|Tyler Merrick, founder of Project 7. Photo provided.|
Tyler Merrick was in the pet food business before he got into gum and mints.
In fact, while working for the family business, Merrick Pet Care, he helped create a new line of products that “really took off.”
“It became the number one selling pet treat speciality, the number one selling pet food item in the U.S.,” he recalls.
But then, his conscience started nagging at him.
“When you’re selling medicine and California rolls to dogs and cats, you start to kind of go, ‘There’s dogs and cats eating better than people in my community,” Merrick explains. “So I began to just really wrestle with [that]. If we’ve been able to market to people from the Hamptons to Seattle, what if we could use that for good?”
And thus, the first seeds of Project 7 were planted. The company, which has had 15,000% growth since launching four years ago, was created with a mission in mind — to make a tangible impact on the world by donating to seven areas of need: Save the Earth; Feed the Hungry; Heal the Sick; Quench the Thirst; House the Homeless; Teach them Well; and Hope for Peace.
In the beginning, Merrick was planning to sell bottled water and then donate the proceeds to various causes. He used his connections with and knowledge of the pet food industry to get a meeting at Whole Foods in Austin, Texas.
“It was the height of Fiji and Evian five years ago,” he recalls. “I pitched them, and the buyer was like, ‘Get this water out of my face. I’m so tired of water.’ I knew enough to not just say, ‘Thank You’ and ‘Goodbye.’”
Instead, Merrick adapted to the situation.
“[The buyer] said, ‘But I like your concept,’ so I just said, ‘Well, you like the concept, what are you reviewing right now?, and he said, ‘Diapers, baby food and gum.’ I just said, ‘Well, we could do gum.’”
Merrick didn’t quite know what he was getting into by agreeing to create a product for Whole Foods, which enforces strict standards for everything it carries.
“We bit off more than we could chew, no pun intended,” he says. “I really had messed up, because not only was it hard to create a gum brand that fast, but to make it work for Whole Foods has its challenges. But we did it and he put it in nationally.”
In fact, it’s been exactly four years since Project 7 shipped its first order. While the company is still focused on charitable giving, they have evolved since the first launch at Whole Foods, when they offered only an all-natural gum.
“It’s so hard to make an [all-natural] product that’s palatable for the masses,” Merrick says. “[Buyers] would pull me aside and say, ‘Can I tell you something? Your gum is terrible.’”
And so, Project 7 eventually ended its relationship with Whole Foods and launched a new sugar-free version that wasn’t all all natural, but tasted better. Since then, Caribou Coffee, Target and Walmart and other retailers all have started carrying Project 7 products, which today also include mints, bottle water, coffee and clothing.
“We’re not big enough to run two formulas [of gum], to have a natural one for Whole Foods, and really it was an industry learning experience for us,” he explains. ‘Ninety-nine percent of the market share in gum was in sugar-free gum. We needed to be where the fish were.”
Of course, following the consumer is important for Project 7 for different reasons than most companies. Without customers, the donation program falls apart.
Since starting out four years ago, Project 7 has sold enough gum, candy, water and other items to plant 2.7 million trees, provide 19,860 nights of shelter, supply 37,658 people with one year of clean water, serve about 1 million meals in U.S. communities, fund 18,782 days of counseling, and pay for 16,540 weeks of education for people in need.
Project 7 is different from other companies that tout donations because they list specifics about what the money funds. So whereas a company might claim that 10% of profits are donated to support a cause, a pack of Project 7’s Feed the Hungry Peppermint Vanilla 15-ct. gum tells the consumer each tray provides 3 meals in American communities.
Merrick says finding non-profits work with is kind of like dating. When they first started out, they cast a big net, and then culled the list down and then did a round of vetting and interviews. After that came audits and financial paperwork.
“We tend to get married when we work with a non-profit,” he explains. “Now, entering our fifth year in 2013, we really have our guys in place and we make those programs even stronger year after year. It’s really neat, to see that partnership work itself out and really grow together.”
Once a relationship is in place, it can be a God-sent for the nonprofits that suddenly have a constant stream of revenue coming in.
“I [saw] all these nonprofits. I would go to their annual banquet, their golf outings and that was the only time of year we talked about their needs,” Merrick says. “I said, ‘Let’s build a brand that talking about their needs everyday of the week.’”
The goal is to make a product that anyone, from teenagers to senior citizens, can pick up at the store and feel good about.
“We say this over and over again to people, ‘Everybody is part of our success,’” Merrick says. “We can make up this company, but if the retailer doesn’t bring it on, it doesn’t matter. If the end user doesn’t buy it, it doesn’t matter. It’s a whole group effort. It’s not just us, we just had the idea.”
Lucky for everybody, it turned out to be a pretty good idea.