A couple of Harvard grads kick around in finance for a few years before deciding to launch a hip new tech startup of their own.
On the surface, the story of Best in Grow cofounders Andrew Duffy (CEO) and Jake Levin (COO) might sound like the story of every tech startup ever. Dig a little deeper, though, and you’ll find the tale of this dispensary management software company has a lot more substance. Duffy and Levin’s diligent approach to getting their startup off the ground holds a lot of valuable lessons for would-be entrepreneurs of all stripes, and the product they’ve developed may end up disrupting the entire corporate training field.
‘You Need to Look for the Patterns’
Duffy and Levin first met as Ivy League undergrads. Like many modern college graduates, they found their initial forays into the professional world a little underwhelming. Duffy was building software for a hedge fund, while Levin was putting in hours at a private equity firm. Neither was terribly thrilled about their careers, and they were both eager to take on something more fulfilling.
“Talking to each other as we were toiling away at our finance jobs, which we weren’t super excited or passionate about, we thought, ‘Hey, cannabis looks like a place where we could actually use [our skills] to much greater effect,’” Duffy says.
Cannabis caught the pair’s attention for a couple of reasons. First, the two were committed to legalization on moral grounds. (Throughout our conversation, Duffy emphasizes repeatedly the respect he has for “those who carried [cannabis] through prohibition” and the duty of the burgeoning cannabis industry to do right by those who were jailed or impoverished because of prohibition.) Second, cannabis’s status as a brand new industry meant it offered “a lot of white space, a place where we could build something that would actually be kind of foundational to the industry,” Duffy says.
So, in 2017, Duffy and Levin moved to Colorado. They didn’t have a solid business idea in mind at that point, but that’s because they rightly knew they couldn’t just rush into the industry guns blazing.
“We knew we didn’t really know enough about the cannabis industry to start something from afar,” Duffy says. “I think that was one of our best decisions that we made in the whole process, just getting into the trenches of the industry, talking with the owners of every dispensary within a 50-mile radius, talking to the owners of these big brands, just trying to bust down their doors and ask, ‘Hey, what are the problems that you’re facing?’”
Duffy and Levin spent months learning the ropes of the industry and researching ways to add genuine value to the operations of cannabis companies. In the course of their conversations with cannabis brand managers and dispensary operators, Duffy and Levin heard a range of grievances, from supply chain management and product consistency to compliance woes and more. The key to developing an impactful product people actually wanted to use, they realized, would be in finding the most common denominator underpinning all these varied challenges.
“Every time you talk to a different operator, they’ll give you a different problem,” Duffy notes. “Ultimately, what you need to look for is patterns in those responses.”
Searching for those patterns, Duffy and Levin saw that the cannabis industry’s biggest challenge was the same challenge every industry faces: people management.
For the cannabis brands, it was all about better understanding “budtenders,” the dispensary employees responsible for cannabis sales. Duffy and Levin learned that cannabis brands were spending 60-80 percent of their marketing budgets just trying to reach budtenders rather than consumers — which seemed “insane” on first glance, Duffy says. But it starts to make sense when you learn that 92 percent of consumers who walk into a dispensary end up buying whatever the budtender recommends.
Dispensaries, too, were concerned with reaching their budtenders to ensure they were following sales and compliance best practices.
Budtenders are a uniquely powerful kind of retail professional, capable of influencing sales on an almost unparalleled scale — and, with one wrong move, capable of getting a whole dispensary shut down due to noncompliance.
“That level of influence is massive,” Duffy says. “Which meant it was clear to us: If we built a tool that was useful for dispensaries, and their budtenders liked it and it made their jobs easier, they would be on it every day and using it consistently. We would then have access to information we could use to help brands understand who these budtenders are, what they like, and what they like selling.”
This, Duffy says, was the genesis of Best in Grow: “There was a need we could service, which would then give us a huge network of people whose information would be really helpful to provide to these brands who are trying to make not only those people’s jobs easier, but also make customers’ lives better.”
Native Learning: It’s Bigger Than Cannabis
Best in Grow is in the enviable position of being able to serve two distinct sets of customers in the same platform. On the one hand, its product is designed to help retailers run their dispensaries more effectively, while at the same time it helps cannabis brands understand and reach the budtenders who sell (or don’t sell) their products.
Which brings us to what, exactly, Best in Grow is. In a nutshell, it’s a mobile-first one-stop shop that combines training, compliance, file sharing, and communication. It emulates social media in its form and function: Users create their own accounts, and they can access company documents, manage tasks, communicate with other users, and participate in learning and development right through the platform.
