Music & Cannabis: Talking Shop with Sara Batterby of Hifi Farms
Written by Jon Russell & Sara Batterby
Edited by Noah Persin & Max Richardson-Davis
Hifi Farms has been taking the Oregon cannabis industry by storm. The team has been focused on building a brand synonymous with sustainability, philanthropy, activism and a positive corporate culture. Sara Batterby is the CEO of Hifi Farms and is one of the women making a huge splash in the industry. From founding the Portland, Oregon chapter of Women Grow to working towards building a sustainable & environmentally friendly industry, Batterby has definitely made her mark on the Oregon cannabis world. She graciously took some time to sit with us and discuss how she got into the industry, Hifi Farm’s philosophies and her thoughts on the future of the cannabis industry.
Jon Russell, GreenSea Distribution: Hello Sara, thanks for taking the time to chat with me. For those not already familiar with you and Hifi Farms, could you take a moment to introduce yourselves?
Sara Batterby, Hifi Farms: Hi. I am one of the founders and the CEO of Hifi Farms. I came to Oregon 2 years ago and joined some friends who were starting a small cannabis cultivation under the medical system. Measure 91 had just passed, legalizing recreational cannabis in Oregon, and my now partners, Lee Henderson, Richard Vinal, and Cristian Koch, were looking for some help on the business side of things. We teamed up and started building the company.
Jon: You started out in the finance sector and worked as an angel investor, how did that help you as you transitioned into the cannabis industry?
Sara: I worked on the technology side of finance in my very early career and then as a partner in a startup Angel Fund in Palo Alto much later on. I learned a lot about finance in startups from working in so many of them and being a part of the fundraising process. I came to cannabis with a ton of experience in early stage operations and a very deep understanding of early stage investment risk and how to identify successful startups for investors. I think that was invaluable because I designed the company, and the investment offering, to address what I understood to be the most significant risks and that got me out in front of a lot of common investor concerns. After years of thinking about, and experiencing, the mistakes many founders make, I designed the company with the goal of not repeating them and this was a huge benefit.
Also, I think my background stood out in an industry where there was not a lot of people with the sort of professional experience I had. That sort of differentiation is important and I think investors saw me as someone that they could relate to because we spoke somewhat the same language.
Jon: When did you first get involved with growing cannabis?
Sara: I had zero experience with growing cannabis, or cannabis otherwise, except smoking it a few times over the years, until I moved to Portland, and I had no plans to get into cannabis before it happened, which was somewhat by chance. I just didn’t know anything about it. When I moved here from The Bay Area, I had a couple of friends who had moved here ahead of me and they were starting a cannabis cultivation. I knew startups and they knew cannabis. I had to learn a lot very quickly, but it was so fascinating and I was hooked so that was not a problem.
I still don’t consider myself somebody who really understands this plant and the complexity of how it is grown and all of it’s potential. I love the industry and the people, I have a huge amount of respect for the plant and for the activists and the cultivators who have nurtured it through prohibition. I feel honored to be involved in the industry and I just keep learning every day.
Jon: I’ve read about your partner’s music backgrounds, how did this come into play when creating Hifi?
Sara: Music was always going to be a piece of the brand. It was such a central part of how and why the company was formed. It touches a lot of what we do, but probably not as much as it did in the very early days when it felt more like a core part of our identity. I think this has broadened into a desire to be creative and attract creative people with a huge variety of interests and passions.
We have always maintained that it is not about weed. It’s about the experiences that people have, and that they are looking to create, or elevate, through cannabis. This can be about music or it can be about something else. We ask people to “Define Your High” which means that we recognize that cannabis is a unique experience for everyone.
Sara: This is very central indeed. Not just because it is the right thing to do, but because it will make us efficient and competitive as we move forward.
Our approach to sustainability encompasses just about everything from our soil, to our cultivation method, to the technologies we use and the way we think about our workplace practices and business ethics. Sustainability is a huge subject and covers everything from diversity to energy and water efficiency. It’s the first thing we look at when we make any decision. I would say that it is our primary operating principle.
I am fortunate to be on the Board of Directors for the Resource Innovation Institute, which is the leading energy efficiency certification initiative in cannabis. We are working hard to make sustainable cannabis cultivation a realistic goal for a lot of companies. It is really important to us.
Jon: In part, sustainability includes using the proper nutrients and soils. What are your preferred nutrient brands at the moment?
Sara: As far as nutrient brands go, we don’t use bottled fertilizers anymore. We build our own soil mixes now. Soil is a big factor in sustainability, and living soil that is amended with the right ingredients develop into a complex biosphere in a symbiotic relationship with the plant, basically eliminating the need for bottled nutrients and the huge negative impact that they have on the environment.
