When energy-drink entrepreneur Tatiana Birgisson was told by several bottling facilities they could test-bottle her product only if she filled 200,000 cans, she went out and found an independent brewer that would fill 1,000. She bought blank cans and stuck Avery labels on them herself. When restaurants didn't want her product, she hand-packaged kegs and sold them to local startups. And when breweries couldn't get her complex formula right, she built her own 30,000-square-foot bottling facility.
She didn't flinch once.
See, Birgisson is not afraid of these sorts of giant leaps--the massive gambles that might seem unhinged to the rest of us. What she's afraid of is doing the opposite: Taking the slow, steady, wait-are-we-even-moving? route.
Today, Birgisson is the chief executive of Mati Energy, the maker of the health-drink-energy-drink hybrid of the same name. It's a unique product, made from high-caffeine tea leaves and blended fruit juice. It is lightly carbonated. And it is more popular than Red Bull in pockets of the southeastern of the United States.
Back in 2010, when she was an undergraduate at Duke University studying mechanical engineering, Birgisson did a work-study with Procter & Gamble. It was there that she pinpointed her fear of moving slowly. "I was in love with consumer products, but was really upset with how long it takes to get something to market," she says. "I realized working in a big company, I could spend my entire career on something, and have it not work out." She decided then and there to switch tracks. She explains: "I realized I didn't want to just be the person designing the product--I wanted to be the one who decides when it goes to market."
And, with that light bulb, she knew entrepreneurship was for her. She joined Duke's entrepreneurship club, and started making a unique high-caffeine tea in her dorm room, and selling it to small local businesses. She moved into a small entrepreneurship community called the Cube, and acquired a 25-cubic-foot freezer that could fit exactly five kegs. She'd brew the tea, fill up the kegs, and haul them herself to her customers in her two-door Toyota Yaris.
Meanwhile, Birgisson started pitching Mati Energy as a company, racking up wins at local entrepreneurship events. (You know, when she wasn't attending classes or studying.) In 2013, she won "best undergraduate startup at Duke," and with the $11,500 cash award, first experimented with canning her product. By 2015, she had competed in--and won--a local Google demo day, and with it took an initial $100,000 investment from former AOL chief executive Steve Case.
Winning the Google competition--especially as a non-tech company--gave Mati Energy a lot of local publicity. Birgisson says: "I think that gave us a lot more credibility in the startup community here as a real company, not just a girl on the side of the road selling lemonade."
By July 2015, Mati was in 34 Whole Food stores around the Southeast, and so Birgisson took the major leap of paying a local bottling facility to do a massive run of 200,000 cans of Mati Energy tea. Soon, Mati was outselling other energy drinks at local offices, and was available at grocery convenience stores around North Carolina.
"What has surprised me over time is her willingness to take big leaps," said one of Birgisson's mentors, Lauren Whitehurst, who founded Sidekick Consulting. "The kinds of leaps and stress that she takes on would scare a lot of people--myself included."
It's entirely possible that Birgisson's ability to confront risk has a genesis that occurred long before her time at Procter & Gamble. Her childhood was unusual--and perhaps entirely unique. Birgisson, whose Venezuelan mother and Icelandic father met while studying in France, believes she's the world's first Icelandic-Venezuelan. She was born a U.S. citizen, but grew up with a truly global perspective: Her parents moved the whole family to a different country every two or three years during Birgisson's childhood. And every summer, they sent Tatiana, along with her younger sister, to each of their home countries for a month or so. In Venezuela, she'd help out at her uncle's little tourism business. In Iceland, she'd learn about her grandparents' car-importing and airline companies.
Mati Energy is on track to bring in $1 million in revenue this year, and its funding to date gives it a valuation of $5.5 million. The challenges it faces in the near future are logistical--getting the beverage, which competes directly with Red Bull and other energy drinks--onto shelves at more major stores. Also, distributing it to the rest of the United States is a goal--and will certainly be a complex feat. Simultaneously, Mati will need to scale up production at its own 30,000 square-foot production facility in Clayton, North Carolina--just 20 minutes outside of Raleigh. (Birgisson says it can comfortably produce a million cans a month.)
The health-beverage industry is booming, as people seek out low-calorie, vitamin-rich options. Remember how Honest Tea was acquired by Coca-Cola in 2011? Now it's a $130 million division. And perhaps Birgisson has found a sweet spot in the booming health-beverage industry, right at the intersection of health beverages and energy drinks. A can of Mati is adorned with a simple slice of fruit and clean design--a nod to health beverages--and a black background that gives it the visual oomph of an energy-drink can. Birgisson says the product actually goes a long way toward selling itself, once it is on a store's shelf.
"People are looking at the ingredients today--and when they see how low sugar, but high-caffeine Mati is, it sells," she says. "We are very lucky that consumers are looking at every ingredient of products they are buying."