by TIM STROMBEL
Everyone who enters the cannabis industry has his or her own unique story as to why. Todd Mitchem, Co-Founder and CEO of High There!, a social networking app designed for cannabis friendly users, is no exception. Six years ago Todd was directly impacted by the cannabis industry through his mom’s battle with terminal cancer. He and his partners noticed the industry lacked a social networking platform where users could interact with one another to create a larger, more global community. Then one day, he and his business partners sat and discussed the merits of a massive social network to connect like minded people and when the waitress approached the table and said ‘Hi there’, the light bulb went off and the group never looked back. High There has been featured in hundreds of publications all over the world and was even parodied by Dutch television. With the launch of High There 2.0 on the horizon, we caught up to Todd to talk about what it took to get High There where it is today.
Your mom and your family were directly impacted by the cannabis industry. What happened and how did it impact your choice to enter the space?
One of the things I love about the cannabis community is that we all seem to have a unique story when it comes to what exactly got us into the industry. In my case, my mom was one of my biggest inspirations. Years ago her breast cancer relapsed in part due to the radiation from her first go around of treatment. The doctors gave her a terminal diagnosis, saying she had six months to live.
When I saw the impact that medical cannabis could have, I left my ten year career in the corporate space to see what I could do in the industry to inspire change.
She travelled to a cleansing clinic out in Pennsylvania where she met a nurse that recommended cannabis. The nurse said it would help her sleep and manage pain as she died. So my mother and stepfather began to grow out in Ohio. She would make cannabis muffins, consuming one before bed every night. That was six years ago! To this day people argue with me over the medicinal properties of cannabis and I simply point to my mom. Six months has turned into six years. We can’t ignore that.
When I saw the impact that medical cannabis could have, I left my ten year career in the corporate space to see what I could do in the industry to inspire change. I’ve never looked back. I think it is ridiculous that a person such as my mom, growing and using cannabis to deal with her cancer (which had been diagnosed as terminal), could have spent her final months in jail because cannabis is still illegal in Ohio. On a lighter note, the funny part about my mom using cannabis is that, when I was a kid, she used to threaten to kick me out of the house if I used it. I think her stance has softened over the years.
Let’s talk about High There!. Is it true that the idea for this app stemmed from your personal dating history?
High There! was born from a collaboration of my partners and I. We all had different reasons for wanting to take on this mission. For me, I would say it stemmed from my mom’s personal history as well as my own. As for my history, I’m a divorced dad with kids, so it was hard to get out there and meet people in the first place. I was going through sites like Match.com and Tinder, but once cannabis came up my dates would start to lecture me. I was so tired of going through this that one night, when a date started lecturing me, I simply paid the bill and left. No one who consumes cannabis “medicreationally” (that’s what we call it around here) should EVER feel ashamed about their consumption or sharing this with others.
In my mom’s case it wasn’t about dating so much as friendship. While she was going through her cancer she was so isolated and alone at times. She even had a neighbor stop talking to her one they found out she was going through the process. Through the combination of these experiences, a light went off in my head. My business partners and I realized there was nothing out there to connect cannabis consumers, no social activity application where cannabis was accepted.
We focused on creating partnerships and showing them, as well as Google, how serious we were about responsibility and regulation.
Those reasons coupled with my business partners own experiences are why High There! is what it is today. We designed it to be a hybrid where people could connect, share medical stories, product reviews, general information and even find dates. Our goal is to connect people all over the world and provide social inclusiveness for an industry that has been widely shunned for a long time. In fact, I am already seeing it serve that purpose. I met a gentleman in Tennessee a couple of months ago who was using High There! He suffers from PTSD and cannabis is the only thing that helps to control his symptoms. He didn’t know anyone else who used it and felt like an outsider because of that fact. However, when he joined High There! he felt embraced by a community of positive individuals. He could share thoughts and interact with people all over the world going through similar experiences. This is precisely why we started High There!
Time Magazine called High There the ‘tinder for tokers’. What are your thoughts when you hear that?
Personally I like to describe High There! as: if Tinder and Facebook had a baby that grew up to be an adult cannabis consumer that person would be High There!. We blend functions from both sites, be it social activities, networking, information sharing or dating. Overall though I simply enjoy the attention we are bringing to the cannabis movement. If Time magazine is comparing us to Tinder, it means they are seeing High There! as a potentially mainstream app.
Whenever a business in the cannabis industry can be seen as a quality, well-functioning company I think it reflects positively on the entire movement. In this industry you have to be ok with the mainstream media building comparisons like this. It allows for them to be more comfortable talking about cannabis as a whole. That being said, I’m flattered to be compared to Tinder because I have a respect for what they have done as a company.
Did you start High There! intending it for dating, social networking or both?
We always saw both uses running side by side with each other. However, we built the dating functionality first because that was what was happening in my life and it was seriously lacking in the community. Then we quickly developed the networking side. At High There!, we work really hard to be as strategic as possible and we wanted to release one aspect at a time to be sure we were as ready for each application as possible.
Getting App distribution through channels like Apple has stunted the growth of many companies. How did you handle that process?
