Fifteen years ago, Mario Guzman, better known by his alter-ego Mr. Sherbinski, was a neophyte grower working out of his San Francisco garage. Then his strains, like Sunset Sherbert and Gelato, became the stuff of underground legend. Rappers rapped their praises, and Guzman’s weed achieved a street cred most brands can only dream about.
Today Guzman’s brand, Sherbinskis, seems to have become one of the rarest things in the cannabis industry: An underground crossover success. Late last year, it opened a store on Los Angeles’ trendy N. Fairfax Ave. Guzman now has his sights on new markets.
For this week’s Power Players interview we discussed cannabis as a civil rights issue, the new markets Guzman is eyeing and what he has in common with the artist Banksy. For a longer conversation with Guzman, check out his appearance on the WeedWeek podcast.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
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“A Banksy-ish Underground”
WeedWeek: Tell us about your business.
Mario Guzman: I’m a grower, a cannabis enthusiast, an advocate and a MED patient. I got my start in the movement, with [California law] SB 420. That created the legal structure for doctors to be able to prescribe medicine to patients and patients to be able to legally access marijuana.
This was 2004. I was buying and selling real estate in San Francisco, but I also started growing in my garage in a collective way that was allowed. The [legal] culture got built on people growing in their garage and going to local dispensaries and selling the flower. Dispensaries started to pop up.
The long and the short of it is I ended up working with some great genetics. I had no experience breeding, but I ended up doing some experiments and lightning struck. A strain I created called Sunset Sherbert was a huge success. Then I made the Gelato strain and it organically skyrocketed into one of the best-known strains globally.
It created this huge cultural wave. Rappers were rapping about it. And there was this kind of Banksy-ish underground. People didn’t know who I was. Mr. Sherbinski was just a way that I could market myself, without risking a raid.
By going into these dispensaries and talking about Mr. Sherbinski and the Sunset Sherbert and Gelato, I had one foot in the street and I had one foot in the legal side. That’s how we grew the brand. And at first there was no logo. There was no brand. There was nothing. It was just the strains that I created, that became very popular.
WW: A lot of folks have struggled to pull off the the transition or balancing act between the street and mainstream. You’re a big brand now but it seems like you still have a lot of the resonance of these cool brands, like Supreme. What’s the secret?
MG: Part of what is so cool about Banksy is he’s got this political art, but no one has ever seen his face and he’s like this mystical guy. And I think Mr. Sherbinski was kind of created the same way. It really piqued people’s interest. My name was floating around, but no one knew what I looked like. And also the product that I would make was very limited. So, people were talking about it and it was in songswee [but it was hard to find.]
When we started Instagram was in its infancy. We started posting pictures in a certain way. And we started to really get people’s attention. Now, pictures of cannabis on Instagram is very common, but we were one of the first people to post our flowers and that was exceptional. We were able to use Instagram and local artists and just the quality of the flower and our grassroots effort to sort of build it.
People compare us to Supreme. I think the biggest thing with Supreme and us is just the supply and demand. They only make 75 shirts. So when the kids are there in the line, it sells out before the line’s even done. It’s not that I didn’t want to supply the whole state, but even now [we sell out very quickly] because the California market is so insatiable.
“People need their peace”
WW: I went to your party in the Hollywood Hills last fall to celebrate the opening of your store. It was a lot of fun. But the world feels very different now. What has that been like for you and the company?
MG: There was that moment when, before we were recognized as an essential, I didn’t know if my genetics were going to be safe, if I’d be able to continue to grow. I didn’t know what was going to happen to our store.
Then one morning, I got a call and I was notified that we could still stay open. I could still work. And our businesses has gone up tremendously. During this time, man, people need their peace. People are battling all types of mental health issues and sitting at home a lot more.
We’re striving to be a better company every day, but I’m proud of what we built. I’m proud of the fact that the relationships we have, the people that mentor me, the people that gravitate to the brand in general, a lot of them are people of color, whether it be Latin, Black, Asian. It’s very diverse.
