49] Darren: So it was kind of like, oh, I sold the company, you know, super celebration, but also, uh, like, oh, like my whole life just kind of got pouring from me in.
[00:19:58] Joelly: It's funny. I was gonna ask you that, so no regrets. Would you do anything differently?
[00:20:02] Darren: Well I mean, look, it was the right decision for the company. I think some of our franchise partners who really invested in me and the Spear Leaf brand, as much as I'd tried to segue and set up for success.
[00:20:14] Darren: When you ultimately have different leadership who, you know, perhaps put a different spin on the importance of brand and think about strategy differently. I think, you know, my regrets are some of the franchise partners who invested with us. We had a great team of 25 head office employees, 30 head office employees, and most of them didn't last a year and this new corporate culture.
[00:20:34] Darren: So yeah, so of course there's always some regrets. I'm a guy with a heart, but businesses, you know, has some rough sides too. And we did our very best to have a smooth segue in transition. But of course there's always those, ah, it's kind of sad. And you know, you never wanna..
[00:20:49] Joelly: Well it was your baby, right? I mean, yes, for sure. I'm sure it's always hard. So you mentioned, it's funny you mentioned about the brand. So how did the brand, well, I guess, did the brand change when it had new ownership? And how did it change, would you say?
[00:20:59] Darren: Yeah, there's still some really successful stores operated by, particularly our franchise partners who are passionate about the Spirit Leaf brand and continue to lead that charge.
[00:21:09] Darren: But now, Part of a much bigger retail conglomerate with perhaps as many as 10 different liquor stores and cannabis brands. And a focus more on, I think a value and a discount model. Hmm. So it's different for sure. When you have all these different retail brands, you can't really focus. And so it's changed.
[00:21:26] Darren: But as I said, there's still some great franchise partners that are flying the flag, the spirit be flag and representing and and doing well. And of course there's some that it just didn't work out for, and that's always the hard part. Yeah.
[00:21:37] Joelly: Well I think that's sort of a given whenever company changes hands like that. Right? Especially, yeah,
[00:21:42] Darren: For sure. And the industry changed so fast too, right? What it was in 2018 is definitely not what it was today. So yeah, everybody goes in with their eyes wide open and knows the risks, and that's business. And you know, whether it's a franchise or a small business, a big business, there's so many variables that can happen.
[00:21:56] Joelly: Right. Wow. I mean, you said a while ago that you started it with the intention of selling it, and I think a lot of entrepreneurs have that mindset, right? Their goal is, I wanna start a business. I just had a conversation with a client just a few days ago, and they were telling me that it's the same thing, like they started business, they wanted to create that equity, and then they want us.
[00:22:13] Joelly: Sell it. So based on your experience having done that, what are some tips that you could offer someone who's listening, cuz like I said, we have a lot of entrepreneurs. What are some tips that you can offer? What are some maybe dos and don'ts when you're looking to start and then with your goal to sell a business?
[00:22:29] Joelly: Yeah, let's start with the dos
[00:22:30] Darren: Yeah. Easier said than done, right? Yeah. So, well, the do is you got, I think it's important to know if you want to exit and you have a timeframe, so A, what's your timeframe? And you know, it'll generally probably take you double that, but have What's your Oh really?
[00:22:45] Darren: Yeah. I mean, I don't know. I would, I think, no, nothing ever goes smoother as fast as you'd like. So what's the timeframe? And then who's going to acquire you, I think is really important to know. So if you think whoever the company is, is what are they going to need? To acquire you, what's important for that business and how you wanna set up for success so that you can sell it, and then perhaps you keep it really clean.
[00:23:06] Darren: So if you actually wanna sell your business, then operate it like it's a standalone business. You know, you're not mixing your personal finances in there and you know, leasing this car and that car, and. Just keep it really clean and true to the ultimate objective is if your objective is to sell it. And then I guess the biggest lesson that I learned at the end, I mean, as you say, spirit Leaf was my baby, and I had to let the heart go because it was absolutely the right financial decision for our shareholders and for the company at large.
[00:23:34] Joelly: Okay. What would you say don't do, based on everything that you learned? What would you don't do now if you, if someone's listening, say, don't do blank.
[00:23:42] Darren: Well, I don’t know if there's any like hard, fast dos and don'ts, but for the don'ts, I would say, yeah, like as I said, like run it very clean and run it with the objective.
[00:23:50] Darren: If your true objective is to sell it, then stay focused on the business and don't mix in your personal finances and stuff. That just complicates things. I think that's really the main thing is keep it clean and keep the end game in.
