Krave Jerky: Conversation with Jon Sebastiani

Krave Jerky CEO Jon Sebastiani tells a story of how growing up in a wine county led him to found America's most popular jerky brand

1.       Tell me a little bit about your background. What did you study and how did you know that you want to go into business and entrepreneurship?

I grew up in Sonoma, working in the vineyards with the soil and the grape vines. It instilled a real sense of humbleness and grit in me at an early age that has driven me to do and accomplish things that most people would have said were far-fetched. I’ve always been fascinated by consumer behavior and how brands are built and differentiated from one another. This curiosity and interest started at a young age and was fueled by the years I spent in the wine industry, where differentiation is challenging, and brand is everything. It was after many years in the wine industry that I went back and completed a dual MBA program at Haas School of Business and Columbia Business School, which was the foundation with which I was able to enter the CPG space. 

2.       Your company is filled with chic, healthy food brands. What made you decide to focus your investment only on food? Does it have anything to do with your wine background?

Our portfolio is a collection of some of the best-in-class CPG brands. We focus on investing in and creating brands (food, beverage, personal care, etc.) that have incredible leadership teams, clear brand vision and a “better-for-you” angle. My background in wine has certainly shaped the way in which I view and examine truly differentiated brands. As is evident by walking into the wine aisles of any retailer, differentiating yourself in the wine space is incredibly challenging, as it often is in snack, beverage, etc. It is incredibly humbling to work alongside so many incredible brands that have captured the magic required to be a stand-out in any given sector.

3.       A lot of college students today are worried about not knowing what they want to do after graduation. A lot of business-oriented students are considering going into consulting and investment banking to accumulate experience before starting their companies. Would do you think? Would you recommend it? Or would you say there are disadvantages to this train of thinking?

There is nothing like the education you receive in the workplace. I went back to get my MBA when I was well into my career, and the learnings I brought with me from my time in the wine industry were invaluable. Many of my now Sonoma Brands team members cut their teeth in banking or private equity and now find themselves feeling incredibly fulfilled by the work they are doing on an operating team within a brand. Stay curious and explore what interests you – you might surprise yourself. 

4.       There’s always a lot of doubt when you are starting a new business. It’s different from working for another company because you take full ownership and you have to keep pushing and growing. So how did you decide that you want to start KRAVE and did you have any fears when you made that entrepreneurial leap?

My KRAVE journey was born while training for the NYC Marathon. I found myself eating a lot of jerky, as it was a quick and easy source of protein.  I thought to myself, “Can I take this out of the gas station by elevating the flavors and ingredients?” It was a big leap to start KRAVE, in fact I kept it secret from friends and family for a long time, but as a luxury consumer myself, I knew there were others who would pay more for a premium meat cuts with clean ingredients and beautiful packaging. 

5.       After Krave, you sequentially invested and founded a few other brands that are very well-known today, including HU chocolate and Smashmallow. What made you decide to continue down this path? Was it due to the successes of KRAVE? 

Out of the KRAVE journey came a World Class team made up of professionals who had spent time at the likes of Popchips, Vitamin Water, Pretzel Crisps, etc. and we had created a playbook of how to successfully launch and scale brands. I started Sonoma Brands in late 2015 with the intention of both investing in and incubating CPG brands, utilizing the playbook we had developed at KRAVE. Since inception, Sonoma Brands has internally incubated and launched 3 brands – SMASHMALLOW, Medlie (formerly ZUPA NOMA) & PECKISH. We also have made 6 external investments – Vintage Wine Estates, HU, Dang, Yumble, True Botanicals and GuayakI.

6.       What are the biggest challenges facing Sonoma right now, if any?

At Sonoma, we stay perfectly curious about everything we do and see. We constantly review data and have conversations about how we can do things better than we are currently doing them – that applies to everything from weekly meeting schedules to the ways that massive production runs for SMASHMALLOW are accomplished. We are our own biggest critics which can be incredibly challenging at times, but ultimately forces us to be the best firm we can be. 

7.       What’s one piece of advice that you would give to your 18-year-old self?

I would tell my 18 year-old self to stay humble and curious and to always surround myself with kind, hard-working people.

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