Why I believe in Alien Labs.
The post A Bat Signal for Outsiders appeared first on High Times.
There are a ton of brands in the modern cannabis landscape, but few of these players truly understand what being a brand really means. There’s a lot more to it than just coming up with a catchy name and logo. Even worse, it seems like in today’s market even fewer make their consumers the actual focal point of what they’re doing. Maybe that’s why it’s not working out for so many of them.
While we’ve seen countless companies try and fail to make a name for themselves in this burgeoning industry, Alien Labs lives in rarified air. It hasn’t just amassed a cult-like following. It’s growing, and does so with integrity.
Created in 2014 by Ted Lidie, Alien Labs was founded not just on a love for incredible weed, but as a bat signal for all the other outsiders who didn’t fit into the hype lifestyle of the moment. While hip-hop seemed to be the thing most closely associated with cannabis in the mainstream at that point, Lidie realized there were a lot of other people out there, just like him, who loved good weed, but didn’t fit that mold, and he built his business around catering to them.
To me, this is the quintessential American success story. Alien Labs isn’t some corporate-funded project, it was bootstrapped. It wasn’t created in a boardroom by suits, but in the grow, by people who truly love the plant. Lidie built this thing with his hands, from nothing. But now… now it’s really something.
The Original Alien
Lidie was born in Oregon, but spent most of his life in Redding, California where his mother’s family is from. His father’s family is from Cottonwood, not too far away, and his dad has been growing cannabis since long before Lidie was born, though he was largely insulated from that work. Lidie didn’t spend his formative years on the farm. In fact, when he initially started smoking with his friend Scott in seventh grade, it wasn’t even his family’s primo—it was some traditional “mex” as it was called back then. Brick weed. But Lidie was instantly infatuated by the plant, and even remembers the first real headies he smoked: some Afgoo stolen from a friend’s parent.
When he got older, sometime during high school, it became clear his family couldn’t keep him out of the business. Now with access to cheap packs from his uncle’s breeding projects, Lidie began to learn the economics of the industry. Not only was he learning supply and demand, and what consumers really wanted, he was making real money for the first time in his life.
Around the time he turned 21 he moved to San Francisco, and the possibility of a future career in cannabis became clearer.
“They had this whole industry already. You could get your weed card and go to the stores, it was crazy to me. But it was also so much different than it currently is,” Lidie tells me. “It was just weed, in what they call ‘deli style.’ It would be in the big jars, and they put it in a bag for you.
Photo: Joanna Valente @thejojosnaps
“I remember one strain I liked buying from the Divinity Tree, it was called the Silver Surfer. No clue what it is, still haven’t seen it again. But it was hella good. And just the variety was so cool to me, to be able to go into the store and just buy what you want. See all the different types. I just thought that was so cool. And it also started formulating the ideas in my head.”
It was in San Francisco that Lidie made his first indoor attempt. Though he did some closet stuff in high school that didn’t exactly pan out, he had been living in the IC Mag forums and was ready to try his hand at growing. In 2007 he started his first crop, which he fondly remembers was Green Crack and Quarkle, a Space Queen x Purple Urkle from TGA.
Sensing more opportunity in Sacramento, Lidie moved up there shortly after his first harvest in SF. He recalls this was around the time he noticed that strains were beginning to drive the conversation. In Sacramento he got a job at All About Wellness to try and immerse himself further into the scene. He quickly moved up the ranks from the shop’s door guy to the store’s manager, until a breakup sent him back up home to Redding, which turned out to be a blessing in disguise.
“Redding is a real weed town,” he says. “It’s the first major freeway hub from Humboldt, the closest one I think. You could go south and hit Santa Rosa, then the San Francisco area, but really most people would come from Humboldt to Redding. They’d come to Redding and they would just chill in the hotels with their packs, and sell their weed to the people that would come in off the freeway. And that’s why Redding has so many prolific growers, because they would just chill and nerd out. While they sold their weed all the ideas would be shared. It’s like a port city. SoCal was so much different than NorCal because in NorCal we shared tech.”
He went back to networking in his hometown, quickly getting a job trimming, when the rates were still favorable to the trimmer. He saved his money and learned whatever he could, preparing to build out his own grow room once again.
