"With cannabis, the conversations and the way in which you connect with others, is so profound and in my mid-30s, I was more appreciative of that."
Van der Pop, a female lifestyle brand that officially launched January 2016, was purchased by Tokyo Smoke in early 2017, which was then purchased by Hiku Brands in December 2017 and again by Canadian powerhouse Canopy Growth, July 2018. Here, April shares with us the reality of what early startup days really looked like and the road to an entrepreneurs dream.
The Highly: Walk us through the early days. How did you get the vision for Van der Pop? Was the idea to throw it against the wall and see what happens or did you have a solid business plan?
April Pride: WA State went REC in 2014 just as I was cursing year four of alcohol abstinence. I had stopped drinking after the birth of my second son, because to be hungover was just an impossible thing to layer into a life. I dealt with a lot of that with my first kid. I was like, I will not do that again. It was problematic. This was one of the first times that I really experienced cannabis without alcohol. Those are some just brilliant, brilliant memories. I started having more of those as a mom, with friends and with my husband too. With cannabis, the conversations and the way in which you connect with others, is so profound and in my mid-30s, I was more appreciative of that.
I was at a crossroads, I had business in fashion and I had just finished the business plan. It was a really tough time for me, because I figured out a lot about myself in that process, which is, I can't sell people things just because it's a new season. It’s not where my heart is and I really couldn't make a life out of it.
I was meeting with a client I hadn’t seen for a long time, she was the executive assistant at Privateer (a cannabis private equity firm). This woman didn't drink alcohol, ever. I was like, wait, you work for who? Tell me everything! She said: “Nobody is submitting anything for women, and nobody's doing anything that puts design first.”
Because I really do love to work, and to build brands, I wanted to continue to do that. Cannabis is this is a consumable that I hope people buy a ton of, and insurance companies will cover its use. I could sell cannabis.
TH: How long did it take to get off the ground?
AP: We were at a restaurant where I knew the people who owned it. It was a Syrian family who own a few restaurants here in Seattle. They overheard what we were talking about, and they gave me my seed capital. Syrian immigrants funded my American dream.
Those discussions took place in March of 2015. That summer in July was when my first investment was deposited. We soft launched November 2015, and then had our official launch January 2016. It was just off to the races.
TH: Did you ever worry Van Der Pop wasn’t going to take-off?
AP: No. It was on a tear. It had a life of its own, from day one. It's been fun to watch it meet its potential. The reason that is, is because women like it. I keep producing content or products, that connects with them. They'll spread the word. That's really what ends up happening. Something that they know someone else will appreciate in their life, and they share it with them.
TH: Is the Van Der Pop vision different from the original vision?
AP: Our demographic, is not the same as it was in January 2016. It was all about having good looking products, because I come at everything as a designer. By March of 2016, I knew that I was focusing on females because I was starting to understand the differences in how this plant interacts with women and men. And that men are making a lot of the decisions about the brands, and they don't understand women. There was the real personal mission to educate and speak to women. Then, they still weren't necessarily purchasing our products. That was a problem because cash flow was an issue, as a startup. I'm like okay, let's host events, so women can interact with the products, and they can touch and feel and ask questions and do that in an open way.
TH: What are women most drawn to with cannabis and Van der Pop?
AP: I think that the main driver with any woman is fear around cannabis. Fear of what people will think; fear of how it will affect her, and will those effects be irreversible. Will something just switch, and then she'll never be the same again. Will her kids find out, and then how will she explain that. At those events, which were branded as ‘sessions’, women would come and ask questions about the plant, or they would come and want to socialize with other cannabis consumers, because there was nowhere else to.
TH: Do you ever worry about the fact you are an influencer in a field where the clinical research hasn't been done?
AP: Not if I’m not claiming to be a doctor, or saying, “definitely do this…” Nobody really has any answers at all. It's meant to be more of: I know more than you, and this has been my experience with it. That's how I learn. Take that for what you will.
TH: Did you worry about the stigma, being one of the first woman in the space?
AP: No. I'd much rather be known for cannabis than having a dress. The people that I'm fascinated by — they're always doing stuff that probably, at the time, seemed radical. I just felt like, it's only going to be radical to some people, other people will think it's lame. It just seems right for me.
TH: How did you explain this to your kids and family?
AP: My kids, they're young. I don't know if they understood entirely what they were agreeing to, but I tried my hardest to make it clear how it would have both positive and negative impacts on their life in the short term and perhaps the long term. I also just said, "Listen, one day you're going to ask me to support you in something, and as your parent, it may be hard, but I do trust you guys. I'm just asking you to trust me." We watched the Bob Marley documentary. There was so much good that was presented alongside his cannabis use. That's how it was presented to them. Then, the first question James, my older son, had was, “Can you make a lot of money? Okay, yes, do that.” He was an Alex P. Keaton kid. All of the songs that talk about it, he basically sings the lyrics and giggles every time he walks past me, which, I'm trying to make him understand that not everyone will think that that's funny, and only do it at home.
