There was a time not long ago – or call it the present if you’re unfortunate enough to live in a cannabis prohibition state – when posting the location of a cannabis dealer online would probably lead to a visit by Johnny Law.
And if your guy was all out of smoke or only had flattened Mexican ditch cannabis to sell, forget about it. Where else could you turn?
Yes, the Dark Ages.
Those days are gone in many states, thanks to the activists and voters who saw what politicians didn’t and legalized the herb. And at WeedMaps.com, co-founder Doug Francis has been working for eight years to make sure medical and recreational users can find dispensaries, strains and reviews.
It’s the Yellow Pages and Yelp for cannabis, and it’s changing the way people shop for cannabis.
“We really feel it’s our job to teach the user how to be sophisticated,” said Francis, who at 38 is CEO of the world’s largest cannabis technology company. “Before you could say, ‘I like indica’ or ‘I like sativa’ or ‘I like Blue Dream,’ but that doesn’t mean anything empirically.”
“When we give you the tools that show what Blue Dream typically looks like this, what you’re buying is this and what the outcome of it should be this, that’s the next step and it’s going to be an incredible one and it’s going to be done this year.”
Financial Collapse to Riches
Francis was working as a mortgage-industry executive in 2007. The financial crash was not kind to those in that line of work.
At the same time, medical cannabis clubs and dispensaries were popping up all over California. He went to a doctor for a medical referral.
“When the financial crash came, 2007, it kind of sent everyone who was in that field into a tizzy. For me, my legacy background was marijuana. It was in my DNA,” he said. “So I went to the doctor’s office to get my recommendation … and saw how busy they were in the doctor’s office so I figured that would be a safer way to enter the industry as opposed to growing or dispensing.”
With the help of pioneering physician Dr. Bonni Goldstein, he co-founded Medical Marijuana Evaluation Centers, which eventually had more than a dozen clinics in California where patients could get referrals. Then he met Justin Hartfield.
A techy and struggling writer, Hartfield had dreamed up a website and map showing the hundreds of new dispensaries opening in California, many of which did no advertising and hid behind nondescript storefronts. He had gone door-to-door signing them up to be listed and advertise on his new website, WeedMaps.com.
At some point in 2009, Francis showed Hartfield a spreadsheet and told him the website would make $300,000 in short order if the former could become chief operating officer. They wouldn’t be reinventing the wheel, as far as listing and review websites, but turning it in a new direction.
Said Francis, “Everything we do at WeedMaps has been done before. It’s just applying those same philosophies to the cannabis industry, at a time when that was extremely taboo, extremely risky, and way ahead of the game.”
When they began charging dispensaries and doctors to be listed, the $300,000 came in so fast it made their heads spin.
From Map to Yelp
The money came in so fast the bank suspected it was stolen and temporarily froze it, causing employees of the fledgling company to miss two paychecks.
“Being the only player in the States, the only (dispensary) finder site, the only vertical integration portal, obviously we had a huge lead on everyone else and we took advantage of that,” said Francis. “The success of WeedMaps was instant only because it was filling a void in the marketplace that was absolutely needed.”
Francis and Hartfield knew the dispensaries. They knew the doctors. They knew the strains. As other states like Colorado and Washington got in on medical marijuana, site revenues and visitors skyrocketed.
The company has grown to 180 employees, with some 4,000 listings on the site. It bought the domain Marijuana.com, a clearinghouse of cannabis news, reviews and discussion. The company’s “seed to sale” tracking software could play a role in legalization in France and Spain; Francis was reached by phone from the latter for this interview.
“Each country and each state is its own story and I think we’re unique in the sense that we have policy writers here and abroad working with local activists to make sure that WeedMaps is right there helping them with all the structured resources of policy writing, attorneys, all the things these guys can’t afford but we can, we provide that to the industry,” Francis said.
Data is the Cornerstone
Francis acknowledges there will be a time when Google and Facebook get over their fear of weed and seriously try to compete with WeedMaps. Yelp already does.
But he says they can only try to compete. And they won’t win.
That’s because at WeedMaps they go deeper than their competitors. Thanks to relationships with cannabis testing laboratories, Francis hopes to soon allow people to choose their buds by terpene profiles, the tastes and aromas that can accurately depict a strain in an industry when strains are often mislabeled. Connoisseurs will also be able to search not just by strains, but by cannabis brands.
While he expects some people will always shop at their favorite dispensary, the evolution of WeedMaps is to also cater to the discriminating consumer willing to get into the minutiae like terpenes to find the perfect medicine or high.
Francis also attributes the success of WeedMaps to the fact they are part of this industry, supporting cannabis back when the federal response to medical cannabis was uncertain, and continuing to assist legalization efforts today.
“Eventually this will be a normal industry. Weed will be so ubiquitous it will no longer be taboo or cool, but for now, those of us who are fighting prohibition, we’ve done this together,” said Francis. “A lot of my friends have risked life and limb to do that and that creates a bond, a fraternity of those who are fighting the power, so to speak.”
“It won’t always be the case but right now WeedMaps is the main company spending the most amount of money to help all our friends make this wonderful plant legal.”