There’s a place in Los Angeles, tucked away from the madness of Hollywood and nestled along the iconic horizon tourists flock to, where the definition of “work” is changing.
Sure, everyone needs to make money to support themselves and their families, but what if there was a different way—a way in which employees wanted to come in to work every single day? A place where they wanted to spend their free time? A place where they could be themselves and grow?
This may seem a bit far-out, but one of the biggest blessings of the cannabis industry is the ability of those of us within it to blaze our own trail, to re-create the business model and build things anew, to develop a fun and holistic approach to business.
Due to its location on Washington Street, most people casually refer to the newest industry hotspot in town by the initials WWMTB, for “Where Washington Meets the Beach.” But for those in the know, the venue—a locals-only “office” adorned with light-up fan leaves and a three-story “Fuego” mural—is actually called Althea. Unfortunately for Venice vacationers, this place has a high-profile guest list, and it isn’t designed to accommodate out-of-towners.
Fronted by Michael Burns, a shaggy fortysomething Deadhead who emigrated to the Golden Coast from Connecticut over two decades ago, Althea is home to a slew of up-and-coming cannabis enterprises under the Elite Molecular umbrella—from the ever-popular Fuego concentrates and vape-pens brand to Ritual, a tincture line focused on daily wellness, and even a corporate recruiting firm specifically built for the marijuana industry. While on the surface the group residing at Althea can resemble a merry band of misfits, Elite is one of the fastest-growing and impressively run companies in Silicon Beach, and it’s just getting started.
A New Perspective
Burns is no stranger to success, having already “made it” several times before—and in far more traditional industries. He recognized early on the need for high-level staffing and, having seen firsthand how companies were failing in this process, Burns has made a career out of finding the right person for the job.
Surprisingly, he’s taken much of his approach from a 55-year-old jam band. “The Dead are a tribe,” Burns explains. “Their approach, it’s tribalism. First comes the music, then comes the band, then comes the individual… I try to live my life and run my business by that mantra. I’ve been saying lately that the cannabis industry is like rebooting your iPhone. You’ve got to reset your perspectives. Cannabis has made us meet people we’d never meet otherwise, and do business with them. For this industry we’ve got to throw out the old playbook… And we only get one chance to do it right.”
With Althea, or more specifically, Elite Molecular (the parent company to Ritual and Fuego) and LiveFuego, the lifestyle and recruitment arm, Burns is literally building the industry he wants to see. He’s applying his own rules and, consequently, he’s not beholden to traditional business practices. In fact, what he considers some of his brands’ biggest successes can’t be measured in dollars and cents.
Let’s start by looking at the executive team. First up, the team’s chief product officer is Jeff Wu, the founder and engineer behind the sous vide market leader Anova, which was acquired by Electrolux in 2017 for $250 million. This eccentric genius builds assembly robotics for fun, and he’s constantly working on new, more efficient designs. With dozens of patents under his belt, Wu left the beaten path to develop machinery for Elite Molecular. He’s already managed to automate its filling and packaging needs, so the company now requires just two human overseers per shift while increasing output into the tens of thousands. This is not yet the standard for the cannabis industry, and Wu isn’t doing this because he needs to—it’s a passion. You can see the joy on his face when he describes his next invention, or its next iteration, and he’s always thinking about what’s coming after that.
Then we have the team’s chief scientific officer, Tully Stroud, who was responsible for building the team a lab, which is affectionately called Bertha. Departing from the family business in the wine industry, this former marine has developed some of the purest cannabis concentrates on the market. In his spare time, Stroud’s currently developing a CBN product akin to Xanax that could provide relief for patients without any of the negative side effects of the prescription drug. With an automated filling system at his disposal inside his 11,000-square-foot facility, Stroud can create a nearly endless amount of oil for farms across the state—not only developing products for the Fuego and Ritual brands, but helping any farmer in need transform his crop into in-demand concentrates. In the environment that Burns has created, Stroud has been empowered to create whatever he can conceive of and bring to consumers at scale.
At the reins as president of the company is one of Burns’s childhood friends, Michael “Mazz” Keegan. This former Wall Street executive has already lived several lives, from venturing to Italy for classical chef training, to running sports-management firms and a motorcycle company, to finally heading west to California to invest in cannabis with his childhood friend.
“Everyone told us not to build the lab, but we knew that we could do the products better,” Keegan says. “Everyone is putting their faith in the manufacturing team. If we were going to bet on anybody, we wanted to bet on our team. We wanted to control our own destiny.”
Heading up sales is Erik Poje, or as the team calls him, Sarge. Hailing from Boston, this sales maverick is driven by a love of team building and mentorship. While he doesn’t need to work anymore, he wants to be a part of this team, and he wants to help both brands and individuals succeed.
Burns serves as the organization’s CEO and ringleader, and when he’s not quoting the Dead, running the Furry Freak Brothers fan club (he’s an advisor to the upcoming FFB series), mentoring or talking on the phone, he’s likely supporting the female-run and -focused Invert-U dance and fitness studio he’s an adviser to.
People Over Things
A focus on the individual is, at its core, what unites this group—more than just a love of weed or the quest for the best drugs in existence, although that’s also a driving factor. Where they really shine is not just in the desire to build lasting businesses, but to build and uplift individuals. What matters most is what they create and who they help get to the next level—and the legacy they leave. Aside from creating great products, Althea is in the business of molding well-rounded, kind and thoughtful businessmen and women.
