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How 3 College Friends Started A Jerky Company
My guest is Jess Thomas. He is the Co-Founder and CEO of True Jerky. It’s a consumer brand of protein snacks based in the San Francisco Bay area. Jess, welcome to Thought Talk.
Thank you so much for having me, Karen. It is great to be here.
We met through Ken LaGrande, who’s my friend and client. He’s your uncle, yes?
He’s my cousin actually. Because of the age gap, that makes sense. He is my first cousin.
You’re both in the food business, which is what’s interesting.
Our families collectively have been in the food business. His for four generations, mine for three, and so there’s a lot of history there for sure.
Did you feel more comfortable going into the food business? Did you choose the food business because you’ve got some family history in it?
When I was growing up, my dad was in the cattle business. I spent most of my summers on a cattle ranch in Oregon. As I was growing up and going through high school and college, part of the youthful rebellion, I said consciously, “I’m not going to get into food rag.” I was going to be in finance and that’s what I studied in college. Life has a way of turning you in certain directions. It felt inevitable after three or four years out of college that I was going to end up in food. It’s an industry that I love, the idea of making tangible or tactile goods that people can enjoy all over the world. It’s fun and interesting. When I graduated college, the option was a huge employment driver in California and it was never something that appealed to me. I was much more passionate about the process of bringing food. “Farm to table” is the catchphrase du jour but it is a neat process to see that unfold and to reach consumers all over the world. I didn’t grow up thinking I was going to be in food, but if I was honest with myself, it was always where I was headed.
How did you get the idea for True Jerky? Were you a huge fan of protein snacks? Was it one day you went, “There is not one that I enjoy. I’m going to make it?” How did you end up with that as a product?
A lot of origin stories for companies are very neat and tidy and ours is decidedly not neat and tidy. It was not so much of an a-ha moment, but a series of fortunate events. What I wanted to do was start a brand in the snacking space. I didn’t know where that was going to be, but I had been working in the food business for a few years and had watched. We were selling rice and so I would go to these conferences and I would see all these fun, exciting snacking brands. I watched the growth of healthy snacking as a subcategory. What I wanted to do was get into snacking and I got very fortunate in that some good friends of mine from college had started a little boutique jerky business down in San Diego. They had a couple of good products and we were close, so there was this a-ha moment at a bachelor party, of all places, where they had this boutique business. I wanted to get into the business and I had a background in food, and so that’s how the business started. Jerky was an entry point. The vision for the brand has always been to broaden out and stay within the heading of healthy snacks or protein snacks, but to do things beyond just beef jerky.
You started the business with friends, but in your family, a lot of your agricultural business, it’s a family business. How do you think it’s different or better or worse than starting a business with friends versus starting a business with family or with co-workers?
Like anything, there are advantages and disadvantages to all of them. Friends, family, co-workers, you can find dozens of examples, hundreds probably of businesses with friends that have gone south and businesses with friends that have done well. Same thing with family businesses. It all comes down to the people involved at the end of the day. Specifically, in my experience, starting a business with friends, the biggest thing is the trust factor, particularly if you are a startup or you’re at risk every day for the first however many years that you’re doing it. You’ve got some moments where it’s pretty touch and go and you’re wondering, “Are we going to make payroll?” or “Is this going to last another two months?” In those moments, trust is what you have to fall back on and the idea that you want to do well for these people because you care about them outside of the business.
Kevin, James, and I have, since 2015, run the day-to-day. I’ve known James for ten years. He has been one of my best friends since my sophomore year in high school. Kevin and I go all the way back to my sophomore year in college. It’s motivating to want to succeed together and for them. The biggest thing is the trust factor. You know that at the end of the day that these guys have your back. I know that they’re not going to cut and run because they got a better job offer or whatever. Then the other thing is celebrating the wins. When you get good news and when you have a win, doing it with people that you like and that you have fun with, it makes it all the sweeter.
