In five years, Aaron Morris’ cannabis brand has grown from a bootstrapping startup to dominating the market, thanks to natural fruit gummies and a country hungering to get high. Next up, building the Anheuser-Busch of pot.
When Aaron Morris cofounded Wyld in 2015, his cannabis edibles operation wasn’t that different from a family kitchen the night before a bake sale. Morris and his team set up shop in an old farmhouse in Tumalo, Oregon, down the road from an alpaca ranch. The property was already licensed to grow marijuana but the stove only had one working burner. Morris would boil the syrups in household pots while wearing four layers of gloves to avoid getting burned and combine the other ingredients with a handheld electric mixer, which would inevitably die every few days.
The first batches of THC-infused gummies tasted like “crayons,” says cofounder Chris Joseph. Some even started to grow mold. To improve the recipe, Morris used a technique he found on Reddit, but eventually sought the advice from a gelatin supplier and his gummies started to get better.
“I know nothing about food,” says Morris, a 31-year-old native Oregonian and the CEO of Wyld. “At this point, I know about the commercialization of food, but I’m still a terrible cook.”
Eventually, he perfected recipes for Wyld’s first two flavors—marionberry and raspberry. Every morning going forward, Morris and some hired line cooks would crank out another 1,500 gummies. The third cofounder, Rene Kaza, who had quit his job as a fire fighter to join the company, would fill his Honda Civic with their confections three times a week and drive three hours to Portland to deliver shipments to dispensaries.
Today, Wyld is America’s hottest edibles company. It produces the nation’s best-selling cannabis gummies—a high-end candy made with real fruit, including huckleberry, peach and pomegranate. Each package of Wyld, which costs about $20, contains 10 gummies with a combined 100mg of THC. This year, the company expects to bring in $65 million in revenue, up from $25 million in 2019. Each month for the last year, Wyld has outsold every edibles brand in the country. The company’s monthly sales have topped $12 million—roughly 800,000 packages of gummies—and Wyld projects $130 million in revenue by 2021, or a fitting 420% increase since 2019.
“We just blew up,” says Morris. “The gummies keep selling, so we keep making more.”
“The hysteria was real. People were buying edibles like they were buying toilet paper.”
If the word-of-mouth popularity of its confections transformed Wyld, the pandemic has sent the brand into overdrive. During the second quarter of 2020, overall edibles sales hit an all-time high of $227 million, according to Seattle-based cannabis market analysis company Headset, thanks to unprecedented numbers of people at home stressed about Covid-19, the economy—and running out of herb. Wyld has been able to capture 14.5% of the $637 million in year-to-date edibles sales across California, Colorado, Nevada and Oregon, according to data from Headset. “The hysteria was real,” says Kaza, Wyld’s sales director. “People were buying edibles like they were buying toilet paper.”
Wyld now has 450 employees, including food scientists, a headquarters in Clackamas, Oregon, and five production facilities in four states. It sells THC products in California, Colorado, Nevada and Oregon, and CBD gummies and seltzer in all 50 states.
In September 2019, Wyld surpassed longstanding industry incumbents like Kiva Confections and Wana Brands in monthly gummy sales, according to a confidential report created by cannabis sales data company BDSA that Forbes obtained. The company now has 21.5% market share of gummies sales in the four states it operates. (Eleven states, plus the District of Columbia, have legalized recreational cannabis and another 28 states allow some form of medical marijuana.) But Morris expects Wyld will continue to gobble up more of the market as legalization spreads. “We’re in a good position— just hold our beers while we figure out how to get bigger,” says Morris, only partly kidding.
Expanding to other states as a cannabis company is both complicated and expensive. Marijuana, of course, is still illegal federally, which means that cannabis products cannot cross state lines, even from one legal state to another, so Wyld has had to build manufacturing facilities in each state in which it expands. The company is currently constructing facilities and waiting for license approval in Arizona, Michigan, Massachusetts and Washington, which will bring Wyld’s footprint to eight states by the end of 2021. Morris says it will add three more markets a year until cannabis is legalized at the federal level.
Gummies are the best-selling product in the second fastest-growing category in the industry, behind flower. Wyld has stood out, says cannabis investor Emily Paxhia, who runs a San Francisco-based $150 million cannabis firm with her brother, for a few reasons. Perhaps the most important factor is that its confections are made with real fruit. For other industries, natural ingredients are ubiquitous, but cannabis hadn’t evolved to natural flavors before Wyld.
“In general, sure, we all love a Sour Patch Kid, but the industry is moving towards a more mature sweets category and Wyld was on the front edge of that,” says Paxhia. “It’s the old Wayne Gretzky saying: skate to where the puck is going.”
