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A Scrappy Entrepreneur's Plan B: Chewing Gum for a Cause

When his first idea doesn't hold water, an entrepreneur turns to gum -- and a philanthropic business model.
June 21, 2011
URL: http://www.entrepreneur.com/article/219817
Meeting need: Project 7's Tyler Merrick.
Photo© Shane Kislack

Tyler Merrick was sweating. Sitting in a buyer's office at Whole Foods in Austin, Texas, he'd just had his bottled water idea shot down. His company, Project 7, didn't have other product lines yet, so he did what any scrappy entrepreneur with a shot at the big time would do: He lied.

"I was raised going to buyer meetings and trade shows in my family's business, so it was kind of in my DNA to think ‘You've got a meeting with this buyer. Make the most of it,' " Merrick says. "So, I said, 'Hey, what else are you reviewing right now?'"

The buyer pulled out his book and rattled off the categories: diapers, baby food, chocolate and chewing gum. Tyler did some quick calculations in his head and offered up a then-nonexistent gum, which he delivered eight weeks later.

Apparently the buyer didn't want to see one more "bleeping" bottle of water, Merrick says, but he liked the philanthropic concept behind Project 7 and was willing to give it another shot. The Southlake, Texas-based consumer products company now donates approximately 50 percent of its profits to support seven areas of human need: ending hunger, healing sick people, promoting natural resource conservation, assisting the homeless, providing potable water, educating children and promoting peace. Each product line's variations and flavors support different causes, allowing consumers to choose which causes they wish to support through their purchases.

In Q1 2011, Project 7:
• served 131,000 meals to the hungry

• provided 2,500 days of shelter, food, health care and school to orphans

• covered 1,800 malaria treatments

• paid for a year's worth of clean drinking water for 1,900 people

• planted 120,000 fruit trees
 

While the gum wasn't exactly Merrick's crowning achievement ("It was really crappy gum," he says), it did set things in motion. Whole Foods agreed to pick up the line, and Merrick immediately went into overdrive, using the cachet of having his products in such a massive retail chain to develop and sell other merchandise, including mints, fair-trade and organic coffee and his original line of sustainable bottled water.

Since its launch in 2008, the company has landed in nearly 4,000 stores nationwide, including Caribou Coffee shops in the Midwest and HMSHost airport locations. In March, approximately 170 West Coast Wal-Mart stores picked up Project 7's (much-improved) Save the Earth Fresh Mint gum and Feed the Hungry Peppermint Vanilla gum and mints. The company's annual revenue has topped $1 million.

Merrick now splits his time between Project 7 and 29 Agency, his boutique product packaging and advertising agency, also based in Southlake. And while he is pleased with Project 7's growth and the good works it has been able to fund so far, he's looking forward to bigger and better success.

"We have a few new retailers coming on in the fall that will grow what we can do like crazy," Merrick says. "As we get more successful, we can do more in all of the seven areas we want to improve. That's what's really exciting to all of us."