This startup wants to foster deeper online discussions about weed

Andreas Rekdal
September 2, 2016

A peer-reviewed study made national headlines last year with its finding that 9.5 percent of American adults had used marijuana in the past year, up from 4.1 percent ten years earlier.

Kannatopia, a Chicago-based social media startup, wants to give this growing demographic a safe haven for discussing their experiences.

“It’s like a Facebook for cannabis, but really focusing on modern cannabis consumers,” said Co-founder and CEO Kurt Akers. “These are typically your urban professionals, nine-to-five workers, medical marijuana patients and technology entrepreneurs — people who aren’t comfortable being on a mainstream social network and combining some of their activities with cannabis.”

Akers said the enduring stigma surrounding weed makes those who partake reluctant to discuss it in forums where they’re likely to encounter family members, employers and business connections. 

Kannatopia isn’t the only startup at the intersection of pot and social media: Denver’s MassRoots has established itself as the Instagram for weed. But Akers said his company targets a different demographic, and is more centered around knowledge sharing and in-depth conversation than photography.

To that end, the site has three main features: a recommendations section, a section for recipes and how-to guides and a logging feature that lets users track their experiences with different strains, edibles and other products.

“As you can imagine, there are now thousands and thousands of products,” Akers said. “Users are having such a tough time understanding it, what to use, when to use it and how to use it.”

Akers compares this feature to Untappd — a popular mobile app for rating and tracking different kinds of beer. But the large regional variance in quality and price makes such a tracking feature even more relevant to cannabis consumers.

Sites like Kannatopia meet an emerging need for the legal cannabis industry too. Banned from mainstream advertising platforms like Facebook and Google even in states where weed has been legalized, dispensaries, cultivators and equipment manufacturers are looking for alternative platforms for getting the word out about their products.

That ban affects all-digital companies like Kannatopia as well, so scaling the business will largely depend on steady organic growth (so to speak).

A self-styled cannabis enthusiast, Akers said the idea for Kannatopia emerged from his years of experience in the cannabis space. In particular, he remembers traveling to an industry conference in 2012. Breaking with established conference tradition, hardly any of the attendees seemed interested in connecting with each other on social networks like LinkedIn.

“When I went to this conference, everybody was talking in person but nobody was really talking about it online,” he said. “People come from all over the country to come to these kinds of events, and when everybody went home people just didn’t connect.”

On a personal level, Akers had also seen his brother, who uses medical cannabis to treat symptoms associated with epilepsy, struggle to find people with whom he could discuss the effects of various strains and products. This experience was the chief inspiration for Kannatopia’s tracking feature.

While Kannatopia’s users are free to use their real names if they want to, Akers said he and Co-founder Val Scarlata decided early on to give them the option to use the site anonymously. The team has also put a big emphasis on protecting its users from prying eyes.

“Security is our top priority — making sure that our consumers and our user base really feel safe, and that this is an actual environment created by real people,” Akers said. “It’s a huge concern for us that users can feel comfortable around cannabis and still get the value that we’re trying to create for them.”

Chicago isn’t exactly known for its cannabis culture, and among the states that have legalized medical marijuana, it sticks out with one of the strictest in terms of regulation. But Akers believes Chicago’s more cautious approach to legalization has given it an opportunity to get its policies right by learning from the mistakes made by early adopters, and the city has even become home to a budding cannabis technology scene with regular meetups at 1871.

“Even though it’s been strict, I think it will over time loosen up and be one of the most prominent states in the industry,” Akers said.

Kannatopia is launching in public beta sometime in the next few weeks.

Photos via Kannatopia.

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