NEW YORK (MainStreet) - Growing up, I was always fascinated by music; hip-hop has a special place in my heart. Listening to an artist like Lil Wayne express his thoughts about drugs and money helped inspire me to dedicate my childhood to the pursuit of money, which involved a decade of combined experience in the banking and finance industries.
It so happened I was working for Countrywide and Bank of America during the housing bubble in 2008, and from GMAC to Lehman Bros and IndyMac, many of those institutions involved were my clients. My childhood spent chasing the American dream of Cash Money through the heart of the financial world ended in corruption.
The Path of the Whistleblower
I blew the whistle and began a long, arduous journey as both an unpaid whistleblower and career freelance writer. Recently my new path got me involved in the budding marijuana industry, attending various Cannabis Cups, networking with growers, extractors, producers, distributors and sales on both sides of the law.
The American farmers and home-grown product they harvest give a new lease on life to people with terminal diseases and psychological disorders. Cannabis, unlike nearly every traditional pharmaceutical, isn't deadly. The American dream I thought I was pursuing the right way turned out to be the exact opposite. Here's what else I learned from the experience.
1. It's All About the Benjamins
Regardless of what you do, money exists, and it's an issue you have to face. If you don't, you'll end up homeless. Someone owns whatever land you're on, and if it isn't you, your rights are limited. You need money and you need to buy land, not structures.
Working in banking, money was our product. You, the customers, lent us, the banks, money. Our job was to invest that money properly and make more for you, the customer. That got corrupted many years ago, but that's what it's supposed to be.
In the drug business, everything is viewed as money. It costs money for soil, lighting, pots, nutrients, water, ladybugs and all the other ways you need to grow a cannabis plant. Harvesting is labor intensive, and many growers contract this out to local producers who pay for labor out of trade or cash advances from the grower's share of future profits. Cannabis is a cash crop, but many distributors are involved because of their belief in helping people.
2. Quality and Production Are Universal Keys
When trimming, every individual cannabis bud and leaf must be carefully removed from the stalks and stems, and then trimmed to a saleable product. A skilled trimmer can produce 300 grams or more quality product in a production day. This trim is then sorted through again and ran through an extraction process. In order to be skilled at this, you need to be fast and have dexterity. You're working with thousands of buds a day, and removing the trim takes skill.
The more careful attention is paid during each section of this process, the more profit will be made from the product. This is why quality labor is rewarded and incentivized in any industry, as it promotes a quality product. When looking at cannabis, you can see the quality in the look, smell and texture of the products.
In the banking industry, a tangible product doesn't really exist, but production and quality were very much the focus. Every single monthly, quarterly and annual review focused on how much you produced at 100% quality. I was employee of the month every month for over a year, because I could automate any repetitive action on a computer. Focusing on these two objectives and overachieving consistently gives you a lot of pull, no matter where you work.
3. Your Boss Matters More than Your Company
Since production and quality are the only two objectives you need to focus on to be successful at making money, all you need to find is a suitable work environment. The person most in control of how you feel about your job is your boss. If you don't like your boss, you'll never like your job. It doesn't matter whom you work for, so long as you actually enjoy your boss.
If you can't work under anyone, it's time to move on to entrepreneurship. Steve Jobs hated working for other people, so he started his own company, and while his posthumous work isn't as good as 2Pac's, he did all right for himself. Be your own boss - you'll find your way eventually.
4. Networking Is Key
Working in a "too big to fail" bank was similar to being a big fish in an intercontinental ocean. At least half of the day-to-day work I did involved networking with key decision makers and workers in IT, Accounting, Human Resources, Administration etc. all around the office. When I needed something done, I knew who I could ask for help or info, because I helped that person before.
Building a rapport is key in business, and writing about marijuana for MainStreet, Cannabis Now and my personal blog may put a target on my back for law enforcement, but it also helped me meet growers and business owners throughout the industry. In fact, it was a broad I met at a bluegrass show that got me my first job as a bud trimmer.
5. Sales Are Everything
No matter where you work, the sales team is likely the most incentivized team in the organization. Sale generate revenue, and it's difficult to turn a no into a yes. Conversions are the key, and generating profit is what matters.
In the drug world, there are fewer large cartels than you'd think distributing product. Many independent farmers and laborers carry out the process. This means incentives are usually given out by the sales team, as they're the ones making all the connections and pocketing all the money. Most low-level labor jobs within the drug trade are paid in product, which now makes you part of the sales staff. This also provides deeply discounted labor to the production.
At the bank, revenues are generated simply by rotating money into different accounts, and the process is so automated that it again becomes a quality and production issue. No matter what point you work at within the banking machine, so long as you input the right numbers as fast as possible, you're generating revenue.
6. Numbers Are Everything
In case you haven't figured it out already, numbers run the world. From time to money to quantifying what's happening in our lives, it's all about those numbers. Your credit score labels you anywhere you want to go within the bank-financed system, and it's attached to your social security number, which the government (and everyone else) uses to track you.
