Global sales sweeten the deal for candy maker

By Brigitte Audet Martin

A conversation with her grandmother led Tara Bosch on a mission to help the world kick its sugar habit without giving up candy—and today, merely two-and-a-half years later—the company she founded sells gummy bears across Canada and the United States, with more sweet treats on the way.

“Growing up I had an unhealthy relationship with sugar and it affected my body image and my self-esteem. I don’t know if I would call it an eating disorder per se, but emotionally my connection to food and how I let it control my mind was totally dysfunctional,” says Bosch, now 23.

Tara Bosch
Tara Bosch

“I had a conversation with my grandmother where she shared that she regretted having had so much sugar over the years and how that affected her health. She was 86 at the time, and it really hit me that even after so many years my grandmother was still struggling with feeling bad about the types of choices she had made about food.”

That conversation in 2015 prompted Bosch—who grew up in Surrey, B.C.—to research sugar consumption. She was shocked by what she found: for instance, that on an average day North Americans may consume in excess of 70 grams of sugar; and that Americans spend an estimated $1 trillion a year of health care and other costs related to the damaging health effects of sugar, which include obesity and diseases.

“My research into the shocking reality about sugar consumption really sparked my passion, my mission to find healthy alternatives to sugar. It’s is a huge problem and I knew I wanted to do something to disrupt the sugar market,” Bosch says. She ordered a gummy bear mould on-line, and began testing recipes in her kitchen. “I knew I wanted to make healthy candy available to consumers and that I wanted to do something to help at a global level because when I researched this I realized what a global epidemic it is.”

It did not take very long for Bosch, then 22, to begin “disrupting” the sugar industry. She founded SmartSweets and in the fall of 2015, Bosch dropped out of the University of British Columbia where she was studying political science to pursue her business full-time as a venture in residence The Next Big Thing, an incubator program at Vancouver’s Hootsuite Media.

Bosch says she did not know how to launch a global business, but she was determined to find out. In July 2016, SmartSweets launched online, and across British Columbia stores.

“People say ‘just google it’ but really, just google it when you want to find something. I started looking for contacts who had expertise. I knew I had a big knowledge gap so I seriously consulted people in the natural food world and cultivated contacts in the industry with people who know how to do things,” Bosch says.

“I worked hard to address my knowledge gap. I took a crash business course and the woman who gave it became my mentor.  I also joined an incubator program. I’m an introvert by nature but knowing that about myself I worked really hard—it’s about connecting and finding resources.”

In August of 2016 Bosch declined a $2 million acquisition offer. She also secured financial backing from Futurpreneur Canada and from the Business Development Bank of Canada (BDC) to manufacture the gummy bears on a large scale. By 2017, her gummy bears were being sold online throughout North America and in more than 200 stores across Canada—including Bed, Bath and Beyond and Pharmasave—and on their way to reaching $1 million in sales.

While her grandmother was not initially on-board with the idea of Bosch dropping out of university to become a business entrepreneur she is now “super-proud,” Bosch says.

“My oma grew up in Germany during the war and they didn’t have the opportunities for education beyond elementary school so it took her a long time to understand that entrepreneurship can be a viable alternative to university,” Bosch said. “I talked about it with my mom and my oma—about how it was harder back then especially for women to go into business. Now they are seeing entrepreneurship working as an actual means to bring an idea from your head and turn it into a local or national or international business and they are super-supportive.”

Some savvy networking and effective use of social media—including having her company participate in a #kicksugar campaign—also went a long way in moving SmartSweets forward. Being online, as well as on the shelves in both natural food and health stores and in traditional candy aisles is part of the strategy.

In March 2018, a deal with the Austin, Texas-based Whole Foods came to fruition and her gummy bears are now sold in 450 stores across the United States. Says Bosch: “Social media has been very useful—you can really reach out to a lot of people in a matter of hours. Some of our retail opportunities came from social media—we probably would not be launching in the U.S. with Whole Foods if it wasn’t for Instagram.”

The appeal is simple: Smartsweets are, as the name suggests, both smart and sweet. “Smart” because one 50-gram serving contains only two grams of sugar, only 152 calories, and is free of artificial colours and flavours, sugar alcohols, corn fibre, soy, nuts, gluten and genetically modified  substances. One serving also packs a healthy five grams of protein and 24 grams of dietary fibre—96 percent of the daily nutritional requirement and the equivalent of six servings of vegetables, the package states. The gummies may come in a smaller portion than other brands, but the taste is all there and the chewier consistency helps satisfy the sweet tooth, Bosch says.

“I started with gummy bears because I think everyone at some point in their life has enjoyed gummy bears,” Bosch says. SmartSweets has ambitious plans to launch two new confectionary products in the non-chocolate category in each quarter of 2018. What they are is “top secret, for now,” Bosch says, promising only that like the gummy bears, the products will be an innovative, healthier choice over traditional candy.

