I had the pleasure of interviewing, Nina Fern — Founder of The Highly, ‘a guide to the good good’ — a cannabis editorial best described as ‘Michelin meets The New Yorker’ with tried and true reviews, insightful conversations and light hearted comics. Nina retired from finance in 2011, and is an entrepreneur who has quickly become the voice of the ‘grown-up’ cannabis consumer.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! What is your “backstory”? How did you first get into this business or get interested in the business?
For the past 25 years, for me, bad weed was awful, and good weed was magic. Finding the ‘good stuff’ was always hit or miss — until now.
I started working in finance at a very young age and used cannabis to help me get a good night’s sleep before the 4:30am wake up call. I would wake up so relaxed and focused, it helped me stay calm, cool and collected during the chaos of the early morning trading floor. This was my little secret.
When I was 38 I took a fall on concrete, after which I was never the same. It was whiplash that slowly brewed into pain. By 40, I retired knowing I needed the time to focus on my health. A heartbreaking decision because I truly loved my job.
The moment I retired, the mild pain turned into severe chronic pain. I tried everything; NYC’s ‘top docs’, Eastern docs, osteopaths, nutritionists, acupuncture, IV drips, yoga training etc. I spent a fortune and for the first time understood how limiting healthcare in America really was. Fear escalated into frustration and that made everything worse.
I tried to get myself some ‘good weed’ (this is what I called it) and oddly, kept striking out so I gave up and went without.
It was 5 years of this hamster wheel when unsurprisingly my heart started giving me trouble. I thought it was curtains for sure. Being a mom of two teen girls, this was a process to accept. Ironically, the same week I returned from hospital from the heart trouble, was also the first time I got my hands on this new type of cannabis. Organic, properly labelled, lab tested and in all different applications. It was better than I ever remembered. Knowing exactly what I was taking gave me a comfort that took the experience to a whole new level.
I used it regularly for the first time as a real medicine, I taught myself on how to dial it in properly and combined it with meditation and a healthy lifestyle. My reliance on doctors disappeared and while I believe in doctors, (if you can find a good one), I’m my own best doctor now and I haven’t been outside of a check-up in 2 years. I felt the tension melting away and everything started to unwind. I began journaling to clear my thoughts, and put the trauma of this painful time behind me. Cannabis didn’t cure me but it rid a lot of the pain and helped me zone in on exactly what the the issues were. My life was back and it was richer in many ways.
I travelled all over North America, where it was legal, to find the absolute best cannabis for myself. During my travels I started to realize how necessary it was to have high-end city guides. The lugging of the luggage, the hotel beds, the jet lag, make for a lousy beginning on holiday and all I had to lead me were a bunch of fluffed up reviews that sent me on inconvenient stoner excursions. That’s where the light bulb came to start The Highly — touch down, here’s where you go, what you get, and most importantly — why it’s good.

