Ever been on those long car trips and swing by a convenience store for a snack run? I do all the time, and I always find myself headed towards the jerky aisle. However, after my conversation with Alex Krakoski ’16 I’ve learned that there are tons of different types of jerky, some of higher quality than others.
I had heard from a friend that there was a Cornell startup focused on a product; not tech, not a revolutionary website, but a tangible physical product: beef jerky. I sought out the team and was able to sit down with a couple members to talk about how things got started.
Alex told me that it all started overseas during his time at Leysin Boarding School in the Swiss Alps. A lot the curriculum revolved around outdoor education including skiing and boarding (sounds like my kind of school!). Upon talking with other classmates Alex discovered that his slope hitting buddies didn’t have a snack they could take with them on the hills, without fear of it being smushed, crushed or destroyed. “We had tried bananas but it always ended badly…and messy” Alex remembered the great jerky he used to make back home with his Mom and saw an opportunity to capitalize. “I needed some extra cash and saw this as a chance to maybe start a business out of my homemade beef jerky. I never anticipated how successful it would become.” Successful indeed, Alex was able to raise enough money to help pay his tuition, fly round trip back to the States, and even fund a couple vacations in Asia! Using only fresh ingredients and high quality meat, Alex branded his product has a natural high protein snack that’s durable and filling. “I would sell them in 1oz. packets with my Mom sending over 150 packets at once. Then I started making it at home and ended up packing all my bags on the plane with jerky!” Alex continued the operation when he came to Cornell his freshman year – having a friend run the operations at Leysin while he sent product from the US. “I raised a few eyebrows in the Cornell financial aid office when they saw I had recurring transfers from a Swiss bank account. They asked me what suspicious activity I was engaged in and when I told them they didn’t believe me! They said ‘Alright Alex, we’ll let you explain one more time but this time with the truth.’ Finally I was able to prove that this was just a lucrative jerky business.”
Now at Cornell, Alex is studying Chemical Engineering with a Dyson Business minor and has decided to grow Worthy Jerky in Ithaca. He has since built a team from all disciplines handling everything from accounting and financing to food science and food engineering. Ben Pham ’16 joined up with Alex to grow the company, “I had seen him selling this jerky outside of gyms and other locales. After talking with him I got pretty interested in the idea and saw as a business major how I could help.” Now the group has an active online presence and is stirring buzz with students. The team has met with IBM Healthy Snacking, P&C Fresh and even Cornell Dining! Alex notes that the connections Cornell has been able to provide have been vital. “CALS has all sorts of resources which I’ve used to grow Worthy Jerky. Nancy Bell set me up with some great introductions and the Dyson School even sent me to the NYC Tech Summit and an international conference in Washington DC!” Alex and team were also accepted as a Cornell eLab business where they workshop the company everyday with savvy business leaders. “Dan Cohen has been a huge help with giving us direction. His class ILR4660 Small Business Management was relevant and perfect for what I was trying to do. Also the team at FiberSpark and the rest of the Popshop has given us a ton of guidance.”
Although it started as a sole proprietorship, the firm has grown to over 10 people which have its advantages and disadvantages. “Maintaining productive team dynamics is an issue any business owner faces, here at Cornell we have some particularly opinionated individuals and I need to know how to keep things positive and productive. There’s no right answer to a question and everyone is entitled to their respective thoughts.” Ben agreed and mentioned the most difficult part of running this business is managing the student startup life, “Streamlining decisions has been a focus area for us, some of these moves are time sensitive like produce this much by Friday to fill an order. Were all Cornellians taking a ton of credits and it can be really tough to manage progress with everyone on such different schedules.”
Ideally the team would like to scale up as an artisan premium product partnered with big companies looking to offer snacks in this arena. “JetBlue and Virgin and trying to differentiate what they provide to customers and are beginning to handle products like ours. I would love to scale up the business to be able to go for these big name players with a pitch.” The key is leading with a strong brand and promoting quality. Worthy Jerky isn’t gas station material; the team prides itself in not using preservatives, colorants, processed sugars, or other artificial ingredients. Alex and Ben believe this strong brand association with quality will take them far. With consumers that much more conscious about what they’re putting into their bodies, promoting the benefits of a natural product is ideal.
I asked Alex and Ben their thoughts on the startup scene here at Cornell and if they had any advice to share with aspiring student entrepreneurs. Ben was quick to note “The only doors that are closed to you are the ones you don’t open. A lot of this was by chance and a bit of luck, we met the right people with the right contacts and success followed. This never would have happened though if we never just simply took the chance.” Alex nodded along and added “You can’t be risk adverse. You just can’t. You’ve got to take the leap if not you’ll always be playing the ‘What If’ game. Don’t be afraid to make mistakes, nobody hits a homerun their first time at bat but mistakes can be turned into learning experiences – that you tailor into your approach next time.”
Check out Worthy Jerky’s facebook page here and look out for their line of products in the local area soon!