- Tara Bosch dropped out of college at age 21 to launch her company SmartSweets. Today, at age 25, she’s built it into a multimillion-dollar brand.
- SmartSweets, a low-sugar candy company, began when Bosch tried to kick her own sugar cravings. After she began creating, she wanted to launch SmartSweets into a global business. She has now raised over $4.5 million from angel investors.
- Key to her success — particularly after dropping out of college — was finding mentors early on and participating in accelerator programs. She also was real about what she “sucked” at, and surrounded herself with people who were strong in those areas.
- Bosch also makes “connecting authentically” on social media the company’s number-one priority, saying their online community is the company’s “best friends.”
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In 2016, Tara Bosch was in her third year at the University of British Columbia getting an arts degree when she made a major life pivot and dropped out of college to launch a company.
While making such a big decision is rarely easy, Bosch — who today at 25 years old is the founder and CEO of the low-sugar candy company SmartSweets — didn’t feel overly conflicted about it.
“For me, the only risk of regret was the possibility of living with the ‘what-if,'” said Bosch. “There are many paths in life; society traditionally points to college/university as being the ‘right one.’ However, in reality, it’s just one of many paths, and my gut led me to take another one.”
Her choice proved financially savvy: SmartSweets became a million-dollar brand after only six months on the market.
Under the motto of “kick sugar, keep candy!” Bosch is poised to disrupt the multibillion-dollar candy industry, reporting that her company is on schedule to help Americans kick over one billion grams of sugar in 2019 by consuming her low-sugar alternative instead.
The 20-something shared how she found success so early in her career — and when so many other startups fail — with Business Insider.
A need for (healthy) sweets
Bosch’s shift from college student to CEO was born from what she describes as her own “personal struggle” with sugar.
“I started SmartSweets after my love affair with candy turned into an unhealthy relationship with food — I was the person at 7-11 every day buying the penny candy,” the CEO explained to Business Insider. “I experienced the negative effects sugar has on our health, and tried to eat less sugar, but that only led me to crave candy even more.”
She decided that to combat her cravings, she’d need to make her own no-sugar-added alternative in her own kitchen in Vancouver. So she ordered a gummy bear mold off of Amazon for $68 and started test-driving over 200 low-sugar recipes.
After spending over three months looking up candy concoctions and researching alternative sources of sugar, she eventually selected stevia (a non-GMO extract, high-intensity sweetener that’s up to 200 to 350 times as sweet as sugar) and tapioca fibers as her substitutes.
A typical serving size of traditional gummy bears (about 15 pieces) has about 19 grams of sugar. But unlike sugar, which has about 50 calories per tablespoon (about 12 grams), stevia doesn’t have any calories. Stevia also “generally will not raise blood sugar levels,” according to the FDA.
To perfect her healthier product, which is free from both added sugar and sugar alcohols, Bosch then combined the stevia extract with tapioca — a starch often used in puddings as a thickening agent — and chicory root to help create that gummy-like feel, among other ingredients for color and flavor.
She also began contacting raw material suppliers and met with technical experts to help refine her list of candy ingredients.
“I was googling raw material suppliers, contacting them, and from there, engaging with their technical experts for feedback on overcoming various formulation challenges I was experiencing,” said Bosch. “When you remove 99.9% that makes up something, it presents unique challenges!”
Bosch emphasized that from day one, the vision was for SmartSweets (originally named Stevi-Sweets) to become a viable global business. A turning point toward that effort came when she took her batches of candies to her peers.
“Some of the people who sampled told me the low-sugar gummy bears tasted better than the original,” she said.
Funding her venture: from bootstrapping to angel investors
At 21, Bosch had limited credit history to draw from to start her business. She did, however, have personal assets that included $11,400 in personal savings that she had squirreled away from working various part-time jobs, and a six-year-old Honda car, which she used as an asset against the $105,000 debt financing she secured — which she received from Futurpreneur, Women’s Enterprise Center, Business Development Bank of Canada, and Vancity.
Armed with her homemade samples of SmartSweets, the young entrepreneur was eventually able to secure $79,000 in outside funding in the spring of 2016 and launched the company in August of that same year. The company’s earliest investors included Bosch’s friend (and at the time roommate) and SmartSweets’ first employee, Beth.
“I met her twice, and the third time, we did a deal on a paper napkin!” said Bosch.
Bosch met another investor through what was intended to be a reality TV show for entrepreneurs looking for funding. The show never aired, but this investor later went on to become one of the company’s board members.
