Anyone who’s ever set out to eat better knows the challenge of achieving that goal. The food that’s good for us can often be hard to come by, and even harder to determine based solely on packaging. Too often questions of healthy eating habits are ones not of willpower but of knowledge and access.
Solving those questions presents an opportunity for forward-thinking businesses that can help people find the right foods more easily, and Merryfield aims to be such a business. I recently spoke with Joe Dickson, Merryfield’s Cofounder and Head of Standards & Policy, and Errol Schweizer, a member of Merryfield’s Clean Council, about the Boston-based company’s mission and the process of pairing health-conscious shoppers with the health-focused food makers they’re looking for.
Mary Juetten: When did you start at Merryfield?
Joe Dickson: We started Merryfield in early 2018. I’d met our Founder and CEO, David Mayer, in 2017 when we were introduced by a mutual friend. David had a very compelling idea on how to use technology to help support grocery shoppers in choosing better products, and his passion for the idea was powerful and contagious. After many very spirited conversations on how to transform the food consumer packaged goods (CPG) landscape into a cleaner, healthier place, I was sold, and left Whole Foods Market after 20 years to join Merryfield as a cofounder.
Juetten: What problem are you solving through the creation of Merryfield?
Errol Schweizer: How do you build a health and wellness focused, trend-forward, purpose-driven product assortment outside of a grocery store? How do you enable anyone to find and afford such products regardless of where they live or shop? And how do you bridge these high-quality standards with digital age technologies and capabilities?
Dickson: There has never been more natural, organic and clean label options available in mainstream retail stores, but it’s very hard for consumers to know which brands and products to trust. We want to help people confidently choose products that align with their values, from purpose-driven brands who really deserve their trust. And we want to help better brands stand out, tell their stories to consumers and build deeper and more meaningful relationships with consumers.
Existing digital coupon platforms offer short-term transactional incentives, whereas our rewards-driven platform aims to build loyalty and lasting relationships by rewarding users every time they buy any product from our member brands. Beyond their monetary value, those rewards serve as symbols and reminders that our users are making a difference with every purchase from our member brands.
Juetten: Who are your customers and how do you find them?
Dickson: We have two main groups of “customers,” our consumer users and the brands that make up our collective. Our users are grocery shoppers who want to choose brands and products that align with their values — many of them have come to Merryfield through our member brands, who promote Merryfield as a loyalty program to their customers, and many others via paid digital and social ads, and word of mouth.
The brands that make up our collective are all purpose-driven brands that operate to high standards. If a brand has even a single product in their line that doesn’t meet these standards, we don’t work with that brand. Many of our members are pioneering brands that Errol and I know from our time in the natural and organic products industry. We’ve also been introduced to brands through existing member brands, at trades shows (pre-Covid), and some good old-fashioned LinkedIn cold calls.
Juetten: How did past projects and/or experience help with this new project?
Schweizer: I have been in the natural products space since the 1990s and have worked at food service, retail, farmer’s markets, CSA’s, NGOs and community gardens. After a decade in national purchasing leadership, I was committed to improving the quality and accessibility of food supply but wanted to pursue that work in a range of ways, including good food policy, innovative startups, e-commerce and new technologies. I have brought my extensive knowledge of food trends, ingredients, pricing strategies and retail expertise, as well as my relationships and credibility in the industry to this project.
Dickson: My past experience at Whole Food Market has helped me out immeasurably in starting Merryfield. I’ve been working on standards in the natural products industry for about 20 years — I led the Global Quality Standards team at Whole Foods, which steers the company’s policies on everything from banned ingredients to seafood sustainability to organic certification. I’ve also worked with organizations like the Non-GMO Project, USDA’s National Organic Program, and NSF International to set industry-leading standards and certification programs.
Understanding the very complex supply chains, certification programs and production systems has been critical to my work setting standards to guide what brands are on Merryfield, and curating a collective of truly purpose-driven brands.