In many ways, Morris is a typical Northwesterner. He’s a mountaineer and his idea of a vacation is a trek in the wilderness while carrying a 45-pound pack, eating freeze-dried Pad Thai and sleeping in a tent. But, he’s also a hardworking and plainspoken stoner with an off-putting intensity. One moment, he can go deep into a discussion of Estonia’s integration in the eurozone (he wrote a voluntary thesis about this his senior year of college) and then change topics to the importance of financial discipline. Morris says he won’t be the next young CEO who flames out because he spent too much money.
He was born in Salem to two public school teachers in 1989. After graduating the University of Oregon, where he triple-majored in economics, history and political science, Morris traveled to 30 countries over two years and came back to Salem. Morris was looking for work and a relative introduced him to a 22-year-old entrepreneur named Chris Joseph who had just launched a craft distillery business, Wild Roots, which infused vodka with locally sourced berries. Morris became Joseph’s first employee and eventually acquired a 10% ownership stake. But in July 2015, Morris wanted his own company and at 25, he realized Oregon’s sleepy medical marijuana market was about to open to recreational sales.
“I thought edibles were going to grow,” Morris says, “and it seemed to me that people were ignoring the gummies space.”
Morris raised $150,000 from three childhood friends without even writing a business plan or deciding what his new company would do. He then partnered with a college buddy and his dad who were growing medical marijuana at the farmhouse in Tumalo, and Morris spent the next 60 days doing market research. A longtime medical marijuana card holder, he spent afternoons at dispensaries talking with shop owners and Morris found a niche. “I thought edibles were going to grow,” he says, “and it seemed to me that people were ignoring the gummies space.”
Instead of creating an entirely new brand, Joseph and Morris decided to save money and create a mirror image of their spirits company. (They had to keep the companies separate for legal reasons—Wild Roots’ bank and insurer almost stopped working with the distiller because of its close ties with cannabis.) They sourced fruit from Wild Roots at a good price and, like many cannabis startups, decided to do their own sales and distribution out of Kaza’s car to cut costs. Wyld couldn’t afford to grow its own cannabis, nor did it have the money to make its own THC oil, so they decided the company wouldn’t be vertically integrated.
Wyld’s success wasn’t a happy accident—Morris planned it this way. At Oregon’s Finest, Portland’s first state-licensed dispensary, Wyld is the best-selling edible by far. Mae Pease, who runs the retailer’s inventory, says she remembers the first time she met Morris in 2017. “Aaron told me that he wanted to be the best-selling gummy company in the U.S.,” Pease recalls. “That was his goal.”
Morris’ plan had three distinct parts: first keep the shelves stocked. “If I text Rene at 10 p.m. telling him we ran out of raspberry, he’d be at the store 8 a.m. the next morning,” Pease explains.
Second: expand shrewdly and swiftly. In 2018 Morris decided to launch Wyld in California, Colorado and Nevada—all at the same time.
“I wanted to blitzkrieg—terrible word, I’m sorry—but that’s what I wanted to do,” he explains.
In Nevada, Morris built Wyld’s facilities in trailers on a Native American reservation for $200,000 and a royalty fee. He sent three employees from HQ in a van, and hired a local sales rep. Within 45 days, Wyld became Nevada’s best-selling edible.
Next, Morris sent seven employees in three vans with $400,000 in cash to open its California operation in a defunct prison co-owned by a cannabis company and Damian Marley. (Wyld now has its own facility in Sacramento.)
In March 2020, Colorado approved Wyld’s cannabis license and the company opened its $750,000 facility with nine employees.
The last part of Morris’ plan is to diversify its product line. The company now sells THC-infused chocolates and it launched a national CBD line of seltzer and gummies (the non-psychoactive cannabinoid can be sold across state lines if derived from hemp). Once cannabis is legalized federally, Wyld will start massive expansion. “There’s no reason a craft company cannot become a conglomerate,” Morris says.
Despite his grand ambitions, Morris doesn’t consider Wyld a company so much as a “social and psychological experiment.” He doesn’t offer equity packages and overpays his warehouse workers and underpays his executives. The experiment, he says, is to see if he can build the “Anheuser-Busch of edibles” and capture 30% market share by hiring “rebels and misfits.”
Morris, who prefers to smoke joints over his own gummies, often gives off a Bernie Bro philosopher vibe. Over the phone late one night, he says that if America is home to the most billionaires, the country should also have universal healthcare and offer free college tuition.
Despite his ideas on wealth inequality, perhaps Morris’ most defining personality trait is a fierce competitiveness and a desire to be the best in his field. “We’re a bunch of hellhounds determined to win,” he says. “My team can conquer the world. We’re young and hungry, it’s middle fingers in the air. Tell me I can’t.”