You started with jerky. Gourmet beef and turkey jerky are two of your main staples. We’ll talk about the new jerky trail mix and biltong, which I’ve eaten because I used to have a client that was a South African restaurant, so I know what that is. Jerky is a pretty competitive market with a few large incumbents and lots of local boutique brands. I was thinking about EPIC and I’ve written about EPIC when I’ve done food stories and things. Was it hard to stand out? How did you figure out how to stand out in terms of the branding of this?
It is a competitive market. The advantage that we had going into it was twofold. One, market tailwinds. Consumers want more protein. They’re snacking more often, and so those macro forces, they enabled jerky as a category to grow pretty quickly. High growth categories tend to allow for more niche brands to enter because if you have increasing shelf space, then mathematically, there’re more opportunities for new brands to come in. That was one dynamic that helped us. It had nothing to do with us. It was just the market in general. Then the other component is that we’re in an era, particularly with consumer products, where there’s a movement by consumers away from the Proctor & Gambles, Kraft Foods of the world, and towards more niche brands. It’s not just in food. You see it in beer, you see it in wine, you see it in mattresses. It’s all over the place. Consumers want to connect with brands and they know they want to try something new.
We had those two things working in our favor, but in terms of what we did, we knew that we couldn’t outspend our competitors. We knew that we couldn’t outmarket them probably early. We knew what we could control, which was that to consumer, at the end of the day, health is important, nutrition is important. Consumers want healthy, nutritious products but taste is still the number one purchase driver in food. If we can make products that not only had enticing flavor profiles that we would grab attention but deliver on the taste, we had a reasonable chance at getting some traction, and that was what we focused on early.
We did think of the package design and our visual brand was going to be important, but where we knew we needed to deliver was on the taste of the product. As a retail business or as a brand selling to retail, your first barrier to entry is always going to be the buyer. If the buyer doesn’t like your products or if it tastes like something he had yesterday, then it’s up to chance, but if you can deliver a product that has an enticing flavor profile and tastes great, you have a chance to succeed. That’s where we focused on early. We wanted to create flavors that were unique and innovative but delicious.
Did you go to things like the Fancy Food Show? Did you go to the traditional food shows to get seen by the retail stores and the places that buy?
We’ve been to every one of them, you name them. Expos is always our biggest one and we go to three or four a year and it’s both an efficient and an inefficient way to meet grocery store buyers. We don’t rely on it solely to build our business. We have a fairly robust sales organization that it’s their job to get the attention of those buyers, but it is helpful particularly for younger companies. When we were young, you go in on a wing and a prayer and hope that the buyer from Kroger or wherever happens to stop by your booth. Once or twice a week, you do get lucky but it’s a lot of dead time and a lot of money.
Early on, what did you do that helped you grow? For example, what role did social media play then? What role is it playing now?
We did two things early that helped us grow. Number one was the composition of our team. There were and still are only three of us and the makeup of our skills and our personalities allowed us to get a lot done. We could cover a lot of bases with just the three of us. In terms of advice, making sure that you can do and you can maximize people’s abilities is helpful. That was a big thing that we did. My partner, James, has handled all of our sales since day one and that was very important for us early because you’re trying to do a lot of different things and sales is something that you can’t afford to take a back seat even for a day. Strategically, the way we organized our team was important for us. The other thing was finding some white space in the market. We’re located in San Francisco. All of our friends, for the most part, work in tech and what we knew from living and spending time with our buddies was that all these tech companies have these fairly, robust food programs and stacking program.
It’s like the bins in Whole Foods in those high-tech companies in Silicon Valley. You would think I’m in Whole Foods. I work a lot with high-tech companies and whenever I’m in there working, I invariably will meet someone who’s been in the company, like they just joined, and they’d been there a couple of months and I say, “How are you liking the job?” They’ll go “It’s great, but I’ve gained ten pounds.” That is the standard answer when I’m asking people.
