Today we’d like to introduce you to Ben Larsen.
Ben, can you briefly walk us through your story – how you started and how you got to where you are today.
My career has always focused around sales for as long as I can remember. Ever since I was a kid, I’ve had an entrepreneur mindset and a love for selling products that I‘m passionate about. When I was ten years old, I started my first business. A friend and I realized that we could buy candy in bulk at Smart & Final for about half the cost they were sold individually at 7-Eleven. We got a loan from our dads and rode our bikes down to Smart & Final. We bought all kinds of candies that we loved, Blow Pops, Air Heads, War Heads, Sour Ropes, and rode home with backpacks full of candy. After our first day of sales, we doubled our cash, paid our dads back, and rode back to Smart & Final to buy our next batch of candy. I was hooked. We were selling products that we loved, and the perk – I got to eat my favorite candy for free.
Ever since then, my career revolved around sales, selling products that I’m passionate about and have an impact on people’s daily lives. I sold solar energy for two years, and then became an Internet Sales Manager at Volkswagen Pasadena. In 2015, when Volkswagen was caught for the emissions issue, I was devastated as they had deceived their customers and their employees. I felt like the brand let us down. I wanted to work for a brand I could trust. A brand that would be loyal to their customers and employees. So I decided to pursue my MBA at USC Marshall School of Business with a focus in Marketing and Brand Strategy, to help build brands in their effort to serve their customers.
During my second year of business school at USC, one of my best friends and smoking buddies from high school, Sasan Salek, reached out and was starting a cannabis brand. I have always been passionate about the healing power of cannabis since we started smoking it in high school. Sasan had been living in China for the past ten years and working in manufacturing. He had access to the best vape manufacturers and we could develop a custom vape device. We noticed that many cartridges had issues with leaking, short battery life, and clogging. So we set out to develop a proprietary full gram disposable that solved these issues and provide a vape that is leak-free, with a long-lasting battery, and hits great every time. We wanted to create a brand that focused on sharing the experience we had growing up, a brand that is welcoming to everyone whether it’s your first time smoking cannabis, or you’ve been smoking it for years.
As a recreational vaper, I noticed many vape brands offer flavors based on cannabis strains. Since in a vape you can make the flavor taste like anything, your favorite dessert or a tropical fruit, to truly provide a welcoming experience that set us apart, we developed our proprietary flavor profiles to taste like familiar flavors that people love. Flavors like Black Cherry Cola that tastes like cherry coke or Grandberry Purple that tastes like citrus and grape. ”The Pineapple Express tastes like you’re on an island in the tropics sipping a piña colada out of a coconut,” said one customer.
The last concept we had to figure out was the name. We had a list of about 25 names and we wanted the name to embody the vision of our brand. A name that was welcoming and invites you to smoke. We shared the list with friends and everyone loved the name OkiToki. It’s rooted in a familiar phrase “okie dokie” and embodies that it’s okay to smoke. It’s OkiToki!
Great, so let’s dig a little deeper into the story – has it been an easy path overall and if not, what were the challenges you’ve had to overcome?
We definitely faced our fair share of challenges and struggles along the way. From navigating the ever changing laws and regulations of the cannabis industry to the lack of banking services available to cannabis companies that limit access to capital, there were many obstacles we had to overcome to get to where we are today.
The first challenge we faced was finding our initial investment. We needed enough funding to produce a large enough batch of product to offer multiple flavors, deliver a quality, lab tested product, and offer a low price point to offer the best value for consumers. Our vision to make OkiToki available for everyone to smoke. Since traditional banking services and business loans are not available to cannabis companies, the only sources of capital available are private investors and venture capital. We were in talks with a few private investors and had an offer on the table from a multi-million dollar vertically integrated cannabis company. We were about to proceed with the deal when they changed our valuation at the last minute and we backed out of the deal to maintain control of the company. That was one of the toughest decisions we’ve had to make. We ended up partnering with our manufacturer, North American Agro, in Santa Cruz, CA to produce our first batch of product. We were able to maintain control of the company and provide more value to our customers by keeping our costs low and delivering a premium quality vape at an affordable price.
Another challenge we faced early on was the vape crisis of 2018. We launched right as news surfaced that people were dying from use of illicit vape cartridges. These illicit vape cartridges were cut with additives containing vitamin E acetate, a fatal substance when inhaled. When vape-ageddon hit, vape sales dropped and dispensaries were hesitant to add new vapes to their inventory. We managed to get into a few shops, and customers loved our product. We’ve been able to grow organically, secure distribution for Southern California, and ensure that we continue to provide a high quality, lab tested product that is safe for our customers.
Alright – so let’s talk business. Tell us about OkiToki – what should we know?
OkiToki is a premium cannabis vape brand founded in the heart of Southern California by a couple of long-time smokers to provide the highest quality and potency distillate, with unique flavor profiles to deliver the best vape experience for our customers. As our CEO, I manage our product design, manufacturing, operations, and marketing efforts in California. Sasan is our COO and manages manufacturing of our devices and packaging in China. We specialize in device design and manufacturing and have created the first full gram disposable for the California market.
What truly sets us apart is our amazing team. Our talented product designers and manufacturers allow us to deliver and market some of the best new products in cannabis. We’re excited about our partnerships that we’ve been developing, as we have an exciting new product in the pipeline. We’ll be releasing more information about our collaboration soon. We’re working with an award-winning flower brand in collaboration to develop a proprietary blend of their award-winning flower strain in vape form using cannabis-derived terpenes. Our amazing team allows us to constantly innovate new flavors and devices to keep providing the highest quality vape experience for our customers. You can follow us on social media @okitokioriginal to stay informed with updates and release dates. OkiToki!
How do you think the industry will change over the next decade?
In the next 5-10 years, there will be massive changes in the cannabis industry. The first change that I see happening is the SAFE Banking Act, which will allow cannabis companies to have access to traditional banking services like bank accounts and business loans. This is a major step in the federal legalization of cannabis. As cannabis is still a schedule 1, federally illegal substance, the SAFE Banking Act will get us one step closer to the national legalization of cannabis. It may not happen this year, but it’s only a matter of time before it gains enough support. More and more states are becoming legal, and it’s awesome to see how far the industry has come.
Another big change we see happening in the industry is the shift away from strain specifications like Sativa and Indica to a scale that highlights the effects and benefits of the specific strain. There will be new products like we’ve seen live resin become increasingly popular, we will see more scientific research that will better define the effects and benefits of each strain. We will continue to innovate with new products, and envision OkiToki as a name brand that people can trust for consistently exceptional flavor and premium quality products.
- Website: www.okitoki.com
- Instagram: www.instagram.com/okitokioriginal
- Facebook: www.facebook.com/okitokioriginal
- Twitter: www.twitter.com/okitokioriginal