Autumn Shelton is partner and Chief Financial Officer of Autumn Brands, a 50 percent woman-owned cannabis business located in sunny coastal Carpinteria, Santa Barbara County, California. She has spent almost 4 years successfully navigating the unchartered waters of California’s medical marijuana collective model and the newly legal cannabis industry. A calculated risk taker with an outstanding aptitude for numbers, Autumn champions the health and wellness benefits of cannabis and is committed to cultivation free of pesticides and other harmful chemicals. In her position as CFO, Autumn is a strategic decision maker for the family farm, which started in Holland more than 100 years ago. Along with overseeing the company’s financials, she is in charge of legal compliance on the local and state levels. This includes, but is not limited to, ordinances, regulations, packaging, permits, and licensing. Another farm duty is walking the greenhouses once or twice a week to check on “the ladies”.
Can you share with us the story about what brought you to this specific career path?
I was the Financial Controller of my (now) partners commercial cut flower business when he was approached to lease out his greenhouses for medical marijuana in 2015. Soon after he decided we should also start a collective along with his two kids that would be graduating college in the coming years. We learned a lot about growing and staying compliant. We actively participated in the State and Local regulation process for MAUCRSA. And at the beginning of 2018 we transitioned to the state licensed regulated cannabis market and decided to brand ourselves and put out a packaged product line of 1/8 Premium Flower jars and Pre-Rolls. I am the CFO of Autumn Brands and I have 3 wonderful partners – Hanna Brand – CSO, Hans Brand- CEO, and Johnny Brand- COO.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?
We have had to evacuate and destroy products due to wildfires and mudslides in 2017/2018 and adjust our business during a pandemic. But through it all we have grown closer together, implemented new protocols, and continue to grow our business and sales while staying true to who we are.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
When we first started growing, we didn’t know the best way to dry/trim. Should we wet or dry trim and should we use a machine or people? We read a lot about the differences and decided to wet machine trim our product. Our warehouse manager at the time, who is now our Brand Manager and also my husband, really pushed us to hand pick, hang dry and hand trim everything. Wet trimming provided a lot more weight and less employees, but lost the terpenes and look of the cannabis flower. Eventually, we were convinced after doing a side by side test and hired a talented army of trimmers and added a lot more TLC to our process. It certainly has paid off as our brand continues to grow.
Are you working on any exciting projects now?
We have been working on developing a pain relief topical for almost 2 years now and it’s almost ready to go to market. We are beyond excited to share it with our consumers this Christmas. We have put a lot of heart and soul into it.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?
I have had so many mentors that have guided me to success in my life. But in this particular position, I am grateful to my partner Hans (who was once my boss). In 2014, I was looking for a career in commercial real estate, but got referred to a financial controller position. On the same day, I was offered the exact real estate position I was looking for and a financial controller position. Something inside of me said I should change course and go work for Hans. So I did! We had a great dynamic from day 1. He saw how I was able to help his struggling cut flower company and took a leap to ask me to be an equal partner in a new venture in the cannabis industry. To this day, my partners and I have an incredible synergy that allows us to be successful and enjoy every day together.
This industry is young dynamic and creative. Do you use any clever and innovative marketing strategies that you think large legacy companies should consider adopting?
We are a family owned, self-funded medium sized cultivator and brand. When we started selling our branded line, a distributor told us that we needed to put 20% of our gross revenue into marketing. We didn’t listen. That seemed like way too much especially under 280e. We only spent what was within our means. That distributor is no longer in business. I think the first key thing large companies should be focused on is their bottom line, not on how much they can spend on marketing. A lot of them continue to operate at a loss because of this. We focus on spending money when we can measure the outcome. Today, we have a much larger marketing budget than we did in 2018 and during COVID you have to get more creative with how you market. Hiring a PR Firm, and a marketing firm that understands the cannabis industry is key. We transitioned from in-store demos to virtual demo’s after COVID. Making a connection with the consumer and with people that we work with is very important to us. When we started working with Instagram Influencers, we always set up a meet and greet with them, so that we can get to know them and they really know who we are and what we represent. And every one of them every time says brands never take the time to get to know them. They just pay them to make post. So it’s really important to create a personal connection when marketing the brand so that the authenticity always remains.
