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Startup Talk Toronto’s Startup Podcast with Mimi Lam co founder of Superette

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CRAIG MAJOR

THE STARTUP COACH

TORONTOSTARTS.COM

The Startup Coach is the founder of Canada’s largest Startup Community TorontoStarts, helping entrepreneurs and startups all day every day

Craig Major

The Startup Coach

Discussing starting a cannabis retail business with Mimi Lam co-founder of Superette on this episode of the Startup Talk Podcast Toronto’s Startup Podcast Toronto’s Startup Podcast with The Startup Coach

Based in Toronto, Ontario, Superette makes cannabis retail friendly and easy, like buying the daily paper at your corner shop

About Mimi Lam

Mimi Lam is a luminary in Canada’s burgeoning legal cannabis industry. Bringing experience from investment banking and venture capital, she was previously Director of Corporate Development at Tokyo Smoke / Hiku Brands. There, she scaled the company’s strategy and operations, supported in the growth of the Tokyo Smoke retail banner across the country, and guided the companies through transformative transactions: Hiku’s acquisition by Canopy Growth Corp and Tokyo Smoke’s merger with BC-based craft cultivator DOJA Cannabis. At only 28 years old, Mimi is the CEO and co-founder of award-winning cannabis retailer and lifestyle company, Superette. Her vision for Superette, which has one store in Ottawa and others in the works, is to create accessible and inclusive spaces where everyone can discover their personal journey with cannabis. She is passionate about paving the way for womxn in Canada’s cannabis industry and fostering community through socially responsible initiatives. Her motto? To lead by example, speak with compassion and build with integrity.

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Here is the transcript of the interview with Mimi Lam of Superette

Direct from the six, world renowned, Canada’s largest city with Canada’s biggest thinkers, visionaries, and hustlers. This is Startup Talk featuring the founders, funders, innovators, and community leaders who’ve led Canada’s startup ecosystem right here in Toronto. You’ll hear the challenges, the failures, the successes. Toronto Startup podcast gives you the full story direct from the entrepreneurs and influencers who’ve made a difference. Now the host of startup talk, the founder of TorontoStarts the Startup Coach.

Startup Coach:Welcome back to Startup Talk. I’m your host Craig Major, founder of TorontoStarts and with me today is Mimi Lam, cofounder of Superette. Welcome Mimi.

Mimi Lam:Thank you for having me.

Startup Coach:It looks like you’ve had an incredible 2019 I’m looking at some of this top retail store, top startup, Top Budtender, a Women in Weed, Trailblazers, and so many more. Tell us about Superette and what’s been going on.

Mimi Lam:Yeah, gladly. So Superette is a cannabis retail brand, started at the end of 2018 currently has one operating store in Ottawa at 1306 Wellington Street West. And what we’re about is bringing immersive and unforgettable customer experience to cannabis retail. So we want to make sure that you feel empowered in your cannabis buying purchasing decision, and also make it a little bit of fun. There’s a lot of fear going on. So let’s have a little bit of fun.

Startup Coach:Yeah, I think we’ll get into talking a little bit about that. But before we get into that, I like to talk about the entrepreneur who they were as a kid. What were they like growing up? Were they a handful? Were you a handful for your parents? Were you studious? Were you in the music?

Mimi Lam:I like to say that I was a pretty good kid, very obedient, and I was also very different from who I am today. So growing up, very disciplined. I played piano growing up, spent a lot of time, practicing piano, doing the music competitions. So music has always been very important part of my life, which really grew that creative and artistic aspect of my personality. And so, I’d say growing up my passions were towards the more creative aspects. So wanting to be part of an orchestra. And then later on, I kind of jumped around a bit and wanted to be a veterinarian because I loved animals and then I watch a lot Judge Judy so I want to be a lawyer. So my passion has kind of taken a bit of a turn, ended up going to university for business as my pre-law degree, I mean, again, still wanting to get to be a lawyer. So during my time in business, fall in love with finance. So I ended up going towards capital markets and jumped in in investment banking a few years ago and now I’m here in cannabis.

Startup Coach:That’s a twisted tail. Law school, financing, cannabis. It doesn’t seem to be a straight.

Mimi Lam:Nope.

