When Ata Gonzalez was a boy in Miami, his father taught him the basics of business with a set of toy cars. "He gave me a box of 20 cars and said, 'Each car costs $1. That means you sell each for $2,'" Gonzalez remembers.

When Gonzalez got a little older, his father, who owned three Cuban restaurants in Miami, instilled in him a drive to build a business of his own and served as a model for how to run it. "My father was the type to keep his restaurants open 365 days a year," Gonzalez says. "Today, when my team says, 'Ata, it's the day after Thanksgiving. I say, 'Yes, that means you have to be here. It's Black Friday, that means the stores' shelves are being emptied.' That attitude comes from his mentality, what he taught me."

Gonzalez has taken those lessons to the legal marijuana business, founding California-based G FarmaLabs, a THC oil and concentrates manufacturer with his wife Nicole last year. The company sells THC-oil filled vape pens and pre-rolled joints, but is best known for its THC-infused chocolate, which won the Cannabis Cup for best edibles in 2014.

The Gonzalezes have four weed farms that feed their oil and concentrate business, and expect to generate $4 million in revenue this year.  By 2016, they project to bring in $24 million in revenue from California alone and plan to expand to Washington state and Nevada and pull in $2 million a month in each state.

Starting from scratch

If you're expecting weed jokes, you've got the wrong entrepreneur. Gonzalez and his wife have built G FarmaLabs through six years of hard work and dedication, just like his father taught him.

In the 2000s, Ata made a lot of money investing in real estate in Florida. Before the bubble popped, he took his money out and started looking for a new venture. He decided to start a Salsa music festival in Miami. The festival was a hit, but within three years he lost all of his money. "I would've been better off sitting on my ass for three years," he says.

One day in 2008, a friend of Ata and Nicole's from Los Angeles suggested they look into the cannabis industry. "24 hours later, I was standing on Sunset Boulevard. I was trying to soak it all in," Ata says. For the next year, he traveled the state, meeting people and getting to know the industry. Eventually, he told his wife to bring their five kids to join him.

The first year in California, he got a job with a marijuana collective in Humboldt County. "They took me under their wing and taught me everything. I remember how they would pick up bags of cannabis with no labels and smell them--'This is Blue Dream, this one is Sour Diesel.'" Feeling like he needed to catch up to these cannabis gurus' knowledge, he began studying. Near the end of 2009, with his family living in a small apartment in the Bay Area, he found a seven-acre ranch with a barn on Craiglsist and took out a lease.

To learn how to build an indoor grow room in the barn, Ata and Nicole attended Oaksterdam University, a cannabis college in Oakland. Drawing from a $10,000 loan from a friend, the couple didn't have much money for infrastructure. When they asked for advice, they were told just to throw some plants out on the land to catch the July sun instead of building a grow room in the barn and missing the season. "So we started our collective and grew 99 plants outdoors," Ata says.

After the first yield, he hired a manager and rented another farm. Then he hired a manager at the new farm and rented a third. Eventually, Ata and Nicole had a nice collective of four farms in and around The Emerald Triangle, which gets its name because its the largest cannabis-producing region in the world. 

In 2012, they opened a dispensary in downtown L.A. But at that time, the government was frequently raiding dispensaries. "I saw people lose their entire life savings because of the feds," Ata says. Over a three-day period, 72 dispensaries were raided in 72 hours, he says. "We just realized the unstableness of retail marijuana. The dispensaries were just a storefront with a cash register and jar of cannabis. You could be there a day, week, month, or year before you lost your ass."

Brand-name bud

During his short time running two dispensaries, he got an idea to build a brand. "At the time, there were not many brands. Maybe a chocolate bar or two," he says. "There was no consistency or quality control. We decided to create products that looked like products in any other market."

In November 2013, the duo officially launched G FarmaLabs and the Liquid Gold brand for pre-rolled joints, vape oil, and edibles. They first showcased their products at the Marijuana Expo in Boston. Liquid Gold edibles, which all come in attractive packaging with proper warning labels--and which are all lab-tested for purity, quality and consistency--stood out from other companies' cellophane-wrapped wares.

Today, Liquid Gold products are sold at over 500 dispensaries throughout California.  "We're growers first and foremost," Gonzalez says. "Our foundation is the flower [marijuana] and our backbone is C02 extraction." (There are a few ways to make THC oil and concentrate. In C02 extraction, carbon dioxide is used to strip the THC off the plant, which Gonzalez says is cleaner and safer than butane extraction.) 

Looking ahead

While 2014 was a great year for G FarmaLabs, the next two years could eclipse it. The company is raising $5 million from private investors in California, as well as another round with a hedge fund in Washington. The Gonzalezes are looking for a friendly city in California to build a quarter-million square-foot indoor grow and extraction facility, as well as developing operations in Washington (where recreational marijuana is legal) and Nevada.

When asked why he chose the marijuana industry, Ata spoke about how he saw an opportunity to be on the ground floor of a trend and help to change society for the better. "It's been hard for the past six years, but now to see 10 percent of our nation with a legally regulated recreational market is incredible," he says. "I'm just happy we've been able to help educate people about cannabis as a medicine and break the taboo. In five years, hopefully we will have created the Apple of cannabis."

Published on: Dec 23, 2014