So the short answer is, we don’t use them, and the longer answer is that we are constantly looking for ways to eliminate waste and strengthen the role of nature in the way that we grow. We are building soil that we will always use and that will improve, rather than decline, over time.
Jon: What is your favorite strain you’ve grown on the farm?
Sara: I love our MediHaze. It is a 1:1 CBD to THC hybrid and it is great for people who have not developed a high tolerance for cannabis. A lot of the strains we grow are really strong. Weed in general today is really strong. New and returning users need something a bit more mellow to avoid having a negative overdose experience as they rethink cannabis as a part of their lifestyle.
Jon: What is different about your growing technique that makes your product especially unique?
Sara: I think it mostly comes down to a craft ethos in our company. Extreme care in the way that we cultivate and the products that we use, and then of course in the finishing stages of curing and storage. We really love what we do and I think that comes across in the products that we ultimately produce. I think people recognize that we are building a company that cares about people, our community, and the planet. There is a lot of really good weed out there but I think our values are what make us stand out.
Jon: On the corporate side, how is Hifi unique from other cannabis businesses that are coming online?
Sara: This is where we really shine. We were the first Oregon cannabis company to have an employee stock option plan which makes all of our employees owners of the company. We are proactive about diversity and workplace justice and those things are baked into our corporate structure. I also designed the company to be very protective of investors with really strong governance and investor protections such as capped salaries and founders who have to vest their equity over time alongside our employees. Those things are pretty radical in terms of corporate structure in startups, and in cannabis, and we are proud to be different in those ways. I believe that CEO’s have a lot of power when it comes to things like the wealth divide. I don’t think government, or lobbyists, or non-profits are going to solve those problems for us. We need to design corporations that give people an opportunity to live beyond poverty and share in the wealth that will be created by this industry.
Jon: Many in the cannabis industry are giving back to their local communities. Do you have any philanthropy programs in place?
Sara: We give back in several ways. We have active partnerships with the Welcome Home Coalition, which fights for affordable housing in Oregon (they passed the Yes For Affordable Homes ballot measure last year), with the Main Street Alliance, which does policy advocacy on behalf of socially responsible small businesses, and with Portland Made, which is a platform for and network of local artisanal craftspeople.
We’ve also raised money, and occasionally donated to different groups or causes we support, such as the Democratic Party of Oregon (we helped raise over $40k for them in 2016), and Transition Projects, which provides services to the homeless (for instance, during the freezing weather last week we donated about $400 in sleeping bags and blankets to the Portland Building temporary shelter, in cooperation with Mayor Wheeler’s office).
Finally, we’re putting the finishing touches now on our 2017 events series, in partnership with and to raise money for the YWCA, whose mission statement is, “Eliminating racism, empowering women, and promoting peace and justice.” They’re an amazing nonprofit and we’re very proud to have them as a partner. As a startup, we don’t have much in the way of cash to share but we get involved and do what we can to make and impact.
Jon: Beyond Hifi, you’ve been in the press a lot lately as a woman leader in cannabis. How did that journey begin?
Sara: That really started a long time ago with my interest in connecting with, working with, advising, and supporting other women entrepreneurs. When I came to Portland and got into cannabis, I knew I would want to meet other women in the industry but there wasn’t a clear way to do that so I founded the Portland Chapter of Women Grow. I did not expect that to blow up the way that it did but it was an amazing experience. Then I realized that I had a unique skill set and that a lot of the women I was meeting could benefit from my sharing it.
I invested a lot of my time advising and supporting women I met, and they advised and supported me as I learned about the community, the industry, and the plant. Hifi was a big part of the creation of Women Grow and community engagement sort of got backed into our model. I got involved with the legislative process, the OLCC rule making process and several other initiatives. We did what we could to support pro-cannabis politicians and get behind other community initiatives. People noticed and wrote about it. We are an interesting company in that way.
Now I realize I have somewhat of a profile in cannabis and my goal is to use that to promote the things that I, and my partners care about. I figure the more people know who we are, the greater an impact we will have, and I think our impact will be a positive impact on the industry so I welcome the exposure.
Jon: You helped found the Portland Chapter of Women Grow. We heard recently that it was closing but can you share your experiences founding a trade organization?
