These Two Kids Want to Be the 'Nike of Marijuana'
Josiah Tullis and Megh Vakharia’s startup Canary starts with delivery and an app but hopes to be much more.
Tullis (left) and Vakharia. Image: Author
Josiah Tullis and Megh Vakharia's startup Canary has been pegged as the "Uber for weed." This is an oft-used description for any startup that involves X delivered at the push of the button, and in this case, they both happen to involve a pool of independent drivers, and they both happen to be dependent on a web application—but the similarities end there.
A startup focused on medical marijuana delivery gives one multiple reasons to be skeptical. First, it's not the first marijuana delivery service. Second, the legal red tape that they will have to weed through (that's our first weed pun, for those counting at home) is enough to discourage the most entrepreneurial of spirits.
I met the two cofounders at a Jimmy John's sandwich shop in the University District of Seattle, and we chatted about why a couple of dudes who aren't yet of legal drinking age (Tullis is 20, Vakharia is 19) would want to dive into the startup world with such a tricky product.
The pair does have some distinguishing assets that make them worth a second glance. They've already shown business acumen, which revealed itself when they used words like "pivot" and "scale" in our conversation and described Canary as a "technology company," not Weed Domino's.
They also seem to have a couple friends in high places (weed pun No. 2), and have brought esteemed marijuana lawyer David Kerr into the fold as their legal counsel. "We've spent the last six months fleshing out our legal plan," says Vakharia, which will soon come to light when they open, in beta, in the next few weeks.
Canary will be launching its beta app for 50-100 patients in early December, with a targeted public launch of January 2015. Both launches are Seattle only, with future plans to launch in Denver.
Well known marijuana activist and dispensary owner John Davis has shown an early interest in Canary, and has advised the co-founders as they hash out (weed pun 3) their plans in the medical marijuana delivery space. According to Tullis, "[Davis] has met with them continually and is helping Canary try to get their business running as well as setting up introductions with other industry figures."
Canary connects you to local dispensaries via an app, which you can then make purchases through, and have your product delivered straight to your door. While other weed delivery startups like Eaze and Meadow currently only partner with dispensaries that already deliver, Canary is actually meant to be a system that all dispensaries use, which they say will "enable the delivery infrastructure" for Washington's growing, legal weed economy. To me, it sounded less like Seamless, and more like Uber and Square for weed, but the way they replied, "yeah, kind of" told me I didn't get it yet.
When I first heard about Canary, I imagined (and was secretly hoping) that two stoned college kids got high and watched The Social Network, but was sorely disappointed to find this wasn't the case.
Tullis and Vakharia didn't meet on a couch, they met at an entrepreneurship club meeting—a club that Vakharia co-founded at University of Washington. Tullis recalled the inception of Canary by saying that he and Vakharia had "been wanting to do a tech startup for awhile, and it was mostly a coincidence we landed in marijuana. The marijuana industry is still growing legs, and is still underserved from a tech standpoint."
After first working on the project last year, the team remains small: Tullis and Vkharia, plus Dalton Caughell, a backend developer and fellow student, along with a handful of advisors and their lawyer.
To be polite, and to not feel like an old person, I asked the obvious question 20 minutes into our meeting. (Although, to be fair, the first question I asked them was if they were high. They were not.)
What do their parents think?
I figured Vakharia, an Indian-American like myself (which often means strict parents), was operating under a pseudonym or perhaps faked his death before embarking on his pharmaceutical endeavors. Neither of these were true, and both of his parents have given him some level of support.
"My mom saw us on TV when [a local news station] covered us on April 24th," Vakharia told me. (Canary made its launch announcement on 4/20.) "We had no idea what we're doing, no business model, no legal model fleshed out. We were just like, 'this sounds cool,' let's put it up, and we got a lot of good feedback."
"My mom was like, 'what are you doing?" he added. "She said, "you can operate a business on [marijuana], just don't smoke it.' I was like, 'Okay.'" This is essentially #4 from Biggie's list of commandments, but some things are better heard from your mother.
Even more convenient for Vakharia, his father is a supply chain consultant, and he's advised Vakharia on delivery process optimization and other logistical issues.
Tullis is from just outside Portland, Oregon, so it's not hard to believe his parents are fairly supportive, and "don't have a problem with the [marijuana] space." However, they are concerned that Tullis will drop out of school to further pursue the business. As I understand it, his parents don't mind him selling weed, they just want him to get his degree first.
We discussed the positioning of Canary, as there are many weed apps out there, and there will surely be hundreds more as legalization gains momentum. (Side note: weedtrepreneurship does not yet pull any Google results.)
"When it comes down to it," Vakharia told me, "We're trying to create one of the first mainstream brands with Canary, in the sense of marijuana. A lot of marijuana branding now is like, Bob Marley, pot leaves, joints everywhere, and there are not a lot of companies that position themselves as a mainstream brand."
Everyone calls it the Uber for marijuana, but Tullis has larger ambitions for their brand. As Tullis put it, "We also want to poise it at the Nike of marijuana or the REI of marijuana, those are lifestyle brands that people identify with."
It's a lofty comparison for an app that's not live yet, but Vakharia hypothesizes that "in 4-5 years, when 30-40 states have legalized marijuana in some way, this [Bob Marley/pot leaf] branding won't work with business executives, soccer moms, grandparents, and people who don't even know who Bob Marley is."
There's already been a bit of interest in the company, and Tullis said the two buds (that's weed pun 4, and I'm burned out) have had a couple parties approach them to "basically acquire the business," adding that "they've made some good offers but so far we've rejected everything. We want to ride it out and see how far it goes."