Startup Coach:

When did you decide you wanted to run your own company?

Mimi Lam:I mean probably just as we were building Superette. I think what happened was over the years… So, take it aback a little bit, I’ve been in the legal cannabis space since beginning of 2017, I joined a company called Tokyo Smoke. Really leading their charge for corporate development and strategy. And during that time essentially you got to see the industry grow up and regulations forming around the adult use market and also seeing a lot of the companies being built and created and growing alongside this industry. And I think over that time was faced with a lot of frustration. I like doing things better. I like doing things different and I felt a little bit stuck and I wanted to kind of forge my own path and also found it a great opportunity to take a bet on myself. So I started Superette with someone that I met at Tokyo Smoke there.

Mimi Lam:So he is my cofounder. We started it together and we basically looked at it as… Cannabis is a really exciting space. Basically this is the only industry of this magnitude that is going through this regulatory revolution in our lifetime. So, it would be a miss if we didn’t do something for ourselves. There was a lot of entrepreneurs flooding into this space. A lot of people coming in with new ideas, new innovations, taking their own spin to what this industry could be. And we figured why not. And so we started together. I wouldn’t necessarily say, “Oh, taking a CEO position has always been something I dreamed of.” It kind of naturally formed that way. But it’s been a very, very exciting challenge so far.

Startup Coach:So you were in investment banking before this.

Mimi Lam:Correct.

Startup Coach:And understanding the risk of investments in that opportunity cost is infinite meaning for you’re investing time and money into this, you’re not investing time money into anything else, or that time and money. So why this company?

Why Superette?

Mimi Lam:Yeah. Cannabis, there’s so much going on in this space right now. And if you looked at the entire value chain, you can start upstream on the cultivation side all the way to downstream to brands and products and kind of everything in-between. The proliferation of these different parts of the value chain are… They’re having their moments as time passes. So a few years back there was a lot of focus on cultivation. If I think about brands and products, I would say that the regulatory framework is not necessarily there now to really support the creative boundaries of what they could be. And so, retail is just very unique area where you directly get to connect with customers, you get to understand what is moving, what people want. And also, I understand the products that they’re interacting with. And so from a data standpoint and also from an education standpoint, it’s a really neat place to be.

Mimi Lam:And so when we were starting Superette, we looked at the retail landscape out there and we… I would say we weren’t necessarily excited about what we saw. We saw a lot of companies who were focused on being premium, bringing a luxury approach to cannabis because, at the end of the day, it’s a quite high value product. So totally understand that. And then we also saw a lot of legacy shops, which were probably not as accessible to newer consumers. And so we just wanted to bring some personality in the cannabis retail. And that in-between the gap of the experiential standpoint as well as being able to learn so much from the customer side. It was kind of a natural fit

Startup Coach:And I haven’t been into a cannabis shop since they’ve been legalized. So are most of them, a higher end experience or are they “head shoppy”

What’s the experience on most of the cannabis retail outlets for this kind of stuff?

Mimi Lam:I would say right now in general, looking at specifically Ontario, I would say most of the concepts skew towards the higher end. A lot of focus has been on creating experiences that are… That can be trusted by customers and they can feel safe, they can feel like they’re getting education, they’re getting a premium experience. And so we see a lot of that. I think if you hop over across the country to places like Alberta, the types of experience are much more diverse given the amount of stores that are there. So it’s really neat to see how these play out across the country. And we’re starting to see large chains really taking up a lot of the market share. And so with those you’ll see more consistent experiences across. So if you think about your Starbucks and Tim Horton’s, they all kind of look and feel similar across the board regardless of which one you go. And so some of the chains are starting to mimic that approach as well.

Startup Coach:

What kind of experience is Superette providing their customers?

Mimi Lam:Yeah, Superette, it’s a bit of a throwback. So we wanted to draw from traditional retail elements and really bring that to cannabis retail. So our inspiration, are from Bodega, from corner stores, we wanted to bring a vibe to it. So not even so much an aesthetic. We wanted to create an atmosphere where people felt comfortable. And so, on the aesthetic side, on the visual side, we would draw from inspiration from things like diners and delis and corner stores. But really inside what you feel is a really warm approach. A low tech, there aren’t iPads around. We wanted to create personal connections in the space. So everything from, the natural light that’s in the store to the music that you hear, to the type of interaction you have with our budtenders. It’s a really, really fun space to be in.