Photo courtesy Yellow Brick Group
Tracing the Origins
It was 2014 when Lidie built out that next grow, his first six-lighter. He was growing with House & Garden nutrients, which, while he hadn’t seen anyone else using yet, seemed to be producing product of a higher level than his peers. Around this time Cookies started to become a brand, and the hype market was beginning to take shape. Feeling disconnected from that market, Lidie eventually started using the name Alien Labs to brand the work he produced himself.
“I was seeing the formulations of the hype market coming to life, and what I thought was ‘I’m not them,’” Lidie tells me. “We’re the fucking mountain boys, you know what I mean? Like, we weren’t the urban street culture that was prevalent at that time in weed circles. That’s why our name is Alien Labs because we were so different from what was popular at that time that we might as well have been aliens. I use that term more like outsider, like it doesn’t mean extraterrestrial, it was more of like a double entendre with ‘outsider,’ you know? We weren’t on the inside of that shit. We never were on the inside of this hype market until they were finally forced to realize like ‘Oh shit, these guys actually have the best…’ We actually had good weed, it wasn’t just some good strain.”
Soon after, Lidie started his partnership with Tyler Meeks, the then-owner of MediCali dispensary, who had a grow of his own that was much larger than what Lidie was currently working with. Meeks had 60 lights compared to Lidie’s six, and while he was initially just a supplier, Lidie eventually cut him into the brand for a better deal on his flower. Meeks also employed Scott, one of Ted’s best friends since elementary school (and the guy he first smoked with), and had taught him to grow, so this move also brought family to the table.
Together they were finding some real heat, and one of Meeks’s cuts became the first real Alien Labs cultivar. This was around the time that Jupiter OG was popular. In fact, it was the first $100 eighth Lidie had ever seen, so it was working in the hype market too. Deciding to stick with the planetary theme, they branded their new strain Mars OG, which just so happened to play into the theme Lidie was cultivating. While today it’s called Lemon Fuel OG, Lidie credits this plant for really kick-starting the brand.
Lidie would also take on a management role at this time at Meeks’s MediCali, which afforded him the opportunity to network with out-of-town traditional market guys looking to take product back to wherever they were from. It was there that Lidie made many of his first connections from around the country, and began to understand the nuances of the cannabis market across the states.
Photo Courtesy Yellow Brick Group
Runnin’ Crop Circles
Where things really took off for Alien Labs though wasn’t the ability to create new genetics as you might expect. In fact, it was the talent to turn out other more in-demand genetics with a better finished product than anyone else that really set the brand apart.
“We weren’t making our own stuff, and that was a big part of how we were able to come up,” Lidie explains. “You could see the difference in our work. Girl Scout Cookies was a great example. You could go ‘I’ll look at this Cookies’, and then look at the Alien Labs GSC and our shit blew theirs out of the fuckin’ water, dude.”
A great example of this was Dosidos. While this cultivar was in the hands of dozens of cultivators, no one was getting the kind of results with the plant that the Aliens were. The Alien Labs cut presented far gassier than others, a scent that sold bags even back then. Alien Labs would go on to win a High Times Cannabis Cup award for Dosidos in 2014.
In order to spread the good word further, Lidie started focusing on branding, and figuring out how to really communicate with consumers. He had spent so much time in the forums and talking to customers in the shops where he’d worked that social media was like second nature to him. He wasn’t just posting, he was developing a relationship with his audience—in a time when most cultivators were still in the shadows—and he made them feel like a part of his movement. That’s the thing about Lidie, he’s approachable and he’s personable. You want to hang out with him. But he would also obsess over his analytics, so he was constantly improving on what his growing fanbase liked, and doing less of what they didn’t. While most people were shooting their plants on the farm, Lidie would post pictures of his cured flowers. It’s much more forgiving to shoot while the bud’s still alive, and harder to hide your blemishes in the final form. He claims this was a key to social success for him.
“At the time when Alien Labs was made, it was like Cookies had that specific base. We came out and we’re just, we’re very inclusive, first of all. We actually responded on Instagram. We took the time to hang out with the people, and no one really else did at the time, so we built a community. That’s really the success of it, the community of people we’ve built and influenced and touched, they really fuck with us. Like, you hear Doja Pak all the time say ‘Alien Labs is my favorite brand.’”