[00:24:03] Joelly: Right. Okay. Well that's great advice. That's awesome. Okay, so you sell this company for 130 million.
[00:24:10] Joelly: It's 131 million. Yes. 131 million in change. Yes. That's amazing. You could have just taken that money and gone taken your family to Hawaii and retired, but instead, You decide to launch a new company, right? Yeah. And you obviously have that passion for business and entrepreneurship inside of you. So this new company now, it's called HEMPALTA. Tell me about HEMPALTA. What inspired you to start this new company and what's it all about?
[00:24:35] Darren: Yeah, well, let me qualify. I still take a lot of personal time and. After 25 years of kind of battling as an entrepreneur and in many cases, financing companies on credit cards and all sorts of debt and loans, yeah, I've been feeling like I was leveraged for pretty much my whole entrepreneurial career.
[00:24:53] Darren: It was certainly nice to have an exhale moment and set aside enough wealth for future generations and families. So I feel very blessed to have that. But yeah, I'm pretty young. You know, like I got to keep myself busy. My kids are still teenagers as well, and I wanted to do something meaningful and really build one more company from scratch.
[00:25:13] Darren: That could be another legacy business. I want it to be kind of like a in the green space, if you will be. That's agriculture or clean tech. Just something that was going to provide a positive impact on the planet. So, yeah, it didn't take me too long, I guess, to find it. I was literally,
[00:25:31] Joelly: How long did you, sorry, how long did you take any time off after you got this check?
[00:25:35] Darren: Yeah, I have, my phone took a full six months off. I did six months. That's it. I know, I know. I know. But I'm all, yeah, so anyway. Yeah, I took some time off and I was actually just looking, you know, I was looking for opportunities right out of the GetGo, but to your earlier question, what's the exit plan is?
[00:25:52] Darren: I actually put the exit strategy in place first because I had such success with Spirit Leaf and the shareholders did really well. We raised what's called the capital pool company on, on the Toronto Stock Exchange, so that if we were gonna start another business, perhaps we might be able to roll the new.
[00:26:08] Darren: Into the CPC and bring it public. So perhaps kind of an exit. So we did that first. Mm-hmm. And that was kinda like a side hobby while I was retired. Okay. But so that company sits there.
[00:26:18] Joelly: Oh, I see. Okay. So after when you left Spirit Leaf, you created this trailed Blazing Ventures, which is, yeah. How raise the capital.
[00:26:26] Darren: That's right. It's a capital pool company on the Toronto Stock Exchange is publicly traded today we actually raised about 3 million, which is pretty large for a capital pool company. Amazing. And we continue to look for the right opportunity to roll into it. Still sitting there, it's trading, and I think we'll be a great success for those shareholders in hopefully the not too distant future.
[00:26:46] Joelly: Okay, so then talk about hemp. How did you start that and what is it?
[00:26:50] Darren: Yeah, I was literally looking through the classified as for Businesses for sale and Calgary. Wow. Yeah. I ran into a lot of liquor stores, cannabis stores, restaurants. It was post covid as well too, so there was a lot of businesses at all, geez, for sale.
[00:27:04] Darren: But I literally ran into this hemp processing plant, this prototype plant that terrific engineering firm based in Calgary has developed. Technology, this agricultural technology that has completely revolutionized the way hemp is processed. And it was listed in the classified ads and it happened to be in the city.
[00:27:23] Darren: 10 minutes from my house kind of met all of my requirements for a business. I wanted to be vertically integrated and I didn't wanna be in retail anymore. And ultimately, you know, hemp is a great crop that has the ability to really transform parts of the planet.
[00:27:37] Joelly: Can you elaborate a bit more about HEMPALTA and what exactly it is?
[00:27:39] Joelly: And it isn't because I think a lot of people, when they hear hemp, they think marijuana. Right. I think there's a lot of confusion, so can you maybe just dissect a little bit?
[00:27:46] Darren: Yeah. Well, hemp ultimately is the cannabis plant, but it has no th h c, and so it's non psychoactive, and it's been legal in Canada since 1998, 25 years, and there's been a lot of advancement on the food side.
[00:28:00] Darren: So most people would recognize hemp like hemp hearts, like a good protein for you in the morning or bio. So that's,
[00:28:07] Joelly: And bags I've done like hemp bags for crisp Right. Toe bags. That's
[00:28:10] Darren: Exactly, yeah. So, and the bags are the fiber side. So once the farmers cultivate for the seed, which is then sold for food, there's all this fiber, which in other parts of the world they decorticate.
