It’s interesting how friendships evolve over time. I met Lisa years ago, while we were both enjoying a brief stint in menswear. We bonded over our shared love for tech, Toronto (and uh..menswear). When she moved to Hong Kong to pursue a career in robotics and I moved to India to work on a startup, we were still able to keep in touch over Skype. Fast forward to this summer, we both found ourselves in Toronto, that’s when I heard about her cool new company: Vapium. Her excitement and passion is infectious. Lisa is eloquent, determined and definitely a #badb.
You’ve had an interesting, non-linear career path, as you’ve worked in dotcom, fashion, robots and now, vaping. Looking back at it, are there connections throughout that brought you to what you are doing now?
The steps I’ve chosen in my career were based on skills and confidence. Fear may be a factor, but it should never be a stumbling block or non-starter. The binding factor is that my skill set is transferable and I am curious by nature. My passion for clothes and fashion started as a little girl, as did my love for robotics and electronics. So there has been this roll of unusual opportunities to get involved with and I have a terrible time saying no. However what I’m doing now, is the most exciting thing I’ve done since dot com.
“This is not just building products, but the fact that its changing perceptions, building awareness, breaking down stigma, its empowering people, its bringing families back together, its creating new jobs. It’s the green rush.”
How important is your past experience to getting a startup off the ground?
What’s nice about the first year of business is that its a complete rollercoaster and there is no other way it could be. If its going too well, i would be afraid. We took time to lay the foundation. We went into this with more confidence than we have had in past jobs/projects because of the design and manufacturing. My partner has been manufacturing in China for over 10 years. Our combined experiences have allowed us to write the script on what we are doing now, all of it has lead us here. We were also very fortune to meet the right people, new mentors if you will, who have walked this path with us. Now, I love my job, and I don’t complain about it for the first time. It’s quite nice!
Given that the vape industry is fairly controversial – have there been naysayers? How did you react to them? Were you ever worried about what others would think?
When we first decided we were going to go ahead and travel this road, we did a lot of things to insulate ourselves, because we weren’t sure how it would be received. No matter how old you are you want your parent’s blessing. When we both had our parent’s blessing and support that’s when we felt we actually owned this space.
So your parent’s were okay with you going into vaping?
Actually, the biggest thing was Sanjay Gupta. My dad is a CNN believer and for him to have watched the show “Weeds” was enough for him to be convinced. There is enough mainstay and people talking about it now although when we started in 2013 it wasn’t like that and we had to really insulate ourselves for awhile. It was so exciting but we didn’t want it to effect our reputation and all that we had built in our careers.
There are people that sadly don’t believe in the power of the plant, more so back when we started compared to now. Overall, we surprisingly had a welcoming reception in terms of what people would say is a grey market.
What were your biggest challenges in setting up Vapium?
There were a couple. One of them was geo-location – not operating in the country that your target market is in (US). We were in Hong Kong. We were building in a vaccuum. Although Hong Kong is exhilarating, when you need to connect to your direct consumer, it’s not ideal.
Another challenge was cashflow – making sure we had enough money.
“For any business you need enough padding. It’s those moments when you fail to plan, you plan to fail.”
We’ve been resourceful and have the support of a group of friends and family that believe in the vision. We are completely self-funded.
Perception was also a challenge. Its having that first conversation, when people ask: what do you do? Then waiting for that moment to see how they will react. Now, the conversation is so different, comfortable and intelligent- More people feel comfortable about discussing their interactions with the plant and vaping itself.
I love your branding for Vapium – can you speak to it?
We are living and breathing representations of our brand. It’s geared towards the outdoors as well as addresses the medical market. I wanted a product that was durable and rugged. You can throw it in your bag and not worry about it getting scratched or you can pick it up after 6 months of not using it and its still great. For us, this is how we are as people.
How is it working with a partner?
I’m very fortunate to work with my best friend. He’s the most capable engineer that i’ve ever worked with. He’s exceptionally gifted in his vision and I believe our skill sets compliment each other. Getting to work with your best friend is a blessing.
You mentioned vaping is starting to become more and more mainstream and yet still highly political topic, how do you feel about Canada’s stance on Vaping and the plant?
It’s a grey market but the world is changing and Canada is at the forefront. When Trudeau was elected, we celebrated. We see it as an opportunity for Canada to lead. Our country has always shown compassion and good will towards this community, and consumption in general. The next step in leading is having a fully integrated recreational medical program. This is a sense of pride for us. Canada doesn’t usually take a stance on anything controversial. We aim to be polite and considerate. It’s time for Canada to take a direction. I hope to see that with Trudeau. His main agenda point was to make this a priority.
“It’s helping people and its medicine, its not about being judgemental.”
You’re so passionate about this, What drives you the most?
I’ve known about this plant since I was a teenager, and I wish I had owned it a lot earlier in life! We are not creating this to get rich though, its more about if you can make someone’s end of life palliative care substantially better then, its worth it. There are over 200 prescribed conditions that this plant will help – its kind of exciting. its so rewarding to hear about people you’re actually helping. What we are doing is providing a delivery service for conscious consumption – that’s why we are getting involved. That is the first footprint we want to leave.