When Tara Bosch wakes up in the morning she sometimes experiences imposter syndrome, asking herself how she got there and if she’s really good enough to lead the sugar-free candy industry. But she tells those negative thoughts to bite it and jumps out of bed full of energy, focused on kicking sugar out of the candy isle one day at a time. The 23-year-old Prevailer is the founder of SmartSweets, a confectionary company reproducing healthy versions of favourite childhood sweets, starting with the gummy bear. Her goal to create a smart choice candy to share with her sweet-toothed grandmother led the former sugar junkie on a journey deep into the world of food science and industry – largely aided by Google. Her ability to self-start and make connections with fellow entrepreneurs saw her networking her way to the top, and has recently led her to break into the U.S. market – and all this from humble beginnings in her kitchen in 2015.
Her gummy, which replaces sugar with plant-based Stevia, plant-based fiber, chicory root, and tapioca fiber, replicates sugar and its flavour profile, its texture, and its bulking properties. There’s no sorcery or trickery, simply science and a sweet passion. The millennial admits she used to live off candy, Tater Tots and chicken nuggets but now she’s confidently sugar-free, feeling great, and on a mission to encourage others to embrace the same. When self-doubt tries to knock her down, she just keeps moving, combating negative falsehoods with the positive reality. She’s got the future mapped out and it’s full of plenty more smart – and delicious – choices.
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You’re the founder of SmartSweets, a brand that offers a healthy alternative to traditional, sugar-filled candy. What inspired you to reinvent sweets?
SmartSweets really began after a conversation with my grandmother – my Oma. I was super close with her growing up, and we enjoyed candy together all the time – it was like it ran in our blood! I was at 7-Eleven getting candy every day; the lady there even knew me by name. One day Oma shared with me that she regretted having so much sugar over the years because of how it impacted her health and how she felt about herself. That really shocked me, and that’s what inspired me to go into a grocery store and look for something that was naturally addressing sugar. Seeing how packed with sugar the available products really were and the impact sugar is having on us as a society was shocking too. Sugar’s never been more prevalent in our packaged foods, yet it’s come to light that it’s essentially poison hidden in our food. This sparked my passion to set out on a quest to innovate the first candy that kicks sugar.
How did you start to turn your idea into an actual business?
I got a gummy bear mold from Amazon and then began recipe testing in my kitchen. I chose gummy bears because who at some point in their life hasn’t enjoyed those? I really wanted to create something that made candy something that we could actually feel good about enjoying – and something that wasn’t using sugar, sugar alcohols or artificial sweeteners.
What was the recipe testing process like?
I spent most of the summer of 2015 in the kitchen; it was a lot of iterating and a lot of Googling. Google is actually a pretty powerful tool – people say ‘just Google it’ but in reality it was so useful for me. There are a plethora of food science journals out there that someone like me – with no science background or anything like that – could use to piece together information. I was also connecting with different suppliers and the experts on their teams and leveraging their knowledge. It was kind of like a giant puzzle, I suppose. I was gathering the pieces and then sorting them out until it created a viable formula.
What inspired you to effectively replace refined sugar with natural, healthier choices?
Looking at it from the highest level, we’re living in a world where there’s more rapid innovation than ever before; we have things like robots and AI and self-driving cars and so food really shouldn’t be that hard but it kind of is. Plus food is so intrinsic to our day-to-day lives; we have so many touch points with it each day and ultimately it’s what makes us feel good or bad. Right now the available packaged foods are often filled with things that our bodies don’t love and don’t make us feel good. For me, really just pulling back from that high level view had me asking ‘OK, what’s actually authentically good for our bodies that’s comparable to sugar?’ We came up with using plant-based Stevia, plant-based fiber, chicory root, and tapioca fiber to replicate sugar and its flavour profile, its texture, and its bulking properties.
How does your gummy bear taste in comparison to the original favourite?
We know that it needs to taste like the real thing to get people to actually make a sustainable choice over candy long-term; I’m biased obviously, but we like to say that it tastes just like real gummy bears!
How did you go from the idea point - concocting a recipe in the kitchen – to the next steps?
I think for me the main thing was always just keep moving forward; in the beginning I Googled programs for young entrepreneurs and researched different people in the natural food world. I found a two-day crash course on starting a food business and the lady running that ended up becoming one of my mentors; she’s now a really dear friend as well. I also stumbled upon a program for young entrepreneurs called The Next Big Thing that was really instrumental in giving me an environment where I was surrounded by other people working on their ideas. I was introduced to people that became really great mentors and played important roles in some of the key decisions I made for SmartSweets early on.
