When you think “world-changing organization,” you might not immediately conjure up the image of a beef jerky business in Decorah, Iowa — but one company is well on its way to altering that. Founded in 2015, Mission Meats is committed to two major beliefs: that snacks can be delicious and full of clean ingredients, and that giving back to others is what makes life worth living.
We talked with co-founder Peter Awad about the challenges and opportunities of being an entrepreneur, navigating the food industry, and the importance of doing work that makes an impact.
Good Companies: Let’s start at the top — what inspired the launch of Mission Meats?
Peter Awad: I’ve been in e-commerce since 2000, mostly in auto parts, but I’d always loved the idea of having a consumer product where you’d get to develop a relationship with your customers over time — cars are more of a one time purchase. Then, about four years ago, I read Bold by Peter Diamandis, and it planted this seed in my mind to start a company with a mission baked into it from the very beginning.
I had those notions in my back pocket and then add to that the fact that I’m crazy about beef jerky and we’re in Iowa, where a lot of folks are in agriculture and raising cattle, and there you have it. However, the full Mission Meats idea didn’t really all come together until I met Nick.
GC: That’s Nick McCann, your cofounder?
PA: Right. I already had the rough outline — a mission-based jerky company — but a few months later I ran into Nick. I already knew him, but I hadn’t been familiar with his background in food and supply chains and distribution and such; he studied meat processing at the Iowa State University. We were chatting, and it wasn’t long before I realized that we had the most insanely complementary skill sets I’d ever seen.
Here I was, this digital e-commerce guy with a breadth of experience who seriously loves jerky. Then you had Nick, who knows how to source ethically and efficiently and put everything together in a way that really works — and keeps you from running out of money, or product, or both. From there it all just clicked, and Mission Meats was born.
GC: When it came time to hammer out the details, how did you choose what to focus on?
PA: Thankfully, in addition to having symbiotic skill sets, Nick and I also have the same core beliefs. We weren’t going to make a product we wouldn’t feed our kids, which meant grass-fed meat and clean ingredients all came naturally — it was a given, a non-negotiable.
Both Nick and I have physical mission trips in our background, but when it came to picking the actual focus of our mission, we turned to a close friend of mine with lots of experience working in Sierra Leone and Malawi. I told her that we had this idea for a food product and wanted to partner with food programs because it seemed like a natural pairing… and she said she hated the idea!
I asked her to tell me why, and she explained that unless there’s a war or famine or some sort of disease running rampant that needs a short-term fix, food programs are terrible long-term options. They go into a village, support it, but don’t enable the people to support themselves; they’re not any better off, really, and they haven’t been able to raise themselves up.
Instead, she told me to look at what I’m passionate about: entrepreneurship. Focus on organizations that are helping people with a hand up instead of a hand out; teaching a man to fish, so to speak. That friend ended up connecting us with Educate!, our very first partner organization, which we still support — they help kids acquire the skills they need to eventually start a business to support themselves and their families. Every organization Mission Meats has partnered with since then has had that baked into the way they operate, giving people the hard and soft skills to enter or re-enter the workforce and successfully support themselves. It’s now a criterion of ours, that our partners need to have that mindset.
GC: Sourcing clean ingredients may have been a given for you, but it’s still a laudable and important decision. Can you tell us about your production processes in more detail?
PA: The majority of our ingredients — not all of them, yet — are non-GMO, even down to the citric acid we use. All of the beef is grass-fed and grass-finished, and when we use pork it’s pastured. We don’t use any food coloring, nitrates or nitrites (except for celery juice), most have no sugar or sugar substitutes added… basically, we try to keep our products as clean as possible.
Of course, we’re also trying to make them as delicious as possible. When it comes to developing a new recipe, we’ll usually start with an idea for a flavor profile and have our plants do sample runs for us. Nick and I will come in with our hair nets on, a palette full of spices, and an ingredient deck, and just start mixing things up.
Then we take it to the smokehouse and taste it — let me tell you, a lot of it tasted horrible! But there were a couple of winners in there, which is all we’re looking for. Of course, once you see how everything gets produced, you start to understand how certain recipes or packaging requirements will affect the product, and you can make smarter decisions.