I hope that we’re not a part of those ten pounds. Situationally being located in San Francisco, we’re right next to all these companies. We knew people who worked there and so we would go to them and say, “Can we sample at your office?” We were able to find a little bit of white space that wasn’t completely saturated with other brands and exploited it. We started with one office and then two offices and then four offices and then we found a distributor and then two distributors. After a year and a half to two years later, we’re now among the probably most widely distributed jerky brands in the Bay Area through those tech companies. That was important for us early on because number one, it showed investors in the market and everything that we were able to think a little bit outside the box in terms of routes to market. Number two, revenue. Having a steady source of recurring revenue is a huge advantage for a young company. Number three, and this is unique to tech, tech employees are very product-focused and very engaged consumers. We’ve got a lot of product feedback that has helped us reformulate and redesign products on the fly as we go. It’s been a great source of feedback for us. It’s a little bit like having a paid trial and so that was another thing that we did early that was helpful for us.
How did you get that feedback from people? Did you actively seek it? Did you just listen when people wrote you or emailed to you? Did you use social for it?
All of the above. We actively encourage people to reach out to us. If and when consumers do email us, it’s priority number one to respond to them as quickly as possible because we want people to reach out to us and tell us what they think, particularly when it’s negative. I’d say the overwhelming majority of emails that we get are positive, but when a consumer does send us an email that says, “I don’t like your jerky,” we take that to heart. Speaking one-on-one, doing demos, things like that, they feel like they’re a waste of time, but having the chance to see how a consumer interacts with your product up close and personal is the best form of feedback that you can get. Particularly early when we were, as a matter of necessity, doing all the demos ourselves. That was a great way for us to get feedback. We do some of that through social media comments. They’re usually fairly positive and are less detailed than an email, but it’s all of the above.
You’ve had some innovations. You have a product line called Turkey Jerky Trail Mix, which is where you have both the jerky, one’s bacon, one’s turkey, one’s beef, and then you have different trail mixes in one package, but they’re in separate sections of the package, so they maintain their freshness. Then the consumer combines them, and they basically get a jerky trail mix. I am a branding strategist. I have not seen that anywhere else. Is that a new category in the food market?
It’s pretty new. The interesting part is when we first started the company, that was the original product idea that we wanted to execute. We had a couple of jerky products and we thought that the next line that we should do is a jerky trail mix. We were so small and so young and so undercapitalized that we quickly realized, “It’s going to be a lot cheaper and easier for us to create some more jerky flavors than it is going to be to do an entirely new product line.” One of the reasons for that is that we learned the hard way about what you alluded to, which is the freshness issues that you encounter if you mix jerky in trail mix. There’s the technical side behind it, but the moisture of jerky gets absorbed by the dryness of nuts and seeds and everything and you end up with this homogenous taste and texture and it doesn’t work out that well.
That was a huge problem that we had to address in the designing of the product. That’s part of the reason it took us almost two full years to get the product launched. There are a couple of companies including ours that do have a version of jerky trail mix. It’s a fairly new category and emerging. We hope it’s something that is high growth and that more brands and more consumers develop an awareness of because it’s delicious. Honestly, it’s a unique product.
The two packages, was that something that you created and invented as a way to solve that problem?
Yes and no. We knew that we needed to solve the problem. We had found a brand. You mentioned EPIC. EPIC does a version of that package, but we did have to get the package engineered. One of the challenges that we encountered was finding packaging engineers to design the package for us because you can go to a packaging company and say, “Can you make me this?” More often than not, they’ll tell, “No.” That was a big challenge for us. It was essentially engineering this package or having somebody engineer the package from scratch, but we had seen a version of it that was the inspiration.
One of your brand-new things that you’ve created also is called biltong, which is a South African dried cured meat stack, which I’ve had because I had a client that was a South African restaurant. Anyone who has been there, has had it. It’s a pretty common food in South Africa, but you’re trying to introduce a new kind of food into the US and a new kind of meat. How challenging is that?
It’s very challenging. There are a lot of success stories. You look at something like Greek yogurt for instance. The food aisles are riddled with the next big things that never took off. It’s challenging. It can be done when it’s done correctly. It can be a great thing for a brand. You can see that Greek yogurt is same for Chobani or Chobani is same for Greek yogurt, however you want to look at that, but it certainly is challenging.