The way in isn’t promoted on LinkedIn. In short, you don’t simply apply to work at Althea, you’re found. Burns has assembled his crew mainly through interactions he’s had in his daily life. There’s something he can see in individuals, and if you’ve got it, he’ll find you. In one particular success story, Burns poached the door guy from the local dive bar who’s since sold SaaS (software as a service), helped recruit a c-level executive at a major cannabis brand and is currently an apprentice to become an extractor for the brand’s lab—all while ballooning his salary. This doesn’t happen by chance; it happens with intent.
“You have to create the United Nations, right?” Burns explains, “Jerry Garcia, Phil Lesh and Bob Weir don’t have much in common at the surface level, but that’s what makes them great. Together is where the magic happens.”
Burns uses his businesses to put recruits through the gauntlet. They start as field reps who sell the brands’ various products, but all the while they learn how to recruit, how to source product and how to approach the sales process from a life-cycle perspective. For this team, it’s not about closing one deal. They’re more interested in helping to facilitate other businesses long term. From placing executives to helping with biz ops or investments, or even biomass deals, the Fuego crew is in it for the long haul. Watching people grow in that environment, and how they adapt to the constantly changing needs of not only the business, but the industry, is how Burns separates the cogs from the operators.
“You’ve got to be agile… You need multiple horses in the space because so much is changing in cannabis all the time. At first, we just wanted to grow really good weed,” Burns says, laughing, but he’s not totally kidding. “Now when people ask us, ‘Where do you work?’ that answer is decided by, well, ‘Who am I talking to?’… At every company I’ve worked, marketing has never shown up. It was always about creating leads, and getting out there and making things happen.”
If a team member proves they can “get out there,” success may look something like placing a CFO at a leading brand. What separates a good employee from the rest is then being able to leverage that placement into inclusion for your brands in the dispensary of the company you’ve serviced.
‘You Want to Make a Move? You’ve Got to Run LA’
“The problem with this generation is that they don’t want to work,” Burns says. “They just want to have fun all the time. We know that’s not realistic, but I thought, ‘You know what, let’s have a party—let’s make work a party.’ There’s work involved in parties, and the best salesmen in the world love to party… They want that rock’n’roll life. They all want drugs—well, let me tell you, I have the best drugs.” Burns grins. Both the look in his eyes and the smile on his face assure you he’s telling the truth.
It was this notion that birthed the idea of Althea in the first place. Burns envisioned a place in Venice that was always open, and always busy. A place where the employees hung out for fun, and where they would want to bring their friends—somewhere they would be proud to work. Somewhere that blurred the lines between the office and home.
This has already been illustrated in the various events the space has held to date. These guys don’t just throw a party, they host a celebration. This team travels together, they work out together—they’ve truly developed what can only be described as a cult-like mentality (but not in that messy “drink the Kool-Aid” type of way). They’re never short on drinks and the team is always down to ride, the only problem they can’t seem to solve is keeping track of their lighters.
Jacqueline Lobdell, founder of Invert-U, has also found a home among the Fuego army. With Burns as a business partner, Lobdell’s aerial performances have become a staple within Althea’s offerings, and she’s already been able to increase her business, effectively doubling her studio space within Los Angeles County and setting up shop in one of the most coveted areas on the west side.
“As a female entrepreneur whose message is all about empowerment, it’s so refreshing to work in an environment like Althea, with people who have nothing but respect for myself and my message,” Lobdell says.
With the fully decked-out Althea now in full swing, Burns has seen his vision realized.
“People do better work when they’re happy. My team now is excited, they’re always having fun… They’re stoked to work here,” he brags.
But he’s not entirely inclusive. “I don’t want Ivy Leaguers here,” Burns says. “We don’t need more suits. I’m going to drug-test you… If you pass, you’re fired.” (As Burns says, he likes to “keep the Ivy out of the grass.”)
However, despite the braggadocio, for Burns, this is about more than just having a good time. This is a redemption story. He’s seen firsthand the harm prescription and other, harder drugs can cause, and he’s lost friends and loved ones because of them. Not only does he want to heal the world, but he won’t let the plant he loves so much be co-opted by outside interests.
“Tech failed us. It offered so much promise, but it never delivered. Cannabis can. We can’t be tobacco, we can’t be Big Pharma,” Burns says with palpable conviction. “My old mentor used to tell me, ‘Part of business is breaking down the walls of humanity.’ We know right from wrong, and we treat people with respect—we need to hold ourselves to that.”
From street level, it must look like a concert. Inside Althea, what’s essentially a glass room is illuminated only by laser lights. Sometimes Bob Weir plays there, but tonight is an intimate gathering of peers spanning the entire cannabis industry, from budtenders to investors. A bar lined with vape pens marks one corner of the room, and an aerial-performance rig is towering over the other.
On the roof, reggae artist Jah Faith is performing with the Royal Lineage Band, entertaining a crowd of about two dozen, while the team eagerly shares the latest in Elite’s line of cannabis products ideated and developed within the Bertha lab. Cannabis figureheads like Jason Pinsky mingle with local legislators like George Francisco, and Venice Art Crawl president Sunny Bak tokes up with investor Joe Jaconi. Somewhere in this mix, guys like me find community in a crowded city that often seems to lack much substance. To put it simply, Althea is not just a building, it’s a trip.
This feature originally ran in the January/February 2020 issue of High Times. Check out our archives here!