Startup Coach:It sounds like it.

What is it like being in a regulated industry that’s still trying to figure things out?

Mimi Lam:I mean for the most part it can be very frustrating. It’s frustrating because your hands are tied on a lot of the decisions that you can make. And also because regulations keeps on changing. It’s not like there’s one set of regulations and this is a framework you’re working with for the next five years. Every few months something comes out and it’s different and you have to deal with it. So, a lot of the time it’s like playing chess but trying to think five steps ahead. So, that aspect of the challenge is actually quite fun. I’m someone who gets bored pretty easily and so it’s been really neat being able to have to deal with that. And we have a great team that we can tackle these challenges with.

Startup Coach:

In 2018 near the end, in the beginning of 2019, cannabis businesses were very hot. Are they still hot?

Mimi Lam:I mean that’s a very generic statement I would say. I would say there was a lot of limelight on the public space and so the sentiment of cannabis industry has fluctuated quite a bit from 12 months ago until now. But I think what you’re seeing now is essentially a shift in focus. A shift in focus in know operational execution on creating real business models and also creates a lot of opportunity for different concepts and different companies and entrepreneurs to really shine through.

Startup Coach:

How much of a stigma is still attached to the cannabis industry?

And do people react negatively when you tell them what you do?

Mimi Lam:Stigma is slowly eroding. And I… When I say slow, I mean pretty quickly actually. So when I think back to when I started in the cannabis space, I wouldn’t even tell people I was in the cannabis space. I would just say I’m working for a startup and kind of leave it at that. But now I know I wear cannabis proudly on my sleeve. I think there’s a lot of excitement, a lot of uncertainty. But a lot of what has helped the stigma is education. I think showing people that the world isn’t going to fall apart and the sky isn’t going to fall down when cannabis is legal and when you consume cannabis, you’re going to be okay. A lot of that education has helped the industry a lot.

Startup Coach:And I imagine education plays a large part in not only your experience but helping your consumers because there’s a lot of misinformation out there.

How much does education play a part in your day-to-day interaction with your consumers?

Mimi Lam:It’s huge. So cannabis is such a personal product. It’s not like alcohol. I mean, I think a lot of people like to draw parallels between cannabis and alcohol because it can change the way you think and feel. But I would argue that alcohol is quite a binary effect in a sense that you’re either drunk or you’re not drunk and sure you can have the tipsy layer in between. But cannabis, the effects of cannabis is so much diverse and that, and the product itself is very complicated. You have everything from the cannabinoid profile and so you hear things like THC and CBD, but there are hundreds out there. You have terpene profile, which is the flavor profile, which in combination cannabinoid co-profile can influence the effect of the product. You have differences in the levels of these as well as the different product formats in which you consume, as well as who you are as a person, genetically, what you’ve done, what you’ve eaten, how you’re feeling when you consume it.

Mimi Lam:So the myriad of facts is quite large. So, when someone comes into the store and tries to find a product that’s right for them, it’s really up to the budtenders to help them out. And, back to what I said earlier, empower these customers in making the right choice.

Startup Coach:So, I’m going to ask a couple of legal questions briefly that aren’t on the list here. So if they don’t work out, we’ll just cut them.

Mimi Lam:Great.

Startup Coach:I don’t know.

What’s the laws around vaping?

Mimi Lam:So, right now vaping was in terms of public consumptions are similar to smoking laws. So you can vape outside as long as you’re not near the entrance of a commercial building. And you also can’t vape, similar, like you can’t smoke in places like planes and trains.

Startup Coach:Yeah, it makes sense.

Mimi Lam:Yeah.

Startup Coach:

What about edibles?

Mimi Lam:The consumption of edible is a little bit more discreet, so it’s difficult to monitor that. So what I would say for edibles is just making sure that while you are under the influence of the effects of cannabis edibles to not be doing something that you shouldn’t be. So whether that’d be operating machinery or doing something complicated like that.