But another reason for Alien Labs’s success is Lidie’s approach. As with the ethos of the brand, Alien Labs is for the outsiders. There’s a vision behind it. The brand ties into now iconic counter-culture affinities like conspiracy theories, anime, and horror flicks. Subcultures with die-hard, engaged communities. Because of this, Alien Labs has become like a gang, but it’s one you can join. The brand is creating something special. It’s exclusive, but it’s something that you’re welcome to. There’s a magic in that that converts passive observers into believers, and fans into evangelists.
“That’s what it’s always been. It’s like ‘Hey, if you’re into weed, but you’re also into all this—like, shit that wasn’t cool when we were coming up—because all the shit we’re into wasn’t cool, but now it is. That’s another thing I attribute this success to is that aliens and conspiracy theories, all the shit that we built the brand around, wasn’t cool when we did it. And now it’s cool and popular, you know? We were just like, able to slide right in there.
“I think a big part of [the success] has been my selection process, too. From the beginning I’ve always tried to make each strain of ours pretty different. Different from each other, different from what’s on the market. I think that the customer, on the rec market especially, likes having that variety. But also just being connected to the streets, and the culture, and understanding it differently, people want to support Alien.”
As legend of their cultivation abilities picked up steam, Alien Labs started growing for Toluca Lake Collective (TLC), the home of the Jungle Boys, and one of the most popular dispensaries in Southern California. At this point the company was using stickers to brand its bags, but it was a far cry from the fully-branded jars and mylars we see today.
Then Alien Labs put out a version of Wedding Cake, a Seed Junky strain that had been out for a while already, but no one had made shine like this. Then Alien Labs released a version of Gelato #33 and Sunset Sherbet—each showing new expressions on a plant that had been grown well in the past, but not this well. Today Lidie is networking with international players, not just domestic ones. He remembers in 2015 when he first heard of the crazy rates that packs were going for in the U.K. from his friend T. Before long, customers over there started asking for Alien Labs.
Now, while the brand was coming up, Lidie and Meeks always wanted to get into Collective Efforts, the store largely popularized by Cookies that would eventually become Connected Cannabis Co. His friend Maya worked at Getta Clue in Sacramento, a skate shop that they liked, and knew the owner, Caleb Counts. They eventually paid her $1,000 cash to connect them. She put them in a group text and Lidie immediately pitched him. Counts bought all the weed he had during that first meeting.
Soon after starting to buy their flower from the cultivations in Redding, Counts offered to let the Aliens grow in a facility he had just vacated in Sacramento, which was known as the Bandwagon. The Bandwagon had 180 lights, tripling AL’s cultivation capabilities, and led to a deal that would evolve into a much bigger future for the brand. You see, Lidie couldn’t get any licensing in Redding as both the city and county had banned cannabis businesses at the time, so this deal allowed Alien Labs to start producing its first true legal products, and brought Lidie back down to Sacramento.
As the relationship grew, it became clear that Lidie had abilities that would be helpful to Connected. Before long, Counts asked Lidie to help with social media and branding. In a few months Lidie brought nearly 150,000 new followers to the brand’s account. He would also interface with Taylor, Gino, and Jordan, Connected’s cultivation managers, improving the end results of their products collectively. It seemed like a match made in heaven.
Alongside these events, Alien Labs’s clout was clearly rising. In 2017, at the first Emerald Cup to allow indoor flower, the Alien Labs booth had a line down the block. The following year in California’s first legal Cannabis Cup, they swept the competition. Soon after that they released Area 41, then Baklava, and Sherbacio, all cultivars which would become household names to their fans. By the time Milky Way and Alien Mints hit the scene they were selling out as soon as they dropped.
In a deal that has now become industry legend, in 2018 Alien Labs was sold to Connected Cannabis Co. in a cash deal. The boy from Redding had turned his little project into real money, affording him the opportunity to buy his first house for his family. While this could have been the end of the story for Lidie, he decided to stay on and continue with Connected, taking a salary, hungry to learn the insides of the business he hadn’t seen yet. This proved to be a great move for both brands, as while many cannabis companies were acquired for big money around this time, few have continued to perform as successfully as AL.
“We wouldn’t have gotten as big as we are now without them, for sure. They had infrastructure….” Lidie says. “We got three times the amount of lights when we signed. That was a big deal. That allowed us to get into way more stores than we were in. Before we were doing it pretty strategically, like Connected would get a lot of our stuff, but so would Greenwolf—places with high visibility for brands like TLC, because of Jungle Boys. Having much more weed allowed us to get into all the stores.