[00:28:22] Darren: But it's very labor intensive and not easy to, to decorticate to separate, to get the good part out of the plant. So that's what this engineering firm, Canadian Greenfield Technologies has built is this advanced decorticator that allows us to take that agricultural waste, cuz the farmers process for the seed, then they have no use for the fiber stock.
[00:28:42] Darren: So if you drive around Southern Alberta and Saskatchewan, there are thousands and thousands of bales. Of hemp fiber sitting on fields with no home. Wow. So it's either being burned or just left to compost and it doesn't compost very well. So we now take that agricultural waste. We run it through our advanced hemp trained processing plant right here in Calgary, and then we turn these four output streams that we get into various consumer packaged goods.
[00:29:08] Joelly: I actually went to your facility. I was very impressed and I saw, can you share sort of some of the products that you do.
[00:29:13] Darren: Yeah, so there's a number of products that we do. Well, we're getting into gardening season, so I can talk about our fiber mulch. We have this great garden mulch. We have this great product called the Hemp Pack, which is uh, a soil enrichment, which totally gives home owners the benefit of growing hemp.
[00:29:30] Darren: Without having to grow it, cuz we have all this microfiber that we're able to extract. So it'll help your aeration in your lawns, your gardens, your plants, if sometime you have compacted soil. This is an all-natural soil amendment and enrichment. So that's the gardening products. We also have these pet products like animal bedding, which is really exciting.
[00:29:48] Darren: Or our cat litter, which is an all-natural biodegradable cat litter. Say the name of your cat litter cuz I love it. Oh, it's called uh, Hempy Cat. Yeah.
[00:29:55] Joelly: Yeah. I thought it was great. And your packaging is wonderful.
[00:29:58] Darren: Yeah. Thank you. So what we felt when we did this and when I saw this kind of a similar tunnel in the hemp industry, is really, I felt like in Canada in particular, over the last 25 years, there's been some great advancements in food and on the fiber side there's been so much engineering work and scientific work done, but nobody's really been able to bring proper, proper brand strategy to the hemp industry where consumer good.
[00:30:22] Darren: To help customers understand what it is. Yeah, exactly. Benefits with it's, yeah. Yeah. So that's the opportunity I saw. And if you go to hemp.com, you'll see like this good brand, I would hope, and all of these sub-brands that we're trying to bring forth to consumers. Yeah.
[00:30:40] Joelly: Well, congratulations. And so far so good. I heard it's super busy and you're growing fast once again
[00:30:45] Darren: Yeah, for sure. We have, we're in startup mode, right? So, uh, startup you can expect to lose money for a couple years before you're profitable, which is never easy on the entrepreneurial psyche. But yeah, you know, that's par for the course. But we've had some great wins and in business I've always, you know, you get punched in the.
[00:31:04] Darren: Pretty much every day when you're in business. So we always like to also like to celebrate the victories, and we've always done that with every business. Let's really celebrate the victories, and we've had some great engagement, particularly in Calgary, and we became members or sponsors of the Calgary Zoo where our hemp bedding is actually being used by the giraffes.
[00:31:22] Darren: Who were having some skin issues because they were, you know, they were on straw and wood shaving, so it was like, you know, gaffs have sensitive skin. Hemp is, well,
[00:31:29] Joelly: I didn't know that, but I do now.
[00:31:30] Darren: Apparently. I didn't know that either. Who knew? Yeah. But the head has totally helped them. It's antibacterial and soft and they enjoy it.
[00:31:38] Darren: We're members of the Calgary Hoard Cultural Society, and we've been giving out. Hundreds if not thousands of three bags of this hemp enrichment pack. Cuz we really want to get the feedback and the buy-in from the horticultural society. And it goes back to what we talked about at the beginning, right?
[00:31:52] Darren: Which was if you're true to that true gardening community in this case and their product, your product, our product resonates with them. When you are go to go buy a soil enrichment, who are you gonna ask? You're gonna ask your good gardener. So we really are applying some of the very same principles to Alta and to its products that we did with Spirit Leaf and even back in the days with Watch It.
[00:32:14] Joelly: Right. Okay. That's so interesting. Well, it seems like a grain product and it's based on what you just said. I'm curious, are there similarities between the two brands? I mean the Hemp Alta and the Spirit Leaf?
[00:32:25] Darren: Look, the only similar, I mean other than you, other than there's really none except for the founding principles.
[00:32:31] Darren: Okay? Right. The same principles
[00:32:34] Joelly: Which is really you, right? I mean, at the end of the day, those are probably your principles in your villa.