Startup Coach:Yeah, I laugh a lot at the stories of the first people or the people first time with edibles and go hiking and get lost and call 911 or there was a famous 911 call on the Gardner where they pulled over and they called the thing saying, I think I’m having a heart attack or what have you. And what happens when edibles, they take so long to kick in, I guess that people stop… Don’t stop at one, they have too many and then they feeling a little paralyzed.

Mimi Lam:Yeah. I mean, I would just recommend people to use their discretion and to go slow. So, the onset time for things like edible do vary from person to person. And so, say Craig, you and I, you can take one and I can take one and it can hit you and you know, 20 minutes, it can hit me in 40 minutes. But really listening to your body and understanding what is going on and if you are looking for something more, maybe try another day and up the dosage a little bit, but don’t do it all at one.

Startup Coach:Yeah. I think listening to your budtender or the person… Your advisor on this stuff is always good. Go slow and stay in your comfort zone with all this stuff. I’ve seen some interesting stories.

Mimi Lam:Yeah. I mean it can be scary and we don’t want people to walk away from the first experience completely freaked out and not wanting to try again because there’s a lot of benefits or potential benefits of cannabis and so definitely trust your body.

Startup Coach:So back to the startup side of things,

Is it easier to get investment being in the cannabis industryor harder?

Mimi Lam:Connections and timing has a lot to do with financing, regardless of which industry that you’re in. So I would say cannabis is no different from that. So Superette, we have taken outside financing. It was not particularly difficult because of connections and timing. But if any of those factors were different, I would say we would have had a much difficult time. If you look towards some of the other companies or just the cannabis industry at large, I think playing into the sentiment has a huge effect. And so, 12 months back when things were hot, it seemed like if you had the word cannabis associated to you, people would just throw money at you. But, times have changed. And so if you took an operator mentality, again, cannabis or otherwise, if you are really able to showcase what your business model is, what your go to market strategy is, how you can be different relative to all the other players out there and you talk to the right people. You’re playing into the kind of the same factors that other startups getting financing.

Startup Coach:So let’s talk marketing. I worked with a cannabis startup not too long ago and there’s a lot of rules around what they’re allowed to say, what words they’re not allowed to say, where they can advertise, when they can. How do you get…

How easy is it to market in such a controlled, limited fashion when you’re not allowed to say a whole bunch of things?

Mimi Lam:Marketing and cannabis is a completely different ballgame. Basically, traditional marketing strategies are not allowed in cannabis. So you can’t do billboards, you can’t do posters, you can’t say whatever you want to say. When you’re doing your social media campaigns or digital campaigns, everything has to be age-gated. And then also the verbiage that you use has to be very controlled. From Superette’s standpoint, what we’ve been blessed with is, because we are a retail store, we are effectively marketing within the four walls of our retail space. So the touch points with customers in that store is much more powerful than what it could be if you weren’t in retail. And then through that we’re able to build essentially our tribe a following and we’re able to speak to them on a more personal level, whether it be in store or digital.

Startup Coach:

How do you get people to find that you exist when you can’t advertise?

Mimi Lam:I mean we do have digital presence, so we have a website, we have Instagram, we have Twitter and LinkedIn. And so I would say if you did a even a simple search of “Cannabis Ottawa”, then you’d be able to find Superette quite easily, and because there has been such a focus in the cannabis industry, a lot of people have heard of Superette from that standpoint. The awards also help. Of course.

Startup Coach:The awards always help. I always tell people to “Take a look at cannabis industry and other industries that are heavily regulated to look at alternative ways to advertise and get in front of people rather than the direct marketing that some of the times you can’t do.” Are you even allowed to say the word “Weed” in advertising?

Mimi Lam:So, I would say that the… If you look at the legal industry, the technically correct term is cannabis. So generally you don’t even see the word “Weed” come up in marketing. But yes, cannabis, if it’s factual, like if it’s in your name or just simply describing something that’s an… You can use that word of course. And in terms of marketing, I think what is important is always to stay authentic to your brand. I think what we’ve seen over the last few years is a lot of [inaudible 00:18:19] brands pop up, but more often than not, they’re chasing the specific customer segments that they want rather than building a brand authentically. And as they grow, that messaging gets lost and it gets confusing and customers start to see through that. And so I would just recommend kind of anyone who’s looking to grow a brand to really figure out what you stand for and how you want to connect with a customer and make sure that that messaging does not get lost even if you get bigger.

