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The Grassworks Digital Team: Ryan Porter, Geo Elliot, Josh Dand, Gabrielle Christ, and Christian Coomer. (Grassworks Digital Photo)

It had been about a year since retailers in Washington state began selling recreational marijuana when Ryan Porter, a vet of the automotive technology industry, saw his opportunity.

He had been consulting for another cannabis startup and saw the need for an automated system that could help marijuana dispensaries manage and track their inventory. Taking the lessons he learned building digital products for AutoNation, Porter launched Grassworks Digital.

“Our core product is Simple Marijuana Menu, which integrates with clients’ point of sale systems, automates inventory updates, and allows consumers to order online,” he said. “Our mission is to be at the forefront of cannabis retail technology.”

More than 120 cannabis retailers across six states use Grassworks Digital. The Seattle-based startup also recently began supporting online ordering ahead at some pot shops.

We caught up with Porter for this Startup Spotlight, a regular GeekWire feature. Continue reading for his answers to our questionnaire.

Explain what you do so our parents can understand it: “We take a pot shop’s inventory data and make their digital menus pretty and accurate.”

Grassworks Digital CEO Ryan Porter. (Grassworks Photo)

Inspiration hit us when: “I discovered the pain points facing the industry when consulting for another cannabis startup, and saw parallels with the work I’d previously done for AutoNation in the automotive retail segment. After Washington transitioned from medical to recreational, I began adapting the kind of automation I championed in automotive retail to tackle the large data problems I saw in the cannabis industry.”

VC, Angel or Bootstrap: “We bootstrapped through the first year. In year two, we took on a strategic angel investor.”

Our ‘secret sauce’ is: “Our secret sauce is having done this before because I mixed our secret sauce in the automotive retail space. There are many parallels between automotive and cannabis retail, in that they’re both inventory-based businesses which benefit greatly from automation. Our tools solve pain points we’ve experienced firsthand and save our clients’ time and money.”

The smartest move we’ve made so far: “We trusted we were developing a solution the market needed. This allowed us to launch a software as a service, which could scale and change as the cannabis industry evolves. We wanted an adaptable answer, not a series of spec solutions.”

The biggest mistake we’ve made so far: “Initially, we underestimated the resource-heavy nature of customer support, and the importance of face time with our clients. In the tech community, everyone is comfortable with email, chat programs, and texting to stay in touch. But our clients are in retail environments, which are more focused on in-person interaction. So we adapted to bridge the gap.”

Would you rather have Gates, Zuckerberg or Bezos in your corner: “It’s impossible to overstate the influence of Amazon as a modern marketplace, so I’d have to pick Bezos, because of his retail experience. The cannabis business is growing exponentially and eventually, I expect products to be sold in multiple ways and spaces — including online. I know he could help with that.”

Our favorite team-building activity is: “Grassworks digital has several dedicated cyclists on staff, so we picked up a couple of office BMX bikes. Goofing around on the bikes is a great way to blow off steam, and they also make running out for lunch quicker. Of course, before they even arrived, we made sure we had helmets for everyone.”

The biggest thing we look for when hiring is: “Experience. To borrow a baseball term, we’re looking for people who’ve had lots of at-bats. Our people have worked at every level of the cannabis industry, from shop owners to retail employees, and their successes — along with their failures — greatly inform how we relate to our customers.”

What’s the one piece of advice you’d give to other entrepreneurs just starting out: “Know your buyer. Simultaneously see the big picture and the details. And always be able to respond quickly — in a rapidly evolving space, done is often better than perfect.”

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