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Dan Sutton: Fostering a culture of innovation

Innovation distilled into its simplest meaning is creating new things. From fire pits and sharp stones to quantum computing and nuclear fusion, innovators create value for themselves and their users.

February 22, 2018  By Dan Sutton

Dan Sutton Innovation distilled into its simplest meaning is creating new things.

The term innovation often aligns with technology, but the process happens across art, commerce, community and everywhere else the human spirit urges it forward. Innovation is often the genesis of exceptional financial opportunity; however, the path to creating new things rarely seems to be rooted in financial thirst.

In a cannabis paradigm, teams that effectively anticipate changing consumer needs by creating new trends and categories have an unprecedented opportunity in front of them. Product development in the United States has created new markets for modern cannabinoid delivery methods like vapourization, edibles and extractions. Many more markets are on the way. These markets have grown substantially across states with legalization, with innovators leading the pack in value creation for their investors.

A culture of innovation is not a byline in an investor deck. It is a function of enterprise design that must be fostered from day one. Jon Doerr, general partner at KPCB, hunts for the core DNA of his founders and early team members. He states simply, “Your greatest challenge will be building a great team.”

Jim Collins, author of startup bible Good to Great, boils it down to “putting the right people on the bus.” The individuals who populate your team are the only true differentiator in a world that pulls to commoditize everything over time. The next generation of cannabis unicorns will need to take this timeless team-building advice one step further to reap the value innovation can create.


Aligning employees with fostering each other’s successes creates a feedback loop of innovation momentum. Cannabis enterprises are diverse, but the best seem to have a collection of humans with differentiated and interesting skill sets.

Most corporate leaders are new to the space. Cannabis growers know and love the plant, while agricultural specialists thrive in process and team management. As for quality assurance professionals, they thrive on curiosity, science and empiricism. In the age of automation, integration and decentralized systems, software specialists add exceptional value. Add in human resources, finance, marketing, and administration, and you have a patchwork quilt of specializations that need to be unified in pursuing the common mission.

The personalities that I see across my team have different motivators and different resource needs. They solve problems in unique ways, and in ways that inspire others to see through a novel lens. Leading cannabis teams must work consistently to align the incentives of a diverse and talented organization. This is the clearest path to benefit the greater community of end users and stakeholders, but such alignment is difficult to finesse.

I was lucky – when my co-founder, Alexander Close, and I sat down to craft our first brand choices and plot the path forward, the Simon Sinek “Start with Why” TED Talk was only a few months old. We reveled in this concept, fleshing out our thinking on why we really wanted to build Tantalus Labs from core principles.

Why do you get out of bed every day and do what you do? If that “Why” is a beacon to bright minds and great people, they lean into collective success with a commitment that money cannot buy. Great teams around the world attract thinkers who care passionately about sustainability, technology, software, design – perhaps just meeting new challenges in general. Good teams retain that talent by fostering the ability to contribute.

When it works, the success of this chemistry is one of the great joys of start-up culture. A group of smart people from different backgrounds in a commercial enterprise is a powerful unit of social progress.

When they are given permission to debate honestly, they grow deeper respect.

When they are challenged but not pressured, they grow deeper ambition.

When they care so deeply for the mission and each other that they are radically candid about small course corrections, they grow more sensitivity.

The individual evolves to the benefit of the whole.

Many people ask me how to pick winners in this great green rush. I most often see the world through the lens of a founder and, at this time in my life, almost all of my waking hours are spent thinking about my team and our path forward. The answer that I usually give is to find the teams that seem poised to execute, take an earnest look at the motivations of the founders, and trust your instincts.

Innovation for the sake of making money sometimes wins, but innovation for the sake of solving a genuine user problem is a more authentic opportunity. Support companies that prioritize innovation with organizational structure and alignment of core values, and you will surely be rewarded.

Dan Sutton is the founder and managing director of Tantalus Labs. Born and raised in Vancouver, he has worked in teams developing innovative technologies for a diverse range of sectors, from high field magnetics to nuclear fuel.

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