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Founder Interviews: Frank Qin of Mary

With cannabis recently legalized in Canada, Frank Qin saw a major opportunity, leaving his comfortable job to create an automated mainstream growing system.

Davis Baer: What’s your background, and what are you working on?

Hi, I’m Frank Qin, a cofounder of Mary, a cannabis hardware startup based in Toronto, Canada.

Our kickoff product is a sleek looking automated growing system for mainstream consumers. You don’t need to know anything about growing, just put in the seed or clone, and it grows itself automatically.

Unlike any other product you see on the market, just one glance, you’ll know it’s designed for your living room, like it’s meant to be there as a piece of modern art that just happens to produce cannabis.

We launched on Indiegogo this April, and reached our funding goal within 36 hours. We then got a lot of attention from some of the biggest media in Canada, such as National Post, the Globe, and Mail, etc.

What motivated you to get started with your company?

I had been interested in growing all kinds of plants since childhood. There was a wave of news on legalization of cannabis in Canada in early 2017, and I thought this could be the perfect place for a product with a mainstream-targeting, design-friendly approach for the stigma there is around cannabis.

I started building the prototype with friends as a pet project. I arrived home around 9pm every night and would spend another two hours on it. It got to the point where I had to choose between my full-time job and this project that was going so well. I had a very well paid stable job as a senior iOS developer at a hedge fund, but I believed the legalization was a once in a lifetime opportunity. So, I said f**k it, and I quit.

What went into building the initial product?

We really bootstrapped everything at first. I had experience in working at a hardware startup, so I understood the amount of work and the challenges facing a hardware startup. Of course, the idea was already in place, and I knew a few people that we could build a good team around.

The next step was to take some of the concepts and designs that were little more than pen on paper and turn them into a physical product. We started in May 2017, and it took us a few months to build a proof of concept, and have made 5 iterations to where we are today.

Everything was done in-house, mostly in-basement with many trips to different hardware stores. This allowed us to keep the product focused on our commitment to our simple mission: to destigmatize the market.

Since that time, we’ve had plenty more input and help that have led to further iterations and improvements. I also owe a big thank you to the Toronto startup community. We wouldn’t be in this position today without all the helpful feedback and help.

How have you attracted users and grown your company?

We launched on Indiegogo back in April 2017. Prior to launch, we reached out to growers and Cannabis pioneers that we knew online for input. That was a huge help for us. Not only did we get valuable advice but, it also helped spread the word.

Once we had a working prototype (one that looked like the finished product, as there were many ugly prototypes before it), we were able to show off our hard work through social media and start attracting a bigger audience. This all lead up to a successful Indiegogo campaign.

We are now working with our backers to beta test the control app for the Mary. Using real world feedback from actual customers allows us to shape the product before we start delivering. Our intention is to create a community that is proud to be connected with us and to empower that community to bring in new users. We plan to re-introduce the Mary once we start fulfilling orders for our backers so stay tuned for that!

What’s your business model, and how have you grown your revenue?

Our revenue comes from unit purchases and supply kits which are required for each growth cycle. We managed to keep the prices lower than the competition through innovative manufacturing and design techniques.

We are still in the early stages and made a commitment to directly targeting a small, focused market and proving that we can provide a quality product. The best way we can grow as a company is to show the quality that we can deliver.

Opportunity for growth definitely comes with the changing laws on cannabis in Canada. While we are not strictly a cannabis product, the Mary is obviously ideal for growing your own. That also fits our vision that you should be able to grow what you want, where you want, and when you want.

  • We approached potential customers, following Paul Graham’s “do things that don’t scale”.
  • We don’t explicitly say we are a cannabis-related product, but Stripe still shut us down on Shopify. Now we are using Canada’s own payment service.
  • We’ve had a few hundred units of pre-orders with full deposit.
  • Although our price is the lowest, we still achieved possibly one of the highest margins because of our execution and optimization.

What are your goals for the future?

With our first product, we entered Canada and USA first. This is a market that we better understand and can keep costs in line with what we want to offer. Later, we plan to expand to every country that has legalized cannabis. That’s almost a population of a billion people, and more countries are legalizing cannabis.

For future models, we are considering multiple plant options or systems that will allow for more types of plant growth. Before then, we will be raising money to accelerate our growth since hardware products need capital to be shown to the world.

Have you found anything particularly helpful or advantageous?

We are incredibly lucky to get started when we did. While we are not first to market, we have the advantage of seeing a few different approaches to what we are trying to make. That made it easier to find the problems that our competition isn’t solving for our customers. At the same time, we are starting early enough to take advantage of the changing regulations around cannabis growing.

Over the last couple of years, we have met some very helpful individuals and experienced growers. This, combined with our research, has left us with the opportunity to offer a product that performs very well.

What’s your advice for entrepreneurs who are just starting out?

Find your mission, keep it simple, and work as much as you can. Not only did we set simple goals, we kept our focus on our first product narrow. There is much more we want to develop in the future, but your first release doesn’t need to solve every problem in the world. You are better to focus on a couple problems and make sure that you are offering really works for your end user.

Don’t be afraid to find help. YC Startup School has a great library of videos, talks that come from the best startups in the world.

We worked our asses off, and that seems to be paying off.

Where can we go to learn more?

Our website: www.mary.ag

An awesome 2-minute design film of Mary:

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