The attitude toward marijuana in the United States and elsewhere has clearly undergone a massive transformation in recent years. Marijuana is currently legalized in some form in 26 states, and November’s election saw three more states (Massachusetts, Nevada and Maine) pass measures that will bring that number up to 29 when the new laws go into effect. Eight of those states have legalized recreational use of marijuana. (The District of Columbia has also legalized recreational marijuana, but the commercial selling of marijuana has been blocked by the U.S. Congress).
As perceptions about marijuana use have shifted, so has the way people consume it. The stereotypical “stoner” conjures images of bongs taller than a toddler and joints thicker than a cigar. But as marijuana legalization becomes the norm, the illicit thrill of consumption (and overconsumption) will likely dissipate and be replaced by a more mature approach.
That is what Firefly founder and CEO Mark Williams is anticipating. Williams and his partner Sasha Robinson developed their Firefly vaporizers (the Firefly 2 recently launched) for a more considered approach to pot. While the typical bong is more akin to a beer funnel, the Firefly vaporizer feels like the Baccarat crystal wine glass. While Williams and Robinson conceived the idea for the Firefly at Burning Man, the design is more informed by Williams’s previous career as a designer for Apple. Apple’s iPod wasn’t the first mp3 player, but gained widespread adoption because it was the most elegantly designed and user-friendly. Williams is bringing that same ethos to Firefly.
Like most tech startup founders, Williams talks frequently about “use cases.” The only difference is that he’s referring to the way people consume pot. The Firefly 2 uses convection-based heat as opposed to the conduction heat of traditional vaporizers, which allows users to take just a couple of puffs instead and not compromise the quality of their pot. Like Apple products, the Firefly 2 also has a hefty price tag (it retails for $329.95).
We spoke with Williams about why he left a career at a company most people would die to work for to get into the weed business, his best Steve Jobs story and how the Firefly is like an Italian sports car.
What made you want to start a vaporizer company?
Well, I love making products, and I love cannabis. About seven years ago, I tried one of the only vaporizers that was out at the time, called the Volcano. While the product experience itself was super clunky and hilarious, enjoying cannabis vapor as opposed to smoke was a revelation. As product people, my partner Sasha Robinson and I said “Hey, we can make a product that’s a lot more consumer friendly.” How hard can it be? Boy, were we wrong.
What did you think you could bring to vaporizers?
Building products was my life for 25 years leading up to this. I spent the years prior to Firefly at Apple leading a UI design team for Mac OS X. Prior to that, I had led design teams in software and hardware around Silicon Valley for my entire career. But it all started with my first business. When I was 20 years old, I designed ceramic bongs just to make a little extra money. I bought my first car with money from that first business. Those ceramic bongs weren’t designed for ridiculous overconsumption. They were designed for a really comfortable hit. Then I went down the tech career path. I got a masters degree, and thought that cannabis was just a hobby of mine. But the Firefly 1 and 2 both use high-tech ceramics. So 28 years after the fact, it’s basically an extension of what I was doing when I was 20, which was using ceramics to create a nice cannabis experience for people.
Has there been pivot to saying that Firefly is a cannabis product, as opposed to the old charade of saying it’s for tobacco?
Yes. It’s taken awhile for everybody in the industry. There’s still some waffling. But when I use cannabis in California, I’m using it legally within the state of California, plain and simple. While people are concerned about Jeff Sessions—I think rightly so—unless he has budget and new guidance, he is enforcing the law the same way that the Justice Department was in the Obama days. I’m cautiously optimistic. If Snoop Dogg’s cheap plastic vaporizers with pot leaves on everything are not getting stopped by Customs, then it’s highly unlikely that ours would.
Did you start Firefly as a passion project or because you saw a business opportunity? I got into it as a passion project. My partner and I really wanted this thing for ourselves most of all. We had enough money where we could fund it ourselves. We also had the technical wherewithal. You can go into things that naturally turn into a business rather naively. I certainly think that we did. That passion remains and has only deepened as my understanding has deepened about not just the plant, but vaporization chemistry and thermodynamics. We’ve learned to operate the business. We’ve always been organically profitable and we’ve never taken investment. That is a part of the journey that I didn’t expect to be as big a deal as it was.
How did your experience at Apple impact your approach to designing the Firefly?