As a mom, and with my boys, I felt like I wanted to be a part of something that I knew would be a better alternative for them, when they're looking to figure out how to deal with social anxiety or just the pressures of life. I'd much rather that be cannabis than alcohol. I talked to my husband, parents and to my in-laws, and everyone was supportive, so I didn't feel like I was harpooning their life unexpectedly.
TH: Do you smoke in front of your kids?
AP: No, but they know that I share joints with friends when socializing.
TH: How did you get such a knack for being a leader? Were you ever afraid of putting yourself out there?
AP: My mom had always said that I was a leader and it stuck with me. I'm at a place in my life where I feel really strong and like I can stand up to any abuse that may come along with this decision.
TH: Do you think about tone and authenticity or you just speak?
AP: You just can't bullshit a cannabis brand. You just have to come from what's true.
TH: How did Tokyo Smoke find you?
AP: Tokyo Smoke found Van der Pop on Angel List. I had already met Alan about six months prior. We met, talked for an hour and a half, had a beer, went for a walk. It was easy to imagine talking to him about working together. We did that on November 1st, 2016. I was really grateful, because I knew he was very good at raising capital, and I knew we were going to need a lot more capital than I had projected, if, now “our” business model was to educate women and build our own market over time. I wasn’t spending enough time doing that, because I was trying to get this brand in a place where it could sell itself, with the end goal being that we would have cannabis on shelves, and that's where revenue would come from. November, Trump was elected, and I knew I was screwed in terms of investors. Selling to a Canadian company made a lot of sense for those reasons, too.
TH: Do you feel you gave up control?
AP: Yeah, I don't really have any role that's day to day. I pass along contacts that I meet, women who I think should be featured on the website or in the newsletter, on topics that I'm hearing, that I feel like they're trending and that we should address. If I see an illustrator that I like, I certainly pass the stuff on, and there is a welcome place for it to be received. I am really happy to have such a capable team and am really happy to depend on them and take this time to speak in a bigger way, that doesn't take as much time, but it can have as much of an impact. I feel fortunate to be in that position.
TH: You have a huge following. Can you survive if your social is mediocre?
AP: You cannot neglect social. I spent 50 percent of my seed capital, and 80 percent of our resources in terms of time, building our social media, because I knew that I could sell my company based on its Instagram account. I doubled down and invested in an agency that could expand our reach on all of the efforts we were already making, and we grew the [Instagram] account. That is where the people who will tell everyone about what you're doing, whether they like it or not. Then, on the backend of that, you got to back it up. You can't just be a brand that has pretty picture. You’ve got to really stand for something. Instagram is just a way that you tell people what you stand for, but it's not all you have as a brand. That is your bullhorn, you have to use it. Unfortunately, that is a fact.
TH: What about facebook and twitter?
AP: Yeah, Facebook was a real pain in the ass, no, we never mastered that. It was really hard, because you needed to run ads, and we couldn't. Then, Twitter is great , that's where the press is.
TH: Repercussions to startup life?
AP: At some point, as a founder, you start up again. I've done it four times. I have PTSD. I think it is possible to burn out. When it's a little bit past you and you're dealing with the physical repercussions of not sleeping for three years and working on a laptop and not exercising. I was on so much adrenaline and deadline, that you just push past whatever pain you have. Now, I'm very much like, Shit. What have I done to myself.
I'm trying to repair friendships. They're not broken, but they were neglected for a long time, because you’re either with your kids and your family or you're at work. With travel, there's just nothing in between. It doesn't mean that I don't love my friendships or my friends and that they don't have a special place in my life... I knew Van der Pop was a huge opportunity, and I knew it was going to happen. It felt like it was a very finite period of time. I just was pretty clear: I'm not available this year. I'm going to miss something important. Forgive me. Yeah, that's where I am now, is just repairing my body and my friendships.
TH: What’s next for you and Van der Pop?
AP: I'm still with the company and it is solely focused on Canada for 2018, because it's becoming adult use legal, and it’s still not legal in the US. That's where our resources are. We're traded on the Toronto Stock Exchange as of this June, which means that you can't have operations in the US. I don't think it will be like this this time next year. It definitely gives me pause as an American going, Oh, okay, how can I serve both countries?
I do that by showing up, speaking in Canada, and speaking in the US, still as the founder of Van der Pop. Usually, at a business panel, I get to speak about brands and products, which is my professional passion. It's always about destigmatizing this. I know that until women feel like they have permission to choose cannabis...it's bad for business. The stigma is keeping patients and wellness aficionados away. I'm not the person to give people permission, but I feel like if you lead by example, maybe others will say yes.
TH: Is anyone making money in cannabis yet?
AP: Companies that are listed in the Canadian exchanges are.
TH: If you had 30 seconds with President Trump what would you say?
AP: “Bless your heart. Didn’t your mother teach you that you can catch more bees with honey than with vinegar?” Any Southerner will understand the direct translation of this dialogue.
TH: Flower, vape, or edible?