Jan 24 2020 . 14 min read
Elevating the Conversation with Gunner Winston, CEO, dosist
Elevating the Conversation with Gunner Winston, CEO, dosist
Gunner Winston brings a 15-year background in finance to dosist, a brand known for shifting the cannabis paradigm with its health-centric, therapeutic approach that capitalizes on dosing. Assuming the role of CEO in May 2017, Winston shares his vision of positioning dosist as “a global aspirational consumer goods company through a narrative of targeted formulas and precise dosages.” The brand introduced its signature dose pen, which delivers precise 2.25 mg doses ensuring a reliable and consistent experience, to the Nevada market in November.
What was so attractive about cannabis to woo you out of retirement?
My career before being CEO of dosist was in finance. I had a 15-year career, most recently running my own asset management company, and I had retired in 2014 and I was just investing personally at a small family office. And I came across cannabis in 2016, but at the time everyone was pitching cultivation deals. But as I thought more about the space and I learned more about the cannabis business, what I was intrigued by is the ability to create a brand for a consumer. So, as an investor, what I became very excited about is the ability to found a brand. In 2016, most of the cannabis brands were focused very much around pure intoxication, which is why the normal people associated with the brands were Cheech and Chong, Snoop Dogg, and Willie's Reserve, which serves a very big part of the population. But what intrigued me was the potential beyond the existing hardcore cannabis consumer. That's really where I came into contact with dosist, and the narrative of empowering people to naturally manage their health and happiness.
What is the foundation of dosist, the brand?
For dosist, the foundation, then and now, has always been around science and innovation. We used leading cannabis scientists to create targeted formulas including the need states of sleep, relief, calm. So immediately, you're taking away cannabis as the product you’re selling, and cannabis becomes an ingredient. What you're instead selling, and educating about, is how to sleep naturally, how to find a natural way to manage your anxiety as opposed to somebody selling OG Kush or Durban Poison. Cannabis becomes the ingredient and now you're focusing on a wellness narrative.
The other part was innovation. Most people show you flower pre-rolls and put nice packaging around it but it's still just a commodity. Instead, dosist created the first dose-controlled pen on the market, where for three seconds after you inhale, it cuts off, delivers you 2.25 milligrams every time. And I didn't understand the innovation in 2016, but when they explained to me: ‘How do you have anything medicinal without dose?’ It struck a perfect chord, which is why everyone has struggled in this space, because when a new consumer steps in they're using it for sleep. You have a joint, you might take too much, especially for a first-time user, or it might not be repeatable. Once again, the idea is how do you take the guesswork out of the cannabis experience and give someone a repeatable experience.
When you took over in 2017 what was your goal?
The goal was the same then as it is now. Our mission, which has been crystal clear, is to empower people to naturally manage their health and happiness, the keyword being natural. Cannabis is a very powerful tool to help you naturally manage health and happiness. The key will be how do you get people to trust cannabis. That's the mission.
The vision is to become a global aspirational consumer goods company. We believe the narrative of dosist is applicable, not just in California and Nevada, but also in North Dakota and Tokyo. Now, it might not be allowed by law, but our narrative of targeted formulas, precise dosage is not specific today. There are forever people who care about sleeping, and managing anxiety, and they'll want it in a controlled format, right? Like Tylenol is not less relevant today than it was 20 years ago because you know if you take it what happens to you. So, my point to you about that is, I set off from day one knowing we want to become this global aspirational company. We're now taking a very judicious approach to meeting that goal. Launching in Nevada, Colorado's next, then Michigan, Canada, Arizona, out into New York and Florida all in the next four months.
You came in at a time where business acumen wasn't prominent in the industry. So, you had to be a disruptor yourself, not just dosist, but you were a disruptor, too. How was that received?
I think in 2016 and ‘17, you heard a lot about the green rush. Everyone was joining this rush because it looked like easy profits. And it was kind of like the gold rush of decades ago. If you go out and mine for gold, you're going to find it and become rich. And, of course, it ended up being a farce. Some people got rich, a lot of people didn't. Based on my experience in investing, I knew that while some people might strike it rich early, like most spaces, it's going to be based, if you're building a brand, on time, repetition, and investing in that brand.
