Lucas Young is the founder and CTO of The Stoner's Cookbook (now HERB), the web’s largest online cannabis community. He was born in London but grew up in the dairying heartland of New Zealand. Diagnosed with an IQ of 156 at a young age, he struggled to keep his brain fed. At a University, he studied Astrophysics, Quantum Physics, Philosophy, Russian and Electronics before graduating from Film School in 1995.
After working for a New Zealand television, he joined Peter Jackson's team at Weta Digital where he wrangled data for "Lord of the Rings: Return of the King" and "I, Robot". Lucas started a web design agency in 1997 developing sites and online games for companies like Hasbro, Inc. and Fonterra.
His interests include writing, vlogging, hieroglyphics, film-making, guitar, hypnosis and interesting AI algorithms.
In this interview with Startup Savant, Lucas shares his background in tech and film and how he ended up forming an online community for Cannabis. He shares about his journey as an entrepreneur and his 'work now, play now' mindset.
His advice for entrepreneurs starting any business:
You have to be tough on yourself right at the start and ask yourself this question: do people actually want my product or service? Can I prove this? Can other people, who aren’t in love with the idea like I am, prove this?
Can you tell us a little bit about yourself, Lucas and how you got the idea for HERB?
I grew up in an environment that seems the least conducive to a career in tech entrepreneurship – a small dairying community in rural New Zealand. While the other kids in my school were playing rugby, and working on family farms, I had my head buried in books about holograms, computers and hieroglyphics. The New Zealand government even sent people down to test my IQ (which turned out to be 156).
I was always fascinated with technology, always a geek – I built a computer module that could understand basic speech for a high school science fair (which I won), and I used the word “floccinaucinihilipilification” in an important English exam, which resulted in a margin note from the examiner “an essay is meant to be read for its content, not it’s polysyllabic effects.”
After dabbling in astrophysics and quantum physics at University, my interests turned to film. After film school I was lucky enough to work on (amongst other projects) the final Lord of the Rings film with Sir Peter Jackson. The exposure to technology led me to start a web design agency with my business partner Daniel Crothers, and that’s where we came up with the idea for HERB.
HERB was originally an idea we had called The Stoner’s Cookbook. It was a parody of a famous New Zealand cookbook, a staple in many homes, called The Edmonds Cookbook. Marijuana was (and still is) illegal in New Zealand, but like most countries, this doesn’t stop people from smoking it. It occurred to us that intoxicated users often got “the munchies” and would eat outrageous culinary concoctions – cereal + ice cream, for example.
As we were focused on web development, and trying to kick off new online business ideas, we wondered if a recipe website for this sort of “stoner meal” might be a popular idea. The thing about starting new businesses is that sometimes the idea you least expect to be a winner is the one that takes off, and The Stoner’s Cookbook was certainly that sort of project – it started as a bit of fun on the side.
We built the site in 2006 and it allowed the public to submit recipes (with or without the inclusion of a cannabis element). It languished a little over the intervening 3 years and in 2009, I was surprised to discover it had become the number one cannabis recipe resource on the net!
From that point forward we took it seriously, and it’s grown in fits and starts to the entity we know as HERB today.
What do you enjoy most about being an entrepreneur? Is there something you are most proud of?
Entrepreneurship is a wild and dynamic ride. You are constantly learning, failing, succeeding, making mistakes and trying again. I love to learn, and I live by the Socratic paradox “I know one thing: that I know nothing.” By constantly being open to other people’s ideas and approaches, integrating them into your worldview, and learning from the success as others, you grow both as a person and a businessman.
Business was tough for me. Technology, I understood. Meetings, business plans, forecasts, strategies… these were never my strong suit, and were a huge challenge to learn. I think many people make the mistake of thinking that if they create a winning business idea, that they are in fact the best person to implement and manage that idea.
Many businesses fail as a result. I think I’m most proud of the fact that I was able to give control of the reins of an idea I created to others who were better equipped to turn that idea into a successful business, learning from them along the way.
My strengths are in technology, which is why I’m CTO of HERB, and we have someone much better suited to the role of CEO in that position.
When you started HERB, how did you plan everything out? Any resources you used to write a solid business plan?
HERB was one of the first businesses we grew from the ground up, and we were essentially learning everything as we went along. We weren’t sure how to capitalize on the success of an online cannabis recipe database.
We published a hardcover book of those recipes which sold well – in fact, we still have people sending us photos of the book from far corners of the world!
HERB differed from other business ideas that had an established road map from word go. It was developed iteratively. Things really started to take off for us when the cannabis legalization movement gathered speed in the US. It was then that we realized we had an established property that already had the fan base to capitalize on the growth in popularity of medicinal and recreational cannabis.
We worked with some great people to develop a business plan. I don’t think you can just point to one resource and say “this is how you do it” because you need to tailor your plans not only to your specific industry, but to the people you’re pitching the plan to.
We decided that what people wanted from HERB was information. Recipes were just one aspect of that. We expanded what was The Stoner’s Cookbook into an online resource that included cannabis news, videos and more recently, a strains database.
We made the difficult decision to rebrand to HERB (advertisers weren’t so hot on the word “Stoner” in our original - but well known – name). I rebuilt our web platform to be more scalable and dynamic. We brought on investors, and a dynamic CEO based in the US to help drive the company forward.
What is the toughest decision you’ve ever made when starting a business? How did it make you better at the end of the day?
