Project 7 defines its business with a simple phrase: “products for good.” It is a phrase that points to an emerging trend among businesses deciding to take on a social mission, and has come to characterize a distinct category of social enterprise. The idea is simple: create a product that people buy for its quality, utility, and price, and use the revenue from these products to create a social change. When crafted into an innovative business model, the result is company like Project 7, which since 2008 has been using their consumer products as tools for change.
The company, based out of Costa Mesa, California, focuses on seven areas: heal the sick, save the earth, house the homeless, feed the hungry, quench the thirsty, teach them well, hope for peace. For each one of these areas, Project 7 sells products connected with a social mission. For instance, for every “heal the sick” product sold, Project 7 supplies medicine to a person suffering from malaria. Each sale of a “save the earth” product results in a fruit tree being planted. The list goes on, so that each time someone buys a Project 7 product, he could be feeding the poor, providing clean drinking water to someone in need, providing housing and education, or providing counseling for a child of war. It’s almost hard to imagine these lofty accomplishments resulting from someone buying a t-shirt, a can of coffee, a bottle of water, or a pack of chewing gum. But with the help of nonprofits and NGOs, and when aggregated by a large consumer base, their “products for good” model enables change on a large scale.
We had the chance to connect with Tyler Merrick, founder of Project 7 for some insights into the company and the art of running a successful social enterprise.
Q: Can you tell us a little more about how Project 7 came into reality, and the mantra “Products for Good” came into existence?
Project 7 was started as an idea for a business that could sustainably raise money and awareness for non profits that we cared about. I routinely attended non profits annual banquets, golf tournaments and fundraisers and found myself wondering why we were only talking about these issues one time a year. I came from a consumer background and had the thought, what if we could harness the power of everyday consumption through products people were going to buy anyway but use it as a vehicle to fund these 7 areas of need.
Q: Has there been any challenge working in these 7 different areas?
Yes, it has been difficult as like most people we want to do more than we’re doing. It was important for us to start with these 7 areas though as it was a part of our story to help out as much as possible. The other thing that was a key part of the model was giving people a choice. We didn’t want to just put one issue, one flavor in front of them and force them to say yes or no. We wanted to give them options about what issues they wanted to support, to make them feel like they were a part of the solution and had choices, and that those choices had impact.
Q: What is your vision for Project 7 in terms of scale, sustainability and social impact?
We are just one part of the vision. Our goal is to influence other businesses to start up or adapt their current business to have more of a giving model built into their DNA. No person or company can do this alone but we like the challenge of leading out as we’re soon to be entering our 5th year in the marketplace in January 2013. Our hope is to show people that their purchases have impact. Our brands’ goals are to give them a product that is the same in quality as what they are currently buying and priced competitively but that our brand has a tangible give back. When you add their purchase with someone else’s purchase across the country, then the impacts start to get exciting. There are several social issues that mathematically can be solved through giving-brands like ourselves. We have a brand(s) built for the long haul that is(are) sustainably filling the gaps each year in these areas of need. Think if 50 years ago a leading cereal brand would have been built around supporting hunger in America, and how many meals they would have provided until now. This is not a “trend” in our minds as some companies might think its “hot” to be in cause-marketing. This is good business for the long haul.
Q: What is one piece of business advice you would give to people during their first year in their new venture?
I think a lot of people go cold turkey from when they are diving into their new venture and I would argue against that. Hear me out, I’m not against taking risks, I just encourage people to “moonlight their dreams” for a little bit until its time to go full time. What I mean by that is don’t just quit your day job but work your day job, keep some income coming in and use that to help you get started. Work the dream during the “night hours” until the tension is strong enough that you have to go all in to the new venture but you know why. I see too many people go straight into the new venture and they get discouraged as things don’t just take off right away. This hybrid approach helps people make the transition I feel like with a better chance for success rate.
Q: How do you find the right people to work for your company, and
how do you keep them motivated?
Believe it or not, I’ve done a lot through Linked IN. I hear people all the time who complain that they don’t know why they’re on Linked IN and I tell them they’re not making the most of it. I have recruited probably 50-60% of my team off of Linked IN at some point. I also keep relationships with folks in the industry so that when the time comes I have gotten to see how they’ve done over time. I also use those relationships for candidate recommendations when I’m looking. After they get here and I think at just about every company most folks go through a hangover after the honeymoon. They don’t think they will but they will, it’s inevitable, especially here. What I mean by that is people come to a company like Project 7 and think that because of our mission that its going to cure so many ills that they might be trying to get away from in their past job. At the end of the day we’re still a group of people that are broken, have shortcomings; we’re still learning ourselves and we still mess up. So we have to help them through that hangover time and try to get them past those times and on the other side. At the end of the day if we don’t sell product, we can’t give. So our key driver on motivation is the business performance by department and when we do that it gets a lot more fun for all.
Q: What has been one moment or experience that has made a memorable impact upon you since starting Project 7?
I think there are several but they all fit in a theme of what I would call “just in time provision”. What I mean by that is there have been times and seasons that I have gone through that are hard and I’ve wondered: how can we keep Project 7 going, do people really want this model, did I make the right decision starting Project 7? All these things are questions of doubt, insecurity, and fear, but they’re real if you’re honest with yourself. Its been in those times that out of the blue a “just in time provision” will literally knock on our door ready to go out on the town with a full tank of gas. It’s in those times of trust and faith that are so hard but also so necessary so that you can be reminded that you can’t do this on your own. My Christian faith has been instrumental during these tough seasons and it has been strengthened as well in the hard times. Those times when you’re in them you don’t want to go through them, but after you have come out of the valley you appreciate what you went through.