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Cannabis Entrepreneur Spotlight: Chris Whelan, Founder, CEO of nama

Bridge West Consulting had an opportunity to speak with Chris Whelan, Founder, CEO of nama, an edible hemp infused confections company with a simple mission — to bring a high-quality product to their valued consumers. We are proud to spotlight this cannabis entrepreneur!

What is your background, & how did you get involved in the cannabis & hemp industries?

Ever since Chris Whelan, the Founder, CEO of nama, can remember he has been interested in cannabis. It all began when Chris consumed cannabis for the first time, and he became curious about the plant’s different components, flavors, and the effects and feelings he experienced. 

Chris Whelan, Founder, CEO of nama

Then he started to understand the health benefits related to consuming cannabis.

During his junior year of college, Chris became sick and during this time, he was introduced to CBD. At first, Chris was highly skeptical until he tried CBD and was able to see the health benefits it provided him. After college, Chris competed in weightlifting competitions and turned to CBD for sleep and recovery. While in law school, Chris turned to CBD to help with stress and sleep, and since it did not provide psychoactive effects, it was a great alternative to THC. After many great experiences with CBD, Chris had the idea of starting his own CBD company.  He knew exactly where to start—edibles.  Chris has been making edibles since high school and they have been his favorite form of consumption since. After contemplating the idea of starting his own cannabis company for a while, Chris decided to leave his position as a corporate bankruptcy attorney with a large international law firm and pursue his vision for a cannabis company full-time.

When you first started nama, who did you want to serve and who was your target audience?

When Chris first thought about his market niche in the cannabis/CBD industry, he was unsure who his target market was since he knew that everyone could use his products. Chris started by formulating four products for his own use and designed them specifically for different times of the day. Chris said, “Cannabis is for everyone, and I truly believe that … you just need to consume the right amount at the right time for the right result.” Chris feels that sometimes people don’t have a very positive view of the cannabis/hemp industry because of a bad prior experience. The culprit often being an experience with incorrect dosing leading to an overwhelming and negative outlook or the stigma associated with the plant.

Chris looked at how other CBD companies were structured and their consumers. He wanted to ensure positive experiences from his CBD products to achieve maximum relief with minimum psychoactive effects. From the very beginning, Chris wanted to ensure that his CBD edibles were only filled with ingredients that were good for you. He looked at other companies and realized that some made sugary and sweet edibles, and their branding wasn’t directed to be healthy for the consumer. Chris stressed, “I wanted to create a company that was very transparent with our ingredients and focus on the source. I also wanted to work on products that were more approachable to consumers. One way of breaking the stigma that cannabis and CBD products are only made for a specific target market is through branding. I wanted to ensure my products were approachable to my consumers.” Chris emphasized that he was genuinely inspired by CBD and cannabis alternatives when he was undergoing treatment for being sick. He felt that many of the medications given to control the side effects of cancer treatment were doing more harm than good to the body.

How did you select nama as the name of your company?

Chris proudly said, “I thank my wife for the name. When deciding on a name, I had branding in the back of my head. I wanted something short, clean, sleek, and memorable. My wife and I would bounce names off each other, but nothing stuck. Then one evening, after leaving a yoga class, my wife yelled out – “what about nama … like namaste!?”  It immediately clicked. My wife and I are both attorneys working way too many hours. Yoga and the gym were our escape, and our way to say to our bodies, especially our backs, and minds that we didn’t forget about them when sitting 24/7. I look at nama as a company and a brand that is an extension of myself. I use our products regularly, and I wanted to create products that mirrored that relaxed Zen feeling we would experience when leaving yoga. So that’s how nama was born!”

Related to being the Founder of nama, what are you most proud of?

Chris expressed how proud he is of founding nama and what he achieved since launching his own CBD brand. He focused on two areas and explained, “First nama’s charitable contributions. Each month I anonymously donate stuffed animals to kids fighting pediatric cancer. When you’re facing such a life-changing hurdle, there isn’t much anyone can do. I find the best thing is comfort. For me, having a parent or a friend with me during my visits meant the most. But if I were a little kid, I would add a toy or stuffed animal to the mix. That’s why I have chosen to send them anonymously to kids fighting the biggest fight of their lives, so they always have that one stuffed animal to accompany them on all their hospital visits. Second, is leaving my job. It was hard. From the day I stepped foot in law school, I worked my hardest to land the job I did. And once I began working, I gave it my all. I loved it, but I knew I would one day regret not trying something on my own. The time to do it, with the least worry, was ticking. So, taking that jump and deciding to leave was brutally hard, but I am glad I did it and started my own company – I have discovered so many new passions of mine, and one is branding!”

Can you tell us about your customers? Do you have a core base of primary customers? Is your customer base growing and changing?

When Chris was building nama, he was thinking about the target audience for his CBD brand. When creating a brand, most people try to brand themselves to target specific groups of people, such as ages 25-35 or patients who are older and have health challenges. Ideally, Chris wanted his products to be helpful and consumed by all adults, regardless of age. To him, it was most important to reach many people and help those with different challenges. “Unlike most companies, I did not have a set customer base in mind. In reality, I created these products for myself — products I would enjoy, and that would have helped me over the last several years. Now, I do enjoy them regularly.”