You are nothing more than a number.
In the drug world, the numbers you need to pay attention to are prices and weights. The most weight for the lowest price (assuming equal quality) wins. If you want to be successful, you need to develop a passion for tracking numbers. Even in the music business, they're hustling numbers.
7. Computer Skills Translate
Managers spend about half our time in meetings gossiping about employees. It's part of the job. That workplace drama is part of big data that has to be collected by management as a staff in order to gauge the culture and proactively involve themselves when necessary.
At Bank of America, we constantly laughed about people's wacky adventures. One woman made it through two hours of training before a supervisor saw her touching her screen with a mouse and came over to investigate, only to learn the woman thought that was how you moved the cursor.
An employee I worked with at Countrywide once called me to ask why her computer was flashing. I couldn't understand what she was describing, so I walked over to her cubicle to see she highlighted a cell in Excel. It was a situation that could've been resolved by pressing any key.
Knowing how to work around seemingly impossible obstacles gave me the realization that I am quite resourceful. This resourcefulness came in handy when working in the drug industry.
I found myself sneaking into the Cannabis Cup after Snoop's marketing team dropped the ball on getting me tickets to his concert, meeting with dispensary and business owners to discuss their businesses, and even getting random day labor within the industry. All of this happened, because I understood computers.
8. Common Core Rules
The above is one of many examples of why common core math strategies are simple. I don't understand why parents think they're proving a failing in common core by posting pictures on Facebook and bragging they're incapable of solving their 3rd grader's math homework.
9. Cannabis Is More Honest than Banking
Again, I understand there are criminal organizations and syndicates involved in the cannabis industry. That being said, those same people are involved in the banking industry. Along with them are cokeheads, womanizers, alcoholics and all sorts of other unsavory people working at full speed to improve their quality and production.
At the end of the day, the hustle behind the cannabis industry involves an actual product. Whether you agree with that product or not, it's a tangible product you can hold in your hands and consume. The banks have nothing. They didn't build the car or the house. They're not making it any easier to receive a paycheck than Paypal or prepaid debit cards from Visa, Mastercard and American Express.
What use do the banks even have?
10. You Have to Love Your Product
The banks are run (and invested in) by people who love money. The low-level workers, however, don't love money as much as they think. If they did, they wouldn't be satisfied locking themselves in pay that's barely competitive with that of teachers. That's not a knock on teachers being low-paid, but the difference is a teacher normally has a passion for the product of educated youth.
In the cannabis industry, people were passionate about the end-product. Even those who don't smoke pot themselves are happy to utilize their skills to create a quality product. Many cannabis growers utilize fully organic methods, and you can find passionate people among caregivers, trimmers, processors, growers and patients. Everyone involved in pot loves pot.
How happy are you when you talk about your banking info?
11. You Have to Love Your Job
You have to enjoy what it is you do, or you'll never be happy. Every day I got up to work at 6 AM or earlier to go to school then to work, and there were so many alarms it was maddening. I haven't used an alarm clock but maybe a handful of times since I blew the whistle on the banks.
Working in the drug trade sounds like it's a dream job, and it really is, but, like every other entrepreneurial endeavor, it takes a lot of hard work on tedious tasks. In order to make a living at it, drugs will have to consume your life. You'll spend 20 days working for months, and have nothing going on for weeks.You'll need to absolutely love what you do in order to deal with the nitty gritty behind the glamour you hear about from Nancy Botwin and Walter White.
12. Believe in Yourself
The drug game is all about risk. You inherently have to take a risk in order to handle, use, or work with a drug. If you want to be a drug kingpin, you'll have to take the types of risks you see in the movies. Underground products are sold on the streets, and if you want to survive in those wild streets, you have to defend yourself from everyone else hustling in the streets, many of home can be violent, some of which will even throw you in prison.
Working in the banking industry is the safe route. It's the default "The Office" job where you can hump a cubicle in a safe environment for the rest of your life. Even in that stale cubicle factory, risks are necessary. You need to be able to pull a trigger in the face of extreme circumstances, because the banks are always under attack from all sides.
13. You're Only as Good as You Perform Today
All that time I spent as employee of the month at Countrywide added up to nothing more than an anecdote for my resume and blogs. There's nothing else it accomplished. I don't get to ride the coattails of that success the same way Eminem gets to live off "Stan" or "The Real Slim Shady."
Nobody requests proof I can produce at three times the normal rate in banking production environment - they only care about whether I can do that now. If I pull out my employee-of-the-year schtick at a trimming job and only produce 150 grams of weight to everyone else's 300+, I'm on the chopping block.
Accolades are great to document on Facebook, LinkedIn, your fridge or some folder you keep on your personal hard drive. After that, roll your sleeves back up, buddy, because even Marshall Mathers has to keep rapping to stay on top, and he's been on top of the game for a long time.