Startup Coach:I’ve seen a lot of a significant loyalty related to quality of product and reviews and stuff in this industry. So when somebody opens up new, they get an inrush, but if they’re not… If the quality isn’t good or they are not serving them well, the lines disappear and they’re quickly empty.

Mimi Lam:It’s trust, right? If you don’t have the quality behind you or if the customer has certain level expectation and they’re let down, that trust erodes really quickly and then it’s really difficult to build that back up.

Startup Coach:I like to try and share both successes and failures so there’s a chance that others won’t make the same mistakes.

Can you tell us a time where you screwed up and made the wrong pivot or startup decision?

Mimi Lam:I would say being in the cannabis space, you have to be faced… You have to face a lot of different pivots. So even when we started Superette we had a very different business model in terms of how we wanted to go to market and how we really wanted to grow. That had to completely change because we are at the mercy of regulations. Again, the nuance about being in the cannabis industry is, first and foremost you have to deal with the regulatory framework, which is not something that you normally need to deal with in other industries. And so we had to pivot accordingly. So that kind of filtered through all of our decisions, whether it’d be hiring and talent, whether it’d be retail, whether it’d be setting up systems. And so we had to change cores a lot, I would say over the last 12 to 18 months. But that’s also okay. I think what we’ve really… Our strength over the last few months has been being nimble.

Mimi Lam:I think the companies who haven’t been able to move as quickly or change course or were just stubborn in terms of the path they were heading fell into a lot more trouble than they would have otherwise been. But that’s all part of the fun. This industry is very, very new. There’s bound to be shakeup. There are bound to be winners and losers. And so, we’ll see where this industry is in a few years.

Startup Coach:

Entrepreneurs always talk about hustle, but what are you doing to get traction and build your audience?

Mimi Lam:A lot. Differentiation point at Superette in terms of how we’ve been able to build our community in our attraction is through customer service and through giving back and really being a conscientious company. We take our interactions very, very seriously. So whether that be with the customer, whether it be with someone who left a review online, whether it’d be with our industry partners, we take our time and we put a lot of effort into making sure we’re building positive relationships around the board. And then also giving back. That’s been a huge part of what we want to do. Cannabis industry are not, for-profit company or not, I feel like we can all do a little bit better. And so what we tried to do is raise attention towards issues like the environmental impact of cannabis packaging to how do we support the Ottawa community through donating from Ottawa food bank.

Mimi Lam:Those small touch points is authentic to who we are as a team. And that’s what we’re passionate about. And I think, we’re at a time where people are looking at that. I think about companies like Patagonia who have a huge loyal following because of what they represent because they want to be good. And so people see that and, we are one of the good ones.

Startup Coach:

Do you have any tips for founders?

Mimi Lam:Yeah. Tips or founders, pay attention to the non-sexy parts of your business. So everyone likes to talk about brand and marketing and those types of areas. But your foundation as a company are things like legal, your intellectual property, accounting system. Those would be the backbone of your companies that allow you to grow quickly, to scale, to make sure you don’t run into any trouble if you do things like financings or contemplate an acquisition or whatnot. So I would put focus on that and make sure you have all those pieces in place.

Startup Coach:

Any advice specifically for female founders?

Mimi Lam:Female founders, I would say listen to your gut more often than not. Speaking from personal perspective, I questioned myself a lot. I don’t give myself a lot of credit. I doubt the decisions that I make. But over time I’ve been able to prove to myself that I have good instincts and so, to all the other female founders out there, listen to yourself, be kind to yourself and go for it.

Startup Coach:Great advice for any founder.

Mimi Lam:There you go.

Startup Coach:So is there

Any tools you’d recommend for entrepreneurs?

Anything that you use that or something that’s trending?

Mimi Lam:I mean this might be a little cliché but I love Slack. I think that… It can be a controversial topic in of like is it too distracting for a team, is it good for your team? For us it’s been such a great tool internally, from a community and from a collaboration standpoint. So that’s something that we use heavily.