[00:32:38] Darren: Well, I don't think they're necessarily specific to me. I mean, I think there's lots of this's being written on branding and what makes, you know, various brands successful.
[00:32:46] Darren: So I guess it's my spin and my employees spin on some of those called branding principles. But yeah, treat people right, engage with your consumer. Build fans like we're talking about with the Calor Cultural Society, pick some fights. I think we also like to combat a little bit just to get our brand out there.
[00:33:04] Darren: Yeah. So it's very much many similar elements.
[00:33:07] Joelly: Well, don't you think though that any company, any business, especially successful and you know, when the founder puts his blood, sweat and tears, pardon me into it? It has to represent, in one sense, part of who you are because you're putting so much of yourself into it, like for sure.
[00:33:24] Joelly: Are you able to separate sort of your values and your beliefs with what the brand represents?
[00:33:28] Darren: Well, of course they have to. They have to merge, and I'm the voice of the company as the CEO, and it's my responsibility for sure. So, yeah, I definitely agree with all of those sentiments that you've put forth, but there's some, I don't know how to say they're basic, but there's some definitely some basic and some advanced brand principles that are gonna help Hemp Alta.
[00:33:47] Joelly: That are specific to the business right.
[00:33:49] Darren: Or just in general. Right. Like it doesn't have to be specific to the business. I can build a manufacturing business and I can build a retail business, or I can build a franchise business. At the end of the day, there's some very similar principles that are gonna make those successful that can apply to
[00:34:07] Joelly: Right. I think that's what I was sort of alluding to is in that sense, like, I mean, that's why you have one success after another because at the end of the day, you are the common denominator with these brands and with these businesses for sure. Um, but with that said, I am. You know, you had success with Spirit Leaf and now it seems like HempAlta is, am I pronouncing it right, by the way, Hemp Alta, yeah.
[00:34:28] Joelly: Okay. And HempAlta is doing well. So have you ever failed, and if you have, can you share what are your, one of your biggest failures and what you learned from that?
[00:34:37] Darren: Yeah. I mean, I feel like I fail every day. Right? I mean, you said you get punched in the face every day in business, right? So yeah, for sure. We have lots of failures, whether it's stores that don't make it or investments gone bad or bad.
[00:34:50] Darren: Deployment of capital, I guess as long as your wins outweigh your failures, I think that's good. I guess the biggest challenge and. Failure that I faced was back at the same time. Recreational cannabis was becoming legal in 2016, 2017. I'd had watch it, which was a 20 year business, and we got very badly affected by the downturn in oil prices, uh, here in Alberta, but also Apple launched their watch in 2016 and by everybody who has an apple, probably has an Apple watch today.
[00:35:19] Darren: But in one year. Apple took 50% of the market share of the watch industry. The whole watch industry. Yeah. This is a multi, multi-billion dollar massive industry. So just a combination of factors and a few failed stores, uh, resulted in us having to restructure, watch it and go through a bankruptcy process.
[00:35:36] Darren: So that was not very fun. But fortunately because we had the support of our good shareholders, I was open and transparent with everybody throughout the process. We were able to really. A lot of the damage and emerge on the other side, but, so that was the biggest challenge and failure that I faced. But four years later, you know, we turned from bankruptcy to 131 million and so, you know, there's hope at any age, in any stage in career, but those kind of things are challenging to go through.
[00:36:03] Joelly: What was the biggest lesson would you say you learned from that whole watch it experience?
[00:36:07] Darren: Well, there was a lot of lessons in terms of what you and what not to do in business. And some of those decisions that we made were right at the time and you know, three or four years later or whatever,
[00:36:16] Joelly: Who could predict, right? You never could predict what absolutely was gonna happen.
[00:36:20] Darren: Yeah. So I think the one thing I did learn though about going through that and being able to emerge is what I referred to earlier, is just being open and transparent throughout the process. Nobody wants to go through a bankruptcy and we just saw it with Nordstrom's in Calgary or in Canada.
[00:36:33] Darren: Right. They're leaving. And I thought what was really noble about it is everybody was upset, their employees were upset, but the c e O came out and admitted failure. We invested X million dollars in this company. We love all of our employees, but it just does not make financial and prudent sense. And so I thought that he handled the extremely well, and I would've hoped that I employed a similar strategy at that time too, where I was open with our franchise partners, our suppliers, our landlords.
[00:37:00] Darren: And those who were willing to work with us ended up being really good partners as we emerged on the other side. And those that didn't, um, you know, and chose to go their own way, that's okay too. But as you say, everything's serendipitous and happens for a reason.
