O Me of Little Faith

O Me of Little Faith


Tyler Merrick of Project 7

posted by Jason Boyett

I want to introduce you to a unique and relatively new company called Project 7, which sells consumer products (bottled water, gum, mints) — available nationwide in places like Caribou Coffee — and donates 50% of its profits to non-profit organizations. It sells stuff so it can do good. Project 7 was founded just two years ago, and is beginning to pick up steam. This year, the company is giving away its first $105,000 to organizations that fit within its seven categories of need: Heal the Sick, Save the Earth, House the Homeless, Feed the Hungry, Help Those in Need, Build the Future, and Hope for Peace.

You probably haven’t heard much about it, but you definitely will in the future. And by “future,” I mean right this instant.

First, though, a disclaimer: The founder, Tyler Merrick, and I have known each other for several years. We both hail from the Texas Panhandle. He was in charge of packaging design for his side of the family business, so we used to run in the same design/marketing circles. A couple of my friends and former co-workers ended up working for him at one point.

Also, I have a Project 7 “all causes” t-shirt that I love (it’s so soft!), my wife enjoys Project 7 sugar-free gum, and Tyler sent me some mints. They come in a test tube with a cork stopper, which is awesome.

There. I think that should cover any and all necessary disclaimers. Clearly I am slathered in bias.

Anyway, from time to time I like to pimp the products, businesses, and organizations I really believe in, and Tyler’s company is one of them. So I asked if I could interview him.

He said yes.

Jason: First, can you give us the quick-sell elevator pitch about Project 7? What is it and what do you do?

Merrick: We are a cause related business… A for-profit company that exists to support non-profits. We do this buy selling everyday consumer goods such as gum, mints, bio-bottled water and eco-friendly tees. We give 50% of our profits annually to non-profits making a difference in the seven most critical areas of need.

I know you took a big step a couple of years ago to start Project 7. Can you walk me through that process of leaving the family business and launching a very different new company?

I had moved back to the area that my wife and I had grown up in, surrounded by friends and family and going to church with all the same people. I’d had some good success at one of my family’s business divisions, growing it from $3 million to $45 million in five years. I belonged to the local country club, had the nicest cars, a “black” card, went on great trips, etc. Those things aren’t bad apart from each other, but I was using them — seeking them — to give me some kind of security apart from Christ. As if somehow they would assure me I’m “doing good” and this is the American dream.

Privately I was in the desert and finding myself asking the same question every week: Is this it? My wife and I were high school sweethearts. We had a very comfortable home. All of our family was in this area, I had a great job and a great church. It just all seemed very comfortable. I felt like a bird that had my wings clipped — and I had clipped them intentionally.

Little did I know, but my wife was having the same thoughts. One day as we both gained a little more confidence in it we talked and we realized we were in the same place. It felt so good to know neither of us were letting each other down. We each had our own things to wrestle with in this process, but that was part of God’s plan. Later that year God began to stir my heart about the possibillity of taking a step of faith — leaving the family business. For the next year, my wife prayed for God’s direction in this. We definitely had what I call “rubber band moments” in which were we bounced back to the place of comfort from the place of faith. There were days in that year that I didn’t want to do it, I didn’t want to leave. Something would rattle our cages and we found ourselves backing off.

During that year God gave me the vision for Project 7. I thought that it may be something we would do down the road. Our business had a senior management retreat where we would be discussing my personal transition path — a 5-year plan — into leading the overall business. On a Sunday night the week before this retreat I met with my father and shared my heart. He was very gracious. We talked about what the next steps might look like.

I’ll never forget coming home that night and feeling scared but so excited, like a lens of colors had opened up before me again. Reds, were really red and yellows were yellow I had never seen before. I felt like I could fly again. Not knowing where, but I felt ready to take the journey with my wife and family to see where God was leading us.

I’ve heard you describe yourself as a “social capitalist.” What does that mean?

When you have a business model that’s as new as ours at Project 7, you get a lot of assumptions. People think you’re a socialist, or a very liberal person, or whatever. I am quick to share with people that I am a capitalist. I believe in the principle of risking and investing in a dollar to gain a potential return on it. I just believe in using that skill set a little differently. I believe in using capitalism to help out others and a lot of those areas of need are socially related.

Capitalism is a good thing when used in the right way. That pretty much goes for everything… Moderation is what we are taught in Scripture. I just believe that instead of paying LeBron James a ridiculous amount of money to tell you that you should buy his signature line of shoes, why not use that money to help the widows, the orphans, or the hungry? I believe that’s what we’re called to do.

The idea of selling consumer goods in order to give back is a pretty unique one. How did it develop? Where did it come from?

