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The Birth of Weed Tech - Meet the Tech Team Behind Snoop Dogg's MerryJane.com

The Huffington Post The Huffington Post 15/03/2016 Sherry Gray

Brace yourself. Every year, 100 million businesses launch (globally). That's three startups per second. Unfortunately, the fail rate is nearly as high. Nine out of ten bite the dust.

Startups fail for a variety of reasons. Many of them just aren't very good ideas. There's no market or audience interested. Many more fail due to poor execution.

Neon Roots is a tech company with a user-centric approach to development. It all starts with Rootstrap, an intensive product development workshop where the Neon Roots creative team distills ideas down to the workable essence.

2016-03-14-1457974269-3922853-NeonRootsTeam.jpg © Provided by The Huffington Post 2016-03-14-1457974269-3922853-NeonRootsTeam.jpg

The Neon Roots Team

In their own words, "we like to say that we're trying to destroy the digital development model and rebuild it from the ground up. A lot of agencies will rush clients into development and keep them there as long as possible, because that's what generates billable hours and makes them money, but we try to take a different approach. Instead, we use Rootstrap - our product development workshop - to help our clients define and validate their concept in the marketplace, build out a step-by-step development roadmap, and create a clickable prototype before we ever write any code."

You read that right. Neon Roots starts by refining your idea to a workable concept - before you spend your life savings on a project with no consumer base.

In the industry, it's known as developing an MVP - minimal viable product. Build the purest form of an idea, stripped down to the basics, and find out if the idea has appeal...before it's too late.

I got together with Ben Lee, Co-Founder and CEO of Neon Roots, to talk about their approach and ask about Snoop Dogg's Merry Jane venture.

Your work process sounds interesting. How is it different from what "traditional" agencies offer?

It allows us to be sure that whatever we're building actually has a place in the marketplace, and it avoids wasting a lot of money in development for something people don't want to use. It's sort of a built-in red flag detector and it helps us and our clients really understand what value they're delivering to their users.

Does that work?

It certainly seems to. In all we have a pretty great track record. We've run more than 100 Rootstraps since the program's inception, and our alumni have gone on to touch millions of users and raise millions in funding from prominent investors and accelerators like Mark Cuban and 500 Startups. It's been exciting to see it develop from its early days.

What's your success rate?

About 13% of startups that have gone through the process go on to raise a minimum of $150K in pre-product seed capital, and about 50% of that subset have raised more than $1MM in capital. The numbers are nice and shiny, but what's really significant about them is that the ones that didn't succeed actually win too - because they find out it isn't going to work within two weeks instead of after 9 months of development and $250,000 in costs.

How did the Rootstrap process affect Merry Jane?

Merry Jane was a Rootstrap project right from day one, so a lot of the work we did was on ideation, defining the value proposition, and really digging into user testing to optimize the user experience. Snoop came to us with the really brilliant insight that the emerging legal cannabis market was set for massive growth in the next few years, and he had the idea to create a centralized hub for the culture, style, and products of that world.

During our sessions, we realized that while cannabis culture sites did exist, none of them packaged cannabis as a luxury, high-class experience - and once we figured that out, we ran with that niche. That motivated a lot of the tech and design decisions and really influenced the overall look and feel of the site.

The tech side of MerryJane.com - is there anything outstanding?

One of the big things we tried to focus on with the Merry Jane sight was design. We wanted it to feel like a familiar culture blog, but to have a certain extra crispness to it. That's why in some of the footers we didn't just opt for the normal solid color, but went with a constant video of billowing smoke. The back-end tech was a big part of that; we worked hard to make sure everything was responsive and felt sharp across the site.

Yes, that billowing smoke video seems to be a motif throughout the site. It's pretty entrancing, definitely something a viewer could get lost in... Are you sure 'crispness' was the only motive there?

Well... Let's just say we know our audience.

Who is your target audience? What does your ideal customer look like?

Our target audience, plainly, isn't who you'd think it is. We're really not trying to go after the hardcore cannabis users - although of course they are one of our demos - but rather the more mainstream, young modern professional class. At this point it's pretty clear that, on the whole, the country doesn't think cannabis is that unusual. We're just building a platform that reflects and provides for that.

The goods page is cool, was there any interesting tech there?

The Goods page was something we talked a lot about in the Rootstrap sessions. We wanted to position cannabis products as something that users could enjoy, could delight in, not just something to get high with. That's where we came up with the idea of the filters - category, type of product, flavor, and effect. The database started small, but it's already gotten pretty sizable and it's growing fast. We're excited to see where it goes.

What's the future of MJ?

Ultimately, we want this to be the biggest cannabis website on the internet. That's why we're starting now - the legal cannabis movement is young, but its growth is almost inevitable. We're working with Snoop to build the most comprehensive resource for style, culture, products, and dispensaries - the place everyone knows to go to if they want anything to do with cannabis. As the legal landscape changes over the next few years, we're going to be well positioned to take advantage of that.

Marketers often talk about value propositions, or unique selling propositions. With the legal marijuana industry just starting to hit its stride, Snoop and Neon Roots made a bold decision to shift marketing focus. From poorly designed, underground websites run by shady characters to the multi-billion dollar mainstream industry marijuana is poised to become. Suddenly, it's a whole new ball game in marketing.

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