Making Low Sugar Candy a Force for Good with Tyler Merrick of Project 7
When you want to make a positive impact on the world, where do you start? The first two questions you should ask yourself are what are you passionate about and what are you good at? Somewhere in between those answers is where many people discover their life’s work and purpose.
Sometimes it takes us a while to even ask ourselves those questions, let alone answer them and muster up the courage to take action. Discovering your purpose must feel akin to stumbling upon a unicorn grazing in a meadow full of wild flowers. But even fairytales have twists and turns. The road to realizing your potential as a force for good sometimes travels through unexpected places, but those unique experiences help you hone in on your mission, chart a more efficient path, and leave a map that others can follow and be met with less resistance.
When Tyler Merrick embarked on this journey for himself, he already had a successful business. It wasn’t money or achievement that drove him to reconsider his work, it was the desire to not just support causes that were important to him, but to help others discover a unique way to make the world better, too. From that idea, Project 7 was born. The name itself is a nod to Tyler’s ambitious goal of helping to fund seven critical areas of need: hunger, clean drinking water, shelter, health, education, the environment and peace. Certainly, anything is possible with a lot of hard work and a dash of magic.
From the beginning, Project 7’s mission remained the heart of the business. In this interview, Tyler candidly shares that his vehicle for delivering goodness to the world has needed a few tune-ups along the way. But through the brand’s evolution and learnings, his team has developed a line of products that could not make it easier to support areas of need. In 2020, Project 7 launched its low sugar, low carb, plant-based and keto-friendly Gummy Bears made with natural flavors and colors. The products were extremely well received, winning NOSH’s Best New Products award. They also complemented a few of the brand's already low and no sugar offerings: Golli Lolli’s, Naturally Sweetened Gum and Fun Gum.
Now, early into 2021, the brand has released their next big breakthrough innovation: low sugar, low carb, plant-based and keto-friendly Sour Worms made with natural flavors and colors. And might I say, they are absolutely delicious. I reached out to Tyler to see if he would be willing to share the story of how he’s made candy a force for good. I hope this inspires others to find a way to make their own positive impact on the world.
Project 7 has been through a few iterations of products, from water and snacks to gum and candy, but you’ve always maintained the same mission. Can you talk about your mission and what inspired it?
I just wanted to find a vehicle to help make an impact, and I think looking back the heart was right but I didn’t take the best approach. I was too opportunistic in making various products for retailers that ended up becoming a very random mix versus being more strategic with a product focus. The original inspiration for Project 7 was to follow in the footsteps of a great brand like Newman’s Own. What we did differently was make each product support one cause, so people could choose which cause they wanted to support.
I had seen the power of consumer goods when I worked for my family's pet food business and started a natural pet food brand. I imagined, what if we could harness the power of repeat consumption and take a percentage of that and put it towards particular philanthropic efforts? Could that compliment regular giving that people do for causes they care about? A way businesses could marry purpose and passion.
For a brand that might want to start supporting charities or donating to areas of need, how do you navigate that?
This is more about what not to do than what to do. I would say focus on just one area. I made the mistake of picking seven, and that was to give options for people to pick the causes they wanted to support. However, it's really hard to do all of them well and it's hard to get your mission across quickly in an elevator pitch. Focus on one thing you want to support and if you can, make it complement your product. If you have a skincare line, it could be a bit disconnected or strange if the line supports a dog charity. You might be passionate about helping dogs and that is great, but maybe don’t marry it with your brand. Just run a really good business and personally give directly or behind-the-scenes as a business to that charity. If you just slap it on it can feel disingenuous or seem like greenwashing.
You’ve recently pivoted to focus on low sugar, plant-based candy. When did you recognize the opportunity in the market, and what was the process like when you decided to make that change?
About three or four years ago I started getting feedback from industry mentors when we presented our organic line of candy items. They would ask, is it really better for you? I would say yes, it doesn’t have all the artificial stuff, it's organic and it's cleaner. But they would push back and say that it’s still the same sugar, carbs and calories as conventional candy. After some time, in the background we started working on what truly better for you candy would be if we did it not just low sugar, but also low carb. We spent two and half years on it and came to market with it for the first time in February of 2020, right at the beginning of Covid.
