A born entrepreneur who started his first business as a teenager, Otha Smith III launched his new app, Tetragram, in order to give recreational and medical cannabis users a simple platform to share information and resources. The Tetragram app is a crowd-sourced aggregator of confidential customer and patient reviews, featuring filters for location, product form, specific medical symptoms and more – and it’s available for download on both iOS and Android.
Otha joined Wana to discuss his own remarkable history with medical cannabis, his passion for educating fellow patients, and his mission to empower other Black professionals through inclusive opportunity and training.
WANA BRANDS: Tell me about your background. How did you come to the cannabis industry?
OTHA SMITH III: I’m originally from Anne Arundel County in southern Maryland, so I grew up on three acres of land, had horses and cows in the backyard. It’s interesting because southern Anne Arundel County is notorious for growing cannabis too – actually, my neighbor that was behind us had a big 200, 300-acre farm and they grew cannabis. So needless to say, cannabis has always been around me, right? [Laughs.] But fast-forward into adulthood: I’ve always used cannabis throughout high school and throughout college for recreational purposes. But one thing I will say, is that people who claim to be recreational, I still look at them as patients because you’re medicating at the end of the day.
But in 2003, I was involved in a very bad car accident, and it nearly took my life. Left me with a 6-inch, 34-plus-staple scar on the top of my head to remind me just how precious life is. I fell asleep at the wheel five minutes from my house, like it mostly happens. Was ejected a little over a hundred feet, landed on my head and back. I went through it, got out of the hospital, and was prescribed opioids like most people are, and within two and a half, three years, I became dependent upon them. And me being someone who’s always had that holistic, plant-based approach to life, pills were something that were very new to me. Like, I had never taken a Tylenol prior to the accident. And so, got dependent on them. My girlfriend at the time – now wife – was like, “We gotta get you off of these. The side effects are just too crazy, you’re becoming very irritable.” So, cut ‘em out completely and put all my attention towards cannabis again. At that time, I was working for Constellation Energy, selling electric and gas commodities in deregulated states, so I had a really great career, making great money. But I was always self-medicating under the radar, using my street dealers. Once cannabis became legal, I went to Colorado and was there on 4/20, there in that celebration, and there was more smoke than oxygen. [Laughs.] And I was like, this is it. This is the industry I need to be in. ‘Cause I just saw so much relief from using cannabis, right?
Fast-forward: I started spending all my time digging into research, attending trade shows, conventions, talking to other people. And I just realized, there’s a huge gap when it comes to just general information on how one product might affect you, or one strain, or so forth. I can vividly remember when I first entered a dispensary for the first time. I went in there a little egotistical. I was like, “I know cannabis.” And you know, that was just not the case. Terpenes, cannabinoids, I had never heard of before. And so again, finally seeing that gap in information, in dispensaries – everyone I talked to, they were like, “You gotta write it down. There’s just so many products to choose from.” And I was like, we’re livin’ in – this is 2020! Nobody’s writing stuff down anymore. So that’s where the idea for Tetragram came about.
After I came up with the idea, I spent two years finding the IT side that could help build out the application. I did spend three years of college in computer programming, but, you know, I knew enough to be dangerous, but I knew I couldn’t build this platform. Luckily, after two years, I found my business partners that I have today, and here we are. Both of them are patients as well. And we really pride ourselves on being “built for patients, by patients.”
WB: That is a really good origin story – so dramatic!
OS: [Laughs.] Yeah, it’s always crazy when I tell people about that car accident. I show them the scar and their mouths – they’re like, “Holy s***.”
WB: Can you tell me more about how Tetragram works and how people can actually use it to help themselves?
OS: Absolutely. When you go into a dispensary, you’ll be faced with thirty different strains of cannabis, you know, forty or fifty different packaged products. For someone who is looking at cannabis as a way to help with certain symptoms, it’s like, how are you gonna do so? So with the app, we made it very easy for the user to actually enter in the strain that they bought, or the packaged product. But more importantly, we capture the terpene and cannabinoid information associated with that product (if it provides that information). Because it’s really been refreshing to see consumers start to pay less attention to the THC and more attention to these cannabinoids and terpenes, ‘cause that’s the true value.
