Alan Lien is the co-founder and president of Solis Tek, which manufactures a range of grow lighting technology.
What makes your company different from others in the cannabis space?
Solis Tek is unique to the industry in several ways. Having been around for nine years, our company is the oldest tenured lighting company specifically established to cater to the cannabis sector. In that time span, we have seen a lot of competing brands and companies come and go. Solis Tek’s staying power is based on our sales and offerings which are grounded in science and education. Our products are a direct result of our investments in R&D which have yielded several new products including the Controller and the entire Nutrient Line, which are created specifically for the cannabis plant, placing us at a higher tier of expertise in the ancillary product and services for the cannabis space over others. In addition, we take more of a consultative approach with our clients. The Solis Tek senior team tours more than 100 gardens a year.
How did you get into the cannabis space?
I personally got into the cannabis space because my now co-founder, Alvin Hao, came to me with an idea that the industry was being underserved with proper lighting and nutrient products. Alvin was part of the cannabis culture and, with my in-depth sourcing and manufacturing expertise garnered from my family business, I was able to get into the weeds (pun intended) fairly easily in being able to identify a void and to bring our collective knowledge and expertise into the industry to help it progress technologically and educationally. The mostly underground industry proliferated by word-of-mouth science and jerry-rigged technology providing an opening for a pair of hungry, experienced entrepreneurs.
Walk us through a normal day.
I travel quite a bit. In fact, I am on the road more than half the days out of the year. However, with my home base in New Jersey, a normal day would start at 7 am getting updates on the progress being made by our China manufacturing partners in regards to new products in R&D and following up on our inventory orders.
Depending on how long the calls go with China, I am usually in the office by 10am to start my day with emails and setting my agenda for the rest of the day. By 12pm, the west coast is now up, and I am on sales calls, internal conference calls and managing the sales reps, working on any internal R&D open items with the team, taking investor and client calls, and more. By 8pm eastern time, Asia is now back online and I set the agenda for our manufacturing partners, answer questions and ensure we are supported by our manufacturers.
The above is typical of any day when I am able to be at home. Otherwise, I literally live on an airplane with consistent travel into California where our corporate office is, as well as visits to clients and prospects in major states.
What has been your biggest lesson about working in cannabis, and in business in general?
The biggest mis-interpretation about cannabis is that you need a different approach being in the cannabis industry. Yes, you have to adapt to a different “culture” with people that do business in a more unconventional way. However, at the end of the day, business is done how business is done. My biggest lesson has been learning how to marry corporate business methods with the grassroots culture the cannabis industry represents. In the cannabis industry, there is a lot of smoke and mirrors; however, to have longevity and staying power for any individual or company in the cannabis industry, you truly have to be an expert in what you do and have the adaptability to work cohesively with other experts in the field to make sure you offer something of real value. True business acumen has been lacking in the cannabis industry since most of the business has been done in the grey or black market; but with legalization and “above board” companies in the space taking over more and more of the market share in both products and services offered, the companies which can successfully marry and bring in the experienced business partners and the cannabis experts together will be the ones who are here to stay and grow the industry.
What do you see as your biggest opportunity in cannabis?
Our biggest opportunity in cannabis is what is seen as a negative in most people’s eyes - the federal and State disconnect in legislation. The disconnect between federal and state laws is preventing a lot of the major Fortune 500 companies – which are currently trading on the major stock exchanges as well as those companies in the public eye globally – from entering the space comfortably without any public pushback. We have a unique opportunity here as a small company looking to grow aggressively, over the next few years before we have to face the challenges of the bigger Fortune 500 companies entering the market and competing with us. This provides us with the chance to try to grow as big as possible until the point in the time when those larger corporations do decide to come in; then, those larger corporations have to take a good hard look at companies like ours and decide if they want to build an infrastructure from scratch and try to compete with us with the risk of them burning more capital than they need to enter the market, or simply acquire companies like ours.
Do you have any thoughts or concerns about Jeff Sessions’ intention to crack down on recreational cannabis?
In my opinion, it is going to be hard to stop the legalization of cannabis with over 85% acceptance for medical and over 50% acceptance for recreational adult use. It can be slowed down but with the tax revenue that cannabis is bringing into legal states, I can foresee states fighting tooth and nail for those tax revenues to keep rolling in from cannabis by ensuring that our democratic rights are enforced, at least on the state level.
What sets you apart to make you a potential leader in cannabis?
We are built for cannabis. Other lighting and nutrient suppliers have taken products which have worked in big agriculture and re-marketed them to the cannabis community. At Solis Tek, we build our products specifically for the cannabis plant. What really separates Solis Tek from the rest of the pack is our focus on innovation and education. We focus on creating products around the actual correlation between light science and plant biology. For example, we were one of the first companies to advocate a “light diet,” encouraging cultivators to use several different lights/bulbs to emulate different seasons and how the sun would impact the plant if grown outdoors. Plants are like humans; they need a balanced diet of what they usually get from Mother Nature, and the one thing everyone is trying to figure out is how to bring the sun indoors. That is exactly what we have done by bringing in the four different light spectrums mimicking the different seasons the plant usually sees outdoors.