[00:37:11] Joelly: Yeah. The biggest lesson then, if I hear you right, is just make sure to be open at all times and be transparent and communicate.
[00:37:20] Darren: Yeah. And communicate.
[00:37:22] Joelly: And so you took that forward with what you're doing? Well, what you do,
[00:37:25] Darren: Well, it's a lot easier to communicate in easy times, right? I mean, to share a success story and tell, you know, tell about all the happy things. Yeah. Um, but it's also equally as important to share those same messages and the challenging times.
[00:37:37] Joelly: Oh, definitely. Cause I think that's where people are gonna learn the most, you know, having you on and share your experience and your success and your failure. Is helping other people, right? Because they're learning from other people who've been where they are and you're connecting with them.
[00:37:49] Darren: And you know, one of the things that I always appreciate the most as a, you know, a growing entrepreneur is I love going and listening to other successful entrepreneurs speak.
[00:37:58] Darren: I always found it so inspiring. I remember, you know, listening to Chip Wilson and Lululemon and Brian Hill with Urias, you know, kind of an emerging retailer back 20 years ago. And yeah, those guys are great examples of very successful CEOs who built very successful brands and companies.
[00:38:14] Joelly: Yeah. And huge inspiration. And people wanna be inspired. They wanna see like, okay, well if he can do it, then maybe I can do it. Right.
[00:38:21] Darren: Totally. Yeah. And it's funny cause I don't really see myself as that. I know when I get up and share my story and the energy's good, kind of like it. Fuck up nights. YYC I was just ready to kind of burst that night.
[00:38:30] Darren: Um, so you know, it delivered well and it. Fun, good reception from fellow entrepreneurs and you know, just everybody who's in the audience.
[00:38:38] Joelly: So for sure, and everybody loves a good story and everybody has a story. You know, that's again, what I love about this podcast is I get to bring on people and they share, and I love hearing people's stories and everybody's got a great story and, and I love yours. And so I love that you're here. Thank you so much. I do one more question before you go, okay. Okay. This is the one question that I ask all my guests. Darren, what is your badass superpower?
[00:39:01] Darren: My badass superpower. I don't know. I think I have the ability to see things that others don't, and at least in terms of business opportunity.
[00:39:11] Darren: So I feel that I can see through a tunnel and see a really great outcome and how we can achieve that outcome. So if you will, the vision and then be able to execute and bring people along with me. So that's maybe a whole bunch of superpowers, but perhaps it gets summed up. Being able to see through tunnels.
[00:39:31] Joelly: That's a great one. That's obviously, that's been a huge part of your success, being able to do that, so kudos to you. I love that. Yeah. Thank you. Well, thank you so much. It's gone by so fast. It's been great. Yeah, thank you. Chatting with you. If people wanna learn more about you and about HempAlta, where can they find you?
[00:39:46] Darren: Yeah, hempalta.com. I'm on LinkedIn, always sharing tidbits and yeah, always happy to connect with good people who have good energy and want to connect for the right reasons.
[00:39:55] Joelly: Yeah, me too. Are you anywhere else on. Have you done any TikTok videos? Come on.
[00:40:00] Darren: Um, you know, from a business perspective, I'll, uh, that's my public profile.
[00:40:05] Darren: Okay. I've got this whole personal persona to you. Right. Which follows fish in the grateful dad and a family life. But, uh, that's funny.
[00:40:12] Joelly: Are you pretty private? Like, are, do you keep your business life in your personal life? Very separated.
[00:40:16] Darren: I try to now, especially post success, it's a little nerve-wracking out there and you never know what people's intentions are. But I'm very fortunate, an amazing group of friends, some that have been friends with 40. 45 plus years as we all turn 50 This year we're celebrating and just enjoying life.
[00:40:31] Joelly: Wow. That's amazing. Well, thank you again. It was really great to see. I hope I'll see you at another event maybe at the next YYC.
[00:40:38] Darren: Sounds great. Thank you for taking the time. Great podcast. Love it.
[00:40:46] Joelly: And there you have it. Thank you so much for tuning in. I really appreciate your support and hopefully you learned a few things to help you with your branding. This show was a work in progress, so please remember to rate and review on wherever you listen to podcasts. And if you'd like help creating brand awareness for your business, send me a private message and I would love to help you out.
[00:41:05] Joelly: You can find me on social under, you guessed it, brandingmatters. Branding Matters was produced, edited, and hosted by Julie Goodson, also me. So thanks again, and until next time, here's to all you badasses out there.