I think it’s a mistake to see business as an emotion-free, objective activity. You pour a lot of blood and sweat into an idea, especially in the conceptual phases, and it’s easy to become heavily invested in that idea emotionally. This makes it difficult to hear ideas that contradict your way of thinking. You see the results of this attitude in TV shows like The Apprentice, where contestants are horrified at the amount of shareholding they’ll need to sacrifice to move forward.
The conception of an idea does not make you the best person to implement that idea as a business. It was difficult for me (and my business partner Daniel) to stop making every business decision. We had investors, advisors and other team members with much better ideas on how to make various aspects of the company work as a business.
For me this meant I was far more valuable to the company doing what I do best, and moving to the role of CTO, than I would have been by trying to remain in control of areas that weren’t my specialty.
In your experience, what is the best way to find your ideal customer? Are there any mistakes that our readers can learn from?
The biggest challenge in any business is knowing who your customer is, and what they want. It’s very easy to try and give them what you want, or what you think they want. One of the challenges we faced with HERB is that we had a website that we grew as a serious cannabis resource – with recipes, videos, news stories, a cannabis strain database etc… allied with our Facebook community, who were initially “in it for the LOLs”. They wanted something different - stoner humor, memes, and comedy.
When you create a business entity, you have to find objective ways to verify its reason to exist. Believing an idea is great can so often be strongly colored by who you are and your specific circumstances. You need tools and advice to help you objectively assess the interest in your business idea. You need to test, trial, iteratively develop and stress test your idea before you commit so much to it that you put yourself at risk if it doesn’t fly. It’s hard work. You don’t want to commit time and resources to a project you can’t justify, based on the belief that “it should work” or “other business do it”.
When you’re a young business, this overstretching can be fatal. Again, you really need to work with people experienced in your field, take their advice on board, and try and objectively find a way to determine if your customer base is as large and as engaged as you hope or believe it to be.
As a business owner, what is your greatest fear and how do you keep it under control or harness it?
With web-based businesses, there are constant risks and challenges. Technology moves at a rapid pace, and you have to keep up. New web standards can mean re-engineering your platform. Changes to Facebook and Google algorithms keep us busy with SEO work and diversifying both our content and how we acquire customers. Law changes around cannabis are a constant threat. Competitors are a constant threat. But all threats and challenges are learning experiences.
Nietzsche said “That which does not kill us, makes us stronger” and that’s one of the philosophies I live by. If a business can remain agile and be vigilant, it can foresee incoming issues and take steps to mitigate the risk.
I prefer to channel fear into action. Fear is overrated and debilitating. I see a business challenge as a motivator for new ideas, change and growth. Google’s changing to mobile-first? Great! Here’s an opportunity to re-engineer our platform! Our traffic acquisition is plateauing? Great! Let’s develop a new content stream!
What does your day-in, day-out look like? Is there any specific habit that has helped you become a better person?
I love the zero inbox. I’ve been a developer since 1995, and I’ve always hated having a queue of unfinished tasks. I get a kick out of resolving an issue and replying to an email within a minute or two of receiving it. I have a puppy dog-like need to please and I harness this. So, I multitask.
As HERB’s CTO, I’m also the only developer, so my day revolves around developing new components, testing and deploying changes to our web environment (either those generated by the team or those forced on me by software updates). I’m working on SEO improvements and traffic analysis.
I’m helping our editorial team with video conversions and technical issues. I’m working on our store, our mailing list, our CDN and a dozen other issues that arise. I’m talking with our team and our shareholders and new ideas and initiatives.
The key for me is not to have any aspect of the business sit around unresolved. At the end of the day, you need to know everything has either been handled, or will be handled, and won’t back up against other tasks and make your life miserable.
Who has been your greatest influencer along your entrepreneurial journey? How did they shape HERB?
I read. A lot. 25 years ago, I was listening to Amway motivational audio cassettes. Now, I have the Kindle app on my phone and I always make sure I have unread books waiting for me. Business is as much about how you interact with people as it is about reports and plans.
I still get too emotional about ideas. So I read all the classics – How to Win Friends and Influence People, the 48 Laws of Power, Steven Covey. I watch what’s happening in Silicon Valley right now, following people like Noah Kagan, Neil Patel, Elon Musk. I don’t have a favorite influencer, I cherry pick from many of them. HERB grew from a willingness to learn and take advice on board from many sources.
How do you balance life and work to remain connected and available for your loved ones? Any advice for me?
I’m lucky in that my recreation is tech-based (film making, gaming) but I never agreed with the strict delineation between work and play. Especially when the work is so technical – the brain needs a rest! So I intersperse my work and my recreation. While I’m waiting for a plugin update to deploy, I can be trying to increase my survival time in Battlefield 1 to more than a few seconds…
I don’t like the idea of work now, play later – by the time “later” comes (and I also look at this in terms of a working life and retirement), you’re too worn out to enjoy it, and your “work” mindset is too ingrained.
So right now, I’m blending work and play. I’m operating remotely, traveling with my laptop, staying at AirBnBs. I’m in France, and next month, I’ll be in London. I keep in touch by Skype and I work remotely. I enjoy my life as I live it, and this makes the work more fun and productive.
What advice would you give to our readers who want to start a business today? Where should they start?
I can’t address the specifics of starting a business in California, only my experiences of starting businesses in general.
You have to be tough on yourself right at the start and ask yourself this question: do people actually want my product or service? Can I prove this? Can other people, who aren’t in love with the idea like I am, prove this? If you can point to numbers that say yes, they do, then you need to surround yourself with people that are better than you at every aspect of business development and work with them, learn from them.
Be prepared to step aside in some areas to let more talented people handle that area of the idea. And if the idea fails, be prepared to learn from it, let it go, and start anew.