So we give the user the ability to capture that information, and then the consumer can also enter in where they bought the product. We give the customer the ability to put in how they consume the product, whether that be inhaling, orally, or topically. And then we have sub-categories so they can really have a clear understanding of – or they can resort back to that information and say, “Ok, I used Blue Dream. I bought it from XYZ dispensary. I used a bong. It was flower, and I took X amount of hits.” And then the user can associate the product with a medical condition. It has the pain scale in there, so before use, what was your pain? After use, what was your pain? And then, something that’s really cool that we see a lot of positive feedback on is, we give the consumer the ability to include pictures too, which is really important. We did that for two reasons. The first is, people love sharing their pictures of cannabis. [Laughs.] And secondly because, in our current version, since the user has to enter in these terpenes and cannabinoids, we do understand that some people might not have that mobility in their fingers to do so. So what they’ll do is actually take a picture of the label, and then use that as a reference guide as well.
WB: Oh, so it’s an issue of accessibility as much as a fun perk?
OS: Exactly. But one of the key things too about Tetragram is that it is HIPAA-compliant. So all your information is completely secure in the safe. Even us on the back end can’t view who puts this information in because we don’t ask for your first or last name, none of those unique identifiers. All your information stays exclusive to you on the app. If you choose to share your reviews with other people on our community page, that is done so completely anonymously, so you’ll never know who submitted that review.
WB: It’s such a thorough program. People can really point toward exactly what they need.
OS: Exactly. And so on that review side, you can see all these various products that people have purchased across the country, and sometimes they include pictures, but that review also tells you what they use it for and how effective that product was. And then, to touch on that HIPAA piece as well, one of the key things – I don’t know if a lot of people know this when they use Tetragram – but if you take a picture of a product, that picture does not stay on your phone’s archived photos. Because again, included in that HIPAA-compliance piece, all photos you take on the fly stay on the application and not on your actual phone.
WB: So that your boss doesn’t accidentally see, or –
OS: Yeah, if you tell somebody, “Hey, check out this picture,” and they start swiping, they’re not gonna see any weed products.
WB: That’s awesome. I want to sort of pull it out to the broader point of social equity, which is something that we’re exploring with this project. Obviously, everybody uses cannabis. But the folks who are legally making money on it currently are disproportionately white from what we’ve seen, and that’s true of the tech industry too – so, the two intersecting industries that you’ve found yourself in. What has it been like, operating as a Black entrepreneur in these spaces? Do you think it’s been more challenging than it would be otherwise?
OS: Yeah, I mean, it’s been incredibly challenging as a Black business owner. This isn’t my first business – I started my first business when I was in high school. There was challenges there, but especially in this industry because it is so predominantly white. As soon as I mention, “Hey, I have Tetragram, this is an application” – and I don’t tell them that I built it. I’m not trying to be self-righteous or egotistical. But I just tell ‘em, “Hey, there’s this really cool app called Tetragram.” And the first question they ask is, like, “Well, who built this?” You know, it’s like, why wouldn’t you think I built it if I’m the one who’s talking so intelligently about it?
Especially as it stands right now, where we’re in the process of securing help to raise capital, I have noticed – one of my business partners is Caucasian. And to see, when we’re having conversations with different people – whether they be investors or just dispensaries that we’re looking to form a relationship with – I have noticed that, even though I’ll lead the conversation, they always gravitate towards my white counterpart. And that’s – it is what it is, right? But it’s really disheartening to know that I’m not the one taken seriously, but my white counterpart is. My other business partner is mixed, but he moreso looks African American, so he doesn’t get the time of day as well as my white business partner does. It’s very, very challenging. So we just play the game. There are times where we actually send my [white] business partner, Lucas, in to have that initial conversation ‘cause it’s easier for him to get his foot in the door than it is me.
WB: That’s… s****y. That’s the only way that I can –
OS: [Laughs.] Yeah, there’s no other way to put it. It’s just s****y.
WB: [Laughs.] That was my honest reaction. It’s really s****y, and I’m sorry.
OS: It’s tough, you know? We’ve had some initial conversations where, again – you know, so I’m the one who left my corporate job and took the big leap. They’re still working until we raise capital, and, yeah… I mean, it’s just, it’s tough. It’s really tough.
WB: So obviously, you can’t avoid those issues of social equity because you’re just forced to deal with them. That’s just the landscape of the situation. Beyond doing those calculations that you have to do, are you thinking about issues of racial equity in the day-to-day? Is that an important part of your mission or ethos as a business leader?
OS: It absolutely is. One of the key words that I use throughout anything that we do with Tetragram is “empowerment.” We have a really bright future with what we’ve built, so it’s very personal for me to make sure that I hire other people that look like me, just to help build up our community, give them the jobs and give them the skillset, if necessary, so that they can become successful. If I can at least create the foundation, and they grow with us or they take what we’ve taught them and then they go off in their own ways, then I’m happy at the end of the day. I just really want to empower people overall to do better in life and have the opportunities that a lot of people aren’t given just because of their skin tone.
