Mobile gaming pioneer Josh Hernandez on taking his talents to the pot platform

“During the earliest days of Chicago’s tech boom,” explains serial entrepreneur Josh Hernandez, “right before Techstars and 1871, “there was a loud call from the entrepreneurs on the ground for more resources and opportunities.”

Same as it ever was, which is why Grown In and 1871 today kick off the Cannabis Innovation Lab for 2024. But more on that later… 

In the meantime, Hernandez, who raised millions a decade ago for pioneering mobile gaming advertising platform TapMe, today sees high-growth opportunity in the most analog of industries – growing beautiful cannabis plants for orchid-like decorative displays on offer at HouseHemp.Shop.

Pretty stoney stuff…

In this week’s Careers in Cannabis, we dive deeply into the realms of decorative hemp and how Hernandez incorporates house music, retail experience selling computers and Microcenter, and the wisdom and energy derived from the Puerto Rican sun to cultivate his current commercial venture. 

I find this to be a wonderful moment where it all comes together. 

Grown In: After an accomplished career in digital media and venture capital, you decided to take your talents to the decorative cannabis and hemp arena. What inspired the transition?

Josh Hernandez: Well, during the pandemic, after my plans to expand my electronic music dreams to South America were grounded, I was introduced to the medical cannabis industry, or more specifically, the grow-at-home movement, as I took it upon myself to grow my own medicine. Years of grinding and touring had taken a toll, so I dove in. 

Right before that, in October of 2018, I visited Puerto Rico to bring my Mom back home, as she had been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s and Dementia. During that visit, one of my cousin’s husbands showed me some very creative high-stress training he was applying to the plants to keep them low and hard to detect. 

Picture after picture, my jaw dropped further as I saw pure works of art that even melted the hearts of our non-smoking, very religious, but plant-loving aunties. Stems wrapping around pots and vases, trained to vine along the floor in the tropical Puerto Rican sun. 

Right then, I told him that this was a business of the future. 

A few years later, with more time on my hands than ever, I was inspired to pursue it right here in Chicago. After practicing and strategizing around go-to-market and genetics, we took the full dive in September 2023 and launched, the world’s first decorative hemp marketplace.

Grown In: What skills and networks derived from your previous roles do you incorporate in your work today?

Josh Hernandez: I find this to be a wonderful moment where it all comes together. Tech, music business, and even my early retail experience at Microcenter in the 90s all come to bear. 

Expertise in digital marketing, product innovation, trend spotting, and the care of working with demanding artists and producers to deliver seasonal products to market. It’s all here. As a serial entrepreneur who can do soup to nuts, understanding community development, content marketing, customer relationships, and knowing how to build tools and apps rapidly for testing is key to moving quickly in this evolving market. 

I am trying to create a new vertical here, so I’ll go back to cleaning the floors like I did at my first job at a sub shop called Mangino’s in the Loop. Being able to put together some killer House music parties with artists I helped in the past, where we feature our plants, is a personal goal. House Hemp, House Music – how can it go wrong?

Grown In: Compare today’s cannabis industry to the early days of mobile gaming?

Josh Hernandez: You know that classic question, ‘What would I do differently if I could go back in time?’ This feels like that. During the earliest days of Chicago’s tech boom, right before TechStars and 1871, there was a loud call from the entrepreneurs on the ground for more resources and opportunities. 

Those who forged relationships and created resources back then are the foundation of today’s burgeoning tech scene, pivotal to our status as a World Class city for tech entrepreneurship. So, as I emerged to understand my industry, I feel like I vaporized out of thin air with young Arnold Schwarzenegger’s physique, knowing what’s coming for the fledgling cannabis industry in Illinois. 

An onslaught of industry resources, a constant battleground for the best talent, unhealthy amounts of capital, and opportunity. Mobile games back then didn’t have much competition, were highly experimental, and for me, was a fun way to break into the games industry. Big players let the market segment form naturally, then once hits, key players, and critical tech became more predictable, the big money and attention flooded in. Indies became giants, and now, everyone wants to be that first mover. 

Many looked to companies like Zynga who sneaked in under a wave of new game design centered around social aspects. Games like Farmville had Grandmas playing for HOURS. This is how the current craft movement in cannabis feels, and I see Decorative Hemp akin to that hidden genre of Social Mobile Games – a genre being born that will bring in unlikely customers who don’t even need to consume the product to be informed fanatics of it.

Grown In: Where do you see the most interesting professional opportunities within the commercial cannabis industry?

Josh Hernandez: I think customer loyalty is where the biggest opportunities lie. Being able to build a long and genuine relationship that transcends trends like product and marketing gimmicks is key to something as important as your hairstylist, personal coach, bodyman, dentist, florist, doctor. You get it. Customers want to be loved, guided, surprised, and delighted, not just marketed to. 

In a sea of psychedelic brands and packaging, touch is key. 

This will also help solve for packaging waste, connect disjointed loyalty systems, and make an impact in the community where you draw your customers from. OWN YOUR CUSTOMER RELATIONSHIP. They count on us to lead.

Grown In: How large of a market is decorative cannabis and hemp and what other companies and organizations do you envision entering the space in the years ahead? 

Josh Hernandez: The decorative cannabis and hemp market does not yet exist. It’s not a blue ocean, nor a sea of green. I like to call this the first green ocean. 

At minimum, we are targeting parity with other ornamental flower standouts like Orchids, which is a $303 million dollar industry – ROOKIE NUMBERS! 

Indoor flowers are estimated to be a $17.2 billion market in 2022, and this is pre-decorative hemp. Imagine a movement where rabid GenX Grandmas battle Gen Z Solarpunks for the coolest-looking flowers they can find. I estimate decorative hemp will become a significant part of this total, perhaps stunting the growth of some mainstays as hemp will have pent-up demand and more market penetration due to the parent industry. 

Over the next decade, established breeders will have entire lines of decorative-only genetics, and there will be breeders who don’t even participate in the general cannabis industry. Gen Z will lead the charge, adopting hemp in their lives in ways their hippie grandparents would be proud of. Decorative hemp will be a gateway to the garden, giving new passion to a generation increasingly reliant on automation and in need of toil to soothe the soul. A plant that is both easy to learn but hard to master will discover the green thumbs among us and become a pillar to the growing SolarPunk movement of our generation. 

Although growing decorative strains for the best breeders and brands in the industry is a big part of our initial business model, I see every major cannabis producer having and supplying living product to their local retail. In fact, I believe this so much that we know we have to lead this. Being a first mover comes with great opportunity. Now with this opportunity comes great responsibility.

We need to be proactive, and to that effect, alongside building our business, we are also laying the foundation for the Decorative Hemp & Cannabis Association. The DHCA will set the standards, write bylaws, hold caucuses, give awards, fund research, and be the harbinger of decorative hemp and cannabis to the world. We will support and grow the new vertical and all of its branches. And once the Nation has given birth to Decorative Hemp, we go global.

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Brad Spirrison is a journalist, serial entrepreneur and media ecologist. He lives in Chicago with his son. Interests include music, meditation and Miles Davis.