When I started out I had no idea what I was doing – I still don’t have any idea what I’m doing – but I’ve learned it’s really just about identifying the gaps and what you don’t know and surrounding yourself with people who have the knowledge and background to fill in those gaps.
How has SmartSweets grown?
Just under a year later from finalizing the recipe we launched across Canada. At the end of our first year on shelves we were at 2,000 stores nationwide, and by the end of our second year we’ll be available in between 10,000 to 11,000 stores across the U.S. and Canada.
Does SmartSweets have a global plan?
Absolutely! Ultimately our vision is to be the global leader in innovating confectionary products that kick sugar, as well as a global thought leader on educating the public about making smaller, smart choices in everyday life. We believe that giving people the choice to kick sugar through our candy products can help people feel empowered – and that’s the goal. Creating accessibility in North America comes first, but our long-term vision is definitely to be global.
Right now is your only product the gummy bear?
Yes, exactly. We started with the gummy bear, as I mentioned before, because it’s relatable and lovable. But the vision for SmartSweets is to be that brand that’s on the candy shelf in your favourite store that lets you choose a healthier version of your favourite product – whether it’s a Starburst or Licorice or Warheads. We want people to actually feel good about enjoying sweets with our brand promise of using no sugar, no sugar alcohols or artificial sweeteners.
So you’re actually replicating favourite childhood candies but without the high sugar content?
Yes, exactly. We’re not reinventing the wheel, we’re just giving people access to feeling good about enjoying candy.
Exactly how much sugar is in SmartSweets?
Just a bit – we have 2 grams of sugar for the entire bag and 24 grams of plant-based fiber. The sugar in SmartSweets comes from the natural fruit extracts.
What’s the next candy you plan on introducing?
It’s top secret for now but I can say that we’re expanding pretty aggressively. In 2018 we have some pretty awesome innovations in our pipeline, so you’ll see them soon but I can’t share them just yet. I want to, believe me!
Earlier you touched on the impact sugar is having on society. Could you tell me more about this?
Of course; Americans consume over 70 grams of sugar each day, and an estimated one trillion dollars is spent annually in the U.S. alone fighting the damage and health effects sugar causes – everything from obesity to cancer. The impact is so huge we decided to kind of pull it back to how we feel about ourselves as individuals and how that’s related to how much sugar is in the foods we enjoy. With candy, for example, if you enjoy one bag of gummy bears containing the normal traditional amount of sugar you’re already consuming well over the entire daily recommended sugar intake. You’re throwing so much sugar at your body that it can really impact your day-to-day life, and not just with health impacts – it can affect your confidence and the different choices you make, which filters into every aspect of your life.
You also mentioned that you have a bit of an obsession with candy. Can you talk to me about your relationship with food and whether it’s changed?
Yes, totally. I mean, I grew up on Tater Tots, chicken nuggets, and candy. Those were basically my three food groups, so looking back I’m in shock that I don’t have some lingering health conditions. I don’t remember ever really having vegetables or anything like that as a child. I’d say my unhealthy relationship with food really started though when I’d restrict myself from having candy. I would decide I was only going to enjoy it in moderation, so I’d only have candy one day of the week but then because it’s so addictive it triggered sugar cravings. Then I’d start this vicious cycle of binging and then restricting myself; it was really unhealthy and impacted how I felt about myself. It really affected me day-to-day and stripped me from ever having self-confidence growing up.
How did you overcome that?
The summer after my first year of university, I worked at a supplement store. My boss there was such an incredible woman; she really reshaped how I felt about food. That was the first time in my life that I realized it wasn’t all or nothing. I was able to find the key to really feeling good about myself while enjoying the food that I loved, and it was just making smaller smarter swaps in my daily life. For example, I started having Greek yogurt instead of sour cream, and other little things that I could do sustainably.
Is there any sugar in your diet at all today?
When I say I don’t have sugar, I mean I have an apple every day and that kind of thing, but I don’t have any added sugar. Really exploring the effects sugar has on us was eye-opening for me; I don’t think I fully realized the impact sugar had on my body before that. Now if I have something that’s full of sugar, I will actually feel like I have ADHD, and I will break out the next day! I have such intense side effects, probably because I don’t have it often. During my SmartSweets journey I’ve actually found that it’s relatively easy to find swaps for sugar – it’s just being mindful of choosing alternatives.
