Old Pal's Founders Tell All
Feature by Emily Berkey
Sep 13, 2019 · 11 min read

We visited Old Pal’s headquarters to talk about crafting affordable flower, mini vapes, and a brand baby boomers can love.

Four and a half years ago, Rusty Wilenkin (right) called Jason Osni (left) to ask about a distribution partnership opportunity between the cannabis companies they were each working for at the time. This phone call led to years of consistently working together at their respective cannabis-based day jobs, and it was their long track record that led Osni to call on Wilenkin again in 2018. Wilenkin recalls Osni’s words during that fateful phone call: “Hey, we’re going to start our first brand that’s really focused on the value shelf and making cannabis accessible for everyone.”

Fast forward to now, and they’re sitting in a sunlit room on the second floor of Old Pal's Venice Beach headquarters. We caught up with them to learn their story and what’s on the horizon.

What did you see was missing on the cannabis market, and how did Old Pal move to fill that void?

Osni: When everyone’s focusing on one thing, there’s usually something that’s not getting enough attention on the opposite side. When everybody’s looking at high-end craft cannabis, there’s a good chance that not enough people are focusing on value cannabis. When everyone’s making craft beers, people start to lose focus on the Budweisers of the world. To us, it was like, let’s be the first to do this. I think given Rusty’s experience with supply chains and my experience with high-level strategy and brand, we were able to be the first to do it the right way. Here we are a year later and it’s worked out.

Wilenkin: It was pretty crazy how quickly that first phone call turned into product on shelves. I want to say it was maybe five or six weeks from speaking to the first time we were on the Eaze menu going live.

Wow. How did you achieve that? Did you already have the ball rolling?

Wilenkin: Jason had already had been working with designers at LAND in Austin, so when we started talking, he already had a vision for the brand and was ready to put the pieces together.

Osni: To that point, it’s like writing a book. You think about it 10 or 20 years before the book’s actually written. The framework is mentally in your head, there’s a road map. Then you put pen to paper and it begins to flesh out pretty quickly. The actual book might take three months to write but it’s a lifetime of experiences that go into it. For me, Old Pal is something I’ve been thinking about for years—while I was in law school, while I was in undergrad. It came to a point where I was like, “Now how do I execute?” It felt like the manual for how to do it was there and had been preconceived, but Rusty was able to take that and make it a business by getting the product and pieces in place.

Your aim was to be the most affordable cannabis brand out there. How did you embrace that in your brand messaging and what hurdles did you face when it came to articulating that?

It’s this idea of masstige—prestige to the masses.

Osni: There’s an interesting line that needs to be drawn between being the lowest price and being value-accessible branded. Teetering on that was an interesting balance. We didn’t want to come out and be Natty Light. We wanted to be Anheuser-Busch. That’s a totally different brand message. To do that, we wanted the feeling behind the brand to be really elevated, but we wanted the price point to be accessible. A lot of people miss the mark and become cheap. Our goal is to make sure that doesn’t happen. People aspire to be Old Pal users yet it’s the most affordable product on the market. It’s this idea of masstige—prestige to the masses.

How do you ensure your cannabis is accessible?

Wilenkin: Both of us have worked in this space for five or six years. We’ve done right by everyone in our ecosystem, and that’s a level of trust money can’t buy. So when we go to farmers that we’ve done business with for three, four, five years, there’s a lot of trust and our friends want to support us. Today, our scale represents such an outlet for the farmers we work with that we’re helping them come into the legal market and move product in volumes where they’re comfortable being here again. It’s really hard for farmers to grow 10,000 or 20,000 pounds a year and think about selling five or ten pounds at a time and moving through that harvest in a legal way. So we really try to work with farmers and we’ve gotten aggressive with helping with down payments and things that help with processing to make it more doable for them. But it’s really been about trust and doing right by all the people in our ecosystem.

Do you use multiple farms or just one?

Wilenkin: In California, we’ve sourced from probably over 150 farms at this point since inception. Given the volume of product we’re moving here, we really need to work with everyone.

One would think the price point would result in a limited number of strains, but you actually have a surprising variety available. What does the strain adoption process look like and how do you decide what you’re going to put on the market?

Osni: One of the main pillars of Old Pal is to keep things really simple so at the consumer level, there’s not too much information. From a recreational standpoint, we wanted to make the buying decision process for the consumer really easy. So we decided to go with Indica, Sativa, and Hybrid as opposed to saying, “Hey, we’re going to have 30 strains that people have to decide from and do their research.” We box it into three options.

Nobody’s talking about the strain of barley that’s in Jack Daniels.

Wilenkin: We have brand standards in terms of potency and number of pieces in an eighth and the appearance of the flower. When we think about new strains, they need to live up to those brand standards. We’re not sitting here like, “We need the most exotic strain.” Unlike so many other brands out there trying to tell these fact-based stories about strains that are, in our opinion, pretty hard to tell, we’re trying to tell a simpler story.