Growing a Cannabis Business  CBD

Can you share the funniest or most interesting story that happened to you since you started your company
As someone who was not involved in social media pre-Highly, being on the other side of journalism, marketing, and this new way of conducting business has opened my eyes. It has made me more empathetic towards my children now that I see how being hit with so much noise effects even the strongest psyche.
What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
Our reviews are tried and true, we don’t accept kickbacks and I feel zero pressure to list more brands than what’s deserved. When I visit most dispensaries, the first thing I ask is, “what’s your absolute best quality product and why?” More often than not, the staff are not well trained, and answer “well, how high do you want to get?” But all cannabis is not created equal, and now The Highly explains why.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?
My mom’s entire being was about self help, and a 12-step program. As a kid, every time I had a question she would give me a self-help quote and it would infuriate me. I rolled my eyes my entire childhood. But she drilled it into me, and because of that, I’m able to pivot and move past many things quickly. I embrace mistakes and see life as a puzzle, and getting better at being me is entertaining. This way of navigating through the world has allowed me to accomplish things that were against all odds again and again.
Are you working on any exciting projects now?
We are creating a line of ancillary products that will be linked to a new content series which will be interactive, allowing people to explore what the cannabis experience really is. We’re also working on partnerships with delivery services, hospitality groups and several charitable organizations close to our hearts.
Can you share 3 things that most excite you about the Cannabis industry? Can you share 3 things that most concern you?
I’m excited about: People being empowered in their healthcare.
I’m excited about: Society having a medicine that’s not harmful.
I’m excited about: Cannabis culture : Art, intimacy and playfulness playing a role in the industry in a fresh, sophisticated way.
I’m concerned about: Big Pharma taking this plant and turning it into another harmful synthetic product.
I’m concerned about: Cannabis turning into a supplement fad and everyone will convince themselves to be stoned all day.
I’m concerned about: Claims that it cures everything. I don’t believe it cures you, but I believe when used properly it gives you the healthiest, all-natural, non-addictive relief that’s out there — all while opening your mind and looking at things in new ways.
Can you share your top “5 things you need to know in order to succeed in the Cannabis industry”? Please share a story or example for each.
1. Stay in your own lane or you will dilute your brand.
Once upon a time, I was able to tell the difference between my favorite publications. Now I surf around, its all the same; same faces, quotes and noise. With the The Highly, we chose to express ourselves through our family of artists and illustrators to keep things special but also memorable. If you are telling the same story as everyone else, why bother.
2. Work ethic trumps experience.
Initially I hired talented freelancers whose work was excellent, but their work ethic let me and my business down. There was a lot of back and forth, and a lot of entitlement. I’m now working with two young developers and students at Northwestern, who are flexible, eager and enthusiastic. They helped me build my website in less than a week, listened to my feedback and we thoughtfully discuss when there are changes to be made. They are true professionals.
3. Choose your words carefully, there is no authority.
Bottom line is, the proper clinical research hasn’t been done in cannabis — yet. Some of these methods are new and there should be caution attached. A person in pain is very vulnerable and will do anything. Lets keep it real and realistic or people, as well as the the industry, will suffer. Quality, common sense, moderation and self-awareness is a good rule of thumb.
4. Feedback from the right people is a gift. Leave your ego at home.
As a Founder you become too close to things. My friend Carol who is over 70, loved the site, and because she’s not a user of cannabis herself, she is an excellent source for unbiased feedback. I had one line that said I used it daily, which was true for a time, but it was often non-psychoactive. That scared her. She took it as a crazy stoner girl thing and couldn’t resonate with the brand. Looking at it through her eyes, I can see how reading it that way would be perceived by many. Communicating digitally is very hard compared to when we speak to face to face and genuine feedback is a gift.
5. Learn the job so you can guide, appreciate, and not be taken advantage of.
I had to learn social media, SEO and a whole slew of things I had zero interest in. In the beginning, when I didn’t know any of these things I was paying people not realizing they weren’t always doing a good job. Now I know what I need, and how to guide people in the right direction saving time and money. A healthy work culture is essential and when the team is all doing their part, it’s magic.
In our experience when people are passionate about what they do they are more successful. Where does you cannabis passion come from?
First and foremost, I believe in it and when I look around I continually see where cannabis use could serve people of all ages on many different levels, not just as a medicine but in how we connect with each other. When two people share cannabis together, its bridges a gap and opens a channel to vulnerability that is not judged. Its offers a time to connect in a deeper more intimate way, and to listen and laugh with one other. Right now we have a scary state of divide where people refuse to understand each other and open their minds to other ways of seeing things. Cannabis is a very powerful tool socially. I’ve never, not once behaved in a negative, regretful way with cannabis.
The industry is in a vulnerable place right now with greedy corporations looming overhead who can easily take it away. They did it with our food and medicine. I believe the purchases we make today are deciding the future of this industry as we speak. This gives me a passion and fuel that I honestly have never experienced before.
Where do you see your business going in the next 5 years? Where do you see the cannabis industry going in the next 5 years?
Our City Guides will be in print and we will be selling ancillary products that go with our story which is cannabis and self reflection. Embracing cannabis culture and supporting the arts will come into play. But for the most part, The Highly will be a focused site. Excellent at what we do and not doing a ton of different things.
I think the cannabis industry will be even bigger than people think. The most surprising thing I’ve learned, is I thought it was my demographic (middle-aged) that needed it most. It’s actually our youth. There’s a big story there. It’s a generation plagued by anxiety. People are not focused enough to see things clearly and are too reactive. Cannabis changes that. The story today is of wellness but once people get used to it, the other facets will come out. Like self reflection and creative expression. Cannabis is that universal and multi layered.

Growing a Cannabis Business  CBD  The Highly

What growth sectors should most people be paying attention to that they might not be currently?
There’s a real opportunity now with established companies already generating serious revenue. The time is now to buy the right stocks. The upside is huge. People should pay attention to companies that are in Canada and have a foot in other countries. Cannabis events, tourism, hospitality and the European market in general. Europe is easy because they already get it! It’s endless.
Some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might see this.
Ray Dalio has been my saving grace this year. I listen to Principles on audible often, especially when I’ve had a tough day. Ray has become my teacher and mentor. He makes me realize all of the problems are normal parts of the job and has very clear, constructive advice how to deal with it. People think he’s a finance guy, but he’s a human nature guy and I can talk human nature 24/7. Ray, a thank you lunch is in order, my treat!
This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for joining us!