Biltong is an incredible product. You mentioned South Africa and it’s placed within South African food culture. We struggled to find appropriate analogy, but it’s so ubiquitous there. Not only is it everywhere, it’s their bar snack, it’s an appetizer. People shave it and put it on burgers. There’s so much passion and pride around it. We learned about this product and we traveled through South Africa and spent a lot of time talking with anybody who would take a meeting, consumers, butchers, beef processors, cattle raisers, anybody who had an interest or a stake in biltong. What we found is that every single person has the best recipe in South Africa. They all have a secret family recipe and it’s all variations on the same five ingredients. It’s beef, salt, vinegar, pepper, and coriander, that’s it.
We fell in love with the product. People there are so passionate and so eager to spread the word about biltong and talk about it. We came home, and we said, “We need to bring this to the States.” We’re hopeful for how biltong will be received in America. Number one, the taste is awesome. It’s a very fresh, very flavorful snack and it’s different than jerky even though it has the same component ingredients. It’s just meat and spices, but the taste and texture are different enough that even for those people who say, “I don’t like jerky. It’s too tough or it’s too chewy,” or whatever, we think that there’s a big group of consumers who may not like jerky but would like biltong. The nutritional profile is what stuck with us.
Very high protein, right?
It’s sixteen to seventeen grams of protein versus jerky, which is in the ten to twelve range and no sugar. No one in the food business and nutrition industry can agree on virtually anything except for the fact that sugar is bad, and smoking is bad. Those are the only two public enemies number one. Having no sugar, high-protein count, and a product that tastes great, we think we’re on the right track and we are optimistic about a biltong’s place in food culture.
You’re sourcing your biltong, I would assume from South Africa. I know all the rest of your meats are 100% domestic.
We are still sourcing and producing biltong in the United States. We looked into the South African importation, but as a matter of circumstance, we can’t import beef from South Africa. We are able to make it here in the States. We have producers for it, which is good. Our big concern initially was we weren’t sure that there was enough awareness in the States to have a processor for it, but what we did find is there’s a small cohort of brands, including ours, who are trying to bring this product to the States, which we think is a great thing. We wouldn’t pretend to think that we can be the only ones doing this or that we could frankly do it by ourselves. There are a few brands who are right there with us and a couple of processor. We are able to make it here in the States. We are able to still maintain our internal commitment as a brand to using 100% domestically sourced beef. That’s important for us and we were very happy to be able to.
Your decision to source all your beef 100% domestic, was that a branding decision? Was that a values decision? Was that a practical decision? Logistical decision? A bit of all of it? Why did you choose to do that?
It’s a little bit of a values decision, about 75% value, 25% branding. I spent a lot of time on a cattle ranch and still do. I’m in the cattle business with my dad. That part of the business, that part of the jerky supply chain or the value chain has always been near and dear to my heart. One of the things that was a little bit depressing was when we were first starting this business, I called a lot of companies. I would call a jerky brand and say, “Where do you source your beef? I’m a student looking to do a research project on beef jerky.” The response that I got almost every time was, “We don’t source it. Our manufacturer does.” I would call manufacturers and the manufacturer would say “I don’t source it. Our broker does.” Then you go to a beef broker and the beef broker says, “Sometimes it comes from the US, sometimes it’s from Australia.” It depends on where you can find that cheapest products. To me, that felt such a transactional process that had no connection between the brand and the meat supply.
We wanted to correct that and having a product that’s 100% sourced domestically in the US, while it may cost us a little bit on the supply side, being able to do that and knowing to a certainty where our beef comes from, has been important for us. I don’t know whether or not it’s created a lot of advantages for us in the marketplace or how consumers view it. What we found generally is that consumers assume that all the beef jerky that they eat comes from the US, when in fact almost all of it does not. That’s mostly a values decision for us.