Certainly not as activists!!! We approached it more as a business partnership and less as an activist for a cause. We realized that Apple, as well as other app outlets, are huge companies with no real reason to care about us. They have a nearly $700 billion market cap. Protests would not serve in that context. So we focused on creating partnerships and showing them, as well as Google, how serious we were about responsibility and regulation. Right out of the gate we went to companies like Apple and said ‘you give us the guidelines and we will make it happen’.
We immediately geo-fenced the app, allowing us to regulate users and operate within individual state laws. Because we were the first to do this, they saw this as a legitimate first step, indicating we meant business. That move got the collaborative conversation going. We kept saying, ‘What can we do? Let’s work together. How can we demonstrate responsible social networking?’. We took these notes and installed countless safeguards to make sure we are constantly complying with these companies. More importantly, we brought them into our process and made it as legitimate as possible. We were very excited that we got the pass just two weeks before we launched and before anyone else int he space. Collaboration was the key.
Has anyone in the cannabis industry reached out to you about this process?
No not really. I wish more entrepreneurs would reach out. I would love to help them any way that I can. I think we’ve entered a phase on the business side of cannabis where, through collaboration and partnerships we are getting more done than ever before. While there are an infinite amount of activists out there doing great work (work that made even the thought of this interview possible), much can also be accomplished at the mainstream level by operating as a levelheaded businessperson. We went in with the attitude that ‘We’re not here to protest, but to tell you who we are, who we are going to serve and what service we will be providing’.
We went to companies like Apple and said ‘you give us the guidelines and we will make it happen’.
Who is Todd Mitchem and why should people want to work with you?
First off, I hate talking about myself. But if I had to sum myself up I would say that I believe in people more than anything. The people are where the magic is and that is what High There! is all about. I want to know who you are and what is your story. It is important for me to get to know people. In fact, when I run across people who say ‘I’m just here to do business’, I normally don’t want to work with them. I want to make friends with the people I do business with.
I feel like my whole life has come full circle into this industry and I love the media attention we have been getting because it has enabled me to share a larger, global message. One of my goals is to change the way people look at and talk to each other. In society we tend to be guarded, tend to cover ourselves up. We present ourselves as ‘this is who I want you to see’ as opposed to ‘this is who I am’. cannabis is the great equalizer. When you use socially, those barriers come down. You don’t care what color someone is or his or her gender. You dispatch ulterior motives and you just want to get to know them. I hope my involvement in the cannabis industry inspires this change. At HighThere! we hire for talent, bringing on anyone who can show up and execute! I want people to work with me because I feel that together we can truly shift the way that we treat each other on a global scale.
I want to make friends with the people I do business with.
How has the App helped you grow professionally?
I have grown in big ways through my work with High There. I had been at the executive level in the past; working with large teams of people, start ups, and consulting for companies like Starbucks, Microsoft, and Google, but to actually take something from zero to where we are now has been an incredible experience. I’ve learned that, for me, the most valuable commodity is time. The cannabis industry moves so fast that, if I don’t control my time, the industry will control my business, not our company strategy. For this reason our strategy is to control how we a lot our time as best as possible. We focus so much on being strategic because in our mind, if we spend an hour going in the wrong direction, that time is lost and we can never get it back. This is especially important in a start up company.
Another thing I realized pretty quickly is that, as an entrepreneur, you are going to make mistakes. Everyone does. But when you start from scratch and try to build something special, sometimes you will act impulsively, even if you think your strategy is airtight. It may be a bad hire, or a bad marketing spend, but the main thing is to learn from that mistake and never make that move again. I thought knew a lot about pressure, friendships and negotiations, but my experience working with High There! has taught me more about those facets then ever before. It has been incredibly rewarding and I can’t imagine being anywhere else right now.
You have a blog for entrepreneurs called ‘The High There Nine’. What is that all about?
The High There Nine is something that we built very early on as a resource for business professionals everywhere. We wanted entrepreneurs to gain from our past failures and successes by helping them avoid mistakes in their own ventures. The High There Nine contains nine channels of thought you should run any initiative through prior to deciding on something relating to your business. Everything from how much you are going to spend to how much the initiative might affect your brand or your consumers. The process has worked wonders for us so far and has been critical in our rapid growth. You can find the blog inside of our app or on our website.
We focus so much on being strategic because in our mind, if we spend an hour going in the wrong direction, that time is lost and we can never get it back.
What is on the horizon for High There?
High There 2.0 is being built right now. We have some great functions that we are going to be releasing which will allow users to really control how they are seen in their profile. These additions are going to make the app even more fun and we’re very excited to release them. Our goal is to make the app look and feel more intuitive. We have been directly interacting and listening to our users. Every suggestion that we get makes its way all the way up the chain for consideration and sometimes leads us to create something the user didn’t even know they wanted until we presented it to them.
Other than the functionality of the application itself, we are focused on building and maintaining our user base, which is growing faster than any of us anticipated. To give you a comparison, Tinder hovered between 20-30K users their first 6 months. We have over 110K users in our first 8 months. We take this information as a sign that we are on the right track. There are people out there that want this community to expand so that they can interact with people all over the world. That is why we are striving to not only provide them with the technology, but also make sure their experience inside the app is the best it can be.