Former Google & Meta Engineers Built A Weed Distribution Network

Former Google & Meta Engineers Built A Weed Distribution Network

The wide world of weed is a vast sea of small businesses, each with its own buyers, owners, and sales objectives. 

Enter Nabis, a massive weed distribution network and the largest distributor of cannabis in California. The weed tech darling is a powerful engine in the marketplace that makes the state’s $5.9 billion weed market hum. The unsung hero brand even earned a coveted spot on Inc. 5000’s Fastest-Growing Private Companies in America list in 2023.

Representing over 300 weed companies, including exclusive partnerships with some of the most prolific brands in California, Nabis distributes the single largest portfolio of exclusive cannabis products in the world. 2024 means new partners joining the Nabis marketplace, including Mike Tyson’s brand Tyson 2.0, THC Design, Wizard Trees, Northern Emeralds, Sauce, and more.

I spoke with Vince C. Ning and Jun S. Lee, the co-Founders and co-CEOs of the distribution giant. The duo offers advice for other entrepreneurs, on why they left their roles at Meta, Microsoft, and Google to enter the weed industry, and what they predict the cannabis industry will look like in the U.S. in 5 years’ time.

In a full-circle moment, co-CEO Vince Ning’s parents found out that he was working in cannabis by reading a past Forbes article: “My dad had seen Tilray surge in value one week in 2018 and one of his friends sent him the initial Forbes article profiling our company. He dropped the link in my family group chat without checking with me first, and that’s how the rest of my family discovered what I did.”

When it comes to weed, California is its own country. Its consumers are as wide-ranging as the wholesale marketplace is vast. How does Nabis cover such a massive web of retailers? “We learned early on to become customer-obsessed,” says Lee. “That focus allows us to lean on our relationships and receive the right feedback to further our innovation initiatives and support customers in the space. If our brands feel supported and are succeeding, we succeed.”

Lee says they’ve patiently taken the time to build the business from the bottom up while never looking too far ahead. “You obviously have to plan for the future, but constant market fluctuations have taught us that unexpected challenges will come, and you have to be ready to address them with your own resources and pivot quickly when needed,” says Lee. “As operators in an industry as unpredictable as cannabis, we are big champions of a self-reliance mindset—that has allowed us to continue to grow amidst all the market changes. In turn, we created a platform intentionally structured to support a diverse group of brands in the market to help them scale while utilizing us as a tool.”

While its distribution network covers the vast majority of retailers in the state, Nabis’ growth didn’t happen overnight. The brand’s scaling strategy has been purposeful and methodical since its founding.

“Growth should happen organically,” says Lee. “If a brand creates internal efficiencies, growth will occur in the manner that best suits that brand. It’s a natural process that goes hand in hand with understanding the market and understanding your audience. The goal should be to create a balance between realistic expectations, while at the same time embracing the challenges that will force the brand to do things better—and more efficiently. We know that there are a lot of different types of consumers out there and it's important that we have a wide range of product types and backgrounds to best serve those consumers.”

The tech prodigies’ careers include engineering roles at Microsoft and Google. Ning sold his last tech startup to Amazon at the age of 23. Lee was at Meta before co-founding Nabis. The duo took a leap of faith in 2018, jumping from the fast-paced world of tech to found Nabis in the tumultuous cannabis industry.

“Those were great experiences,” says Vince Ning, co-founder and co-CEO of Nabis. “We were both building companies and identifying entrepreneurial opportunities in different areas of the tech space. That said, cannabis had been a part of our lives for many years, so when the industry began to bloom, we saw an exciting, new opportunity we thought we could contribute to with our robust background in building software and tech services. Our work now marries the two worlds, and we’re only at the beginning of it all.”

When asked if the founders advise other weed entrepreneurs to wait, to take the leap, or wait until the weather is more favorable: “You have to take the leap,” says Ning. “Innovation is so important to the success of any industry—in cannabis specifically, it is important not only to boldly identify new opportunities for innovation in the market but also to continue building upon the foundation that is already laid out. Faults in a company and the industry can be acknowledged, but success comes from making sure to fill those gaps in an innovative way, both on the consumer and operator level. For operators specifically, filling those gaps in a way that supports the greater supply chain, will only benefit the company and industry’s longevity.”

Nabis looks at the long-game approach when it comes to scaling into the national and international cannabis marketplaces. “Any new state aligned with legalization, like Ohio, is always a great thing,” says Ning. “And it’s so interesting to see how New York will continue to adapt. There's a lot of potential there with its diverse cultural and metropolitan background, so we certainly have our eyes pointed in that direction. If the opportunity is right, we’d also love to explore international opportunities. For example, there are rumblings that Germany might be coming online soon, and that has a lot of exciting potential. Cannabis is a universal plant so it would be foolish to not be watching what is happening—and what might happen—with international markets.”

When it comes to the future of weed, the founders say they’re hopeful that the regulatory framework will ease and create more viable pathways for federal legalization in the coming years. Ning also looks forward to mainstream retail placement of weed products.

“It will be federally legal or there will be at least a great deal more consistency in regulations from state to state,” says Ning. “There will be further normalization of its use and with that, increased innovation of new products. That innovation will also extend to the integration of cannabis products with traditional consumer products—for example, Minnesota now allows cannabis drinks in traditional bars. I think we will start to see more of this in the coming years."

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Region: United States

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