The Internet's marijuana sites never left the '90s.
They're exemplar of the Web from an earlier time, with tiled clipart as backgrounds and pixelated ads that scream, "Buy now!" The type of folks who frequent these sites tend to meet the How High or Half Baked movie stereotypes: glazed eyes, short attention span, empty bags of Cheetos abound. But today's stoners run the gamut. With the legalization of medicinal marijuana in 16 states and Washington D.C., many more Americans know their way around a bong than ever before.
To the unacquainted, websites such as the epileptic High Times can be intimidating. This new generation of pot smokers are looking for a safe, clean website to learn about their medicine. This is where Leafly comes into the picture.
To commemorate the tech side of 4/20, we spoke with Leafy's CEO Brendan Kennedy and co-founder Scott Vickers about the company's beginnings, getting Apple to approve a weed app and the reaction the pair gets when they tell people they work for a pot startup.
The Seattle-based startup attempts to be a marijuana resource people can feel comfortable browsing, even at work. Yet with all of the technology Leafly employs up front, a lot of the site's appeal is being able to foster a welcoming, knowledgeable community.
Within the last two years, the handful of people who work at the company have launched a website, a b2b iPad app used by dispensaries and mobile apps for Android and iOS devices. Altogether, Leafly sees about 800,000 monthly visits.
"Our goal is to elevate the conversation and create an aesthetic that is viewable anywhere and anytime," Kennedy says, "to build a mainstream brand and mainstream site and mainstream apps that are inclusive and avoid all the typical cliches that are associated with the industry."
In December, Kennedy, 40, came on board with Leafly, joining its three co-founders: Scott Vickers, 31; Brian Wansolich, 37; and Cy Scott, 32. The company's revenue comes largely from dispensary advertising. But don't expect to see flashy banner ads. Leafly's clean design is key to creating a safe place for marijuana patients. In-house designers build ads, so the company maintains full control of the site.
"We want to be the fastest, best-dressed cannabis site on the Internet," Kennedy says. "In order to be best dressed, if that means we have to turn down some business, that's okay."
Overall though, business is good. Dispensaries are serving more patients, traffic across all platforms is up 370 percent year over year and the smartphone apps are approaching 1,000 downloads a day. Leafly's community has contributed almost 20,000 reviews of cannabis strains, and they're actively voting new features they want Leafly to add. Still, the company can't heed every request. For one, the dev team's only two people strong, one of whom also doubles as a product manager. In addition, Leafly doesn't want potential features to derail the startup from its target audience: patients, not Cheech and Chong.
• How did Leafly start?
Vickers: It was an idea that came upon visiting dispensaries and not knowing about the different strains. Speaking for the three co-founders, there was no site that appealed to us as young professionals. We work in offices, have regular jobs and use cannabis, but it doesn't define us. We thought this space was lacking in good offerings we could use. We saw an opportunity for plenty of people to use that.
I got my initial recommendation in March 2010, and pretty soon after we started working on the site. It started as a side gig. We all got together at one of our houses, and worked through the weekend and late nights. We only started doing it full time December of 2011.
• Did you encounter any issues submitting to Apple's App Store?
Vickers: There was one thing initially. When we first started, we had general side effects, medical effects and activities [that are enjoyable with a certain strain], such as playing video games. Apple had a problem with that because it was more recreational than medical. It made sense, so we made a decision at that time to drop activity, so it's more exclusively focused on medicine. That's when we added negative side effects — paranoia, excitement. That was our initial rejection, and it helped us move in a better direction anyway.
• Is the "Safe for Work" button new?
Vickers: We added it a couple months ago. We wanted to make an effort not to have pot leaf imagery everywhere. We made an effort to keep it safe for work so anybody walking by won't know what you're looking at. By default the images are hidden or covered by a gray box. You have to opt in to turn on photos. It just keeps it low key.
• What do you think about Leafly's community?
Vickers: We have a feedback forum through the company, so you can see what users submit, vote and follow. There's a lot of activity there. A lot of people vote. It's sort of our driving force behind a lot of initiatives, to add user suggestions that are highly voted. But a lot of user suggestions don't match what we want to do.
Kennedy: We don't do everything on the feedback forum, but a lot of things are on the roadmap.
• What user-requested features aren't implemented?
Vickers: Having a forum where people can have typical forum talk is always a big request. Personally we feel the conversations can degrade pretty quickly. We're there for information, not so much socializing about cannabis. You can turn a lot of page views and gain traffic, but our target demographic won't be interested in this.
Kennedy: People also want pictures of cannabis with women. That's something we won't ever do.
• Anything planned for 4/20?
Kennedy: We've sort of avoided it to date. Sometimes the media uses nothing but negative images surrounding the day. At some time in the future, it would be fun to put together a campaign to combat that.
• What did you think about the show "Weed Wars"?
Kennedy: I love portions of it. I absolutely love the segment with the father who had severe epileptic fits. It was good for mainstream America to see… There were parts that really weren't necessary but they were there for drama. I was willing to put up with that so important segments can be shown.
• How do people react when they learn what you do?
Vickers: People are surprised, but it's all positive. I never run into negative reactions. My grandparents, family think it's a smart idea. They see the opportunity for it. I don't think I got negative reactions from anybody.
Kennedy: People are extremely positive around the country. I keep waiting for someone to have a negative reaction. I keep waiting for someone to say that's crazy. People are fascinated and have a lot of questions. It's not like working at a bank.
• Do you think your business and the marijuana industry will continue to grow (heh)?
Kennedy: I think that we can build a successful business in the 16 states and District of Columbia that have enacted medical marijuana laws. We also think it's highly unlikely that number will stay at 16 and D.C. — 17 you could call it — with nearly 20 states having pending legislation either via bills or ballot initiatives. It's highly likely that number will increase.
• From the data you've collected, what are the most popular strains?
Kennedy: Blue Dream is by far the most popular on Leafly. We measure it by page views. It's also top for number of reviews by a big margin and by photos uploaded.
• What are your favorites?
Kennedy:Casey Jones because the name makes me laugh. It's also a cross between Trainwreck and Diesel. I liked the fact that whoever named that could appreciate the humor of calling that cross of parents Casey Jones.