Duffy and Levin chose this mobile-first, Instagram-inspired design for two reasons. First of all, the vast majority of cannabis employees, whether they work for brands or dispensaries, are on their feet and on the move. They’re not sitting at a desk all day, which means a desktop- or even laptop-oriented platform would be dead in the water.
Second, the majority of employees coming into the cannabis industry are millennials and Gen. Z-ers who grew up with and are very comfortable operating in these social media environments.
“We really built it to feel like [social media], and that means it is really easy for us to distribute it to [employees] quickly and have them pick it up instantly,” Duffy says. “They can then do all their important work functions straight through the platform.”
Millennials and Gen. Z-ers don’t just work better on social media-style platforms — they also learn better that way, too.
“People who have grown up digitally native … that has changed the way they process information and take in information,” Duffy says. “What I would call the ‘traditional’ form of learning — which is, ‘Hey, read this .pdf, watch this slideshow, watch this video, and then take a quiz to prove that you know this’ — [doesn't account for] how people actually take in information and solidify it in their brains. That is actually most effectively done these days through social interaction and bite-sized chunks of information.”
Best in Grow’s social-media design allows for smoother implementation and increased adoption, but perhaps most importantly of all, it allows for native learning, which may just be the most exciting thing about the platform because of its implications beyond cannabis.
Best in Grow’s deployment of native learning takes the hot concept of microlearning to new highs by delivering to its users bite-sized, breezy chunks of information as if they were posts in a social media newsfeed, while also giving users the space to engage in social learning by teaching one another and working through questions together.
“When we’re talking about native learning, we’re talking about social-media-like environments, places where you are engaging with other people in your industry who have either more or less information than you do,” Duffy explains. “By either teaching or learning through them, you are increasing your likelihood to maintain that knowledge through time. As we all know, teaching is one of the best ways to solidify information in your mind, so even for people who are pushing information out into a native learning system, they’re gaining more value by solidifying that information, just as much value as the people who are getting that information.”
Duffy continues: “So there is that social aspect to it … but then there is also another piece of it, which is embedding small chunks of learning into day-to-day workflows. Instead of saying, ‘Hey, take 30 minutes to read this .pdf and do a quiz on it,’ we’re saying, ‘Hey, watch this 15-second video about this one product that is already embedded into your newsfeed.’ That means you are learning in a much more organic way, and those chunks are not so overwhelming or attention-span-draining that they make it difficult for people who’ve grown up in pretty fast-paced environments and fast-paced digital worlds.”
This two-fold approach of digestible, organic content and social learning allows dispensaries to better train and support their staff members, while also allowing cannabis brands to learn more about how budtenders are responding to and interacting with their products. This has powerful repercussions for both sides of the industry — but Best in Grow’s approach to native learning also reverberates beyond cannabis.
Duffy says the company is already thinking about its platform’s applications in other sectors of the economy, like outdoor gear and nutraceuticals, where retail employees have budtender-levels of influence over customer decisions.
“Those are places where, in general, there is a big information asymmetry between the customer and the person who is actually selling the product, which means education is a huge part of their job,” Duffy says. “They have to know a lot, and they have to be able to impart that information effectively.”
Duffy is also interested in the way retail, as a whole, is changing.
“It’s not any longer going to be storefronts where products are housed because that’s the easiest place to get them, and you just go there to buy a product,” he says. “Instead, as you see with these digitally native brands [like Peloton and Tesla], they are starting to create their own experience labs. You go into the store with a desire to learn more about the brand and the experience you would have if you purchased that product, and you become kind of embedded and inculcated into the brand ecosystem.”
“Those environments are extremely important for that type of learning,” he adds. “Employees are very prosocial, they are effective at integrating with other people in the store, they can give information to other people easily, and they can receive information from others and use that to change the way that they are selling that particular product.”
Native learning can even extend into more traditional corporate environments. Millennials and Gen. Z-ers will soon make up the majority of the workforce, and their preferred learning styles won’t change simply because they’re working in industries outside of cannabis. What Best in Grow offers is an example of one way to modify learning and development for the realities of an evolving workforce. Especially as jobs become more hybridized and skill sets become more flexible and adaptable, a more organic and agile form of education that foregrounds social learning may be the key to maintaining a talented staff that is ready for whatever tomorrow brings.
“Cannabis evokes this idea of the lazy stoner who doesn’t have good attention to detail or doesn’t know how to add two plus two,” Duffy says. He thinks that stereotype is way off the mark when it comes to both cannabis users and cannabis professionals. It’s clear that he’s right.
After all, a cannabis tech company may end up taking the entire training and development space to a new level.