I was fortunate to have inherited an already strong product and brand. What they didn't really have is a business and strategy around that. My background wasn't in brand formation, but it was understanding brand building. Two different things. I couldn't have created the brand, but the team that initially started it thought they needed someone else to come in and actually build a strategy around it.
The professionalism in the industry changes. And so, right away I started and said, ‘Look, let's talk about not where we are today as an industry, but what it's going to become.’ Because everyone's attracted by the size of it, but not everyone succeeds so you have to have a strategy, you have to build a talented team, and you have to have a real plan in place to manage through difficult periods. So, that everything's perfect. Everything looks glossy at first, but we're all seeing now, whether it's the vape crisis, or the challenges growing in different states, there will be ebbs and flows in this industry.
Who is the dosist consumer?
We want to get the consumer who doesn't even know they're our consumer yet. That takes more marketing dollars, and it takes more innovation. The person who buys our brand doesn't want to feel connected to stoner culture. We have to be remarkably disciplined. We say ‘no’ more than we say ‘yes.’ A lot of these [dispensary] accounts say: ‘Wow. Who cares about a wellness product?’ We believe the consumer of the future does.
The key is how do you get it to a consumer like you, who's a globally productive citizen. And even if you might like a joint once in a while as I do, you still have to function. And that's the challenge. We believe there are many products for different people, but the wellness market hasn't been properly serviced yet because you have to be very true to it. You have to focus on the consumer in a socially-responsible way.
Dosing, so far, has been elusive in the cannabis industry. Why?
When you think about the market today, the fattest part of the market has been the person who likes weed. The traditional association with cannabis is intoxication, correct? People have worked to make it more medicinal, but medicinal is very vague. We've worked really hard to change the codes and stereotypes. We know that the consumer who's stepping into the category, either for the first time, or for the first time in 10 years, or they maybe had a bad experience and they're interested again because cannabis is so prominent, is nervous. You have to take the guesswork out of cannabis. The biggest concern that an existing consumer has, or even a consumer who can't get high, is how much do I take?
I use this example often. If I said to my son, who's eight years old, ‘Hey buddy, I know you're sick. Take this bottle of Benadryl and swig it.’ He might take too much or might not take enough, and so what's interesting is we want people to find their own dose. But that consumer isn't always the one who's in the category today looking for Durban Poison and looking for Pineapple Trainwreck. Our consumer hasn't been serviced yet. We're one of the first brands to bring the consumer in who wants to manage the intoxication. They might like a little high, but they don't want to be stoned.
Tell us about dose dial. Did it naturally evolve from dose pen?
As an innovative company, the idea was to find what fits within the confines of our mission to empower people to manage their health naturally. We worked for 18 months to get our tablet right. There were a lot of them on the market but what we also created, in addition to a really great tablet, is a device that is child-resistant. You have to press down with your thumb, rotate it, and it requires multiple points of dispensing so a child can't get into it.
We think the next concern is going to be around kids eating too many edibles. We don't do gummies—instead we have a peppermint flavored, low-dose dissolvable tablet in a child-resistant device. It's the first one on the market because we're going to protect the consumer not just for their kids, but also to make sure you don't take too many.
Are consumers demanding cannabis products that offer dosing?
They are only demanding it because now they're seeing more options. But part of it is the way the industry's going to be shaped. People ask me, ‘Well, how's the industry to be shaped?’ By brands. If a brand never speaks to someone, they might never enter the category. We're making cannabis more palatable to the consumer. Now, that being said, more brands are realizing that you don't want to fight only for the person looking to get the cheapest eighth of weed. Our consumer is anyone who's less price-disciplined, who's willing to say, ‘Hey, I want value, not just low prices.’
Why did you pick Nevada to launch dosist in next?
When you look at global cities, Las Vegas is unequivocally one of the most global cities in the entire world. People are coming from all over the world to experience what Las Vegas is about. And it's really so specific. You can't replicate Vegas in other geographies. So as we've looked at our first adult-use expansion, Nevada was perfect for us because you have a population of dynamic people, 4 million people, and you also have 40 million people coming here every single year.
