Tyler Merrick knows entrepreneurship. He grew up around a small pet food business, Merrick Pet Care, which was established by his father, Garth Merrick, in their home. Eventually, he joined the family business. Then, in 2008, with everything he had learned from his family and an intention to do good, he started his own business: Project 7.
How Doing Good Began
When he established Project 7, Merrick thought he had a pretty good grasp on entrepreneurship. The Merrick pet food brand was built on the idea of making high-quality products out of the best and freshest ingredients. Basically, every product carried an ingredient list that everyone could understand.
Project 7 was founded with the same idea in mind, though it had nothing to do with pet food. Rather, it was all about candy. But this candy was unlike what consumers are used to seeing on store shelves.
Merrick wanted something different, something meaningful.
Project 7, based in San Clemente, California, is built on social entrepreneurship, or conscious capitalism. According to the company’s website, annual profits are used to “help support 7 areas of basic humanitarian need both domestically and abroad. We have a mandate to give a minimum of 10% of our profits annually but historically have been at 30%–50% of our profits.”
The idea was to create a sustainable giving model by creating a product people wanted. Then, the company could use the profits for doing good. The early days of Project 7 were fraught with challenges, and the sustainable giving model seemed just out of reach.
All In The Flavor
As Merrick began to develop his early product, namely an all-natural gum, he needed to find partners to carry it. He initially partnered with Whole Foods, but it wasn’t meant to be. Whole Foods made a single order, and that was it. Consumers weren’t connecting with Project 7’s gum because it didn’t taste good.
In the candy market, flavor is fundamental, and your product has to be spot on. People have expectations about how gum should taste, and you have to meet these expectations. Or better yet, exceed them. That’s the #1 thing that can make or break a product or a business. If you can’t satisfy customers, they’ll move on to the next thing, and you will fail.
Tyler Merrick failed. Whole Foods and others who had tried his gum didn’t hold back. They told him it was genuinely awful, which is something no business owner wants to hear. But this was the reality check Merrick needed.
Through this process, he also learned that this challenge isn’t uncommon. Every producer in the natural gum market has dealt with this. Flavor, it turns out — and, to a lesser extent, texture — is hard to get just right with gum made from all-natural ingredients.
“Everybody’s palate has been trained for high-intensity sweetener, long-lasting gum, and anything else is seen as inferior,” Merrick said when speaking with Forbes. He had a lot to contend with, but his mind was set on becoming a force for doing good in the social entrepreneurial space. He couldn’t give up.
Giving It Another Go
Merrick developed new products with flavors and colors that popped. He wanted to get people’s attention as they browsed the candy aisle at Target or scrolled through Amazon. And he wanted them to be impressed when they tasted Project 7’s products.
The new approach worked. Merrick was able to formulate products with flavors that people loved. It started with mint gum that tasted great and had lasting flavor. Then, he moved into other categories, creating organic sour ropes, lollipops, and sweet-and-spicy chews. Project 7 even developed a line of gourmet gummy bears. Its Brunch Club gummies, for example, included flavors like sparkling rosé, mimosa, and mojito mambo.
But as great as the products were, they weren’t the driving force behind the company. That was giving back. With the new products’ success, Merrick could turn his attention to his true passion: doing good. Perhaps not surprisingly, Project 7 focuses on giving back in 7 areas, and each area focuses on something different, like environmentalism, education, and medicine.
To accomplish their mission, Project 7 works with different organizations around the world that are doing good. For instance, to Feed the Hungry, they’ve helped donate over 4 million meals to food banks throughout the U.S. To Heal the Sick, they’ve worked with several nonprofits that provide medical assistance to communities in Africa struck with malaria. The list goes on and on.
There were a few bumps in the road to building Project 7, but Merrick persevered. He wanted to see his vision of social entrepreneurship and sustainable giving come to life, and he did! But it all started by making products consumers actually want to buy. By differentiating his brand, he cut into the market, and consumers responded. Now, Project 7 is able to spend millions of dollars each year just doing good.