Juetten: Who is on your team at Merryfield?
Dickson: I’m incredibly proud of the team we’ve built at Merryfield — we’re currently at thirteen employees, and it’s an all-star group of accomplished alums of companies like American Express, Soul Cycle, Runkeeper/Asics, CVS Health, Vega Nutrition and many others. We’ve been fortunate to be able to bring together a mature team of experienced leaders to build our technology platform, our identity and our brand collective quickly.
Juetten: Did you raise money?
Dickson: Yes. Our main investors to date are our CEO, founding team members, and a few outside investors who are very supportive of our team, our mission and what we’re building.
Juetten: Startups are an adventure — what’s your favorite startup story?
Dickson: I’m partial to the startup stories of our purpose-driven member brands, in various stages of growth – they all have amazing stories in progress. Right Rice is revolutionizing dinner plates with a high protein, legume-based rice alternative. Good Culture is disrupting the very tired cottage cheese category with an incredible product. Type:A has created a game-changing aluminum free deodorant that truly works. Every one of our 45+ brands has an incredible story tied to that and a huge part of our mission at Merryfield is bringing those stories to life for our users.
Juetten: How do you measure success and what is your favorite success story?
Schweizer: I have a category management background, so numbers are more important to me because they show what people are buying, not what they are saying or thinking. The success and growth of sustainability trends such as Organic, with over $50 billion in annual sales, as well as Non-GMO, have been driven by customers buying those products and proving that such supply chains were needed. In my previous roles, I watched the data week by week, year after year to prove out this thesis, and customers haven’t let up. And they tend to double down on these trends during crises, with Organic seeing huge growth throughout the pandemic and Non-GMO experiencing its biggest boost in years. I am confident that Organic is the future of the food supply and Non-GMO plays an important role in ensuring that GMOs are contained and labeled.
Juetten: Any tips to add for early-stage founders or CEOs in growth mode?
Dickson: Get very comfortable with uncertainty. Don’t be afraid to ask for advice — feedback from leaders in your industry is precious and critical, but also remember to trust your instincts. And be able to articulate your mission, purpose and reason for existing in a way that’s motivating, centering and energizing for your team. And if you can’t, refine your mission and purpose until you can.
Juetten: And of course, any IP challenges or horror stories to share? They can be anonymous.
Dickson: Fortunately, no IP challenges to report here. But working with food brands over the past 20 years I’ve seen more than a few. I’ll just say that before printing tens of thousands of labels, you should always get very good IP and regulatory counsel. Always!
Juetten: What’s the long-term vision for your company?
Dickson: I want our company to play a real role in catalyzing the transformation of the food industry to cleaner, better, healthier products. We want to support brands and products that are truly sustainable, clean-label, organic, non-GMO, humanely raised, fair trade and that truly follow through on the promises they make on the label. We’re helping coordinate consumers who want to make a positive impact with products and brands that really do that. Cleaner products should be the norm, be widely available and be accessible and affordable to everyone, and we’re building a platform to help make that happen.
Juetten: Do you have any tips or comments from working in the mainstream world to developing this new venture?
Dickson: Leaving the mainstream corporate world to join a startup elicits many competing emotions — it’s at once exhilarating and terrifying, but the hard work of creating a new solution to a real problem is deeply satisfying. Moving from a large organization with so many specialized experts to a small one where everyone does everything is both liberating and overwhelming. Anyone leaving a big company to start a new venture should be of course ready to roll up their sleeves, but one of the things that surprised me was how isolating it can be which the pandemic certainly didn’t help. Make a concerted effort to cultivate your professional and personal network, whether through zoom happy-hours or good old fashioned phone calls. The human contact matters, especially during such a huge transition.
Thanks to Joe and Errol for the insight into the food industry – some excellent lessons about going with experience and ensuring that mission and values are the guiding force. Personally, I find sourcing good foods a challenge, even without a pandemic! #onwards.
Forbes – Entrepreneurs