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 familyâ€™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 â€œblackâ€ 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 Iâ€™m â€œdoing goodâ€ 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 Godâ€™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 Godâ€™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 didnâ€™t want to do it, I didnâ€™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.
Iâ€™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 youâ€™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 weâ€™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 Iâ€™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 doesnâ€™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 wouldnâ€™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 thatâ€™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 â€œFeed the Hungryâ€ in a coffee shop, â€œHeal the Sickâ€ 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).