What is the most frustrating aspect of the cannabis industry today?
The most frustrating aspect is the lack of knowledge of many people coming into the industry. This applies not only to new investors or aspiring operators but also to people who have been involved in the industry for quite some time. The usual practice in any industry is to mimic the last person who was perceived as successful at what they were doing and follow their lead. However, since the cannabis industry was underground for decades, “best practices” aren’t always best practices. A lot of information has been passed down from one person to another in a misleading fashion. You can’t fake science and Solis Tek educates and sells the real science behind the technology.
What would you say to those who are considering investing in your company?
From a regulatory point of view, as a key differentiating factor for cannabis investors, Solis Tek is a company that does “not touch the plant”. Next, I would say look at our track record, look at how we put together our management team, look at our network of partners which we have collectively built. We have operated as a company for over 9 years, and the individuals that make up our team have experience in our respective verticals that go back even further. We have growers that have 10 to 20 years of experience in cannabis who are educating and selling on the front lines for our company. Our CEO, Dennis Forchic, has more than 25 years’ experience as a serial entrepreneur including a stint with a company that had a 9 figure run rate; and we have a solid team in compliance and finance. I truly believe we have the most well-rounded company. In addition, our focus on innovation, the fact that we build products specifically to cater to the cannabis plant/market and our emphasis on science has enabled us to create premium products and solutions.
What are the biggest challenges of being a publicly offered cannabis company?
The biggest challenge is overcoming the previous standards set by the trends that made a lot of noise to put cannabis companies on the map in the public arena. Back in 2014, cannabis stocks made huge noise because of the talk of legalization. You could literally throw money into a cannabis stock blindfolded, and you would make a multiple of your money in a span of days because of all the hype which was driving companies that had little to no revenue with sometimes up to half a billion dollars in their market cap value. A lot of people made a lot of money during that time but even more people lost a lot of money; and as a result, a lot of skepticism still remains today towards publicly-traded cannabis companies. However, when we have the chance to tell our story, that challenge becomes more of an advantage because we are one of the few companies which are publicly-offered in the cannabis space which is actually doing everything properly on both the fundamentals and public side of the company.
What advice would you give to anyone looking to get into the cannabis space?
Do not buy into the hype and carefully choose what type of risk level you are willing to take on. This could differ from investing in “touching the plant” companies and “not touch the plant” companies.
Do your research to make sure you know who you are working with in regards to the management team. Do they have the management team to grow the company from BOTH a business and cannabis expertise standpoint? No matter what product or services you offer, you need to understand from the bottom up the who, what, where, when and how, and just like any other industry which requires a high level of expertise to be able to be successful, having the right management team is the key.
As an example, a licensed producer could have a great head grower who is leading the operations team, but if you are satisfied with just a single location with a cap on the amount of revenue being brought in, then that may be the investment for you. However, if you are looking for a company with the potential of unlimited growth, then you need to look for an operator who can hire great growers and understand how to implement proper SOPs to make the facility be able to run itself without having to always be there to babysit the process.
What are your biggest tips for branding cannabis?
Don’t be “a me too” product. This industry is getting flooded with a lot of “knock off” products. Innovation takes time, energy, capital and is a higher risk, but to be here in the long run, you have to be able to create and offer something unique. That could be a new product or a different way to bring convenience and simplicity to help the end users be able to operate more efficiently.
Do you see any big changes coming in the future of cannabis?
What is great about this industry is that it is still in its infancy stage. We are just touching the tip of the iceberg in regards to what is an ever-changing process of developing best practices in all categories. I foresee the immediate future of cannabis will be in how we can develop more reliable, utility-efficient processes to leave a smaller carbon footprint on our planet.
The other aspect of cannabis is legislation. Legislation will be unpredictable but that will also be the biggest change as we move into the future. Legalization will affect how recreational consumers can purchase and consume cannabis as well as how we can figure out the real medicinal benefits of the cannabis plant with public funding for research.
Do you consume cannabis? And if so, what's your favorite way to consume?
Being in the industry and part of the culture, it’s hard to not consume cannabis in one way or another. Vaporizing is my favorite way to consume cannabis at this time as it is discrete, and convenient, because of the more subtle odor it expels as well as not having the need to have so many other devices to set up to be able to consume the plant.
Also, with continued research and design, companies are making and developing some very groundbreaking extraction machines and methods which can produce cleaner and more efficient ways of delivering the therapeutic effects of cannabis. Vaporizing is also one of the most non-invasive (mentally and physically) ways to consume, as well. Tens of thousands of vape cartridges and pens are being sold on a daily basis.