“I don’t know what I’m doing all the time, but I’m figuring it out along the way,” says Bosch, who has had other business ideas in the past, but says she often lacked the resources and confidence to act on them. “One of the things I carry with me now is something Oprah (Winfrey) said: the most powerful tool we have is speaking our own truth and not altering who you are—like if people say ‘you shouldn’t wear a backwards baseball hat,’  but forget that—I want to wear a backwards hat.”

That’s exactly what she did during an appearance on CBC’s The Dragon’s Den in 2017. Having been a fan of such shows on which entrepreneurs pitch their ideas to potential investors since she was a teenager Bosch—clad in her backwards hat, jeans and a T-shirt—entered the “den.” She was well-armed with samples of her gummy bears, and the sales and cost figures that show her idea is viable, and won offers from all of the “dragons.”

Bosch’s pitch also caught the attention of Josie Mousseau, a trade commissioner who heads Global Affairs Canada’s Business Women in Trade (BWIT) group, part of the Canadian Trade Commissioner Service (TCS).

Adept at using social media to promote business successes and opportunities for women, Mousseau re-tweeted a Dragon’s Den tweet about Bosch, and tweeted a congratulatory message for Bosch. She also asked her contacts at the Women’s Enterprise Centre of British Columbia to introduce her to Bosch at the first opportunity.

That opportunity came when both Bosch and Mousseau attended WEConnect International, a conference for businesswomen held in Toronto in November 2017. Mousseau told Bosch about the programs and services offered by BWIT as well as various other government services and programs available to her.

“Networking and being out at business development events like this is crucial. It just catapulted from there—our exchanges with her have been non-stop,” Mousseau says, adding she’s enthusiastic about helping women who have such a drive to succeed. “She’s a young entrepreneur and she’s got the energy, she’s motivated and she understands how she needs to grow her business.”

Bosch’s sales have now reached the $2.2 million mark and her expected growth for 2018 is $20 million, says Mousseau, adding that figure is based only on Bosch’s existing deals, and does not include any new business brought on by introductions the BWIT team is now making for Bosch within the TCS network throughout the United States.

“I reached out to our trade commissioner colleagues at our posts in Vancouver, Boston, Los Angeles and Dallas—where the trade commissioner has great inroads with some specialty grocery stores—and I also put her in contact with our Seattle office because she said she’s interested in getting into that market,” Mousseau recalls. “Really, making those connections for her, those introductions and suggesting channels they may have overlooked.

Putting Bosch in touch with contacts in the United Kingdom and other markets in Europe will likely be next, Mousseau says. “The U.K. is really coming down hard on sugar and they have campaigns for healthy eating—that would be a great market for her. It’s about opening up new market opportunities for Canadian companies.

Bosch says she was previously unaware of the TCS, and quite happy to find out about it and the BWIT program, and all of the connections they can help make.

Although Bosch did not know it, she had been working with the BWIT network through its connections with Women’s Enterprise Organizations of Canada (WEOC), an umbrella group of business women’s organizations dedicated to the success of women entrepreneurs, and the Women’s Enterprise Centre of British Columbia, a WEOC member, Mousseau says.

“Sometimes entrepreneurs don’t know who all of the players are, and they tap into our network without realizing it—that’s why the TCS is considered such a well-kept secret,” Mousseau says.

After meeting Mousseau at the Toronto conference, Bosch was planning to attend a trade mission for women in June 2018 organized by BWIT, however Mousseau suggested she also participate in a trade mission for businesswomen to Florida in February 2018.

“She joined our BWIT trade mission at the last minute so our colleagues in Miami who we partner with for this event weren’t able to set up as many meetings for her as we would normally do, but she’s a real go-getter and she looked at other options like renting a car to go visit companies and stores herself to understand her competition, pricing, positioning, labelling, etc.,” Mousseau says, adding that in addition to pre-organized one-on-one meetings, participants also get to pitch to various companies—such as Disney—during “power rounds” which are set-up sort of like speed dating sessions.

Mousseau also suggested Bosch bring samples to share during networking events as another means of marketing her products. The women who participate in trade missions are always keen to help one another, she says.

“Women are extremely good at networking and at supporting each other—and that’s why it’s so important to attend these types of business development events on which we anchor our trade missions for added exposure and opportunities,” Mousseau says, adding the networking is on-going. “I’ll be sitting at the airport and I’ll start talking to someone and it turns out to be someone that one of our BWIT clients needs to connect with to pitch her company, so I make the introduction. That’s part of what we do as the Trade Commissioner Service.“

Find out more about Business Women in International Trade (BWIT).

Find out more about Women’s Enterprise Organizations of Canada (WEOC).

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