Can you share 3 things that most excite you about the Cannabis industry? Can you share 3 things that most concern you?
Three things that excite me about the Cannabis industry are that there is no glass ceiling for women in this industry, how many people find relief and healing properties from this magical plant, and that Cannabis is finally getting the recognition that it is Essential to a very large population of the world. The three things that most concern me are the continued closed minded people that are stuck on previous propaganda and lies and anti-cannabis groups that try to ruin any cannabis business they can. The Tax Code 280e and over taxation at the State level still continue to inhibit businesses from getting out of debt and be successful, which in turn gives room for the Traditional market to flourish. And the uncertainty of the upcoming election and how we can progress as a nation and not just state by state.
Can you share your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started Leading a Cannabis Business”? Please share a story or example for each..
1. I wish someone would have told me how the public comment process worked at the state level, then I would have submitted more requests in the beginning. There were multiple opportunities to submit public comment for the California cannabis regulations. However, they wouldn’t allow you to submit new comments that weren’t already discussed in the regulations as we went along the process. One example is that there still isn’t a clear path for samples without having a distributor deliver them. I tried to submit a request prior to the final regulations, but they dismissed my comment because I didn’t bring it up in 2017.
2. I wish someone told me that it would potentially take 3 years to get a local cannabis permit, not 3 months. We are still in the process of obtaining a local cannabis entitlement even though all we did was change the crop from cut flowers to cannabis. It has been an ever changing and expensive process that continues on with no end in sight. If we were told then what we know now, we could have gotten a permit a long time ago.
3. I wish someone had told me that the lessons and knowledge that are learned in this industry will set any executive apart. But this is not for the light of heart. There are so many hurdles to go through, that it takes real tenacity, the ability to know when to spend money and when not to.
4. I wish someone had told me that the cannabis business takes precise data to grow high quality bud consistently, there is no other way. A lot of people will say that this cannabis is a “weed” and is easy to grow. This is not true and it takes a lot of good farming practices and knowledge to grow a good quality product.
5. I wish someone had told me that since this industry is so new, there is no ceiling for who can be a leader or a participant. Neither sex nor racial ethnicity is a factor when it comes to being successful in the cannabis market. If anything, women who are natural caregivers and certain races that have been wronged for cannabis could be the leaders just purely by their innate knowledge and experience with the plant.
What advice would you give to other CEOs or founders to help their employees to thrive?
We are two families that own and operate our business. Our employees are the crutch of our business and making sure we keep a happy and healthy environment is number one. It’s important to come together and be a team on a macro and micro levels. It’s important to listen and adapt when change is necessary. We have monthly BBQ’s or meals brought in for all the employees to celebrate all the birthday’s that month. Our workers that do repetitive actions, exercise their hands and bodies a few times throughout the day. We provide higher wages for those that show ambition to learn and grow at all levels of the company. When COVID happened in March, we bought lunch for our employees 3 times per week to help the local businesses keep the lights on, but also to ensure our employees were fed since some of their family members lost jobs.
You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.
It’s always important to pay it forward. We are strong believers in the more you give the more returns. We are members of CARP Growers, a local cannabis association that is dedicated to giving back to the community and educating about cannabis. My partners, Hans and Hanna spearheaded the 93013fund to give back to others in need when COVID hit. We have donated to a number of organizations including Girls Inc, Black Lives Matter, and recently have added a pink tamper seal to our jars in the month of October to honor Breast Cancer Awareness Month. Fifty cents of every jar sold with the pink tamper seal in October will be donated to the Santa Barbara Breast Cancer Resource Center.
What is the best way our readers can follow you on social media?
They can find us on Instagram @autumnbrands, our website www.autumnbrands.com, Facebook and Twitter.