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Yesterday I posted Part 1 of an interview with Tyler Merrick, the founder of Project 7, a for-profit company which donates half of what it makes to organizations working in seven distinct areas 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. We discussed “social capitalism” and the path from helping run a very successful family business to taking a big risk with this new venture.
Here’s the second part of the interview:
Jason: Tell me about the seven areas of need you give grants to. Why did you choose those? Are there other categories you considered that didn’t make the cut?
Merrick: They were originally based off of the seven deadly sins — very loosely based, as the earth/creation care focus isn’t part of the original 7 sins. But instead of focusing on trying to abstain from gluttony, what if you focused on serving someone who was starving? If we have a glutton and a starving person in the same room then we just have a distribution problem. So in getting the focus off ourselves, we grow and help others who are in need as a result of our gluttony to begin with.
Along with that, I always think of the old adage: Give a man a fish, feed him today. Teach a man how to fish, feed him for life. Teach that man how to take care of the place where he fishes for the next generation. We are investing in non-profits that have needs that are “today.” They need to feed, clothe, provide medicine to someone in need right now. But we are also investing in non-profits and a model that teaches people how to “fish” and break the cycle of poverty in their village or community. We are teaching about creation care, as we have been put in place to steward the earth. We’re called to take care of it and when we do that we’re investing in the next generation.
Some critics point to consumerism-as-activism campaigns like (Product) Red as failures, because they’re much less efficient than direct charitable giving. I’m thinking of the Buy (Less) Crap! campaign, which is hilarious but also makes a thoughtful point that shopping isn’t a reasonable response to human suffering. What’s your response to that kind of criticism? Did it inform your “social capitalism” philosophy as you dreamed up Project 7?
That’s a great question and perspective. It’s pretty simple for us. Project 7 is not an end-all/be-all to human suffering. It is, however, part of recognizing that suffering — and then providing a way for people to help respond to it. Buying our product is just what we call Phase 1. We want people to go from there to Phase 2, which is the next step: learning about the social issues, giving to organizations making a difference in the areas of need you are passionate about — you go beyond buying something to be “cool.” Then, Phase 3 is a person who has graduated into a place that they want to do more. They want to volunteer monthly in one of these areas of need. They want to go on a local or overseas mission trip or mentor a child in need.
Buying more crap isn’t the answer, but changing how we buy can definitely help. Hopefully we are a conversation starter. We hope to be a “match” for people to use to get a fire going.
For what it’s worth, these social needs really need response from three areas, and I think guys like Rick Warren have done a good job of identifying those. It takes a combination of 1) churches or non-profits, 2) the government, 3) the private sector. I really believe that it takes these various parts to make our part a reality. You can’t get the aid into Haiti like we have seen these past weeks without some social order like the UN, or a government like the US sending troops and military assets and a floating hospital. The private sector can’t do that. However, the private sector can donate money, time, and resources that compliment the Government assets. In addition to that, it takes the non-profits that act as a conduit and most often already have “works” on the ground in that country to help facilitate the needs. They have the relationships that others don’t have, and they’ll be there after the government is gone.
Honestly, I believe there is no silver bullet to human suffering except Jesus Christ. Plain and simple. Until the King of Kings returns we are left to do what He has called us to be: the Church. The church is not just a building. It’s the gospel lived out in the community, in the world. A building is a place to gather together but we’re called to be out in the thick of it. Salt and light.
One of your big wins the past year was getting your products into Caribou Coffee. How did that happen?
It was a flat-out cold call over a year ago. I had seen a Caribou Coffee for the first time in the Minneapolis Airport about seven years ago on another business trip. It was like a spotlight shined on it. It stayed in the back of mind for some reason. When I started Project 7, it’s like it was brought from back of the file cabinet in my mind to front and center. I called them, they weren’t interested, I called, they weren’t interested. I sent product, they weren’t interested. Then one day they called and said “We’re interested.”
I was shocked. I flew up to Minneapolis and started what was about a 10-month process of discussions and negotiations. We were going up against Coke and so we were this tiny little no-name start-up. Caribou was the 2nd largest coffee company in the USA, with 550 stores focused mainly in the Midwest. They are publicly traded, and businesses like that have many more reasons not to go with someone like us when Coke is sitting across the table and can make it worth their while. It was the classic David vs. Goliath.
But before all was said and done, not only were we given all their bottled water business but they had a line of Caribou-Branded gum and mints — like you see at places like Starbucks — and they dropped them in place of stocking our gum and mints. We signed a multi-year agreement and we started distribution in July of 2009. They have been great.
Tell me about Project 7 Days. How did that develop and what kinds of volunteering do you do?
Project 7 Days is an idea I had when we first started. Here we were doing this business, but we needed to be reminded why we do what we do. So the thought was, what if on the 7th of every month we took a day and closed the office to go volunteer in the Dallas-Fort Worth market in one of these seven areas of need — food banks, family shelters, Big Brother/Big Sister, Assisted Living, etc.
So we have taken this idea and will be kicking off seven local Project 7 Days chapters this spring with a seven-month, seven-city tour of Cari
bou’s key markets around the country. We will start in March in Atlanta, where we’ll work with all of the Caribou Cafes for a weekend, doing various planned volunteer activities in their community with Caribou employees. We’ll also invite their customers to participate.
We then leave that local Atlanta chapter in place and give them the tools to have a local 7 Day every month thereafter in Atlanta. We then log all of our efforts and see how much we can do together and get involved in our communities. It’s a decentralized method of getting people in a community together for a certain effort and see how they can be a part of reaching out and helping their community.
We’ll start these chapters on college campuses and other cities as requests and needs come about. It’s just a way to take a day of the month and put a focus on volunteering. We’re not legalistic in the sense that it doesn’t have to be the 7th if it falls on a day when the group can’t do it. But it’s the idea of it, and if you can do it on the 7th, great.
What’s in the future for P7? Anything big coming up?
We have some new retailers we’ll be going into in 2010, so we’re excited about that..
We have our first giveaway of $105,000 being awarded this spring. As a start-up, we didn’t make $105,000, but I’d been saying from the beginning that, no matter what, we pledge this amount to show our retail partners, consumers, and supporters that we will make a difference — even if it’s a step of faith. We’re not going to wait on how long it normally takes a start-up to gain profitability. This is our minimum commitment every year.
If someone wants to get more involved with Project 7, from carrying the products to starting a 7 Days chapter, what should they do?
The best thing to do is follow us on Twitter. We pass all the information about these kinds of things through that stream. But they also can go to our site and just send a general e-mail and we’ll get back to them for whatever respective need they have. We can drop-ship product to them or set them up with a distributor we have in their area.
Thanks for the interview, Tyler. I can’t speak highly enough of the work these guys are doing. They are smart and talented marketers with a great product — but they’re not using that talent purely to get rich and gain stuff. They’re using it to help people. These are Christians using their gifts outside the Church, and that’s always something I can get behind.
Go buy some Project 7 stuff (seriously, my earth-friendly and super-soft P7 “All Causes” tee is my new favorite shirt). Go vote for the organizations who need a slice of the 105,000. Follow them on Twitter and spread the word.
Don’t just buy crap. Do good things for people.