And if you look at the people that I hire, it’s also very diverse. All these things have been a part of our brand. It’s a civil rights issue, cannabis, like who you can marry, and what kind of medicine you can use. I feel like this has always been our fight, what the brand represents.
Now I have more of an opportunity to dig in deeper to what I really want the brand to represent. In one sentence: It’s cool to help people and people should.
If people look at my brand and they think it’s cool in any way, we want to continue on that vein, and get them thinking about how can we connect with community more. How can we give back more? How can we listen more to everybody, our employees, the people in our community? We want to push forward as a brand to keep that authenticity, and strive to help people. It’s an amazing gift that we were able to do it through this plant.
WW: How are you changing and trying to do those things?
MG: I feel like a lot of what I see other brands doing to show authenticity, we’ve already been doing. There’s already bridges in place, but we need to continue those relationships.
One thing is listening. I think it’s very important to listen to the people within my company, whether it’s people of color, women, in any part of the company. Right now, our big focus is obviously with the Black Lives Matter movement. But it also uncovers a lot of other questions about if I am treating everybody fairly.
I always have taken pride in the relationships I have with women at my company. I believe that I can say the women that work under me or that work with me in the company are proud to work with me because they know I empower them.
The corporate world can do better. I have two daughters that are 15 and 12 that I want to raise to be powerful women and have strength. And that can maneuver in a corporate world, which is dominated by white males.
A lot of little things
WW: What’s a way you empower women that maybe other people could learn from?
MG: It’s sort of an unseen thing. Women are so used to men, especially in a corporate setting, acting and throwing around their power in ways that are frankly, disrespectful to women. I’m not saying that there aren’t good guys out there, but I see frequently where women are not respected on the same level as men, or they’re not given the same opportunities. We go out of our way to provide opportunities for women within my company, and also to show them a level of respect that empowers them.
There are lots of little things that that can be done. One is [being mindful of] saying things that could make women feel uncomfortable. In a leadership role you have a lot of eyes on you and that gives you an opportunity to give women support, make them feel like the men that they’re involved with that respect them on a high level. Whether publicly or behind closed doors.
It just makes the company stronger. Feminine energy, who women are and what they bring to this world, it’s such a needed thing within companies.
It’s not just women, it’s people of color as well. What it comes down to is communication within the company, me going out, talking to people, building the relationships from the budtenders all the way up to the executive team and showing leadership.
Right now, as a society in general, the leadership isn’t there. We’re not seeing it from our president. We’re not seeing it from a lot of our local officials. Luckily I have a brand that I can use to contribute. We can provide jobs, for a diverse part of our community and show leadership.
WW: From a business perspective, what are you thinking about in terms of future growth?
MG: I’m excited. It’s been a lot of building to get the business to where it’s at now. But we’ve built something really special. Now you go back to what you built, like our store, our grows, and you put a lot of love and attention into what you have.
Right now we’ve got a good opportunity in California. This is where the brand was born and raised. We’ve got the dispensary, we’ve got our cultivation licenses. We’re hiring more people so we can really scale our business.
Are you looking to expand to other states?
MG: A hundred percent. The thing is, if you combine pretty much all the other legal States, California does more numbers than a lot of them combined. But a few, like Massachusetts and Michigan, have big cannabis markets.
We want to fine tune what it is we’re doing and show how we’re crushing in California. And then we can take that same model and we can bring it into trusted partners in these other states.
We want to ask “Who’s doing it right?’, ‘Who’s got a good name?’, ‘Who’s growing good pot?” And then we can come in and we can do strategic partnerships with the right people. But if you put your brand in the wrong people’s hands, they may want to leverage it for whatever their benefit is, whether they have a big grow that they want to fill up, or they’ve got a chain of dispensaries. So it’s about finding the right strategic people that can help you grow, and not sacrifice the integrity of the brand.