Cannabis tech talk rarely excites the masses, but online dispensary menu and ordering services definitely make our lives easier. Not only that, but some of the cannabis tech companies offering these services have pretty badass backstories.
Six years before Socrates Rosenfeld was driving around Denver selling dispensaries on his new online ordering platform, Jane, he was flying Apache helicopters in Iraq for the United States Army. A graduate of West Point, Rosenfeld served seven years in the Army before leaving the military for business school at MIT.
After business school and working at McKinsey & Company for a few years, he struggled to find fulfillment and meaning in life, Rosenfeld says. Then he tried cannabis for the time.
"I was grateful to be introduced later in life," he says of his first pot experience, which eventually led him to co-found Jane, one of the cannabis industry's largest online menu services and ordering platforms. To learn more about his path to the plant and time in a chopper, we gave Rosenfeld a call.
Westword: So you never tried cannabis until you left the Army?
Socrates Rosenfeld: I was an athlete gr
owing up and never tried it. Growing up, it was something I was very afraid of, largely because of the lies being told and misinformation given to me as a young kid in the D.A.R.E. program. I thought it was going to make me a criminal, kill all of my brain cells and turn me into a heroin addict. There was a lot of fear. When I got out of the Army, I was resistant to trying it even though I could do it legally now. Getting out of the service was like stepping off a roller coaster that I'd just ridden for twelve years. I didn't know who I was outside of the military, but I was back in Boston at 29 years old.
Working out didn't get me there. Getting into an elite business school didn't get me there. I was struggling to figure out how to [attain] peace, and that's when I stopped trying to master the "should" and instead master the "self." I tried cannabis for the first time, and it changed my life. It brought me emotional and physiological change, helped me find balance and connect with myself again. It was probably the first time in my life where I questioned things I assumed to be true at face value, which is crazy to think about. Once that door was open, I couldn't close it.
When I hear most military veterans talk about their cannabis use, it's from a perspective of healing and protection. But it sounds like you did the opposite, and used cannabis to expand and explore.
You can't expand unless you heal. The first order of business is to heal your heart, mind, body and soul. Once you do that, you can expand and grow. That's what the plant has allowed for me and so many other military veterans I know and, quite frankly, millions of people around the world. Whether it's helping you get sleep, find relief or peace, or deal with stress, it allows you to find that balance, and from there you can expand. Steve DeAngelo calls it homeostasis, which I love, because it's true. Once you find that balance, you can grow.
Leafly and Weedmaps were pretty established when Jane launched. Why did you decide to go after the e-commerce secto
r of cannabis?
It was a personal need. I leaned on Leafly and Weedmaps early on as a medical patient in California, but I still couldn't shop one of those websites like I could shop for everything else. I started wishing I could shop for my cannabis with full purchasing power and have things like an item-first search. I wanted to be able to look for something broad or specific, and not have to spell it correctly. I wanted to be able to have verified reviews from real customers, recommendations and curations based on my purchasing needs and behaviors. Whatever the need was, I wanted to have that same level of purchasing power you have when shopping for other things online. When that idea was still percolating in my mind around 2014 or 2015, I thought it would selfishly be good for me as a medical patient, but also help the industry grow by allowing more people to access this plant.
Online dispensary menus and pre-ordering weren't a very big part of cannabis shopping until 2020. How much do you think the COVID-19 pandemic and resulting retail adjustments helped Jane grow?
It's a trip to think what has changed and what has stayed the same. I remembered rolling around Denver right after launching, going door to door. Some dispensaries didn't see the need for an online business. They had plenty of business coming through the door, so they didn't think they needed online stuff. That wasn't the majority of responses, but I was surprised to see that in 2017. I think that largely came from how novel walking into a store and buying cannabis was, so people weren't expecting to have the level of convenience that online ordering provides. But man, did that change during COVID.
The first thing that happened was cannabis being deemed an essential business. In very short order, cannabis went from being illicit and bad to being deemed essential by governments. Online was proven to be helpful and a supplement to brick-and-mortar businesses, and [COVID] was a huge boon for us. We were in a position to help retailers go from strictly offline brick-and-mortar business to what we call the omni-channel, which is merging the offline and online worlds. I think that is the future.
Now we're seeing Target, Best Buy and Walmart making big investments and benefits from merging these offline-online experiences. You have bigger basket sizes and actionable data to understand how consumers are shopping at stores. Unlike the Ubers and DoorDashes of the world, which are looking to replace actual restaurants with ghost kitchens, I don't think you'll see that in cannabis and other retail verticals. What we've seen is that technology can enhance the in-store experience.
Before the pandemic, I would say around 15 to 20 percent of all dispensary orders were online. Post-pandemic, we're sitting at 50 percent.
It's also nice to grab an eighth or an edible without having to wait in line as a new dispensary customer asks 21 questions.
One thing I love about Amazon is the convenience, but I also hate that every time I place an order on Amazon, I'm pulling business away from a small business or brick-and-mortar store. If we could use online to uncover new farms, small businesses and cool edibles companies that I would've never heard of, though, that would be a cool thing.
Fewer than 3,000 Apache helicopters have ever been made, and you flew them in the Army. Was that a big achievement for pilots?
I would say yes, but the fact that they let me fly it goes against that. It takes about two years of practice to be okay at flying it, but it takes thousands of hours to get really good at it. It taught me dedication, the ability to handle a lot of inputs at once, how to prioritize, and it taught me how to deal with risk and understand uncertainty, which has helped me as an entrepreneur.
With so many hours spent flying, why step into the business world and not become a pilot after the Army?
I thought about it, but it wasn't what I loved to do at the end of the day. I really enjoyed it, but it wasn't filling my heart. There are pilots who love to fly, so that's what they should do. But for me, I gave myself the opportunity to take a pause. I was so fortunate to be able to take that pause while going to business school.
I was doing something I was good at, but I didn't love it. I went to business school, became a consultant and was doing things I didn't love, so I wasn't fulfilled. I remember sitting down with my wife and brother, and we ultimately decided that if I wasn't going to take this shot, then when would I? If I'm going to deny myself the opportunity to pursue something I love, then I'm denying life itself. Leaving my job to make money and pursue an idea was the scariest decision I've ever made.