By KRISTINA SCALA
From Eastern Regional High School valedictorian to law school student, Voorhees native Matt Tolnick embarked on a career change he never imagined — starting a beef jerky company.
Tolnick graduated from Eastern in 2001 and stood by his fellow classmates as valedictorian. During his time at Eastern, he was scholastically inclined, keeping up with his grades. He played on the basketball team his freshman year, but didn’t believe a career in the sport would pan out.
“I wanted to go to the best college I could, and I figured things would align themselves from there. I never had any specific goals,” he said.
Tolnick attended Duke University, graduating with a degree in public policy studies and economics. While thinking about pursing a career as an NBA agent, he thought going to law school after Duke would be a reasonable move toward his future aspirations.
“That was something I had kicked around a little bit. When I went off to college, I didn’t have a specific idea for a major. It wasn’t like this is what I have to do with myself. To me, it always seemed like I could, and had the ability and the potential to do so many things. It was always so hard to settle on one,” he said.
He set himself up for a career in law knowing he would have to go back to school, studying for a number of years if he pursued his degree in business.
In 2002, Tolnick started making beef jerky with a few college friends, splitting the cost of a $50 dehydrator from Wal-Mart. They decided buying jerky was expensive.
“The first batch wasn’t good,” he said. “Back then I didn’t have the spice cabinet that I would come to have in subsequent years. We were following the directions of the dehydrators … that’s not how you make good beef jerky.”
According to Tolnick, using lean cuts of meat is a better option over ground beef. When he discovered more gamy pieces turned into a better quality jerky, as well as the “rudimentary understanding of flavors,” he took the idea and ran with it.
“I was able to quickly have something as good as what we were getting in stores,” he said. But he wasn’t keeping track of his recipes.
“That came later,” he said.
The jerky sharing did not travel past his core group of friends.
“It would be gone before you knew what to do with it,” he said.
He made small batches, making jerky the same way someone would make cookies or baked goods in their house or apartment.
When he went to UCLA, he continued to make jerky and began to “hone in on flavor profiles.”
“By the third year in law school, I decided I had enough of the law courses and wanted to branch out and take whatever else I could while I was still on campus,” and selected managing entrepreneurial operations and business plan writing, Tolnick said.
The thoughts of a beef jerky company began to swirl in his mind, and the bar for a beef jerky company was getting higher.
However, Tolnick did not completely give up on his law degree. He worked as a sports attorney for a professional and college basketball firm in California — Kauffman Sports — and was an agent for NBA and college players.
He said before moving to Voorhees, growing up in Boston as a Celtics fan turned his love of the business side of the sport of basketball into a career.
“I could have done it for a lot longer. I might have still been doing it if it wasn’t for the NBA lockout. At that point, I could have waited for the lockout to lift. Not knowing how long it would be I thought it was the right career move,” he said.
“I was hoping the gold at the end of the rainbow was actually enjoying practicing law. So I gave that a go for a number of years before I came back again, and the jerky was speaking louder to me as a career pursuit as the recipes got better,” he said.
Sending out samples and using tasting surveys, documenting and creating recipes suitable for reproduction and becoming known as the jerky guy, helped him move forward with his final decision of starting Lawless Jerky.
“The last thing I wanted to do was jump into business with a product that wouldn’t be successful,” he said.
Perfecting flavors was the first step. The next was to find the proper funding to help market his product.
He turned away from “Shark Tank” — an ABC reality TV show where entrepreneurs pitch business ideas to potential investors.
“I did not have a history or track record of growing sales,” he said.
Tolnick heard about an online funding platform, Kickstarter, which would aid in his pursuit of capital investments.
After extensively researching the platform, looking at the success of other jerky businesses and reading a book about the site in one sitting at Barnes & Noble, Tolnick found what he was searching for.
“I got to a point where I had all of the data to put together a page of my own and launched it on my 30th birthday,” he said.
His goal was to raise $12,000. Within the first 24 hours, he reached his goal and earned $31,777 in 35 days.
He plans on using the funds for attending events, sharing his product, making sample batches to pass out to companies that might be interested in carrying the product, making labels and more. Tolnick is still in the beginning stages of his company after jumping around in college and in his career. But he has his mind set on expanding Lawless Jerky.
“I have worked hard enough up unto this point of my life and I don’t want to be miserable for the rest of it. I don’t believe I am entitled to anything, but I would like to be happy. Making jerky for people who really enjoyed it, saying it was the best jerky they ever had, that made me happy in a way that not a lot of other things did,” he said.
For more information or to order Lawless Jerky, visit www.lawlessjerky.com.