Startup Coach:I think with Slack and we’ve seen some news on that and companies have been Slackify. I think it’s like any tools, how you use it. If it’s electronic leash, it’s a problem. If it’s a place where you can go and learn and communicate and share, it’s diff.

Mimi Lam:Yeah, I would say, listen to your team and see what works for them. We’ve had an incredible opportunity to grow at a reasonable pace. A lot of the companies in the cannabis industry went from like 10 people to a hundred people over the course of 12 months. We’re nine people at headquarters right now. So, we’re growing slowly, but [inaudible 00:24:31], and because we’ve been able to grow organically, we really played into what works for us. So, the communication style that we have, whether it be using Slack or otherwise, where we’ve been able to build systems that work for us.

Startup Coach:Yeah, we use Slack at TorontoStarts in our core team and our volunteers to communicate. So it’s definitely a tool we use.

Mimi Lam:Not sponsored by Slack.

Startup Coach:

What’s your favorite book for entrepreneurs?

Mimi Lam:I really love Shoe Dog by Phil Knight. Yeah, which follows the founder of Nike and I think it was just a really interesting look at a brand that we see so ubiquitously, just kind of following through the challenges and the success of that brand and that company and the pivots is had to take. So that was an inspiration for me.

Startup Coach:Definitely. I like that, Shoe Dog is a good one. It also reminds me of Delivering Happiness by Tony Hsieh… The Zappos one. It’s a interesting story there.  What resources communities do you use maybe here in Toronto or in Ottawa and why?

Mimi Lam:Yeah, the resources that I lean on are quite diverse. Everything from policy groups. So, I mean shout out to Canadian Chamber of Commerce and the Ontario Chamber of Commerce. Being a part of those groups have been very helpful on the regulatory front. And then I guess more day-to-day online resources is huge. So in the cannabis industry, specifically, you can sign up for newsletters. There are forums. Reddit isn’t actually a very fascinating place to get cannabis information, but there is a very strong community there, so making sure that you kind of do your diligence but are also in the know. There’s a lot of different things out there.

Startup Coach:

How important is being able to pitch for an entrepreneur?

Mimi Lam:Quite important. There’s a lot of noise out there. There’s a lot of people doing different things. You have to be able to prove that you can do something and so pitching comes in the form of talking to an investor but also in formats like this. So, work on your pitch game.

Startup Coach:Yeah. And pitching to your employees. You’re pitching to future hires when you’re trying to hire the best team, it’s all part of what you’re doing.

Mimi Lam:Exactly. You’re trying to rally the troops here.

Startup Coach:

Any advice for startup seeking advisors?

Mimi Lam:Look for someone who really understands what you’re trying to achieve. I’ve gone through a few advisors in my personal life over the last few years. Sometime I would say at the beginning part of that process I was looking for people with titles and looked good on paper. But usually what happens is, because we didn’t build a personal connection prior to that, the relationship was not as transparent or not as helpful as it could be. So a lot of my current advisors, started out with more as friendships, in industry or in adjacent industries and we would just chat and talk and we were able to lean in each other’s experience and that relationship is much more helpful I would say.

Startup Coach:Yeah. Build your community.

Mimi Lam:Yeah.

Startup Coach:You’re up and running. Now what’s next?

Mimi Lam:What’s next? 2020 is going to be huge for Superette. So 2019 we’ve been able to generate a lot of buzz with one store operating for part of the year. The Ontario market has opened up for retail, so we are planning for about 10 operating stores over the next 12 to 18 months. We have our next few location lined up in both Toronto and Ottawa. So we will be hiring where we’ll be building out stores, we’ll be showing off the creative boundaries of what Superette can bring to the cannabis community and we want to explore outside of retail. So we had a line… We do have a line of non-cannabis Superette products. We were exploring partnerships right now to bring Superette cannabis experiences into people’s houses as well.

Startup Coach:Wow. Interesting. I can’t wait to see what happens next. Where can people go and find out more?

Mimi Lam:People can go to www.superetteshop.com and you can follow us on Instagram and Twitter at Superette underscore shop and we also have a LinkedIn page.

Startup Coach:Fantastic. Thanks for being part of Startup Talk, Mimi.

Mimi Lam:Thank you for having me.​

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