A lot of our audiences are entrepreneurs and business people and one of the things that’s tough to do as an entrepreneur and that you’re always struggling with is, “What’s the next thing? How do you innovate in the market? How do you find what’s next?” For you, how did you find these ideas for some of these new growing areas?
Part of that comes down to philosophy. Our product philosophy has always been to lead with the heart rather than the head, finding things that resonate with us personally and that are exciting for us. We’ve looked at a lot of different product opportunities and thought about a lot of them. If it doesn’t make the hair on the back of your neck stand up with excitement, then it’s probably not worth doing. If you look at some of the stagnancy of the big CPG firms and the big food companies, some of the issues that you can spend millions of dollars in product R&D, designing a technically perfect product, but it doesn’t have the same emotional resonance as something that’s a random person develops in their kitchen.
We start with the philosophy that if it’s not very exciting to us, then we won’t do it. The minimum criteria. If and when we find products that do, then that’s where we start our exploration. We’re working on another one beyond biltong now that fits that description as well. Once you get there, then designing and building and testing is that lean startup model. You keep iterating and reiterating products until you find something that is, “Yes, it’s met our internal need that it’s exciting as a concept,” but it also has to be a great product. It also has to hold up to the smell test and the taste test of consumers. Designing the products with consumers in mind, but then going and asking them what they think about it before you spend precious dollars launching and promoting the products. Take the jerky trail mix, the expression that we always use is that that product line is the product of a million calories worth of research probably. We would go to the bulk bins at whole foods and buy every single trail mix sample that we could. I don’t know if we tapped out every possible combination of trail mix ingredients but I’d say we got close. We’re happy with how it turned out. We didn’t just take a trail mix off the shelf and put jerky with it and said, “We’re good to go.” We had been very thoughtful about taste and textures.
Were you the tasters? Were the three of you the ones who did the tasting?
Yes, the initial tasters. Once we thought we had some recipes that worked pretty, then we started sending them out to our salespeople and our other co-founders and our friends and basically anybody who we thought would be interested and give good feedback. That’s how we reached where we did with the products that we have and we’re happy with them now. It’s a process for sure.
You’re the third person I interviewed that said, “You have to come up with the idea, but then you not only have to test it, but you have to listen to the feedback you’re getting,” which sounds incredibly obvious, but I can tell you how many companies have failed not doing that.
I fully believe it. As an entrepreneur, you have to have a lot of confidence in your abilities. You have to be a little bit vain and be able to ignore criticism to some degree that can lead you in the wrong direction in some cases, particularly with products or with your brand. We’re very passionate about our products and very passionate about our brand. If somebody does send an email, a critical email, it hurts. It stings a little bit. The nice notes are very nice. They’re very flowery, long sentences and paragraphs and extolling how amazing we are as product developers, but then the bad emails are just like subject line, “Your jerky is shit.” The body of email, “I hate your product. It doesn’t taste good.” It cuts deep.
You have to have tough skin to be an entrepreneur.
For sure, but if you don’t listen to that and if you don’t take it to heart, you can be blinded by your own pride in your product. You have to have the humility to say, “Something’s not working. We need to change it.”
There are some themes that I always talk about and one of them is what I call the joy of missing out. People have a huge fear of missing out in regard to entrepreneurship. I’d love to know from your perspective, what is something that people have a fear of missing out on in regard to entrepreneurship that they shouldn’t? What should we have a joy of missing out on in regard to the larger entrepreneurship conversation?
This is a JOMO instead of FOMO. One of the questions people ask a lot is, “Is being an entrepreneur or running a startup, is it a better job, is it a worse job or is it a more fun or less fun?” There’s a lot of misconception or lack of understanding about entrepreneurship in general. There are good jobs and there are bad jobs and there are good startups and there are bad startups. It comes down to the startup itself. There are days where it’s a job and there’re boring days and there are fun days. What I would tell people in terms of what’s good about what they’re missing out on is that most of the time it’s a regular job. The only difference is that, if you work for a big company or a local business or something that’s stable, there is always that lack of clarity about what the future holds if it’s your business.
