“The earlier that customers come to us looking for solutions, obviously the better. And the earlier they come to our distribution and other vendor partners like you guys, the sooner they get us involved in the process, the sooner we can make sure they don’t spend money willy-nilly. They have enough space for what they’re going to want to do. And if they’re already confined, a lot of times - unfortunately, to a certain zoning or space or building that they jumped into – we have to be realistic about how much of whatever they’re going to make. And if they don’t have enough space to make as much as they want, approach this differently: are you going to make crude with your guys’ CO2 extractors and sell it to someone who has an entire post-processing lab filled with our equipment?”– Max Dubin
Max Dubin is the industry veteran you want to know and who has a long list of crazy stories you want to hear. More formally, he is the Manager of Sales Development, R&D, and Training at Across International (AI), leading manufacturer of heat treatment, laboratory, and material processing equipment. His story is not unlike most, having landed in the cannabis space from a fluke encounter over a decade ago as a “disillusioned” college student with a degree in politics, Latin American studies and creative writing. He started at AI in packing and shipping, where he talked too much and packed too slow, so quickly moved into customer-focused roles.
Rachael Stene, Senior Outside Sales Representative, chose a similar windy path. Prior to AI, she sold oyster mushrooms, which, while short-lived, taught her some valuable lessons about startups which she’s been applying to successful business development at AI ever since.
Across International has been manufacturing equipment for nearly 30 years for big names like Tesla, NASA, GE, and Toyota. For the past decade, they’ve been building a stellar reputation for their botanical laboratory equipment such as evaporators, vacuum ovens, ultra-low freezers, and more.
In this episode of The Extraction Insiders, Max and Rachael are joined by host Jason Laronde and guest host Dexter L’Amarca Vitalis Ancillary Sales Manager, to look back on the “long, strange trip” that brought AI where they are today and what they continue to learn in an ever-changing industry. Together, AI and Vitalis team up to provide a unique, inside look at the customer-vendor relationship. Plus, the group draws on personal experience to advise industry newcomers and veterans alike on business planning, building aligned partnerships, exciting developments in emerging markets, and much, much more.
[0:00] TEASER: “What a long, strange trip it’s been!” Max talks about the first extractors to see a need for vacuum ovens over a decade ago and how technology has evolved since that time. AI had been manufacturing equipment for many years for big name brands and government agencies. Then, cannabis came the same way all scientists come: complex at first, but at the end of the day, a design challenge like any other application.
[3:36] Joel and Jason welcome you to Extraction Insiders, the show about entrepreneurs and industry innovators sharing “aha” moments, pitfalls, and tough lessons they’ve learned along the way, so others don’t have to. Today the hosts are joined by Max Dubin and Rachael Stene of Across International, an industry leader on the ancillary side of the business which manufactures heat treatment, laboratory, and material processing equipment.
[4:15] Introducing a special guest host: Dexter L’Amarca, Ancillary Sales Manager at Vitalis.
[4:30] Origin stories. Rachael relocated from Denver to Reno for a gourmet oyster mushroom and cannabis startup, and then had a fortunate falling into AI. Max joined AI just over eight years ago, coming in post-college as a packing and shipping recruit who talked too much and packed too slow, resulting in a move to customer service.
[7:16] Max shares his gratitude for Vitalis products: “You wouldn’t be able to get the oil out of all this hash and cannabis if it wasn’t for you guys.”
[7:45] Max and Rachael share their observations of past customer trial and error, and what advice they could give others trying to do the same thing. What lessons can be learned from past mistakes to save money and time? Max’s big advice is to be crystal clear on what you want to make, how much exactly you want to make, and how much money you have. Then, engage with AI or Vitalis sooner rather than later.
[10:29] Rachael seconds the importance of a clear business plan, based on her mushroom farming experience. She talks about the tradeoff between specialization vs. trying too hard to be the “one and only.”
[11:27] “The selling it part.” Jason comments on how often Vitalis clients are unsure how to get their product to market. Max shares his cannabis industry observations - while THC is skyrocketing amidst COVID, CBD prices are crashing. Some companies will cut corners but come to market anyway, which damages the reputation of the whole industry. This is why AI partnered with Industrial Sonomechanics to implement patented technology that enables transparency and bio-availability, with reproducible results. Consistency and quality will attract more consumers to market.
[15:32] Max explains Across International’s focus on bringing products to market that will improve quality. Previously, in an under-supplied and over-demanded heyday, any product would sell. But now with price compression and increased competition, quality and marketing are essential.
[18:35] Joel warns that “to make everything, you’re looking at a hefty bill to start with.” He recommends starting small with science first, and winning customers through initial quality. Max shares his advice for pacing yourself and building your business in the early days. To be in business for the long haul, your products have to be here for the long haul, too.
