BENGALURU, Karnataka — Of late, visitors to Cats.com have been confronted by Grumpy Cat — as per meme — alongside an exuberant bud of cannabis. Turns out, the site was recently acquired by Flower Co, a fast-growing cannabis startup with an intriguing Kerala connection.
Flower Co is based in California, one of a handful of American states to have legalised the recreational use of cannabis, but they are looking to source a range of spices from God’s Own Country for a range of Cannabidiol (CBD) infused Ayurvedic products.
“As Flower Co. is a platform, we wanted to bring Ayurvedic herbs first, and then we can add CBD and bring it to the market at half or less than what other people sell it for,” said Thomas Bastin, who runs Flower Co’s operations, and is from Kottayam in Kerala.
Flower Co’s unlikely journey shows how the phased legalisation of cannabis across the US, and in countries like Canada, is pulling an unusual set of actors into its ecosystem — from American cooperative banks to Kerala farmers, to Cats.com — to deal with the unique challenges posed by selling a substance that is, based on where you live, either illegal, and the next big thing.
While the company may sound like a stoner’s blissed out dream, Bastin is keen to emphasise the Flower Co’s shark-tank style business credentials. For instance, the company was one of the top 10 startups at Y-combinator’s 2019 demo day.
More broadly, there has been a huge amount of investment into this space, bearing strong parallels to the tech industry in Silicon Valley. Joining Flower co was an easy decision for Bastin, who worked as a banker in New York before joining the company on the recommendation of his friend Ted Lichtenberger, its co-founder and CEO, and a McKinsey analyst.
PUT ON YOUR THINKING CAT
Flower Co. started as Humboldt Legends, a pre-rolled cannabis company. Humboldt is the main growing area in California, Bastin explained, and with its greenery and easy going people, it resembles Kerala a lot.
“We started off as a pre-rolled cannabis company, but then we were trying to get the prices down and along the way, evolved into a wholesale distribution company,” he said. A year ago, Flower Co was born, with the goal of being the CostCo of cannabis.
“Our initial concern was building up the market share. We were only distributing in the legal states, but even there you have concerns like banking,” Bastin said, explaining that the big banks are still wary because cannabis has not been legalised by federal law.
“But there are now a few cooperative banks at the state level that you can work with,” Bastin said.
This also meant that mainstream advertising channels were not available to Flower Co. as the advertisements for their products might be shown in regions where cannabis is still proscribed. As a result, the company has been trying to use a number of different platforms to build awareness and educate people through humor, such as through its YouTube videos.
They’ve also done a lot of what Bastin called “80’s style marketing,” with very local marketing through fliers, concerts, and branded pizza boxes.
The company also has a cannabis product called Human Catnip, which gave them the idea of buying cats.com — one of the easiest to remember URLs on the entire Internet — to get the word out. Right now the site just has the picture of Grumpy Cat, a big bud of cannabis, and a link to sign up to their newsletter. Clicking on the menu just reveals some more cat memes.
“We’re still trying to figure out what we want to do with the site, how we can do it in a fun way, so there’s nothing else right now,” said Bastin. “We’re also trying not to push the edges of the law since we have big funders, so we are being very careful legally.”
“We don’t get too many clicks there because we’re not doing it actively yet,” he added. “Sometimes people go there and get very confused, but we’re thinking about it.”
In his fields in Kottayam, farmer Bastin PT (who is from the same village as Flower Co founder Thomas Bastin) is growing cardamom, turmeric, and beans, much as his family has done for years. This year however, his harvest is not intended for the local market, but for Flower.co’s line of 100% ayurvedic products called Soma.
Soma is a line of drinks that is available in three variants right now: Namaste, Namaskar, and Shanti, which are meant to be had in the morning, afternoon, and evening respectively, said Soma co-founder Marcus Armstrong.
Namaste is an energy supplement that could replace your morning coffee, and is made with Ashwagandha, Gurarana seed powder, and maté, Armstrong said. Namaskar, made with Turmeric, Ginger, and Gingko, is supposed to promote digestion and provide a midday energy boost, while Shanti is made with Valerian Root, Turmeric, and Passion Flower, and is meant to be a sleep aid.
“The turmeric and other herbs that we get in America is just not good enough, and these are key ingredients,” said Bastin. “So we’re now working towards vertical integration. We’re working with farmers that are known to my family, so we can work easily with them, and we’re giving them the guidelines on how to grow, bringing the standards of testing that we would use in California too.”
PAY THEM AND THEY’LL GROW
Flower Co’s CBD infused products are still in the testing phase. Soma, however, is a non-infused product so the crops being grown for it don’t need the same stringency of testing. Nonetheless, by cutting out the middlemen, Bastin said that the farmers are making more money too.
As it turns out, the farmers aren’t too concerned about working for a Cannabis company—as long as they’re only growing Ayurvedic products, they don’t have any issues about the end-result that their crop goes into.
“I will grow anything that buyers are interested in,” said Bastin PT. Another farmer working with Flower Co. also said he didn’t have a problem with the crop being used for cannabis, and when asked whether he would be willing to grow it in India if it were legal, he replied, “Let it become legal first, then we can evaluate plans.”
AYURVEDA AND CANNABIS
The Internet has been essential in getting people to change their views about cannabis—articles that talk about its benefits for cancer patients have done a lot of good for acceptability. Legalization and taxation have lead to better regulation and also incredible infrastructure development, Bastin said.
In India however, cannabis remains highly controversial, and Bastin’s parents also took some time to reconcile themselves with the business of Flower Co.
However, cannabis and ayurveda have a long historical connection.
Last year, the Central Council For Research in Ayurvedic Sciences, a research body under India’s AYUSH ministry of traditional medicine, announced positive results from the first clinical study in India on the use of cannabis as a restorative drug for cancer patients.
The Council of Scientific & Industrial Research’s Indian Institute of Integrative Medicine (CSIR-IIIM), said it is developing three drugs from cannabis to treat patients of cancer, epilepsy, and sickle-cell anaemia.
Although this does not suggest that India will see the kind of legalisation that is happening in the west, it’s possible that an export economy could rise up as cultivation becomes legal in more states, leading to an even more direct connection between the farms of Kerala, and cannabis consumers in California.