Most of the time, being an entrepreneur, having a startup is having a job and it’s not any more or less exciting, but in terms of what would I not miss about being an entrepreneur is the lack of certainty about what the future holds. You never know because we don’t have the ability to weather a storm like an insurance agency who’s been around for 60 years and has an amazing client base. We’re not in a recession proof business. If the markets collapse again, companies like ours who are funded primarily through venture capital, those dollars are going to be harder to come by, and so the lack of 100% confidence in the future and in the stability of our business is definitely daunting.
One of the other things I talk about is what I call living beyond the script because there are these scripts about how we’re supposed to do things and the way we’re supposed to do them. I’d love to hear your take on what you think the prevailing script is that relates to entrepreneurship and how do you think people can go beyond that and around it?
One of the things that I’ve noticed or observed over the last four or five years is partly because of social media, partly because of TV. There seems to be this mythology around startups, around entrepreneurship like, “What does it take to be an entrepreneur?” or “The five qualities every entrepreneur must have” like being an entrepreneur is like being a Jedi. You have to have some preordained set of skills. There’s a Peter Drucker quote that says, “The only definition of a leader is someone who has followers.” The only definition of an entrepreneur is someone who starts a business. The script on entrepreneurship is way to centered around the qualities and skills that you have to have or if you do have these, then you can be an entrepreneur and that all it takes to start a business is an idea, some effort, and, if possible, a little bit of luck. I encourage people all the time, if you have an idea that you think is sound and you’ve run it by enough people to poke holes in it and it’s a good idea, do it. What’s the worst that can happen?
People get very caught up in analysis paralysis and you can read eleven books about starting businesses and is it now the right time or not the right time and a little bit to the access to information that we all have and the mythology around startup culture and entrepreneurship, it’s gotten tougher for people to be willing to make the leap ironically at a time when the culture at large is a lot more supportive of startups and new businesses.
The other thing that I always talk about is the theme of the everyday artist because there’s a part of what everyone does that’s art and science. In what way do you consider yourself an artist in the work that you do?
I don’t know that I’ve ever considered myself an artist per se. As my mom would tell you, I was probably the least artistic child in history of Heritage Elementary School, but you’re absolutely right. There are parts of running a business that are more art than science or a blend of art and science. For us, product development is a lot of art and some science and the lines between the two are blurred. Products and brands are a creative expression. You can design a product in a laboratory using 100% technical thinking based on research that you’ve done about macro trends in the market and it can be a tactically sound and technically precise product and it could fall flat, and so the art comes in where you have to create, you have to design a product from scratch, and you have to use what you know about consumer behavior or just what you know about people, and so I think products and brands in particular are certainly creative expressions and there’s a lot of art and some science to them.
I would say strategy as well. Strategy can and should in my opinion be a very creative process. It’s not so linear as it is winding. It’s not just because A, therefore B. You have to be creative in your strategy, particularly as a young company. We had to do that early and it’s still a big part of what we do that is solving problems creatively. It’s probably not very traditional to think about strategy as a creative process, but it absolutely is. Creativity is one of the most important skills to have on a young team, first time entrepreneurs, because you’re going to get into a lot of jams and you’re going to have to figure your way out of them. If all you’re relying on is intellect, you can’t just do it and you’ve got to be creative with it.
Thank you so much for joining us.
Karen, thank you so much.
Thank you for joining us. My guest has been Jess Thomas. He is the Co-founder and CEO of True Jerky. It’s a consumer brand of protein snacks based in San Francisco. You can find out more at www.MadeByTrue.com.
About Jess Thomas
Jess Thomas is the Co-Founder and CEO of True Jerky, a consumer brand of protein snacks founded by college friends in 2015 and based in San Francisco. True makes bold & delicious protein snacks inspired by regional or global flavors, made with 100% domestic meats. Their products can be found in over 2000 stores nationwide, as well as on Amazon and the True website.