Colin Fraser - Founder of Upling

Upling: A Purpose-Driven Cannabis Delivery App

Upling is a Black-owned cannabis delivery app currently serving dispensaries and medical cannabis patients in Maryland, Washington DC, and Jamaica, and is in the process of expanding into other markets. Increasing accessibility to much-needed medicine for cannabis patients by allowing them to easily place delivery orders from dispensaries in their area, the company also aims to provide a level of service and customization to their dispensary partners that larger SaaS (software-as-a-service) companies tend to stop short of.

A key part of Upling’s mission is to support the formerly incarcerated by providing employment opportunities within the legal cannabis industry for returning citizens. Upling’s founder, Colin Fraser, who himself was incarcerated due to cannabis-related convictions, aims to use Upling to address the repercussions of the war on drugs and systemic injustice and racism in the US carceral system. Fraser recently joined Ganjapreneur for a conversation about Upling’s trajectory from its launch to where it’s headed in the future, as well as his ongoing work supporting returning citizens, and why the cannabis industry should specifically create opportunities for those who were punished unjustly over the plant.

Early experiences with cannabis

Raised in a Christian household, Fraser says he was always warned about “The Devil’s Lettuce” – that’s how people in his church referred to cannabis when he was a kid. Growing up in the D.A.R.E. era, police officers would come to school and tell the students that they would never amount to anything or have any opportunities in life if they smoked marijuana. 

As he got older, Fraser was introduced to the fun and euphoria of cannabis consumption by his peers, but ultimately what captured his attention was the recognition of the plant as a potentially lucrative economic opportunity. It was a commodity that everyone wanted, so it had the power to generate wealth, and this revelation propelled him into the legacy market. Eventually, though, Fraser’s career took a dramatic turn when a deal escalated into violence, and he wound up being shot eight times. The aftermath was harrowing: he was taken to a hospital and wound up in a coma, and when he woke up three days later, he found himself in handcuffs.

Despite his critical condition, with his jaw wired shut from his injuries, he was forced to give a statement to the police as soon as they saw that he was conscious. Even though Fraser’s attackers were long gone, since there was cannabis involved, he was arrested and taken straight to jail where he wound up serving a two-year sentence.

When he got out of prison, Fraser found himself in a world where the laws that put him behind bars were being challenged by new state-level legalization initiatives – and he began to contemplate how to pursue the opportunities in the legalized cannabis industry that were becoming available.

From business concept to the app store

During the early stages of the COVID-19 pandemic, Fraser noticed the prevalence of delivery app services in his neighborhood, which sparked the question, “You can get your groceries delivered: I wonder if you can get your weed delivered?” This led him to discover that Maryland was offering a license for cannabis delivery services. After much research and preparation, he applied for it and was successful in obtaining the license. Around the same time, Fraser’s mother was diagnosed with stage four cancer, which highlighted the need for this type of service on a personal level – spurring him to move quickly in bringing his idea to reality.

Having grown up tinkering with computers, Fraser had the necessary knowledge of programming to put together a statement of work for a development project, and he sketched out the essential functions for the delivery app. He then collaborated with an agency to refine and build the platform, dedicating long hours to supervise the dev team to ensure the app met his standards and would exceed user expectations.

The next challenge was launching the app on the Google and Apple app stores, a process that required navigating their stringent policy guidelines. “That process involved a lot of education,” he says. Despite Apple rejecting his application eight times and threatening a permanent ban on resubmission, Fraser persisted. He researched strategies used by other developers to overcome similar hurdles and submitted detailed documentation, including standard operating procedures and a comprehensive analysis of the app’s code structure, to demonstrate compliance with app store policies. His perseverance paid off when the app was finally approved, marking a significant milestone in bringing his vision of a cannabis delivery service to fruition.

From prototype to clientele

In the initial phase of introducing Upling to potential clients, Fraser says he encountered tepid responses. Presentations of the app often resulted in a noncommittal “we’ll get back to you” rather than outright rejection, leading him to realize that a more deliberate strategy to generate interest was needed. 

