theSedge.org recently had the pleasure of interviewing Tyler Merrick, social entrepreneur and founder of Project 7. Project 7 is a social business fuelled by the philosophy of making extraordinary things happen with ordinary purchases.
Project 7’s primary offering is a sugar-free gum that comes in six taste-bud drool-inducing flavours: peppermint vanilla, mint julep, front porch lemonade, fresh & breezy, coconut lime, and birthday cake.
Supported by the sale of everyday products, Project 7 partners with non-profits to support seven areas of need: hunger, health, homelessness, water, education, peace and environmentalism.
So far, Project 7 has made the following extraordinary feats possible:
- Delivery of 90 million malaria treatments,
- Access to 1.1 million months of clean water,
- Access to over 150,000 days of schooling,
- Provided over 2.2 million meals,
- Put over 21,000 kids through anti-bullying programs,
- Provided over 1 million hours of shelter,
- Planted over 3.6 million trees.
Read on to discover what Tyler would do differently if he could go back in time to start it all over again, the 4 qualities every social entrepreneur needs to nurture, and the great life advice he gives to his daughters today that he wish he would have known 10 years ago.
There are so many great organizations around the world working on solving the huge social challenges Project 7 was formed to have an impact on. How do you determine which non-profit organizations to partner with to deliver the social programs and services that address each of Project 7’s social causes?
We support basic humanitarian needs like hunger, shelter and clean water to name a few. I started looking for organizations that were already doing this in the field that we could come alongside and partner with. Once identified and vetted we started conversations and learned about each other and our respective goals and challenges. We then began to work towards building out ways we could work together on an annual basis. Each year we evaluate things for both groups in the partnership and decide if we will renew again, then we take what we have learned and start another year together.
Project 7 has partnered with 7Up to contribute even more to the 7 social causes. Can you share some of the pros and cons of how this partnership has impacted the scale or impact of Project 7? What’s your advice to social entrepreneurs looking for partnership opportunities like this one?
I think that every entrepreneur needs to do what is best for his or her company or organization. For me, it was a great opportunity to partner with 7UP and the Dr Pepper Snapple company. 7UP is almost a 100-year-old brand and the idea of converting it into a “giving brand” for an entire year built around our 7 pillars of giving was too big of an impact to pass up. At the end of the day we want to give to these 7 needs and help raise awareness for them as well. Partnering with 7UP did both of those things and they could not be a better group of people to partner with. Their generosity is inspiring.
What is the biggest challenge you have encountered so far working on Project 7 and how did you overcome it?
I would say admitting when things aren’t working and having the hard conversations with yourself and others along the way. More importantly, taking the tough steps to attempt to fix what is not working is the hardest. In doing so, you are owning your failure and the very thing you were so confident about at one time is now a shadow of what you envisioned. However, if you can truly make the hard decisions and accept failure, learn from it, and then create something out of the ashes that is a pivot that puts you back on the right path, then it is worth it. It is worth it because you learn so much about yourself in the process as hard and cliché as that sounds. You learn more about who you are and what your company is, but just as importantly what it isn’t.
What was the inspiration for starting Project 7? Did you have a spark of insight or an “ah-ha” moment, or did the idea build over time?
It was an “ah-ha” moment… or at least a couple of them. I grew up in consumer products – that’s a boring word for “stuff people buy” – as my dad was an entrepreneur in the pet food industry. I learned from him and had the privilege to work for him for many years. One day while at lunch with a guy passing through town he told me stories of social entrepreneurship. It was the first time I had heard the term but as soon as I heard it, I knew that is what I wanted to be. Not long after that, I was inspired one late night with the idea for Project 7 on a piece of paper as my attempt at social entrepreneurship. It continues to build and watching others following their passion helps stoke that fire. The rest is history.
If you could start Project 7 over again today, would you do anything differently? If so, what would it be and why?
We don’t have enough time for your readers to cover the length of what that journal entry would be. Absolutely I would do things differently. I have 6 years of experience to look back on and tell myself what to watch out for. At the same time, there are things that I had to go through that one cannot trade. I would say for me, it would be better focus. I tried to do too many products, and too many causes with not enough resources. I’ve since then re-focused our brand around gum while still giving to the 7 causes we support and it has been very freeing to have this core focus of what Project 7 is. That has been good for me.
If you could boil down the attributes or qualities of successful social entrepreneurs to just one, what would it be and why?
The ones that come to mind when I think about the Social Entrepreneurs that I respect the most are: commitment, work ethic, humility and integrity. I think that those four characteristics transcend Social Entrepreneurship though, as they are needed in both the public and private sector. I don’t mean this in a bad way but anyone can have passion for a cause… that though will only get you so far. I would compare it to energy and calories gained from sugar. You get a fast and quick pump but if you don’t have a steady diet of solid nutrition, you’ll just crash. That’s why commitment, work ethic, humility and integrity are so very much needed. Believe it or not, you and I don’t know it all and we need others help. That is where humility comes in. It also comes into play when you goof up, in owning it and learning from it.
What advice would you give to your 10-years-younger self if you could speak with him now?
The same thing I will tell my daughters when learning to ride a bike… no matter how hard you try, you will fall off that bike and you will skin some knees. It is inevitable and its part of the process. However, the pleasure and benefit of being able to ride a bike is more than worth the downside of crashing from time to time. Don’t stay on the sidelines paralyzed in fear that you never ride a bike but don’t throw off the notion that it won’t ever happen to you, so that when it does, it doesn’t shatter your ego in the process. It’s just life and there are lessons to be learned in triumph and tragedy. That’s what Band-Aids are for.
What is your core motivation or “why” for getting out of bed every day and spending your time on Project 7?
At this point it’s more than just an idea, I’m all in and the emotional charge of the early years has worn off and now it’s my purpose. I think that’s important to accept. It doesn’t mean that passion is gone as it takes passion to do my job every day, but without purpose I’ll just aimlessly be all over the place. I’ve fallen off the bike many times and I believe I’ve truly learned from it and continue to learn from it. My purpose keeps me pedalling.