I was there for five-and-a-half years. The level of dialog around every single design decision is phenomenal. There was a deep organizational intelligence, and then there was just incredibly smart people everywhere. We would get in rooms and hash out design details of everything. My bar of what I considered thoughtful design got lifted up so much higher.
Any good Steve Jobs stories?
Yes. This one would seem innocuous, but there’s a lot of media that portrays Steve as horrible with employees or terrible with families. The memory of Steve that I take more than anything is that my wife, who also worked at Apple, and I had my kids with us visiting for the day. We were eating lunch in the cafeteria. My son, who was three at the time, was toddling around doing cute stuff, and Steve was right next to us because he ate with everyone quite often. He’s sitting there on the main campus, looking at us play, and cracking up at the stuff my son was doing. When I left to go back to work, he said “Hey Mark, your family looks really wonderful. It’s nice that you brought them here.” I’d like to share that to make sure that people know a warm story about him.
Technically, what separates Firefly from others vaporizers are available? The [cannabis] plant has hundreds of things in it that all vaporize at different temperatures. We designed our heating technology so that as you’re going up the scale, you’re vaporizing everything right in time. You inhale stuff right as it vaporizes, which keeps it freshest. Secondarily, we designed the product around the user experience. That means making it really easy to load and clean. Then the engineering followed that. That is somewhat of a backwards way to do engineering, but it’s more the way Apple does it. Apple establishes the vision of what the customer experience is going to be first and then the technology has to catch up. No other vaporizer has technology like ours. Most vaporizers use conduction heat, meaning they have a receptacle, a little bowl, that’s wrapped with a heating element. That heats the whole thing the way you would a pot on a stove. It cooks everything at the same temperature and it’s sort of slow because you’ve got to heat up the whole thing and that takes a lot of energy. It treats the plant crudely. They only really work if you pack them full. So what if you only wanted to take one or two puffs, which nowadays is a super frequent use case? With a conduction-based vaporizer, there’s this subtle, psychological implication that you’re supposed to finish [the whole bowl]. If you only take two puffs and then turn it on two hours later, it doesn’t taste the same. It has a burnt popcorn taste. The Firefly is a convection vaporizer. We don’t heat the material until you suck hot air through it. You’re only putting as much heat as you need to get a puff. This enables a fundamentally different use model, which is one puff at a time. Each puff is more intentional. We think that’s a good thing. [Marijuana] is a thing that changes your headspace. For anything that does that, I think the right approach is to be very intentional and thoughtful.
What was the design inspiration behind the Firefly?
The Firefly 1 and the Firefly 2 are a little different. I’d say the Firefly 1 is more a fulfillment of my teenage aesthetic ambitions. I thought I wanted to be a car designer. The car that I thought was the most beautiful was the Alfa Romeo Spyder. The Firefly 1 was designed to bring that sleekness and feeling. We were looking to displace the model of stuff looking like paraphernalia. Why not take really high-end Italian design and bring that to the experience? For the Firefly 2, we tried to keep the things that were most important, which was having a direct connection with the material by seeing it. Too many things are little black boxes that have some blinky lights on them. It could be a remote control, it could be a vaporizer, it could be a garage door opener. They don’t have a connection to the real world, the analog world. We wanted something that combined digital control and design with an analog experience.
How big has the vape business become?
The flower-based industry that the Firefly resides in is certainly over $100 million a year size, probably closer to $200. That’s an estimate, but it’s a reasonable estimate. If you count the little pens that are a re-use of e-cigarette technology, then the size of the market gets a lot bigger. That’s when you get into selling the device with product inside of it. We don’t do that now. That’s clearly where a lot of the market is going. To anticipate some of your other questions, we’re going there as well. We are reinventing heating technology from the heating element out. We’re not a relabeler where we just take something that you buy at a factory and put your brand on it.
Who is the Firefly customer?
A Firefly customer is somebody who really appreciates the plant because they spent enough money to get the best plant experience they can get. That means flavor, flexibility in how they use it and it means getting the most out of the plant. Our customers are not a bunch of 20-year-old guys sitting around getting super high. These are working professionals, white and blue collar, who want the best. They’re holding down jobs or businesses that are paying pretty decent incomes, which would suggest that they’ve integrated cannabis into their lives in a way that has not jeopardized that. The interesting challenge for the business going forward is to grow our customer base with products at different price points that still deliver quality and thoughtfulness, but opening it up to people that can’t afford a $330 vaporizer.