Q/A with the founder of Tokyo Smoke
If weed is the next internet, Alan Gertner may be the new Steve Jobs. Formerly head of Google’s Asia-Pacific sales division, Gertner quit his dream job to chase a path that opened to him while meditating on a mountain in Japan. As founder of Tokyo Smoke – a company that centres on cannabis, clothing and coffee – he believes that by creating a design-oriented brand, he can build a unique language for connoisseurs to communicate with. We caught up with Gertner at the Lift Expo to discuss the evanescence of corporate success, the reason he decided to open up shop in a former loading dock and the importance of playing by the rules in this new industry.
Your Road to Damascus moment came on route to a voodoo ceremony in Ghana, where the tour guide told you, “You either work on something you love, or work because it supports the people you love.” How did that revelation play out in your life?
I spent the better part of my 20s working at Google and I had a wonderful privilege to work at a company that is trying to do great things and has great aspirations. But it was somebody else’s business. And I wanted to build something that could be mine, where I could make a big difference. The cannabis industry is so exciting right now and there’s so much opportunity to make a huge difference. The chance to work on something I love – that’s the cannabis industry. And work to support the people I love – that’s also the cannabis industry.
You created a data-driven process, TimeOn, to uncover what you truly loved in this life, scoring metrics like Meaning and Happiness on a scale of one to 10. Were there variables that couldn’t be factored into the exercise?
I have virtually no control over life. We’re routine machines. We live this process and we do the same things every day, and I wanted the chance to understand what making a difference is. Is the sunshine making me happy? Is talking to great people making me happy? There were lots of uncontrollables, but what I learned was a couple really critical insights that drive my life every day. I learned that I like taking on big challenges; I learned that I like cultivating deep relationships; and I learned that I love talking about things I’m passionate about.
You’ve remarked that you once structured your life around work-related achievement and “craved the validation of corporate success.” As your brand grows, how do you plan to keep that drive at bay in the cannabis space?
Work and my life are now so intertwined. I have the chance to represent myself and my brand at all times, and there’s something that’s so lovely about that. I have to worry less now about this whole work construct and life construct, because to me now they’re one unit. I get to wake up every day and be me Alan Gertner, and me, Alan Gertner, is also Tokyo Smoke. So that’s a really wonderful treat.
“Cannabis is the next internet.” What did you mean by that?
It’s the next great untrammeled market opportunity. Never really in our lives will a market emerge out of nowhere with a pre-existing use base. It’s hard to imagine and that’s why I think cannabis is the next internet – it’s the next great opportunity, the next great market.
Your father Lorne, who co-owns the company, said, “In some ways cannabis is a messy business and Tokyo Smoke is an opportunity to introduce a brand that has authenticity, and the architecture brings authenticity.” Where did the inspiration stem from to build your shop in a former loading dock sandwiched between two warehouses?
We wanted to do some organic and authentic. I think so much of what the future success of the cannabis industry will be built on is authenticity. It’s a love for the product, a love for great experiences. What was the most authentic way we could build a modern cannabis brand? For us, it was in a space that was broken, a space that was messy, a space that was really hoping for a new life. So we decided that this outdoor space, this broken space, would be the home for Tokyo Smoke.
You’ve really respected the regulatory regime du jour – not selling your proprietary strains or letting people consume in your shop. How important is it to play by the ever-developing rules of this young industry?
I firmly believe that to build a brand that’s going to last a long time, that people can trust in and believe, they have to know that you’re doing the right thing – the right thing for them, the right thing for the community, the right thing for the country. As Tokyo Smoke, we will always follow the rules and we will actively try and make [things] better for cannabis users. So we will never do something that breaks the rules, and we will represent the community in a positive way.
Do you see that willingness to follow the rules as a recipe for success in the cannabis space?
Cannabis will evolve and become like many other industries before. There’s something special about cannabis, but we can look to other industries to get insights into what our future will be like. I think it’s reasonable to say that in other industries, the most successful players are the ones who exist within the rules. The Googles of the world, the Apples of the world, they think big and they think different, but when it comes down to it, they follow the law. Otherwise they wouldn’t be able to build or be a part of the fabric of our society.
Your company is focussed on coffee, clothing and cannabis. Did you ever fear you trying to do too much with that mandate?
I always feel like we’re doing too much. That’s one of the joys of life. For us, we want to be a lifestyle brand. I really want Tokyo Smoke to represent a person – someone who is design-forward in their thinking, someone who believes cannabis is part of their life, but it’s not necessarily all their life is about. And that’s why I like talking about coffee, clothing and cannabis.
“By creating a design-oriented brand, we can build a language.” What did you mean by that?
I’m very excited for the cannabis nomenclature to evolve. I think as normalization happens, there will be a new nomenclature. To me, that moment in the future when someone will be able to opt into a cannabis experience that they know, that they understand, that they can believe – that’s really what’s exciting. We are at the beginning of a journey and the road ahead needs all of us to come together to do something great. It needs the greatest science minds in the world, it needs the greatest retail minds, it needs the greatest growers, it needs the greatest patient care – all of these things need to come together and we’ll do something great.
Here’s to Future Growth!
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