As if inventing a new cannabis sublingual wasn't enough, Kirby decided to reformulate the entire Kin Slips product line.
Back when you could only buy
Without further ado, this is Josh Kirby and Kin Slips' story as told to Proper.
On transitioning from music to cannabis
I was raised in upstate New York in a little farm town in the middle of nowhere. My whole life, all I've ever wanted to do is play music. Ever since I was a little kid, my mom taught me how to play drums. She was a drummer. So at the age of two, she put drumsticks in my hand and kind of taught me how to do that. I was immediately fascinated by it, and it was pretty much all I did from the time I was two all the way through college. I ended up going to school for audio engineering and got a degree in that. And then after college I started touring with different groups. So I would do some live sound work, I would do some tour management, and I would do some performing as well.
When you're touring like that, you're on the road for two months and then off the road for two months and on the road and off the road and so on. And I was never with any groups that were big enough to pay for the time that I had off the road. I ended up having to get all these really weird odd jobs to cobble together enough income to get to the next tour. And in the process of doing that, I learned how to essentially learn things really, really quickly because you have to in order to be useful in some sort of two-month engagement. In one of those roles, I ended up working for a group that was doing some exploratory work in the cannabis industry.
“At that time, you could still go into a dispensary and buy brownies wrapped in Saran wrap with Sharpie written on them.”
This was around 2012 and that job got me very interested in what was going on in cannabis. After that, I decided I wanted to actually pursue working in the cannabis industry myself. So I moved to Seattle in 2013 and started my first cannabis company. It was basically an infused products company in the medical market in Washington. The idea was to look at opportunities in the space and try to make a disruptive product that would work better and appeal to more people.
The first thing I realized when I got there was that no one was focused on making a consumer product. No one was looking at it from a CPG perspective. At that time, you could still go into a dispensary and buy brownies wrapped in Saran wrap with Sharpie written on them. It was pretty obvious what the next step was.
On inventing a new product by accident
It was also pretty obvious at the time, or at least to us, that most of the smoke-free products people were using didn't really work that well. They were really unreliable from a dosage perspective. And even if you could find a consistently dosed product, the effect range was all over the place. So I focused on developing products that we could package really nicely and that people would understand, but also more importantly, products that worked the way people wanted them to work.
“My plan was to make a candy shell around the outside of the gum and put all the cannabis in there.”
One of the original concepts I wanted to pursue was creating an infused gum. I thought that would be really interesting. It should have, you know, some sort of increased bioavailability to it. And it's a modality that people are incredibly familiar with. So I set to work trying to figure out how to make this gum, and ultimately I did figure out how to extract cannabis and then infuse that into the gum. After a couple of months of mucking around in the kitchen, I had this gum and started testing it with myself and some friends. What we realized was that it just didn't work. It didn't actually release the cannabis from the gum into your mouth because the cannabis stayed bound to the gum.
And so what led to the development of the strip was a little bit of an accident. My plan was to make a candy shell around the outside of the gum and put all the cannabis in there. The intention was that you’d bite into it, the candy shell would fall apart, it would dissolve into your mouth, and that's how you would release the cannabis into your system. In the process of trying to figure out how to do that, I accidentally figured out how to make this really thin, fast-dissolving candy. And that was what sparked the, "Oh my god, we should just make this stripped product instead."
It took another few months of just playing around with goop in the kitchen to get some stuff to work. And then eventually I had a strip and started trying it. And it worked really, really well. At the time, I didn't have a good sense of, you know, how sublingual absorption worked or really what it was, but I did know that this was a convenient, discreet way for people to use cannabis. And so we ended up marketing it as a breath strip. It kind of became this novelty thing up in Washington and had a little bit of popularity, but ultimately it didn't really go very far.
On starting fresh in California
Throughout that process, me and the people I was working with realized that what we had here was a sublingual delivery system—if we could figure out how to actually make it work sublingually. So me and a couple of other people from Washington moved to California. This was three and a half years ago now. We moved down to California to start a new business with a new sublingual strip. That brand new strip we created was Kin Slips.
“This should be the way people use smokeless cannabis. It works so much better than everything else does.”
We really focused on sublingual absorption first, which means we formulated this new version of the product to work very well sublingually and to be built from the ground up to deliver cannabis molecules sublingually. The other thing we focused on was effect-based terpene profiles. Those were our two big bets.
We released the first versions of Kin Slips into the market in April of 2017. Our first shop was Harvest on Geary in San Francisco. That was the first place to ever carry the product, and they still remain one of our best customers. The real challenge for us at that time was getting people to understand that this product is not a novelty and it's not even really a niche. This should be the way people use smokeless cannabis. It works so much better than everything else does. It provides a really fast and really predictable experience.
