Tatiana Birgisson '12 doesn't rest

In 2012, an accidental business idea helped rejuvenate the alumna. Today, neither she nor her energy-drink company is showing signs of slowing down.
Writer: 
December 16, 2016

It’s a midmorning in July just outside Raleigh, and Mati Energy’s 30,000-square-foot brewing facility is already pretty toasty. Here, Tatiana Birgisson ’12 is leading a monthly meeting with her burgeoning energy-drink team—most of whom are wisely decked out in T-shirts—to determine sales strategies across different states and delivery channels, to wordsmith nutritional content on the sleek black cans to highlight Mati’s health advantages versus Red Bull and Monster, and to debate just about every business decision imaginable.

Which, today especially, includes choosing the right thermostat.

“Why didn’t we go with the first one?” asks Birgisson. Her brow is furrowed inquisitively— she’s not cutthroat but curious, harking back to discussions from months earlier.

“You didn’t like how it looked,” says Arin Aucoin, then production manager in the Clayton, North Carolina, brewery. “And the display didn’t work.”

A prime buzzword in the world of startups is “runway.” It’s a tricky concept—it’s elastic and privy to customer demand, capital constraints (present and future), competitive pressures, and so on. Basically, “runway” is slang for how long a business can operate, given its current conditions, without running out of money; it’s the duration of time for which one can reasonably be hopeful without needing to pray for a miracle.

Even when they have some runway, enterprises like Mati—now four years old—can never afford to get lackadaisical. Because angel investors and venture capitalists control the business’ access to capital, company leaders have to employ a complex calculus and a resolute thoroughness to a) make good decisions in the near-term and b) maintain growth opportunities in the future, when they can secure much more capital.

So even a minor question regarding thermostats, with a somewhat obvious answer (get the best one available), can get complicated. How is each option priced? What maintenance will be required in the coming years? How long is Mati looking to stay in the utilitarian Clayton facility? Or, even, what would this capital outlay suggest to potential investors about the company’s mindset? Quickly, the whirlwind of questions and considerations becomes overwhelming. “I don’t understand when she [Birgisson] sleeps,” says Lauren Whitehurst, a recent investor in Mati and a core member of Durham-based SoarTriangle—a program focused on mentoring female-led ventures such as Birgisson’s. “I think she’s just a high-performing person, and she’s really driven by success. And you have to be, to make this sort of business work.”

“Entrepreneurship’s a roller coaster,” Birgisson says. “You’re going to find yourself in bad situations. No matter how good of a job you do, there’s always going to be [stuff] that happens. And you have to be willing and ready to do anything to get through it.”

No, the twenty-seven-year-old doesn’t lack spirit, and it’s understandable why. Relatively speaking, her current situation of constant chaos is a good problem to have, given that just a few years ago—before Mati, before Clayton, before being named to Inc.com’s list of “30 Entrepreneurs to Watch Under 30”—Birgisson found herself working with very little runway.

Depression, like many illnesses of the brain, is both nebulous and ominous—a puzzle to be solved with the pieces hidden from sight. Moreover, it’s quite prevalent among college students—various studies of this demographic estimate the disease’s penetration to be around 25 to 30 percent. The increased rate of depression on campuses makes sense: Uncertainty and stress are ubiquitous, easily found when selecting courses, choosing hobbies and friend groups, and planning for life post-graduation.

Ironically, Birgisson’s struggles with the disease were exacerbated once she had resolved the question of what she wanted to do. By the latter half of her time at Duke she had visions of making consumer packaged goods that could change the world.

Doing that, of course, was a bit harder.

A junior year shift from engineering to economics brought a bevy of new general-education requirements—graduating would take a ninth semester. And her subsequent summer internship at Procter & Gamble illuminated the crawling nature of some industry blue chips. The products she helped test and build would, at best, be sold a decade later. As she says, “I wanted to be the one that said, ‘Sure, we could spend ten years, but we’re actually gonna do this in eighteen months. And here’s how we’re gonna do it.’ ” The safe path, a job within the established industry, had been temporarily obstructed, if not permanently dulled.

Alternatives existed; specifically, she was drawn to entrepreneurship from a young age. Birgisson, who’s part-Icelandic and part-Venezuelan, had seen her uncle run a tourism business in the Caribbean, where he occasionally let her drive tourists on a Jet Ski. In her senior year she joined InCube, an on-campus living group and start-up incubator. Once there, though, she struggled to generate exciting business propositions.

“I wouldn’t say we got along all that well in In- Cube,” says Jake Stauch, who was in InCube’s inaugural class of entrepreneurs with Birgisson and is the CEO of Durham-based NeuroPlus, a start-up that makes video games to help kids improve their focus and self-control. He’s also Birgisson’s fiancé and the leading all-time consumer of Mati products. “I thought she seemed kinda lazy, just bouncing around from idea to idea with no real intention,” he says. She pitched an ATV rental business and then fashion attire for college students; neither took off.

As time dwindled, so did Birgisson’s passion and energy. Never a coffee drinker, she began brewing her own tea in her apartment and (after some experimentation) found it tasty; her friends concurred, and they coaxed her to market beyond 205 Alexander Avenue. Quickly, a hobby was turning into her big idea.

