Brian Levin is the founder and "Chairman of the Herd" of Perky Jerky, a brand of caffeinated jerky. Before he got into the performance-enhancing meat snacks space (yes, it's a space), Levin was a tech entrepreneur, selling one company for a reported $15 million and another for an undisclosed sum. But Perky Jerky is his biggest venture yet, as he tells Fast Company in the second installment of Jerky Week.
FAST COMPANY: Thank you for being the second participant in Fast Company’s Jerky Week. Do you think more business publications should have a Jerky Week?
BRIAN LEVIN: I’m surprised the Wall Street Journal hasn’t already done my charcoal pencil sketch.
You’ve said that your story begins with two jerks in a ski lodge.
About seven or eight years ago, a few of my college buddies and I went out on a ski trip in Utah. We had our gear laid out for the next day, and our supplies—energy drinks and jerky. Amongst the craziness, we spilled some Red Bull in the jerky bag. The next morning, the inspiration set in: How come nobody had ever combined the two?
I thought the hard lesson we learned from Four Loko is that when you cross two awesome things, you get a third thing that is so dangerously awesome it may be illegal.
Well, we’re in a heavily regulated industry. We sprinkle a little guarana on it for flavoring effect. The caffeine equivalent is of a Diet Coke. But what we’ve done is go with an all-natural product that’s more healthy than most of the jerkies with unpronounceable additives and preservatives. Our product is much more hand-processed than the stuff you get from Big Jerky.
You sell in funny places. Home Depot? Best Buy?
We call that alternative distribution. Home Depot is a great place, if you think about it. You have a clientele of professional contractors who go in there every morning, so we’ve developed a loyal following. Also, it’s an impulse buy, getting it at the front, which is why we created packaging that stands out. Our marketing strategy is what we call "bovine oral insertion."
That sounds wrong.
It’s the art of getting meat in mouths. Once people taste it, they get hooked. That’s why we invented the Jerk Man.
You’ve anticipated my next question.
The Jerk Man is the ultimate international man of meat. For us, it’s all about getting meat in mouths, so we came up with exciting and unique ways to sample our product. We came out with a patent-pending Velcro suit of jerky, and we attach sample bags of the product to the suit. The amount of surprise, shock, awe, and delight when you hear the sound of someone ripping the package of meaty goodness off the Jerk Man... it’s really something.
How is the Jerk Man’s campaign for the U.S. presidency going?
I think it’s kind of gone the way of Rick Santorum. The Jerk Man is taking more of a grassroots campaign, trying to drum up more support at the local level to get written onto every state ballot.
As I begin to develop expertise on the jerky beat, I begin to wonder whether jerky brands are really just another form of humor brand.
I can say that with a product like Perky Jerky, you can’t take yourself too seriously, and yet I’ve never been more serious about anything in my life.
You started the text-message voting system used on American Idol, selling it for $15 million in 2004.
Yeah, this is my third startup, and the first two were tech. It’s a stark difference. You write software once, you can sell it a million times. With this, you have to actually make a product and sell it.
Are you profitable?
When did you post your first profits?
Last month. There was a big party here.
When can we expect an IPO?
I don’t think being public is in the cards for us. The Jerk Man doesn’t want to answer to anybody.
Forbes recently called you the 93rd most promising company in America.
I guess that means we got 92 to go. Lots of work ahead!
We’re in 21,000 stores right now, and hopefully will be in 100,000 by the end of the year. I guess they actually believe it when I tell them we’re gonna be the next Red Bull, the next premium consumer lifestyle brand.
You’re probably doing all right following the sales of your last two companies. But if something makes you absurdly rich, will it be this?
I’m all in. If this were a poker game, all the chips would be in the middle of the table. Honestly, the potential is so big, and jerky is such a huge market, and nobody has really tackled what we’ve done.
A lot of people read Fast Company because they want to have the next big tech startup. But it sounds like maybe they should get into the performance-enhancing meat snacks space instead?
It’s all about versatility. Anybody can be a tech mogul. First I was in tech, then I got into consumer packaged goods. It’s like being a true, versatile athlete. Why can’t I be the Bo Jackson of startups?
This interview has been condensed and edited.
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