14. Resumes Aren't Important
Leading off that last point, your resume isn't as important as you make it. People treat it like a prenuptial agreement - a resume isn't a binding contract, so stop putting so much thought into it.
I've sent out hundreds of resumes a week for years. The resume changes maybe once or twice. These days I use more of a cover letter than an actual resume, unless I'm forced to use an application system. I work as a freelancer, however, which functions similar to the drug trade. For banking you'll need a resume.
What that resume does, however, isn't important. It's scanned by the site to pre-fill any forms, so all those complicated formats you use just make things harder. Then you end up entering most of the information in anyway. If you're not able to fill out the forms with what's on your resume, update your resume.
Once you have a solid one, leave it alone and focus on where to send the resume and how. That's a much larger determining factor in whether or not you land a job.
15. Use the Internet
There was a period before the merger where I quit my job at Countrywide to work at Bank of America. While I enjoyed my time at the bank, I was lured back into the mortgage and insurance tracking business by a large pay increase. All I had to do was use my knowledge of MS Access to fix a broken tracking system. The problem was I didn't know how to use Access.
I spent my first three months back using targeted web searches and MS Access for Dummies to push my way through a seemingly endless list of impossible tasks. It took the better part of a year before I finally grasped what we were doing and began pulling the department back on track, almost single-handedly saving what I now know to be a deceptive and fraudulent industry.
Not only have my Internet posts about drugs opened me up to a new audience; they have also allowed me to network. When talking to some experienced trimmers about how they find work in the seedy drug underground, they reply, "the same way you did - Facebook, Craigslist, and other Internet sites."
After production and quality, the one thing that brought me the most success in both the banking and cannabis industries is my smile. I smile, because I'm passionate about my job, the work I do and the direction my career is going. There are bumpy roads, but everyone has those. What sells is the smile.
Whether you like them or not, odds are you've heard of The Beatles, and when you listen to their catalog, they have happy music. They create songs about love, peace and harmony. They were political and accomplished a lot, but they promoted love and happiness overall. All you need is love...unless you have bills.
17. Roll Up Your Sleeves and Work
Since you do have bills, you need to put in some work. Even Paris Hilton and Kim Kardashian had to put in a little effort. Having money doesn't make you wealthy - that's why nobody on the Forbes billionaire list is a lottery winner.
Whether you're on the sales floor, the backend processing or creating the products and ideas, you need to put in effort. There are days you'll want to quit and the obstacles will feel insurmountable. Other days will seem slow, but there are still ways you can contribute to the greater good of the business. If you want to be successful in this world, roll up your sleeves and work.
18. Management Actually Works
In the banking industry, management was seen as lazy. Even though workers were doing nothing more than moving data from one system to another all day, they're rated by individual quality and production. They have much less freedom than a manager who is rated by their team's quality and production. A manager is doing more than moving data; he's manipulating it.
When I worked as a trimmer, the site boss mostly talked, checked people's work, and weighed/paid people out. That was all the "real work" he was seen to be doing by some of the workers. This is because while we focused on the one task of trimming large quantities of cannabis nugget, he was networking with clients, scheduling labor and running an entire business. Even in this minute and tedious task, he was focusing much more than an untrained eye would notice.
19. Listen More Than You Speak
The best advice I can give you about business is to listen more than you speak. Although I appear to you as though I speak a lot, you're viewing a slice of my large body of work, which in itself is only a small percentage of my actual time. Also I'm silent while typing - always listening for what's going on outside the van I live and work in.
While working in the banking industry prior to management, I kept my headphones on, and produced as much work as possible. I blocked out all of the office chatter and simply followed directions. It wasn't difficult. As time progressed, I had to take off the headphone and get involved in the politics. That's when I noticed the corruption.
As a bud trimmer, I listened to the site boss. Like any general contractor, he'll talk to everyone in order to give instructions to one person. If you know you're doing a quality job, he's not talking to you. If you're new on the job or on site, he'll pay closer attention to you. Listen to the instructions, and focus in the beginning more on learning the process than doing it fast. Over time, you'll excel much faster than everyone else.
20. Do What You're Told
Throughout your life people will tell you what they want. Some will directly ask you to do something while others will simply expect a certain action and reaction to certain triggers. In the business world, those who excel are those who do what they're told first. Once you get good at that, you can branch out to other things.
In the banking industry doing what you're told meant moving a lot of data from one system to the next. Eventually you start to grasp how that data affects other data. If you're lucky, you remember all that data is a person's life you're viewing in a much more intrusive manner than the NSA ever did.
In the drug business, unless you're Tony Montana, you're working for someone or on someone's turf. Since the business is still unregulated (although regulations are pouring in and strengthening) crossing lines with some employers may get you killed. I personally found this to be true of Bank of America as well, but your experience may differ.
What have you learned from the pursuit of drugs and money?
-Written by Brian Penny for Main Street