When we look at markets, we say, ‘Okay, well, there's population size, but there's also the fabric of that population.’ I'm inspired when it comes to Nevada. When I was 25, it used to be about how much can I hang out and party. I go now and I don't gamble. I rarely stay out late, and I have a wonderful time by having wonderful dinners, going to a great spa, maybe getting a great workout in. So, I do think there is not just connectivity between LA, San Francisco, and Las Vegas, but also here, and in Toronto and Vancouver. So, our goal is to really focus on wonderfully dynamic states with wonderfully dynamic cities. And let's not underestimate...I mean, Las Vegas is truly, truly a wonderful city pulling people from all the world. So, as we look to be a global aspirational brand, I think Nevada, and Las Vegas, specifically, are states and cities you have to be in.
Why launch in Nevada now?
I spent the first two-and-a-half years making sure we can build a business. We didn't know if we could sell a premium product, to your point, for a consumer who maybe hadn't touched the category in a while and didn't like weed. We have proven in California that we actually can do it. We figured out our recipe of education, of visual merchandising, meaning when you walk in a store, we tend to show up really well. How do we convey a product that, to your point earlier, most people have never seen before? What is dosist? Why should I pay more for dosist? So, we had to figure that business model out. It wasn't easy. You have to have wins and losses. Once we figured it out, we asked, ‘Now where do we want to grow? How do we get our product into more people's hands?’ We hope that we are giving Nevada something that's helping people sleep. That's what inspires me, helping people manage their anxiety. I love those stories. So, now is the time because we've proven we can do it, and the next trajectory of growth is in a couple of the cities and states I mentioned. And if we do that right, we're looking at Europe and Latin America next, but we've got to keep on earning it.
Regarding the vaping crisis, what has dosist done to address it?
I think the key for us is not what we're doing now, but what we did before the crisis even happened. From the beginning we were very focused on making sure we created a replicable product, but also at the same quality standards. We will always test at the highest standards possible. We were already using products that we knew would stand up to any lab testing. There was no vitamin E acetate, no additives. We only use CBD, THC, and botanical terpenes. We have a closed-loop product, no one else can put oil in our pens. Whereas with some of these open-loop products other people could put their oils in it. The only person who puts oil in our products is us. It's a closed-loop system as a disposable pen. And even our dose-controlled product has a narrative of: ‘Don't vape all the time.’ Now it's just about educating and reinforcing that all vaporization is not created equal.
What is the most surprising thing you've personally discovered about cannabis?
I think I knew this would be hard. This is harder than anything I've ever done, and we have over 150 people from some really, really wonderful backgrounds, and all those people have said this is the hardest thing I've ever done, too. If you really think about all of us−yourself, myself, and everyone else in this space today−we are truly trailblazers in the history of what's going to be, obviously, a big business. There will never be a first again. We're at the front of this, where legislation is being created. You mentioned earlier going from medical to adult-use, which has not been without wrinkles. That's been the most challenging part for me is, you're almost trying to create a strategy with tectonic plates. It's always moving, and so every time we think we have a well-orchestrated strategy, something changes. It is not for the weary and unfortunately, with more time, it's not getting any easier.
Can you share what you plan to innovate next?
So we're working on a couple of new products. We have another dose pen coming out in the next couple of months that will be even more innovative than our current product. So, stay tuned for that.
We're also working on potentially something in the CBD category. We've worked really hard to make sure that it's just not another CBD product. I do feel like that's a little bit clichéd now, but the dose dial just came out. But stay tuned. In the next year-and-a-half, you will see a lot more innovative dose control products.
What's one thing the cannabis industry needs to address in 2020?
Safety standards. We have to stop focusing on how much money everyone can make as quickly as possible in this green rush and focus on protecting consumers. I think certain states, including Nevada and California, have done a really good job. The industry needs to be a little more disciplined because every time you make irrational decisions or certain decisions, you're only hurting one group of people. The consumers. Plain and simple.