Sara: It was really a blast. Leah Maurer and I teamed up to do it. I knew how to build an organization and she knew the local community and was an activist who played a key role in the passing of Measure 91. We made a great team and it was a huge success. We really just wanted to create a gateway for women who were in, or curious about, the industry. A way for them to connect in an environment that was unquestionably respectful and supportive of women. It was a simple goal and Women Grow was the perfect vehicle to achieve it. The chapter thrived all the way up to the last meeting in December of 2016. Amy Peradotta did an amazing job as Chapter Chair it after I left and we are all sad to see it go.
Jon: I read an article in the Atlantic that claims the cannabis industry seems to be friendly to women in leadership roles. Do you agree and do you have any thoughts as to why?
Sara: I do agree with that, but I don’t want to paper over the very real cracks in the world of work for professional women. Cannabis is a new industry so there is an opportunity to build it the right way without having to tear down a bunch of legacy systems in the process. That said, we can’t take it for granted and we need to be clear-eyed and diligent about diversity of all kinds as we move forward.
Jon: Who are some of the other women making waves in the industry that you suggest following? How do you think they’ll impact the industry in 2017?
Sara: Gosh, there are so many and I have only met a small number of them. I think AC Braddock of Eden Labs stands out as somebody who has put her time, and her resources into championing and supporting women in the industry. Some of my favorite, and, in my opinion, the most talented entrepreneurs are Alison Ettel of Treat Well which makes amazing products for pets, and Trista Okel of Empower Body Care. She has built a great brand with an innovative approach to topicals including the sexy 4Play version of her cannabis oil.
I think the people you are going to really see emerge over 2017 include Ashley Preece who is building the Ethical Cannabis Alliance and Laura Day Rivero of Yerba Buena Farms. They are both exceptional operators with social and workplace justice on their side. I could go on for pages here because the industry is packed with amazing women but I think what we all have in common is that we really care about how this industry is built. It seems like women emphasize people and relationships in the way that they operate their companies and that is a good strategy in an industry that is hungry for relatable brands.
Jon: You were recently named an “Executive to Watch in 2017” by the Portland Business Journal. Tell me more about that experience.
Sara: I was sitting on the sofa with my fiancé, Jon, when I opened the email and got that news. I was stunned and very excited. Not just because it was such an honor to be recognized, but because it was the first time a cannabis executive has been acknowledged in this way by Oregon’s mainstream business community. Awards are great, but in reality they usually belong to entire teams, and in this case to an entire industry. Oregon cannabis has done an incredible job of entering the professional sphere and taking its place amongst other Oregon craft industries. This is an acknowledgement of that for all of us. And of course I am super chuffed personally by the honor!
Jon: What do you recommend for anyone looking to get started in the cannabis industry? Are there any books or podcasts you recommend?
Sara: I would say find an organization that resonates with you and join it. Volunteer and participate in any way you can. The cannabis community in Oregon is a welcoming and exciting place, and building those first relationships is really what moved things along for me. We have a ton of really great industry associations including Oregon Cannabis Association, Oregon Cannabis Business Council, Minority Cannabis Business Association, Ethical Cannabis Alliance, and Resource Innovation Institute to name but a few. They are all unique and emphasize different aspects and objectives. Figure out what is right for you and get involved.
Jon: I’ve been watching your Twitter feed and saw the launch of Canna Angels, LLC. Can you tell us about them and how you’re involved in the investment consortium?
Sara: Canna Angels is a new angel group founded by Sherri Haskell in San Francisco. I was invited to be a part of their launch pitch event. Sherri and I have known one another for some time and I think she is going to be a woman to watch in cannabis in 2017 and beyond. If I was still in the Bay Area, I feel sure we would be working together on this and other initiatives in support of funding our growing industry.
Jon: Besides Hifi, what are some of your favorite cannabis brands?
Sara: I know a lot of founders so I tend to be attracted to brands whose creators I admire. These include Yerba Buena Farms, East Fork Cultivars, Newcleus Nurseries, and Solstice. Wyld is absolutely beautiful and I appreciate that. I think Zion Cannabis, Serra Cannabis, Pure Green, and Farma are standout dispensaries.
Jon: One last question, what do you look forward to the most in 2017 in the Oregon cannabis industry?
Sara: A stable regulatory environment in which to grow our companies is going to make a huge difference! It has been somewhat crazy leading up to the opening of the recreational market that is happening as I write this. Now much of the hand-wringing over the rules is over and we can get on with business without so much of the uncertainty. That is going to make life a lot more manageable for anyone trying to build a business in this industry.
Jon: Sara, GreenSea really appreciates you taking the time to answer our questions. Thank you and we wish you and Hifi Farms the best of luck in 2017!
Sara: Thank you, I appreciate the opportunity to revisit some of the adventures we have had building this company. Best of luck in 2017 to you, too.