It all started when Brian Levin and his friends spilled Red Bull into a bag of jerky. Energy and jerky: People are going to love this, right?
"I said, what's the next Red Bull? We've got to find it," says Levin. And Perky Jerky was born.
Now, Levin is the founder and chairman of the herd at Perky Jerky, which makes an ultra-premium jerky snack flavored with Guarana. It's also now the official jerky of NASCAR. It hauled in around $3 million in revenue last year. This year Levin says he's going to "double, triple, quadruple, quintuple" that mark.
Levin's previous life was much different, but still entrepreneurial. He ran a wireless tech company called Mobliss. Its claim to fame was building the voting system for American Idol the first six years it was on the air. He sold the company to a Japanese firm in 2004.
He ran into some tall hurdles early on with Perky Jerky. At first, he and his crew started making jerky in their own kitchen. They quickly realized that wasn't the way to go. Then, they talked to different manufacturers and tested types of jerky from all over the world to figure out the best recipe. Once they had that, they had to find an appropriate processing facility.
Levin also had to cope with significant barriers to entry. The jerky market is filled with massive, large-scale overfunded competitors that can use their weight to shove upstart brands out. But Levin says he had a big advantage by being a first-mover.
"I had no idea what I was doing," says Levin. "Which is good because if I knew, I probably wouldn't have done it. I knew people liked jerky and they liked energy and they liked premium products. So, we kind of dove into it."
Levin's first major breakthrough occurred when he got the product into Home Depot. Though that may seem like it's not a place people go to buy jerky, it was a huge success. Contractors were there in the morning and they liked that energy boost.
Perky Jerky uses various guerrilla-marketing tricks to get its name out and build the brand. For instance, it sends out a guy in a Velcro suit of jerky. It has a "jerk van" and it has rented a double-decker bus with 20 "jerk men" popping up around Manhattan.
But at its heart, it's all about the product.
"We don't take ourselves too seriously, even though I've never been more serious about anything in my life." says Levin. "But it's part of the culture. C'mon, our name is Perky Jerky. Having fun with what we do is a big part of that."
Even the packaging works hard to remind customers that it's indeed a high-quality premium product. It's a marketing lesson that Levin learned while he was working at Jagermeister and looking at competitors in the space.
"Our packaging is extremely upscale. That I took straight out of the Grey Goose playbook," says Levin. "Call it ultra-premium, get good ingredients and make it look a lot nicer than anything else out there."
Image credit: Perky Jerky