WB: That’s great. That’s how the change happens.
OS: Yeah, and that’s how it has to happen from these companies. I came from, like I said, the largest utility in the country, and there were probably 3000 people that worked in that building, and I can count on two hands how many people looked like me. So when it comes to this industry, it’s not just about throwing money or bringing awareness by social media. You need to employ people and make sure that you have that diverse background, ‘cause everybody has a unique value that they can bring. And they need those higher positions. They don’t need those entry level positions. They should be brought on at a higher level.
WB: This is a question that I’m asking everybody, because people do have really different reactions to it. It is a potentially emotionally fraught question, so answer to the degree that you’re comfortable. But this year, we saw a lot of businesses – following the murders of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor and others this summer – suddenly seemingly wake up for the first time to the real cancer of institutionalized racism in this country. As a Black business owner, how do you view that phenomenon? Do you think that’s a positive overall? Are you frustrated? Are you conflicted? And do you feel like there are ways that companies can actually engage meaningfully?
OS: I’ll put it this way. It was very unfortunate that someone had to lose their life in order for the country to wake up. But [George Floyd’s] – sacrifice is what I really think it is – his sacrifice has done things that weren’t probably gonna take place unless that sacrifice happened, which is totally unfortunate to say. I saw the video once and never watched it again. Um… [pause].
Got choked up on that one. But companies are starting to pay attention, which is good, but they really, again, have to do more besides just throwing money at a certain Black-ran or non-profit organizations. Like I said, it really goes back to, these companies need to bring on and hire people who are diverse in their backgrounds – and not just give them the entry level positions, but look at ‘em as a higher caliber candidate. Because again, people have different backgrounds, different cultures, and that’s when the best ideas are cultivated, when you have people from all around.
So it was unfortunate, but it’s a step in the right direction. I’m cautiously optimistic that things are gonna pan out, but it’s too early to tell, the way I see it. I wanna see what that change looks like years from now. Like, everything’s hot and bothered right now, but I do think that it was a perfect storm in the sense that, with COVID happening and this happening, there was no outside music. You couldn’t turn away from it. It was right in front of you every day. So I think the lord blessed us in a number of different ways, and that has really led to a lot of hopefully positive change that’s going to be a ripple effect for time to come.
WB: I really appreciate you answering that question, because I know that it’s not an easy thing to talk about. And I think your caution is fair, and it’s important to hear folks say stuff like that, because that’s what going to keep companies honest and accountable beyond just, “Well, we posted about it.”
OS: Yeah, like you said, it’s like, “Oh, we posted, check the box. Oh, we gave $50,000, check the box.” $50,000 is nothing. It needs to be hundreds of millions spent, if you look at it from the opposite side and all of the negative result of structural racism. I mean, that’s in the billions of what the damage has been done.
WB: Absolutely, absolutely. Ok, thank you for taking me through that. Do you have any advice for young Black professionals – or anybody that you want to speak to – about breaking into this industry?
OS: Just do it. A lot of people rule themselves out initially. One of the best pieces of advice that my parents ever gave me was, “Never tell yourself no. Let somebody else do that for you.” I’ve had a lot of people be like, “I just don’t know, maybe I don’t have the skills and I don’t know the ins and outs of the industry.” Don’t worry about that. You’re ruling yourself out. You are your worst enemy when you look in the mirror every day. The more confident that you are that – you know, maybe you don’t know it all. I didn’t know it all, but I knew I wanted to build something that would hopefully make an impact in this industry. So just go after it. This industry is so new, and people get intimidated by it because they see the revenue projections, they see how fast companies are scaling. And they think, “Man, there’s no way I can get in.” But people need to understand that this industry is still so much in its infancy. There’s so much room and runway for anyone to open up a business here. So I would just say do it. Know what you’re good at, and then apply that to the industry. But make sure you do it with passion and respect for the plant at the end of the day. If you’re looking to get into this to make a quick buck, don’t do it.
WB: That’s a great piece of advice. Ok, to bring it back to Tetragram, full circle: how can people download Tetragram?
OS: Tetragram’s available for both iOS and Android devices. If you’re an Apple user, go to the Apple Store. If you’re an Android user, you can always go to the Google Play store. And of course, follow us on Instagram and Facebook @TheTetragramApp. You can also use that to download the app, or go to the website which is TetragramApp.com.
WB: That was perfect, thank you! It was so great to talk to you.
OS: Ah, likewise!