Chris continued, “I have learned a lot about my customers, and my customer base has grown tremendously, especially over the previous several months. My primary consumers are women between the ages of 30 and 60. Why? I guess that is who my brand speaks to the most.”

Can you please tell us more about your goals when educating consumers and bringing transparency to the industry?

Chris said educating his consumers is a constant consideration and a constant dilemma. He said, “The challenge to educate has grown in the digital age, with so many distractions and a massive bombardment of information. You can’t just send a long email with helpful information and expect a customer to read it. When was the last time you read a marketing email from top to bottom and truly understood what it was discussing?” Chris said that the challenge becomes educating his consumers in a short, concise, and engaging way. However, with an industry and products so new, it is confusing for many consumers, and this is a constant challenge.  So he constantly tries to draw comparisons to relatable things and make the education process fun through short, engaging, and occasional comedic marketing materials.

It must be challenging to constantly source the highest quality hemp and the freshest ingredients. Can you tell us about your process?

As the nama website states, ‘We teamed up with some of the brightest individuals, searched for the highest quality hemp, the freshest ingredients and created some irresistible products.’ Chris said that when he was an attorney focusing on due diligence, he looked at everything that he could get his hands on to ensure that ‘every stone was turned over.’ Chris said, “I took this approach to sourcing ingredients. I scrapped every public resource I could find, made a huge Excel document of every farmer and manufacturer I could locate in the country. I called them, emailed them, and sourced samples and lab reports. If they passed a few specific qualifications, I grilled them about everything under the sun. This took a lot of time, but it was worth it and also taught me a ton.”

Does your background as an attorney assist as you come across different challenges in your business?

A good amount of the time, Chris applies his law background while he builds his business and brand, especially when adding nama products to stores. Early on, he simply wanted to get his brand out there and on shelves on consignment. It was a much easier sale than wholesale to get his brand recognized and in as many stores as possible. Unfortunately, there are many instances where brands can get burned due to not paying attention to contracts and the fine details when working with stores to sell their products. Chris has been able to use his legal background as an attorney to ensure that he is protected when putting his products on store shelves.

Are all your edibles produced in one central location, or do you work with various extractors and producers to create your products?

Chris explained, “Most of my products are developed and manufactured at a single location. However, when I expanded into chocolate and caramels, I knew my manufacturer partner did not have the same experience level as some others with the new products. So I teamed up and partnered with a close friend/chef for the chocolates [say hello squares!] and a team out in Oregon for the caramels [bring on the Sundays!].”

Do you have relationships with and/or network with other industry entrepreneurs? 

Chris said, “Yes!  Energy from other cannabis and CPG entrepreneurs and founders is contagious.”

What do you feel makes the NY marketplace so opportunistic and/or challenging about operating a cannabis business?

Chris expressed, “NYC is one of the most diverse cities in the world. With that, NY will become one of the markets with the most varied and innovative product offerings. As a result of this opportunity, there will be a massive flood of competition. The largest challenge is building a foundation to survive and weather the green rush, so when the individuals only in it for the money exit, the quality brands can flourish. The craft will win!”

Without sharing private information, can you please tell us about your future goals for nama?

Chris shared that he will incorporate another true passion into his product offerings this summer. It will launch a new front for nama and it is something that he is excited about and has been working on for over a year.

What advice can you share with other cannabis and hemp entrepreneurs?

Chris said, “Don’t cut corners; it will hurt you in the long run. Instead, build valuable relationships, and they will benefit you tremendously. The industry is flooded with individuals who are in it for the money. Seek out those who are in it for the plant because they will still be in the industry in 10 years – the others won’t and will be onto the next new rush.”

Can you please tell us about any involvement with your local or regional community?

Chris gets involved in any opportunities to donate, sponsor, and he always dives right in! Nama has given back to a handful of local charities through various initiatives. In addition, Chris routinely mentors other individuals gearing up to enter the industry.

On a personal note, what do you enjoy doing in your free time? Also, what are you watching, reading, and is there anything about you that others do not know?

Chris said, “Fitness was a huge passion of mine and still is, but I put it on the back burner for the last 12-18 months. I started to get back into it and just signed-up for a triathlon in September, so now I have no choice but to kick it into full gear.”

As for tv and streaming, Chris said, “I don’t have much time to watch anything, but I’m a huge fan of ‘Shark Tank’ and sometimes I have on in the background when I do mindless tasks. My take-away from that show is that entrepreneurs need to focus on how much these companies make after expenses. Large numbers are nothing without the details. Don’t shoot for millions, shoot for profitability and satisfaction.” Chris also enjoys the new Netflix show, ‘The Lincoln Lawyer.’

As for reading, Chris said that he just bought ‘Branding Bud’ based on a recommendation from a friend. Also, Chris has ‘Start With Why’ by Simon Sinek, and looks forward to reading it.

As for something that most people don’t know, Chris said, “This plays into a new product that I am launching this summer. If I mention it, it will spoil the launch – so I have to maintain the suspense!”

Check out nama’s latest product offerings and stay tuned to learn what Chris and nama do next!

We Can Help.

If you own a cannabis business or are thinking about starting a cannabis business, we’d like to help. Bridge West Consulting’s team of highly skilled and seasoned cannabis industry consultants and advisors is ready to guide you through this exciting and challenging landscape. Feel free to reach out to us anytime to schedule a consultation.