Apohaqui — From his converted office in a former barn, Andrew McKinley looks out the window and stares at the Kennebecasis River as his mind goes to work.
“Let me think. ‘Entrepreneur blazes new trail.’ How’s that? It comes natural to me,” he says with air quotes and a wink.
McKinley is one of Canada’s latest entrepreneurs capitalizing on the soon-to-be-legalized marijuana industry in Canada. But McKinley is not selling herb. He’s selling Werdz.
“In a nutshell, Werdz is a consulting firm for creative summative interaction design. Lately, there has been a boom in the marijuana genre.”
McKinley writes clever headlines for blogs and news organizations. His latest specialty is pot puns. With the recent wave of cannabis legalization in North America, McKinley estimates that 75 percent of his work today is pot-based. “We have seen exponential growth this quarter,” he says to a crowd of reporters.
The 23-year-old Apohaqui native is hosting local media on a tour of his recently expanded office space. We enter a conference room with examples of his work sprawled across a drafting table. One reads: “Break-in at medical marijuana facility goes up in smoke.”
“With this project, we wanted to go beyond basic stereotypes,” McKinley tells us. “I said to my team, ‘Marijuana isn’t just about getting high. What else does it produce?’ That’s when one of our writers said ‘Smoke!’ It was a perfect fit.”
With a team of 10 writers, the firm works with clients such as Gawker and The Huffington Post – websites that have blurred the line between journalism and entertainment.
“I wouldn’t call our work click bait,” McKinley argues. “We design social interactive experiences in a nano-blog format for ubiquitous mass consumption.”
I ask him to expand using real words. “Social media feeds are flooded with content. We make our clients stand out and give the reader an experience that challenges preconceptions about marijuana and other controversial topics.”
Another headline on the drafting table reads: “Can you get through this post without becoming sexually attracted to cheese?”
McKinley got his start at Upworthy, a content stealer/aggregator that writes new headlines for old content they don’t own. “I had just typed yet another headline that said ‘what happens next will shock you,’” McKinley recalls. “Tired and drowsy, I kept pushing the period key. Those extra dots gave new life to an old trope. I think the ellipses triggers the reader’s mind to imagine a world of possibilities — it gives them hope that after clicking they will see something inspiring or at least some cleavage. That’s when I knew I had a real talent. I incorporated Werdz the next day.”
Werdz Consulting opened its doors in 2014. With the pot-pun boom, the firm grew its staff from one to a dozen and built a bigger office thanks to a $35-million forgivable loan from the New Brunswick Innovation Fund.
“With their generous support, we were able to save this historic cattle barn from demolition. Now it’s the centre for something really interesting.”
McKinley hired Farris Architecture from Vancouver to convert the barn, which previously housed Hereford beef, into a Silicon Valley-style office and to do something about the smell. “This is all reclaimed barn wood,” says architect Leah Farris during the tour. “Even the new additions are reclaimed barn wood. In my experience, I have found it to be the highest quality wood. Structurally, it’s poor, but aesthetically there is nothing comparable.”
McKinley is gleeful with the result. “I picked Leah because she understood what we’re trying to do here. This restoration wasn’t about making a cool office; this is about re-imagining the possibilities. It’s about creating opportunities in this region. It’s about changing the narrative for New Brunswick.”
McKinley went on to include flipping the script, elevating the conversation, knocking down barriers, leveraging our talents and several other incoherent expressions in his explanation. The Manatee could not capture them all before press time.