Jen and Chase Beck run a tech startup. Like most of their peers, they spend long days in front of their computers, drink too much coffee, and sacrifice most of their spare time to growing their business. Unlike most businesses, though, they have no real model to grow their company on — no tested formula. This is because up until January of last year, most of their industry was illegal.
Cannabase.io — Jen and Chase’s baby — is a web platform that includes a private network for licensed cannabis businesses. Their focus is the wholesale market, where licensed growers sell massive quantities of their product to licensed local retailers. Before last October, cannabis growers were severely limited in how much, and to who, they could sell their product as wholesale — but they knew that wouldn’t last for long.
“Wholesale was one of the last areas of the industry that we saw hadn’t really been capitalized on,” explained Jen, Cannabase’s CEO. “No one had a fully-functioning, above-ground wholesale market, cause it was too limited — you didn’t really need one.”
As Colorado adapted to legalization, they asked themselves what the future of marijuana sales would look like, once growers were allowed to sell as much of their product to retailers as they would like.
“A lot of the businesses that came in and tried to tackle wholesale — they were targeting investors, not their users. They built these bloated commodity exchanges, and then just put cannabis leaves on it.”
Instead, Cannabase approached the problem as a user would — starting with the employees that would actually be using their system to order product. The average dispensary has a turnover rate of over 80 percent, so it didn’t surprise Jen that those workers failed to learn how to use a website that operated more like NASDAQ than an online store.
“You wanna build something that feels like a mix of Craigslist and Facebook, using tools they’re familiar with,” she said. Market forecasts — while important — were secondary to the interaction and usability of the site.
“We didn’t care if it looked like Bloomburg. We didn’t need it to act like a fancy stock exchange. Our goal was to get users in, get them engaging.”
Cannabase.io is a reflection of that goal — the layout is clean, crisp, and direct. In designing the site, CTO Chase Beck made a conscious decision to lean away from the sort of design trends associated with marijuana — pot leaves, glass pipes, typography that looks like it belongs on a 311 album.
“Looking at marijuana ads, you might notice that — not a lot of good work is put into the look. Design appeals to everybody, I don’t think it has to be different for a stoner, or an investor — it’s a universal.”
Aside from the green color scheme, there’s only a few nods to the typical imagery — a marijuana leaf replaces a “like” button on some pages — and that minimalism is very intentional.
“We were trying to keep the net narrow enough that we had brand continuity; that we could repeat these colors across all our materials and it would work.”
Not that that excludes any sort of fun from the design. Chase has worked a number of Easter eggs into the site, from Star Wars references in strain names to a feature that allows you to digitally “pass the joint” to one of your connections.
“We try to have fun with it. Something that, if it wasn’t there you wouldn’t be disappointed, but the fact that it is — you’re kinda happy about it.”
It’s that kind of polish that’s allowed Cannabase to pull most of Colorado’s marijuana retailers onto their system. Chase focused his team on getting the core functions right — things that, if handled incorrectly, could be disastrous for a grower or seller under new and constantly changing laws. Age gates that check that the user is 21, for example, are omnipresent on the site — along with gates that check your location, and even your medical card status.
“It might seem obnoxious, but we have to at least protect ourselves,” Chase said, adding that dispensaries appreciated these safety measures as well. “We’re sort of pigeonholed into a spot where we have to cover all our bases.”
The cannabis industry is under a whole different level of scrutiny, which directly influences Chase’s design choices. For instance, cannabis ads can’t be shown on any form of media that has a user base of more than 30 percent minors, making ads illegal in almost every major publication. Even more prohibitive, banking for cannabis sellers is illegal — processing transactions for marijuana is considered money laundering at the federal level. I asked Chase how they handle all the money going in and out of the site.
“We don’t,” he explained. “It’s sort of like the Adult Friend Finder model — we allow people to connect with one another, and then we step aside. What happens once they ‘meet’ is none of our business. Our goal is just to provide convenient tools and market insight.”
The strict constraints are enough to make most people leave the whole industry alone — but maybe that’s why Chase and Jen are succeeding. With so few people willing to try, it’s up to visionaries to determine what the future of it will be like. Sure, cannabis retailers are getting tired of hoarding cash like Walter White, double checking every idea against the fluid recreational laws. But they also believe its only a matter of time until their patience pays off.
“It will happen. The industry is still finding its way.” Chase said. “In fact, does your apartment face downtown?”
I looked out my window, to see a small prop plan orbiting the skyline, pulling an ad for a local grow house.
“They can do that because Denver Country is only 21 percent minors,” he said. “And that’s how it works for now. Until its completely legal, you’re going to see a lot of creative people, doing a lot of creative things.”