A beverage industry exec once told Mati Energy founder Tatiana Birgisson she'd need $1 million to get cans of her all-natural tea-based energy drink on the shelves of grocery stores.
The comment scared the young startup founder two years ago, but today she can laugh. She hadn't raised any money when she sold her first keg of Mati to the startup Shoeboxed in 2012. And Mati was already on the shelves of seven Whole Foods stores by the time she raised $120,000 from friends and family last fall.
Now, she's ramping up to fulfill orders of the $2.50-$2.70 drink for more than 75 Whole Foods stores across the Southeast and Mid-Atlantic by year's end. In the Triangle, Mati is one of the best selling energy drinks in the healthy grocery store's chain.
"We're definitely pushing buttons," Birgisson says. And she's done it with less than $150K in funding.
But further growth will require more money, Birgisson acknowledges, and so she's happy to have been selected one of four women to receive a year of mentorship from SOAR. The new Google-sponsored female founder mentorship program has a goal to help at least one woman raise funds by summer 2015.
Could it be Birgisson?
SOAR co-organizer Lauren Whitehurst is pretty bullish.
"She could start to take share in the energy market and grow the market," Whitehurst says. "She's identified a formula that has really interesting natural attributes that make it a no-compromise energy drink. There is nothing out there like that."
Birgisson is innovating at the right time.
The global energy drink market is projected to grow more than 13 percent by 2018, according to a recent report by analysts at London-based TechNavio. That's largely because brands are starting to use natural ingredients, the report says.
Her tea also counts as a "functional beverage," a category of the natural foods industry growing about 20 percent a year. Brands offering health benefits are being gobbled up by major beverage companies—Coca Cola has acquired Honest Tea and ZICO and Campbell's purchased Bolthouse Farms.
But Birgisson believes her beverage is especially unique—there's no other tea-based energy drink on store shelves. She uses leaves from a plant grown in Ecuador called guayusa, the second-most caffeinated plant in the world behind coffee. She combines it with all-natural, organic orange, apple and lime juices and then pumps it with carbon dioxide. The fruity flavor and carbonation attracts non-tea drinking men to the beverage.
And the method she's perfected with the help of Triangle Brewing in Durham maximizes the amount of nutrients and antioxidants that can be drawn from the tea leaves, helping to attract non-energy drink consumers. Based on her research and widely accepted industry measures, she draws 40 percent more caffeine and antioxidants from each leaf than competitors. That means one can of Mati has the same amount of caffeine as a cup and a half of coffee, but guayasa offers a more steady and lengthy energy boost versus the quick rush and crash caused by other energy beverages, Birgisson says.
Here's a video of the process:
Helping Mati's growth is a drive instilled within Birgisson at a young age.
Little moments throughout her life have motivated Mati. The daughter of two higher-education junkies—the family moved every couple years for their post-graduate degree programs—learning was always important.
She also comes from a family of entrepreneurs—a Venezuelan uncle ran a tourism business in the Caribbean that offered jet ski and boat excursions. She remembers visiting and feeling in awe of the lifestyle he'd created for himself.
He's since opened a hospital, started and sold a bank and is now opening hotels across Latin America. Her Icelandic grandparents started Iceland's first car rental service and domestic airline.
"Family conversations when visiting my grandparents were always around business decisions," she says. "I remember always eavesdropping and being told, 'Shush,' but it was interesting to learn all of it."
Birgisson entered Duke as a biomedical engineering major—she thought she wanted to make prosthetics. She quickly decided that wasn't her calling and switched to mechanical engineering. But a summer internship working on a new sustainable diaper line for Proctor & Gamble's Pampers brand made her fall in love with consumer products. Talks with engineers there made her realize she wanted to be a decision-maker and strategized—that wasn't their role.
So she changed her major again to economics (Duke doesn't have an undergrad business major) and in 2011, joined inCube, the living-learning community for entrepreneurial students.
Her next motivational moment came when she looked around the room at inCube and realized all the men were starting companies, and she and the only other female in the program weren't.
"I felt like it reflected poorly on me personally. I kept saying I wanted to start something but I wasn't," she says. "And it poorly represented my gender."
Tatiana had no great ideas, but a friend reminded her of a hobby of brewing tea in large batches in her dorm room. They thought that was easy enough to do in greater scale, so in early 2012, Birgisson applied to the Duke Startup Challenge and inCube's summer innovation program.
She didn't make it far in the Challenge but she was accepted into the summer program, which provided a $5,000 stipend so she could spend two months dedicated to her company. That summer, she attended the World Tea Expo in Las Vegas and learned about
And she enlisted the help of two high-profile mentors: Honest Tea founder Seth Goldman and ZICO co-founder Mark Rampolla (a 1997 Duke grad). They both came to speak at Duke while Birgisson was building her company.
"I stayed in contact and as questions came up, I reached out and every email I've sent, I've gotten responses too," she says. "Their advice was very helpful."
After the test with Shoeboxed took off, she distributed kegs to other offices. By early 2013, she entered the Startup Challenge again and won best undergraduate and social enterprise startup. An $11,500 prize allowed her to find a partner in Triangle Brewing and manufacture her first 2,000 cans.
After three weeks on the market, she realized peppermint was a mistake—the tea started tasting like toothpaste. She went back to the drawing board with the citrus flavors and made a new run, with new labels
She hopes to soon purchase a pasteurizer which would increase the shelf life to six months and not require Mati cans to be refrigerated.
She's also experimenting with new flavors—cherry or mixed berry could be next. A major growth challenge has been lack of shelf space. That can be gained with a bigger product line, Birgisson says.
What SOAR can do.
Birgisson is already taking advantage of the SOAR relationship. Within a week of her first meeting with mentors Whitehust and John Austin, whose day job is running Groundwork Labs, she'd learned all of the regulations required to work with a new supplier, an issue that Birgisson admits was very worrisome.
She expects the relationship to help her figure out financial modeling and raise a significant amount of funding to grow her team and expand distribution across the East Coast. Her existing distributor to Whole Foods also has Kroger as a client—the pasteurization process will be key to winning the grocer.
In 2015, she'll attend the Fancy Foods show and Natural Products Expos on the East and West Coasts, important events for the natural foods and functional beverage industries.
But her biggest goal is simple: to grow organically.
"We need to keep growing so we can really show we're jot just a local brand but we have national, international potential," she says. "That is the push for getting into more stores and really growing."