Truthfully, it’s a formula I’ve been working on for about 6 years now, trying to figure out how to merge business with non-profit needs. I think it came from going to charity golf scrambles and banquets, year in and year out, and just wondering Can we do something to compliment these? I mean, sponsoring a golf hole is great, and silent auctions help. But this doesn’t need to be a once-a-year thing. What if we created a vehicle — a giving model — that allowed continual revenue streams for non-profits out there, just based on how and what we bought? Project 7 is the result of all those years and lots of scratch paper, napkins, midnight writing sessions, attorney and CPA meetings…and then realizing that wouldn’t work and starting all over again.

Your family business is Merrick Pet Foods, which has a very successful gourmet line. The road from selling gourmet dog food to Project 7 is probably not anyone’s idea of a typical business transition. How did your background at Merrick prepared you for what you’re doing now?

I’m thankful for my time there. It was like a 6-year MBA program. The experience in consumer goods and retail was priceless. Learning how to build distribution, create new products, and develop a brand was a catalyst in helping me seeing how I could launch Project 7. Sure, these are totally different selling environments — new buyers, new distributors — but I could at least use what I had learned there in this start up.

I think that part of the thing that contributed to the needs of Project 7 was just seeing sometimes how people sometimes can get carried away with their dog or cats. Occasionally I’d see customers show more concern about pet food donations to help rescued dog and cats than concern about a human life. It was much easier to adopt a dog or a cat than to help be part of rehabilitating a human being. The concern is right, but it’s just misplaced.

So at trade shows and on sales calls I would find myself gracefully introducing this kind of thought process into conversations. Like, “Yes, we need to look after our animals, but we need to take care of the human lives that are in peril as well. Let’s worry about the homeless, hungry children on the streets first.”

I think that’s when I began to see a bit of how there was a need to take these social issues that often are swept under the rug, and put them at the forefront of our packaging. Make them our brand and put them in the retail space. Like a call to “Feed the Hungry” in a coffee shop, “Heal the Sick” at a bookstore. You may have it good right now. You’re comfortable, but there are people hurting out there. We need your help, they need your help. It’s a conversation starter. I call our products “little messages” that are designed to interrupt your natural path during the day. Hopefully, they make you think about the needs of others while giving you a way to help.

—————

Check in tomorrow for part 2 of the interview, in which Tyler tells how he got Project 7 products picked up by Caribou Coffee, how he chose the seven categories of needs the company supports, and the shortcomings of consumerism-as-activism campaigns like the Bono-fied Product (Red).

Until then, change the score and go buy a cool Project 7 t-shirt. While you’re there, cast your vote for the non-profit finalists who will receive part of Project 7’s first $105,000 in donations.



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Comments read comments(6)
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Matt @ The Church of No People

posted January 27, 2010 at 4:20 pm


Great to hear about such a unique company. It'll be exciting to see where their momentum takes them!



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bondChristian

posted January 27, 2010 at 4:51 pm


I just tweeted this out. Nice job here. Loved the fairly in depth interview.I'm expecting to see quite a few more business set up like this soon. It's fantastic to see it starting out with a Christian perspective. Also, just the idea of a Christian doing something secular for others is an excellent example for non-believers.-Marshall Jones Jr.



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Scott

posted January 29, 2010 at 3:12 pm


It's too bad Merrick is too arrogant for his own good. His cockiness really detracts from the good he is trying to do. He is arrogant with customers, his employees, vendors and the media. I am a member of the media and have seen this firsthand while he was more than an hour late for a scheduled interview and then he acted like he was doing the media a favor.



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Jason Boyett

posted January 29, 2010 at 3:40 pm


Hey, Scott.First, thanks for commenting. I appreciate you stopping by.Second, it's pretty apparent that you've had some disappointing run-ins with Tyler Merrick. That's fine. I'm enough of a realist to know that not everyone gets along. However, this isn't the forum to complain about your personal problems with him. I won't delete your comment, but if you have issues with him then please take them up with him personally. Get in touch with him through his website. Not here.Third, I can't help but note that, in order to complain about someone else's cocky and arrogant behavior, you have hijacked a public forum to blast the guy publicly about what seems to be a private matter. I would classify that kind of behavior as, well, "cocky and arrogant."Kettle? This is Pot. You're black.



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Joel A White, MPA, SPHR

posted February 3, 2010 at 9:38 pm


Great interview, Jason. Having had the pleasure of working for (with) Tyler at one time, I remember I came away telling other people what a great head he had for marketing. (And yes, I told Tyler that as well at the time).Good use of those marketing instincts, Tyler. And by the way, you didn't get those instincts working at the family business…that was experience. Your instincts came with you (or from Him, whichever). Also, Jason. You handled the earlier comments from Scott very well. This is not the forum for it. BUT, since he brought it up……My interactions with Tyler was as a supplier of services….He was my client. And I never saw any arrogance, rather the opposite. (For full disclosure, I do not do business with Tyler (it was during his time at Merrick) and haven't spoken to him in quite some time). Jason, in case I missed it in the article, do you have any links to websites for the project? Thanks.



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Jason Boyett

posted February 3, 2010 at 10:30 pm


Thanks, Joel. Project 7's website is http://www.project7.com.



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