A start up venture that could yield a very promising harvest

The legalization of marijuana is certainly a newsworthy topic these days. One of our recent projects gave us the opportunity to get an insiders’ view into the fascinating world of the cannabis cultivator.

On a fresh spring morning, three of us piled into a volvo clutching coffees, notebooks, cameras and a prerequisite “hazmat suit”. Why the suits and where were we going? We were headed into the field to meet a series of cannabis cultivators to learn everything we could about the “seed to sale” process. We had just embarked on a new project; to design a cannabis tracking tool for a startup entrepreneur that would provide essential automated crop management and compliance reporting for an industry that has up until recently been mostly underground. We’d been told that, to avoid contaminating the plants, we would need to wear protective clothing, so being the avid ethnographers that we are, we donned the hazmat suits and entered into the grow room.

Conducting Minimum Viable Ethnography

Standing under the UV lights, observing the cultivators and listening to them describe their processes (with the pungent aroma of cannabis in the air!) we started to uncover some important insights. Their attentiveness to the crop as it went from seed to harvest was all encompassing, with some describing their plants as “friends” and “babies”. Part horticulturalist, part connoisseur these cultivators were manually tracking everything - lights, pH balance, room temperature, wet weight, dry weight and much more. We listened as they described their typical day, discretely snapped pictures, then returned to the studio to synthesize our findings.

conducting ethnography in cannabis warehouse

Learning about the art and science of cannabis cultivation

As we combed through our raw notes and turned them into stickies, we identified a number of emergent themes. One of the most significant was how manual the cultivation process was for many of the cultivators, with handwritten notes hastily scribbled in books, and large sheets of butcher paper hanging on the walls tracking things like environmental conditions and feed mixes. It was clear that if these operations were to expand while compliance reporting became a requirement, the need to digitize would become critical.

Benchmarking the competition

In parallel to our ethnographic research, we evaluated competitive cannabis tracking solutions from an experiential and strategic perspective. We reviewed product demos, videos, marketing and other materials, analyzing the ways in which our client could significantly differentiate his product. We confirmed that while there were a number of established players in this industry, there was significant opportunity for a nimble and disruptive solution to emerge that differentiated through design.

Envisioning the cultivators’ future journey

We collaborated with our client during an ideation workshop, where we worked in breakout groups to map the current and future journeys of our two personas: the cultivator and the retailer. Envisioning their individual but related journeys sparked a host of ideas that could bring digital transformation to this billion dollar industry. With legalization of marijuana now becoming a reality in many US states, the requirement around compliance reporting is also very real. The need to track plants from seed to sale will mean daily reporting - and a dedicated software tool will be essential for any large cannabis operation.

Journey mapping to find inspiration during the ideation workshop

Journey mapping to find inspiration during the ideation workshop

“This approach to software design has shown me a whole new way of thinking…I’m excited to use this with my other ventures” - Startup Entrepreneur

Our initial phase of minimum viable ethnography was followed by rapid ideation culminating in an interactive prototype that we shared with users. During these participatory design sessions, we asked users to perform key scenarios, then listened as they gave feedback and offered up suggestions for improvement. We iterated and refined the designs and provided our client with a tangible realization of a product that our development team could now realistically “size”. In non-developer speak, this means figuring out what it would cost to build. A list of thoughtfully defined epics provided the framework for this non-trivial estimation exercise, that was performed by our seasoned developers. Our MVP workshop was the stage for the “Must, Should, Could” exercise where we worked through over 85 epics to prioritize scope for release 1.

Where are things today?

Armed with a product vision, business plan and pitch deck, our client is actively raising venture capital to bring this vision to life. And time is of the essence. Our competitive research revealed that tracking solutions that are currently on the market lack a level of sophistication and customization that this industry will require, highlighting the opportunity for a new player to successfully enter this market. While marijuana legislation continues to unfold, one thing seems certain. The Green wave is not turning back.

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