“And a huge part of it comes down to [quality control] because there were some batches we didn’t want to sell, and because of Connected’s infrastructure we didn’t have to. A lot of people don’t have the bank account to worry about quality at that level, which was all we were worried about. That was a good part of it. And I love Caleb, and that’s why we did the deal. Still to this day, it’s Caleb. We found a good partner for us. He had a lot of the stuff we didn’t have, and we had some of the know-how and culture he didn’t have.”
In the deal, which saw the entirety of Alien Labs sold to Connected, Lidie had the foresight to retain merchandising rights for the brand. This means that while Connected owns AL outright, Lidie and his team maintain an exclusive license in perpetuity for Alien Labs, which has afforded them the rare benefit of owning a merchandise company, as well as being employed in the cannabis sector.
“I did this to feed my family, like now my mom doesn’t work bro. She comes to my house and hangs out with my daughter [Brooklyn].” Lidie tells me, but he’s not done yet. (I should also note, this quote came from before his son Elroy was born. I’m quite sure his mom loves both her grandkids and hanging out with them equally!)
The Next Chapter
Today Lidie is responsible for overseeing Alien Labs entirely, from breeding to the selection process. He oversees the look and feel of the brand, but he’s part of a bigger machine.
“Connected’s been cool as shit, and true to their word. They really gave us the ability to do whatever we wanted. Alien Labs still exists inside of Connected, just like, on their own,” Lidie explains, noting Alien Labs now has 2,000 lights.
“I call this my college. All the stuff I’ve done over the past four years, this has been my master class. I knew how to grow weed, and how to sell weed. I had just learned how to build a brand.”
Now he’s got far more experience than that. Today, he tells me, “if something doesn’t build the brand we pretty much just don’t do it.”
You can see this in how he operates, and how he’s focusing on building the brand in more lucrative, and less restrictive sectors. Over the past few years the focus on merchandising has grown, and evolved into a rapidly growing area of business for the brand. Now in six chains and over 1,000 shops total, including Hibbett’s, DTLR and City Gear, the brand will release its first women’s wear in the coming months through an exclusive launch with Zumiez.
“That’s really why we focus a lot on merch, that’s what feeds the families. We’ve just put everything back into it so far, but it’s starting to gain much more traction. Bigger brands are looking at us, asking to do collabs. We have a HUF collab coming for 4/20, which will be huge for both of us. The HUF cannabis and vape is fire, and we’re pumped to create a line with legends in the skating space,” Lidie explains.
“Last year I hired a kid, Dan, to help us to do cut and sew, and all that. Curtis and Shawn [of YBG] and Dan really structured it in a way that we’re doing monthly drops now. We’ve already doubled the amount we did last year… And now the stores are starting to call.”
In an industry with as many restrictions as cannabis, merchandising offers Lidie and Alien Labs not just the ability to create more income for the brand, but also to reach new audiences wherever they may be.
Apollo41 – Kalya x AL Rosin
On The Ground
Now making deals with other states (they’re already in Florida and Arizona), merchandise available across the country, and some of the best cannabis available in the California market, the team isn’t satisfied—they’re compulsively obsessed with what they’re putting out. On Thursdays, Lidie, Counts, and a select group of trusted cohorts quality control their latest batches. Broken off randomly from each cultivar’s harvest into trays, and intentionally pulling a selection of everything from crown nugs to smalls, they grade each on color, nose, structure, and trim job. If the batch doesn’t make a certain score, it doesn’t get packed into jars. It won’t wear either brand’s name.
Evolving your business doesn’t mean you have to sell out, or change your core values. Alien Labs was built to be the best for all of us outsiders, in a category that didn’t exist, and despite its evolution it remains true to its founding principles, and who it represents. That’s the American Dream if I’ve ever heard it.
While I won’t pretend to speak for everyone else, I will tell you how I feel: you don’t have to be like them to fit in, your weird is our weird too, and the reason most of us ended up here remains the same. So I guess that’s why I believe in the Aliens, because what they’ve made feels like a home for me, too.
This story was originally published in the June 2023 issue of High Times Magazine.