How would you describe how you feel now that you no longer eat sugar?
I think for me there are two main things. One is the clarity and focus I have: I don’t feel like my mind is constantly darting in a million places. The second is I feel more confident. It’s a combination of no sugar, drinking a lot of water and exercising of course, but when I don’t have sugar in my diet I feel more confident because I feel good about my body. I don’t feel shitty, like how I used to when I had a donut or a pint of ice cream and just felt awful.
It’s evident you’re passionate about food; did you also pursue education in anything food-related or another subject that prepared you for the career you have today?
I enrolled in arts in university, but I really had no passion for anything that I was studying, so I started studying German because my Oma is German; I thought that at the very least I’d be able to speak German with her, even if I got nothing else out of university. From a business perspective, I didn’t really gain much knowledge through university. Improving my relationship with food around that time translated into me having confidence, and so after my first year of university I acted on one of my first ideas. It was another startup; we did chalkboard and vinyl wall tiles for students and home renters who wanted to decorate but couldn’t damage their walls. That was really valuable because it gave me my first manufacturing experience – in that case it was overseas. Ultimately, it fell flat on its face but it was the biggest blessing because finding out what didn’t work really equipped me with the tools knowledge-wise that led me to the stepping stones for SmartSweets.
What else were you doing professionally before you started developing SmartSweets?
I was always really driven; I always had sort of an intense sense of urgency. The moment I turned 13 I got a job at McDonald’s working the overnight shift and also simultaneously had two part time jobs adding up to full time working hours, and I did that all the way through to university. When I got to university and my other startup failed, I started studying human resources and recruiting, which led to a recruiting assistant job at an HR firm. It’s kind of interesting because looking back now that piece was really integral to SmartSweets because a lot of my journey has been people-focussed so that was a really great blessing.
How were you able to work two or three jobs while you were a teenager?
I think I always had a bit of a different perspective than my peers; I looked at high school kind of as ‘OK, what do I want to get out of this?’ and I knew that I wanted to get into university so I thought only grades 11 and 12 mattered. I really didn’t care about getting good grades in school, I just wanted to work so that I could save money and buy my first car. I looked at school through the lens of ‘what do I need to get to university?’ and put all of my energy outside of that into work.
For example, in grades 10-12 I worked at a coffee shop; I’d open the shop at 4 a.m., stay there until 8 a.m. and then go to school and then go work at Cobs Bread after school. As long as I got Cs, I didn’t care because grades 11 and 12 were what really mattered. I don’t know if that was the right thing to do, but it worked for me. It was easy to lift my grades in grade 11 and 12 because I already had the work ethic to apply to my studies, and that was largely developed from my work experience.
You’re only 23 years old; how does it feel to be such a successful young entrepreneur?
I feel like I’m 100 now, but yeah. I kind of look at it through the lens of there being no destination – there’s just waking up every day to do better, be better, iterate and make bigger things happen than the previous day. People say ‘you’re such a young entrepreneur’ but everyone has a different timeline in which they live their life. It’s going to sound morbid but none of us know actually how much time we have on this crazy thing called earth, so you have to use every single day and just go for it! Make your wildest dreams a reality and create something in the world that serves others.
Do you have any advice for other young entrepreneurs?
Go for it and discard what society says you need to do, especially when you’re young! There are expectations and beliefs and standards – like going to university – that others may hold, and it’s so easy to adopt those as your own. When I was growing up no one took me seriously and so I learned very early on that I don’t care what other people think I can or cannot do; that really enabled me to act on doing whatever I wanted. I think it’s important to make sure that the beliefs that you’re adopting internally aren’t coming from external thoughts about you. It’s really daunting when you think about doing something but when you actually start acting on it, it really kind of unfolds in front of you; from there it’s just baby steps and then all of a sudden you’re like ‘Holy shit how did I get here?!’
What have been some of the recognition highlights along the way?
I was the national Pitch for the Purse (Forum for Women Entrepreneurs) winner in 2017. That competition creates conversations around female entrepreneurship and access to capital and it addresses a gap; statistics show that a really minor amount of venture capital and angel capital goes to female-run startups. SmartSweets was lucky enough to win that pitch competition and it was a really great experience. I think for me it was the very first time I realized just how deep the support is for women entrepreneurs, specifically in Vancouver’s community.