Since then, the company has raised over $4.5 million from angel investors. (Other funding included $79,800 from grants and backers and $15,000 from the Cohort of Burt’s Bees Natural Launchpad.)
All of this support has paid off — SmartSweets has been profitable in two of its three years in business so far, and according to Bosch is on track to exceed well over $50 million in revenue in 2019. The US now accounts for 80% of the Canadian-based company’s sales, and the SmartSweets brand can be found in close to 20,000 retailers across the US and Canada, including Whole Foods, Target, Bed Bath & Beyond, Kroger, GNC, Hudson News, Facebook, and Google.
Find your mentors
“Being a college dropout with no relationships in the food industry, my mentors allowed me to accelerate the pace at which I was able to close the knowledge gap to set SmartSweets initial launch up for success,” said Bosch. Many of her early mentors included founders and CEOs who she met through accelerator programs and cold outreach on LinkedIn.
“I knew it would be critical to surround myself with people who had been down the road I was embarking on previously,” Bosch said.
She also found support as a young entrepreneur by participating in accelerator programs such as The Next Big Thing.
“I found the application website on Google the night before applications closed,” she said. “I thought, ‘There’s no way that I’m going to be accepted, but I won’t know unless I try.'”
Bosch was not only accepted into the program, but SmartSweets also ended up becoming the accelerator’s Venture in Residence.
“Being surrounded by peers that are all going through what you are was absolutely invaluable,” said Bosch. “I never felt alone in the early days, despite being a sole founder, because I was surrounded by other youth acting on their ideas.”
Surround yourself with ‘Einstein’s’
Bosch’s team currently has 49 full-time employees, some of whom come with backgrounds of building household brands such as Vitamin Water, Lululemon, Starbucks, and PopChips.
“Team is everything,” she said. “You can have a great mission, product, and vision, but an idea is just an idea without execution. The team is what executes on that and brings the magic to what you are collectively creating in the world.”
Of course, in the early days as a solopreneur, she had to play all of the roles of the business — which she argued is a part of entrepreneurship any founder has to accept.
“I was everything from the ‘scientist’ creating the formulation to ‘finance’ sorting out funding, and everything in between,” Bosch recalled. “‘Whatever it takes’ sums [up] the mindset you have to have.”
She advised aspiring entrepreneurs to “get real about what you suck at” and surround yourself with people who are “Einstein’s” in those areas.
The company’s first squad member, Beth — who Bosch met in a Facebook group called Girl Gang, a forum for women passionate about building their respective careers — joined Bosch on the front lines a year after the founder began recipe testing and a month before SmartSweets launched on shelves.
Bosch explained that her decision to hire Beth as employee number one was “largely based on gut.”
“The first time we met, we immediately connected,” remembered Bosch. “She got the vision, had the attitude, and she wore all the hats as well — everything from marketing to packing orders to owning all wholesale fulfillment, nothing was (or still is!) too big or small a task for us. She saw the grand vision beyond SmartSweets at the time … and knew what the impact of our mission to kick sugar could have.”
Treat your social media community like your ‘best friends’
Today, SmartSweets has a tribe of over 375,000 across social platforms, including a “kick-sugar” community on Instagram of more than 260,000 followers, which the company leverages to spread the news about its products.
Because Bosch views social media as “truly just amplified word of mouth,” she focused obsessively on making “connecting authentically” the company’s number-one priority.
“[We want them] to feel understood [and] know that they are our very best friends,” said Bosch.
She explained that SmartSweets engages with every direct message, hashtagged post, and tagged post in the company’s social community in the same time frame that someone would text a best friend back (in other words, quickly).
Bosch also leveraged strategic partnerships to build up the company’s Instagram following, partnering with a variety of “better-for-you” brands as well as what Bosch described as “top-tier influencers” for various projects on social media.
“Partnering with brands and people who share our values and connect with our mission on social has been super powerful to grow our community, always through the lens of, ‘How can we create value for this brand [or] person?'” she said.
Just keep moving forward
“Oprah has a philosophy on working the hardest you can, and then letting go,” Bosch explained. “That gives me a lot of peace in working my butt off, then ‘trying’ to detach from a particular outcome (easier said than done!), knowing that the universe will guide you to the outcome that’s meant to happen.”
Launching any new venture requires a leap of faith into the unknown — just like the one Bosch took when dropping out of college to launch her company. She thus also recommended that startup founders embrace being newbies who don’t have all the answers.
“No one knows what exactly they’re doing,” Bosch said. “It’s the ones that continue to lean into the fear and put one foot in front of the other despite that, knowing that they will figure it out along the way, that succeed.”