Osni: It goes to our phrase, “It’s just weed, man.” It’s just weed. Let’s not overcomplicate it. Nobody’s talking about the strain of barley that’s in Jack Daniels. It’s just a strain of weed. It’s just Jack Daniels.

When you’re each looking to smoke, what strains do you gravitate towards personally?

Wilenkin: For me, anything citrus smelling… that’s just a flavor I gravitate to. For me, it’s calming and I just like the taste. I’m honestly not a picky smoker.

Osni: I’ve been smoking our Vacation vape, which is soon to come out. It’s a rad little on-the-go disposable and 85% recyclable, which is cool. It’s really rad.

Vacation—is that an Indica, Sativa, or Hybrid?

Osni: There’s going to be all three options. It’s 0.2g, so for somebody’s who’s coming in and out of town, buying a full gram disposable means you’re oftentimes throwing away so much cannabis. We wanted a disposable little vacation vape that you could work through on a trip.

Speaking of vacation, you just entered Nevada’s market, a state known for the tourist attraction that is Las Vegas. You’re the first out-of-state company to be welcomed to the cannabis market in Nevada. Did you create the Vacation vape with your foray into the Nevada market in mind?

Osni: Yeah. It was on the product roadmap for sure. It felt timely. It felt different, which is exciting. The idea that we could do it with 85% recyclable goods, that got us really stoked. The entire West Coast is kind of a tourism magnet while Nevada is completely tourism.

Somewhere in your mission statement, you say, “Remember when weed was just weed?” I’m sure your parents remember this. Do your parents smoke your weed? What do they think of it?

Wilenkin: My conservative family from New York is probably not an Old Pal consuming family. But over the past 8 to 10 years working in cannabis, I think they’ve become more accepting. I have an amazing photo of me and my mom and dad and the first grow I ever had. It was a pretty special moment for me that my parents were even willing to come there and see that. They were proud of it. It was a pretty moment.

Osni: My mom was an actor. My grandma was an artist. I come from a relatively creative family. I opened my mom’s bathroom drawer when I was around 16 and I found a ton of weed. I didn’t think it was possible that they smoked weed. They do.

What’s the feedback from the baby boomer generation like? Do they say it reminds them of how cannabis used to be?

Osni: We get that all the time. It’s awesome.

Wilenkin: Our goal with our potency standard is to be above 15 percent THC. Today you see some of these super high-end indoor brands where they put out cannabis that’s like 30% THC and it’s like, we’re not trying to turn anyone into a zombie. We’re trying to give people a pretty casual experience of the plant where a new user isn’t overwhelmed. A person coming back to cannabis for the first time doesn’t have an experience that scares them away from the plant for the next 10 years.

Something I ask every brand: Does Old Pal have any social justice initiatives planned to address the reality of cannabis regulations disproportionately hurting communities of color?

You’d think an industry that’s so pro-wellness wouldn’t be putting out metric tons of plastic.

Osni: We’re getting involved with the Last Prisoner Project. They’re basically raising funds to help nonviolent cannabis criminals get out of prison. In California for example, there’s a pathway for everyone incarcerated for nonviolent cannabis crimes to get out of prison. Unfortunately, it takes a lot of money to actually file the notices to get these people released from prison. What Last Prisoner Project is doing is using funds from brands to start pushing those initiatives in California around the country.

Wilenkin: We also have a huge campaign called Legalize Humanity. Right now it’s just t-shirts but the idea is 100% of profits will be donated to Border Network for Human Rights, which is really rad. We’re excited about it. We put a significant amount of marketing dollars behind it.

When does that campaign launch?

Wilenkin: Within the next 60 to 90 days it goes live. We definitely recognize that in those earlier years, being a minority would’ve made the path to getting here twice as difficult. Being pulled over and not being searched is something that’s probably allowed me to get here. If I looked a different way, I might not have had that same experience. It was really important for us and we found the right groups to work with to support these initiatives because you’ve got to have a sense of where the world is.

Osni: More so him than me. I’m covered in tattoos. I’m a couple shades darker. The other thing I want to touch on is I think there’s a huge issue and irony happening with cannabis and the ecological footprint. I think this is something near both of our hearts when you look at the plastic situation. You look at climate change or whatever it might be. You’d think an industry that’s so pro-wellness wouldn’t be putting out metric tons of plastic by the month. But it’s really out of our control when regulations are put in place that a lot of packaging has to be plastic.

It can’t just be a jar.

Osni: It can’t just be a jar. Or a pouch made of hemp. It has to meet this regulatory standard. For us, the goal is to be completely recyclable by the end of 2020 whether these regulations change or not. We’re going to lobby to make it happen so that the packaging we do have is recyclable and is able to come into the recycling system. It’s something that matters a lot to us.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity. 

Photos by Emily Berkey.

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