He shifted focus towards networking within the industry, leveraging trade shows, conferences, speaking engagements, and pitch competitions as platforms to engage directly with key stakeholders. This approach gradually changed perceptions as he was able to connect in-person with decision makers, culminating in his first few clients, and eventually to dispensaries proactively reaching out to Upling to sign up.

Getting the dispensaries onboard was only the first half of the battle, however: patients still needed to use the app in order for it to generate value for his partners. At one point, Fraser says Upling saw several hundred new app downloads in a single day when METRC, the regulatory compliance system, experienced downtime. This disruption prevented in-store point-of-sale systems from processing transactions, whereas Upling remained operational, resulting in a surge of downloads from users seeking an alternative.

As Upling’s user base expanded, Fraser prioritized customer feedback in the development process, focusing on integrating features specifically requested by dispensary partners. This customer-driven approach was complemented by his proactive research into competitors’ weaknesses. By analyzing their negative reviews, Fraser aimed to learn from the shortcomings of other delivery platforms, ensuring that Upling offered a superior alternative.

Outperforming the competition

Fraser’s vision for the Upling platform is centered on autonomy and customization for dispensary partners, aiming to provide them with a solution that isn’t dependent on third-party platforms or API integrations for new features. Building for flexibility is more time-consuming and complicated, but he notes that not all dispensaries want to showcase their products in the same way, and that they should be able to control the shopping experience for their customers to build a more personalized relationship with them. Additionally, marketing tools within the app enable the promotion of deals and loyalty programs that can be customized to the dispensary’s preferences.

With the development of Upling 2.0, the app is set to introduce enhanced functionality, including more payment options and an integrated POS system that supports inventory management. For patients, the new version of Upling will improve the interaction with their delivery drivers, including in-app communication and tipping. Another new feature will be the ability for patients to obtain their medical certification directly within the app, a feature previously only available via the website.

Colin Fraser had the opportunity to meet with Maryland Gov. Wes Moore to discuss the importance of keeping legal cannabis open to returning citizens.

The importance of purpose

Being purpose-driven is a popular (and some would argue necessary) stance for successful cannabis industry players, and large brands are often featured in the news for contributing hefty donations to organizations that work to free those incarcerated for cannabis. For Fraser, however, it’s more than a stance: it’s a hands-on lifestyle that predates his decision to participate in the legal cannabis industry. 

After he got out of prison, Fraser says that he knew that he was kept alive for a specific reason. “I knew plenty of people who got shot once, who got grazed by a bullet once, and perished. For whatever reason, God kept me alive after eight bullets,” he says. Fraser felt that he had been saved to do God’s work, so he went into the prison ministry and worked for several years helping incarcerated people. This work solidified his understanding of the deep-rooted injustices within the criminal justice system, recognizing that the majority of incarcerated people are there because they made a singular mistake – one which they are unlikely to ever repeat, and which certainly doesn’t justify the degree of punishment they received.

In Fraser’s words, “the system is doing what it is supposed to do.” Systemic racism, while ingrained into the fabric of American society as a whole, is perhaps most obvious within the private prison industry–which profits from incarcerated labor as Black and brown people are arrested at disproportionate rates under laws that were established to specifically target their communities.

With his work in the prison ministry, Fraser says he was able to help incarcerated people cope with this reality and find hope within their faith. With Upling, he sees an opportunity to help returning citizens make the transition to gainful employment in an industry that wouldn’t even be possible without their sacrifice. He says that he hopes regulators–and the industry as a whole–will do more to recognize this often “unacknowledged demographic” and create specific opportunities for those who have been convicted under unjust cannabis laws.

Advice for cannabis founders

Fraser credits much of his success navigating the difficulties that come with starting a business in a highly competitive and volatile industry to having a loving and supportive marriage, as well as recognizing that he is ultimately serving a higher purpose. For those who are passionate about building an inclusive industry and working to counteract the longstanding injustices of America’s failed drug policies, Fraser recommends building a strong community with other organizers, activists, and like-minded entrepreneurs. He says it can be difficult to face constant rejection and have people question your value and legitimacy when starting out, but that persistence pays off. “When we first came onto the scene, they wouldn’t let us sit at their table,” he says. “So, we built our own.”


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