As we were getting it into the market and understanding how people were using it and reacting to it, there were some obvious reservations some people had about the product. One main piece of feedback was that the product overall had kind of an earthy, natural flavor to it. It's very herbal because it's an incredibly small thing and it's really hard to cover up the flavor of the cannabis and the terpenes. We had a lot of people telling us that they wished the flavor profile was improved.
The other thing was that our product had this paper backing on it that you'd have to peel off and there were too many instructions for a new type of product. So what ended up happening was some people would just put the paper backing with the product in their mouth, not understanding that it was something you had to take apart. It was a problem because even though as soon as you do that, you're like, "Oh my god, I should've taken that off," you do associate that negatively with the product and the brand afterward. So that was something we wanted to fix in addition to a couple of other things.
On formulating newer, better Kin Slips
About a year ago, we set out to make a new version of the product, what we call Slip 2.0. What we've been able to do with these new Kin Slips is we've been able to keep the product entirely plant-based. It's vegan, it's all-natural, so there are no synthetic compounds in there at all. We've maintained our ability to have incredibly accurate dosing with these very strong terpene profiles, but we've done it in a way that vastly improves the flavor. It removes the bitterness and earthy herbalness of the product almost entirely. And it has no paper backing anymore.
The new product is also a lot smaller. It's about two-thirds of the size of the original product. It no longer has that rough top coating on it. This wasn't intentional, but we were also able to achieve a much stronger color profile in the strip, too. You'll notice when you look at them that the colors in the strip are much more profound. It has this beautiful, translucent, almost stained glass window kind of look to it. We're really excited about it.
On keeping the same four effects
Cloud Buster and Float On are our
Park Life has our
On incorporating Kin Slips into everyday life
Yeah, that's a great question. You know, I use them all for different purposes. They're obviously designed to have different use cases within your life. So the one that I probably use the most is Park Life, a CBD blend. I'm not someone who can have a psychoactive dose of THC and still feel confident in my role at this company. So I don't really use THC products during the day, but I do use a lot of CBD, specifically our Park Life product. There's a lot of stress in the cannabis industry right now so when it comes to permitting or licensing or fundraising or all the bajillion other things that we have to deal with, having some CBD to take that edge off is a real lifesaver during the day. So I always have my desk stocked with Park Life.
I still do a lot of creative hobbies, too. I still play music. I do a lot of art, painting, and stuff like that, so when I'm engaging in those activities I use our Cloud Buster blend. It's really great for getting the creative flow going. I tend to use Float On if I've had a pretty rough day and I want to do some relaxing when I get home and just switch from work mode to hanging out mode. Obviously, if I have sleep issues I will use Shut Eye, but I don't find that I have a strong need for Shut Eye that often like I know a lot of people do.
We always joke that there's a Kin Slips day you could have. You wake up in the morning, you have a Cloud Buster with your coffee. You take a Park Life at noon when things start to get anxious, Float On at the end of the day to wind down, and then Shut Eye to go to bed.
On giving back to the community
We recognize that minority communities were absolutely unfairly targeted by the war on drugs from the very beginning. There's no way to conclude otherwise. As far as what we’re able to do to work on those issues, we're a very small company so we don't have the capital to contribute directly. But what we can do is offer guidance. Oakland has instituted this equity permit program and it’s great in that it has created a lot of new entrepreneurs out of the minority communities that have been oppressed. The issue is that it’s an incredibly complicated process to go through to get these licenses and to run these businesses. And it has resulted in a lot of people having to jump right into this hyper-complicated situation. It's really overwhelming and it's really easy to take a misstep. So one of the things we offer is if anybody ever has any questions about how we navigated certain things or what they need to do or how to fill out the paperwork, we're always available to talk and provide guidance.
“What we don't want to do is only be speaking to white dudes, for example.”
More internally, we try to take very careful steps to ensure that our hiring processes are as neutral as possible. There are all kinds of different ways that hiring processes can be influenced by the backgrounds of the people who are doing the hiring. So we try to make sure that the language we use in our outreach, the places where we post our job listings—everything we do to try to find talent—is done in a fair and equal way. What we don't want to do is only be speaking to white dudes, for example, because that's not going to serve anybody well.
This is a huge project that we've undertaken, both this new Kin Slip and trying to grow this business in general. It's usually just me out there talking to reporters about what we've been working on, but it's not just me doing all of the work. We have a team of 13 people here at Kin Slips who do a tremendous amount of work to keep the manufacturing facility working, to make sure that we pass all of our testing, that we're staying compliant, that our i's are dotted and our t's are crossed on every contract, and that our money is being counted properly. Everybody on this team has worked incredibly hard to get to this moment and I just want to make sure to shout them all out and make sure everybody knows how hard they worked to get to this point.
Photos by Skyler Greene.