HELENA — Buzzballs are cocktails that are mixed and stored in a single-serve canned container. They also happen to be the brainchild of Helena-raised and Montana State University graduate Merrilee Kick. How do you break into the adult beverage scene and in a decade have your product sold in 47 states and 21 countries? According to Kick, it’s equal parts ingenuity and hard work, with a healthy dash of fear.
“I started my company out of fear and need,” said Kick. “ I was about to get a divorce and had been married for a long, long time and lived all over the world and was coming back. I was a high school teacher and they don’t make much money. I was worried I might be facing the prospects of living out of my car, so I was fueled by fear.”
Kick went back to school and used Buzzballz as the thesis project for her graduate degree. She invested most of her money and her parents even put up their cattle as collateral for the loan. Once Kick had her prototype, she quickly found a distributor that wanted to carry her product across Texas. From there they grew to neighboring states and it wasn't long before they were fulfilling their first international orders.
“I did stay on as a teacher throughout the years as well as worked all day all night at this project until it became a reality” said Kick. “I didn’t know it was going to be successful until we went into a trade show in Las Vegas. My son and I drove out there because we couldn’t afford to fly. We got the last 10 foot by 10 foot booth and overnight we had 15 new states that signed on to distribute our product.”
A decade later, Buzzballz now employs 150 people and produces dozens of products at their Dallas facility. Kick says her experience as an educator ended up translating to a lot of beneficial skills as a an owner and CEO of an ever-growing company.
“I wouldn’t be able to create a beverage manufacturing plant if I didn’t have the education that went underneath it. I didn’t know it at the time that I was building a foundation with all of my technology work, science work, my ability to research, my speaking ability, my mentoring all kind of fed and led to this opportunity,” said Kick.
Kick’s advice to any aspiring entrepreneurs is to be confident, let your fear drive you and give you motivation, don’t self-sabotage, and be creative when dealing with problems. “When you’re an entrepreneur you’re always looking for creative ways to raise money,” explained Kick. “A lot of people may be at home right now during COVID thinking they want to start a business. Get creative with it. My mom and dad pledged cows as collateral for me.”
Kick says her parents Gil and Marilyn Alexander have been an inspiring part of her life. Now retired as science teachers from Capital High School and Helena High School, the family was not the most wealthy. “[My mom] sewed our clothes, we grew our food, we hunted like many Montanans,” said Kick. “We made do with what we had. We lived a good life, but it was a struggled life in terms of finances.”
Even though they didn’t have the deepest pockets, the Alexanders were still able to found the Montana Science Institute which is now known as the Montana Learning Center. Inspired by the work of her parents and the accomplishments of the students, Kick started the Science Innovator Scholarship program which gives thousands of dollars each year to Helena-area science students. Recipients have studied bacteriophage proteins, the effects of sugar on human physiology, and more - all while still in high school.
“I like to reward science students that have an edge, that have that innovation edge,” Kick said. “Those that want to take on the world’s problems and make a difference.”
Kick leads by example when it comes to taking on the world's problems. At the end of March when the pandemic was beginning, Kick decided to use the company's resources to make hand sanitizer. In total 18,000 gallons went to medical personnel, the fire and police departments, branches of the US postal service, and essential workers at American Airlines and Southwest Airlines.
Many Buzzballz employees are also parents who couldn't afford to take time off for their child's remote learning needs. So in response Kick set up a school at their facility and hired educators to help with the learning of the children and ensure they don't fall behind.
"It's a big thing to do but you know it really wasn't hard to do. We didn't know how to do, but that's just like everything else. We didn't know how to create a buzzball. We didn't know how to create hand sanitizer but we did it," said Kick. "We just said, you know, our employees need it. What would I do if I were in their shoes? A lot of this whole company is I want to create something that doesn't exist and we'll do it."