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Conversations with Merrily Talbott

Today we’d like to introduce you to Merrily Talbott.

Hi Merrily, we’re thrilled to have a chance to learn your story today. So, before we get into specifics, maybe you can briefly walk us through how you got to where you are today.
As a high school psychology teacher and counselor, I was so fulfilled by helping teenagers through the daily social-emotional challenges of life. Years later, after I had left public school teaching, I experienced my first entrepreneurial failure. I had tried to start a texting service for college students that would enable them to connect with a trained counselor over text message 24/7. It was a complicated business model and we weren’t able to raise the necessary funds to make it happen.

At the same time, I had conceived of the idea for mints called Placebos that could be used as a prop, a physical manifestation of belief in one’s ability to heal from various social-emotional struggles. Originally I thought the mints could be used as a marketing tool for the texting service: Inside each package, we would include an explanation of the placebo effect, helpful advice for that issue, and encouragement to text us if more support was needed.

While the texting service didn’t get off the ground, Placebos mints were introduced at the Tattered Cover in 2017, with a portion of profits going to mental health organizations. They sold well, and now we are in over 300 independent retailers across all 50 states and D.C. I love to hear from customers that the advice inside really made a difference or that they’ve had it taped to their mirror to remind them that their attitude toward challenges is what can make or break their daily mental health.

While I’ve learned a lot doing this business, my heart is truly in teaching and counseling, which takes most of my focus. I’m currently looking for a business partner whose passion is growing a company so that together we can make a difference in people’s mental health.

I’m sure you wouldn’t say it’s been obstacle free, but so far would you say the journey has been a fairly smooth road?
I have learned a lot about starting and growing a business, which has been challenging for me because so much of the work is solitary. I am a teacher and a counselor, an actor, and a theatre director as well, and so I thrive on collaboration, deep sharing, and vulnerability.

The loneliness of being a solopreneur has been very challenging and to walk my talk, I’ve needed to prioritize my mental well-being by focusing on the in-person work (teaching, counseling, directing, acting) that makes me feel alive. I’ve hoped and waited for the right business partner to come along–someone who thrives doing the tasks that I find daunting, but I continue to make it happen mostly on my own. I know that Placebos mints and gum have great potential, but the company’s success depends on more capital and business expertise.

As you know, we’re big fans of you and your work. For our readers who might not be as familiar what can you tell them about what you do?
I have been a teacher, counselor, actor, and theatre director for over 30 years. I love working with kids, encouraging them to express themselves on stage, and building their confidence in themselves and their compassion for others. Theatre is truly an art form that supports personal growth if approached from that point of view. It’s not about the attention an actor gets–it’s about giving a gift to each audience member and connecting with the story and character and emotion. Theatre, well done, can change you.

A few years ago I asked one of my high school drama students to direct me in a one-woman play called The Pink Unicorn. My character was a conservative, Christian woman from a small Texas town, whose teenage daughter had come out as trans. I loved playing her, making audiences laugh and cry, and our production won Best Actress and Best Production at the Colorado Community Theatre festival in 2019, which was a boost for my student director as well as for myself.

But more importantly, I love performing that show and speaking to people afterward about how the story impacted them. Perhaps my proudest moment was when a trans teenager came up to me after a performance and said that he hadn’t realized how his struggles with gender identity had impacted his parents and that he was going to go home and have a heart-to-heart with his mom about it.

We’re always looking for the lessons that can be learned in any situation, including tragic ones like the Covid-19 crisis. Are there any lessons you’ve learned that you can share?
The pandemic has changed our society in many ways that we’re all still learning about. One of the most important things it has highlighted is just how lonely people are–how we struggle with disconnection, anxiety, and a host of other daily mental health challenges. In 2021 I made a shift in how to approach my business, putting the mental health message first and the sales of mints second.

I am clear now that my purpose is to connect people–to each other as well as to themselves. Whether I do that through teaching, counseling, acting, or through my little mental-health mints, I know that I’m doing what I’m supposed to do. Life is short and precious–let’s not waste any time being hard on each other or ourselves. Let’s focus on healing and connection and love because that’s all that matters in the end.

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