I was also elected as a 2017 fellow in the prestigious Thiel Fellowship, founded by Peter Thiel, who was one of the co-founders of PayPal. His philosophy is that the model is broken; people go to secondary school and the assumption is that you go on to university. His program grants a total of $100K to youths with ideas that disrupt to encourage them to basically drop out of university and pursue their ideas. That was a really big blessing as well because it gave me another network to tap into, one of awe-inspiring people who are going for what they believe is going to make an impact in the world. I think being surrounded by different networks really makes you think; it reinforces the belief that anything is possible and reiterates that your own thoughts are the only limit to what you can create.
Have you faced opposition or hit any walls? And how’d you deal with that?
Yeah, absolutely. You get no all the time and you hit walls every single day, but I think the main thing is to keep perspective. If it wasn’t challenging then everyone would be doing it, and the biggest wins are always hidden behind the things that in present moment look like walls. Every challenge is really an opportunity and even though it’s sometimes hard to see it in the moment, looking back it’s always like ‘Oh yeah, I can see why that happened; then that allowed this opportunity to happen or that opportunity to happen or steered me away from doing this, which actually would have led us away from the path that we wanted to be on.’
It’s hard but if it wasn’t hard then it wouldn’t be worthwhile, and when challenges hit you in the face, there’s a big win or a lesson right around the corner.
What about self-doubt? Have you experienced that in running your business?
Oh, my gosh, every day. Every single day – I feel like I have more self-doubt now than I did when I first started. It’s funny because I have no doubt in the world around SmartSweets’ vision or success or where we’re going or the impact we’re going to make. In my mind it’s done, I know it’s going to happen and it’s a definite thing for me. The self-doubt more comes from the day-to-day like whether people take me seriously, if I’m good enough and if I can do this. It’s an internal dialogue. I almost have to actively remove myself from it by telling myself to shut up and to move ahead and do it anyway, which kind of silences that voice.
How have you managed to deal with the transition from startup to full-blown U.S. expansion?
I think it’s been about always looking ahead and asking what we’re missing – or identifying the gaps and filling them in. The hardest part of startup life when your goal is to be scaling so aggressively is that sometimes you don’t plug the existing gaps before you arrive; then you’re being more reactive rather than proactive and planning ahead. Looking six, twelve and twenty-four months out at what the business will need for where you plan to go is important. It’s one thing to decide you want to be a certain size with a specific amount of revenue, but you actually have to pull it back and tangibly plan for that, otherwise it’s not going to happen. I think that’s probably the greatest challenge. Planning ahead also reinforces your belief that you’re actually going to get there. Creating a roadmap to get there really forces you to examine, reinstate and take ownership of what you’re doing and how.
What’s next for you?
SmartSweets is in our second year existing in the world which is really exciting. This year I’m really excited to focus on increasing our distribution as well as our product innovation. We want it to ultimately be more accessible than ever before for people to eat candy they can be empowered about eating. We’re also on a mission to kick sugar and create the awareness inadvertently that you don’t have to stop eating the foods that you love, you can actually just make smaller, smarter choices. I’m really excited because when you look at the food industry as a whole, the confectionary industry is the epicentre of sugar so I think that it raises a larger statement; if we can make candy healthy, then in every single vertical in the entire food industry it shouldn’t be that hard.
What does your Oma think of the SmartSweets’ gummies?
Oh, she loves them! It’s awesome to see her enjoy them and she says she doesn’t crave chocolate or other candy anymore when she has SmartSweets – and the fiber in them makes her full as well. It’s been amazing to see how they’ve helped her change her eating habits and make her feel empowered about her eating decisions. It’s been really incredible to see the product have an impact on her life because ultimately I created SmartSweets for her.
And any final thoughts?
I’m super grateful to be on this adventure, even though I wake up every day terrified to my core; I’m like ‘holy fuck,’ but at the same time, I’m like ‘how am I so lucky to do this every day?’ Although I was the one who had the initial idea for SmartSweets and acted on it, it’s really this smart squad – there are 12 of us now – that’s got us to where we are today. I like to say I was lucky enough to have the big man from upstairs or wherever believe in me and put the idea in my head, and have the confidence to act on it, but it’s the people that I’m lucky enough to be surrounded by that actually manifest and realize the whole vision.