I made the decision early into 2020 that we could not be a brand that had full sugar and low sugar, and that we weren’t big enough to make it just a line extension. So, I made the commitment to our new line. I went to each customer and asked them to make the switch with us from the old to the new. Every single one of them did it with the exception of one. I discontinued the rest of the old line that was more established and went all in on our new path.
That’s exciting. And now almost a year later you’ve just launched your new Sour Worms! Congrats! Can you talk about how you develop new candy, starting with the ideation process?
We think about what we want to eat ourselves, what the market wants to treat themselves with, and what the data says. Then we ask, can we make a new and improved version of this? Can we make a formula? Can we find a good co-man? What would be its limits? Then we start playing around with it in the lab to see what things could look like, taste like and what the macros would be. From there we might commission twelve different flavors or more for a particular product or form. Then we start tasting to see which ones have the best potential in the recipe and which ones we like but need some tweaking. We just keep pairing things down until ultimately we are ready to run line trials.
As someone who’s been an entrepreneur for many years, what advice would you give to a startup founder today?
Build an item for online. Don’t give up on building it in brick and mortar, but so many purchasing habits have shifted as we all know, and especially with Covid. Build something strong for omnichannel, but build a strong story online. Retailers will like that story as well. Don’t launch a ton of SKUs. Focus on a couple and get scale and proof of concept there. This has been a mistake I have made many times.
I hear a lot of people talk about the 1% better every day mindset. Do you have a particular mindset, method or motto that helps you through the day-to-day of running a business?
For me it's to remember that the highs are not so high and the lows are not so low. Don’t get wrapped up and find your identity in an email you got from a buyer accepting your items, or a sales report where you had good results, just as much as when you get an email that your items were not selected by a retailer or you had a bad week of sales. You are truly running a marathon, and while some of those things over a period of time will be helpful in making decisions that are important to the brand, don’t react to them too emotionally.
As a founder, it's hard not to find your identity in your business. If it's doing good, you’re good and if it's doing bad you suck. My identity is not in my business and I literally have to say that everyday. My identity is in my faith first and foremost, and then as a husband and father. I love my work but it’s better to learn this lesson early. It’s a mistake I made and everyone has to go through it, it's just a matter of you deciding how many times.
Looking back on the last year or so, what has been the best business decision you’ve made?
The decision to focus on our new platform as a brand around truly better for you candy made with low sugar, low carb, plant based recipes. The focus has been life giving not only for me but for my team. They know where we are going. It’s a scary commitment to give up a known for an unknown, but we are all on board for this. We took a long time to process this. I have peace, I’m hopeful and excited.
Looking forward, what excites you about the future of your business?
I love that we are truly making a candy that hasn’t been made before and helps so many people make better decisions across diets and lifestyles. We have 3 grams of sugar if you are just trying to cut back sugar but want candy, we have only 6 net carbs if that is important to you for a keto or low carb lifestyle, and we have just 60 calories per bag which is just crazy to think about. That is awesome if you’re trying to hit certain goals daily. Finally, we are doing it all via plant based recipes, which is really exciting.
Lastly, you have to be a bit of a kid at heart to work in the candy business. What makes you feel like a kid again?
You totally have to be with a candy brand! It's so much fun. I would say watching others enjoy our candy for the first or tenth time and getting so excited about it and loving it. They can eat candy again, they don’t feel bad about having a bag, and they're just blown away that it's so low in sugar, calories, etc. I love my job for that reason, and I love getting to create and imagine with my team and our customers.
A non-work example is that I have an electric bike and my house isn't far from my office, so I love riding it to work a couple of times a week. Going through neighborhoods and up and down hills makes me smile and feel like a kid again. I also play pickleball with a group of guys every week and we have a blast with one another just being guys, competing, talking trash, etc. It's important to have fun.
That’s a wrap!
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