GC: And what’s been one of your biggest learning moments as an entrepreneur?
PA: Probably that just because you can move quickly doesn’t mean you should, or that just because something could be improved doesn’t mean you’re the people that have to do that. For example, we might be able to crank out ten new flavors that are all winners, but what if we can’t sustain the additional traffic, or support it with our marketing efforts? I’ve realized that staying focused on our core strengths and sticking with what we do best, as opposed to trying to do everything under the sun just because you can, is incredibly important to sustained success.
We’ve been able to stay true to our original mission and not deviate from it as we grew as a result of that focus — which isn’t always easy. Deciding to donate 10% when you’re just getting started and not making any money is one thing, but as you continue to grow and those numbers become sizeable, it’s important to stay true to your goal. For Mission Meats, that meant making a clean, affordable product and giving back as much as possible.
GC: To that point, what do you feel is unique about the way for-profit brands like Mission Meats can “do good”?
PA: For-profits just don’t run under the same requirements as non-profits. Non-profits are expected to keep their overhead as low as possible and report that 80-90% of the money you give them makes it to the cause. I think an unintended consequence of those requirements is that they’re hamstrung from the get-go, and end up having to think in less logical ways about how they spend their money, which limits the potential growth of their organization.
As a for-profit business, Mission Meats can operate however we wish, and we can be really aggressive in our growth goals — and potentially give back more than if we were running under the traditional non-profit premise.
GC: What do you see as one of the biggest roadblocks to more people operating the way you guys do?
PA: I’m a newcomer to food, and probably will be for another 10 years, but I think the food industry as a whole is so obsessed with scale that they overlook certain opportunities. For example, local and regional foods are often completely overlooked because they seem unsustainable or unscalable, or having clean ingredient decks and other natural food processes are overlooked because the market seems too niche.
Because of that attitude, there are much, much smaller companies trying to fill the void, but they don’t have the economies of scale behind them. They’re stuck trying to incentivize manufacturers to produce things in a different way or to use different ingredients, and it makes for much more expensive products that are outside the reach of a lot of consumers.
If bigger companies could get on board, or more companies could start thinking about things locally, regionally, cleanly, we could drive down costs and make this kind of food accessible to a much larger demographic.
GC: Here’s hoping we’re starting to see that mentality shift in some of the big industry players. In terms of the companies who are already fighting to produce clean, sustainable products, who particularly inspires you?
PA: There’s this group Just Business, I don’t know if you’d call them an investment fund exactly, but their portfolio of companies is doing a lot of really interesting things. Rebbl, for example — I really like their product, the packaging is amazing, and the way they’re sourcing their ingredients is inspiring. It’s one of those companies that’s just always been very intriguing to me; it’s a beverage, or what you might call a superfood drink, and my family reaches for it all the time.
As an entrepreneur, I think the guys from Cliff Bar set an amazing example. They were presented with these opportunities to be acquired for something like $60 million but wanted to provide for their employees more than the acquiring company would have, so they gave up the opportunity. When I hear stories like that, where it’s not about the money, it resonates with me. Money is great, of course, but it has substantially diminishing returns after a certain point — for me, it’s all about a good quality of life and making an impact.
GC: Hear hear! So, what’s next for Mission Meats — what’s keeping you fired up?
PA: We want to continue to build out our product line with a couple of complementary offerings. Beyond that, we’d like to do some bigger partnerships with companies that have a similar ethos to what we do, and help lift each other up. To that end, we’ve had a few talks about putting out a Mission Meats media property — I’m an old podcaster — to discuss the challenges and opportunities in the field and reach more people.
I think it’s really important that we all have a mission in life. It’s one thing to go to work and be really good at your job and make a bunch of money; that’s important, but it gets boring fast. Our missions carry us through the bad days; even if you’re having a rough time, you know you’re making an impact, that there’s a reason to keep going beyond “more, faster, better.”
I want people to dig deep on whatever it is they’re working on, entrepreneur or not, to find a personal mission that feeds and drives them, so that all of us can feel like we’re doing some good in the world.