[19:30] How important are business partnerships? Max sees hidden wisdom in TLC’s Waterfalls. He advises others to “stay in your swim lane;” don’t try to be everything to everybody. Know what products you can develop and do well, and know what others do well and benefit from that.
[22:12] Rachael stresses the important of value alignment in partnerships. Working with OEMs like Vitalis has allowed her to “never say no to a customer.”
[22:50] What about partnerships that didn’t work out, and what should listeners look out for? For Max, it all comes down to trust as the foundation of all business relationships. He shares experiences with vendors who have used AI’s influence, but then seemingly forgotten the resources, training, and hours contributed. Especially in a connected industry like hemp and cannabis, integrity is important.
[26:22] Max discusses how AI has been able to pivoting well with social media, and navigate how to communicate with their audience. Yet there are “so many trolls.” Max and Jason talk about how to handle challenging customer interactions- even if extreme cases end in blacklisting.
[28:35] The flipside of this question is the customer perspective - Dexter comments on AI’s support when revamping his department. “At the end of the day, the sale is fun, but the cooler part is seeing your customer send you a picture of the cool shit they made with the equipment you sold them, and seeing them be successful.” Plus, when a customer succeeds, that brings future repeat business.
[29:58] With 400 resellers worldwide, what does AI look for in a vendor? When vetting a vendor and connecting them to Rachael, it’s the customer experience that matters – being able to trust that vendors will have good customer rapport which reflects well on AI. Hand-holding can be valuable to help navigate the complexities of setup, safety, and other hoop-jumping.
[33:06] The group discusses how to create the best buying experience. It’s very important to sell solutions, not products – and as Spike Lee might say, to “do the right thing.”
[34:21] After a surprise visit from AI’s canine honorary Chief Compliance Officer, Max and Rachael share other pleasant surprises from the past year: continued hiring and growth despite a tumultuous year; winning a Pittcon excellence award with DigiVac for their Concerto vacuum controller, and more.
[38:40] Max elaborates on AI’s goal of designing solutions to save people money. He’s found that companies having to tighten their belts during COVID times are companies that designed the most impressive, large-scale machines. But, a properly designed production line results in a better solution and doesn’t cost an arm and leg.
[39:23] Industry bottlenecks. For Max, production footprint is a priority for customers; people want to get more done in less space and AI is designing equipment to work with different chemistries and reduce obsolescence. Anyone who wants to build an extraction lab (especially one that doesn’t work very well) could source all of their equipment on eBay right now, because someone is trying to get rid of it! Meanwhile, AI equipment is chugging away.
[41:30] Rachael comments on the challenge of keeping up with demand. In an industry where everyone needs items yesterday, not having inventory ready to ship can result in lost sales.
[42:27] New industry, new markets. Max discusses expanded legalization in the US and internationally, and what must be in place before jumping in on new markets. Federal legalization also helps the money to flow, and attracts more mature businesspeople with plans and experience.
[44:37] As a manager, how has the team AI is building changed as the market has matured? Building a team with diverse experience (chemists, scientists, engineers, and businesspeople) drives innovation, and creates a culture in which every opportunity is one to learn.
[46:37] Rachael’s turn to ask the questions: what is Vitalis looking forward to in the industry? Jason loves the agility of an OEM - designs sketched “on the back of a pizza box” can quickly become reality. Vitalis has adopted Apple’s “uncommon sense” mindset, and re-invested resources at a time when other companies are scaling back. Jason teases some really cool new tech that’s poised to change the industry in emerging markets.
[49:05] Max agrees: you never want to put your business in a holding pattern. 100% of the time should be building your brand, even when things are tough. This also helps your customers maintain faith.
[50:20] Where is the “hot stuff” going on? Max asks about specific markets that Vitalis is watching. Vitalis already has CO2 extraction equipment operating on five continents (Antarctica might be a challenge!). They’re monitoring a number of states have recently legalized medical and recreational cannabis; hemp rules being clarified in Europe; and extraction of other compounds that may soon be potentially legalized.
[54:04] “If you’re on time for when the market is ready for it, you’re already late.” Rachael discusses the benefits of AI’s multi-faceted approach and how the company has been able to adapt and customize equipment to meet new needs like vaccine storage.
Connect with Across International Markets:
Botanical lab equipment site: AIVacuum
Selected Links on Topics Mentioned in this Episode:
Refine – Xtracted Labs
Top Shelf Extracts / The Secret Cup
Action Bronson Hits a High Tech Dab Lab
The Green Solution
Nuthin But Nectar
Pittcon Today Excellence Awards
Hosted by Vitalis, we bring you wise, humorous, and sometimes shocking conversations with entrepreneurs and extraction industry innovators on 'The Extraction Insiders'.