“There was nothing else in life that I was moderately interested in doing,” Birgisson says now. “And this was something that gave me a small amount of motivation and interest in life. So if that’s the only thing you’re interested in, that’s what you pursue.”

Birgisson highlights elements of cognitive behavioral therapy in overcoming her depression, specifically the “vicious cycle” idea. The crux of the theory is the spiraling interplay among thoughts, feelings, and actions: for depressives, negative thoughts feed into negative feelings, which feed into negative (in)actions that reinforce the initial negative thoughts, and on and on. As Birgisson explains it, the easiest manner of breaking the cycle’s feedback loop isn’t with positive thinking or, say, smiling more often—it’s by initiating actions that are undeniably positive. Like going to nearby Triangle Brewing Company to learn carbonation techniques. Or applying for a $5,000 grant from the Summer Innovation Program (now the Melissa & Doug Entrepreneurs program), which allowed Birgisson the runway to test her idea’s potential. And then, that fall, nurturing Mati while enrolled part time, eventually generating enough local interest to continue the company after graduation.

“You can start to change a vicious cycle into a virtuous one,” Birgisson says. “You keep telling yourself the positive things and focusing on the things you did, and you cut yourself off when you think, ‘Yeah, but…’.”

Even the drink became an opportunity for action. Gauging the craft beverage market and tapping into her international exposure, Birgisson envisioned a new drink centered on guayusa, a South American plant whose leaves are chock-full of caffeine. Guayusa was more conducive to natural flavoring, allowing Mati to use fruit juices to bolster the taste, as well as provide a secondary benefit.

“Fruit sugars are fructose rather than sucrose, which would be the added sugars [of Red Bull or Monster]. So you wouldn’t see as much of a spike from eating fruit,” says Franca Alphin, director of nutrition services at Duke. (Indeed, Mati touts a long-term energy boost, rather than a spike-and-crash effect.)

The product’s development, however, pales next to Birgisson’s. Part of her change is due to overcoming depression: Stauch is unequivocal about how his fiancée today is a different person from even just four years ago. But also there’s the growth of her range of professional skills. In 2012, when Mati was just getting off the ground, she was slated to deliver a one-minute pitch at the Duke Start-up Challenge.

“They call her name, and she doesn’t move. And she actually hides her head so that no one can see her,” Stauch recalls. “She refuses to get up on stage, at the most low-key, no-pressure event, with nothing to lose.”

It was a turning point. At Stauch’s suggestion, Birgisson started taping all of her talks to improve her delivery. Last spring, Mati was slated to represent American Underground at the Google Demo Day, an annual pitch competition typically dominated by tech companies. With nightly rehearsals and steady guidance from her corner of advisers, including a cameo appearance from an acting major at Yale, Birgisson delivered a five-minute talk before judges and national media to take home the $100,000 top prize.

“She’s highly coachable. And that’s enormously positive to have as an entrepreneur, whether you’re twenty-five or fifty,” says Whitehurst. “She has a level of humility— she knows that she’s really good, but she also knows that there are things she doesn’t know.”

“Most people shut down when they’re criticized,” adds Stauch. “And Tati kinda filters it out and says, ‘Yeah, fair point.’ ”

The recent years have provided a different challenge from the early bootstrapping days—when Whitehurst once warned Birgisson she needed to hire an employee within four weeks or the company would fold. In a two-year span she’s expanded the company from a one-woman show to a team of twenty-one. Birgisson, with help from Whitehurst and many others, has found and hired individuals with her same passion.

“She’s put together a very cohesive team, and she respects the individuals in her company, and she has proven to be an extremely talented manager,” says Duke Angel Network member Don Stanners ’83, “which I find to be incredibly unique, when we’re talking about young entrepreneurs.”

In the Clayton facility, just before the team update, her management and determination are on full display. As her employees loiter in the main warehouse among pallets of unfilled Mati cans, Birgisson is meeting in an adjacent room with her directors. The prior month included some hiccups, so today’s presentation must be both pragmatic and motivating. Accordingly, the directors are focused intensely on updating minutiae in the Google Slides document.

While the team sprints to finalize everything, there’s a knock outside: an employee trying to enter through a locked warehouse door. Birgisson stands, annoyed, but she goes and opens the door with an eager greeting—even her “hi” carries an intensity—before directing the employee to the waiting area. Maybe a minute later, there’s another knock. And another one, the slapstick comedy heightening at a moment that really doesn’t call for slapstick. Each time, however, she welcomes the offending employee, saying to the increasingly agitated directors, “Don’t worry about it, guys. I’ll get the door, you just keep working.”

Yes, there are still nuisances, and there inevitably will be more situations to navigate as the company swells further. But Birgisson’s persistence seems calcified, both from those bad years at Duke and the uphill entrepreneurial battles she has waged already. In 2014, frustrated by weeks of non-response from a regional Whole Foods buyer, Birgisson drove six hours to his Atlanta office and waited—hoped—for a chance meeting. Despite hearing that he was booked, she lingered and, finally, at 4 p.m., was told he had some time. Five minutes later, Birgisson had secured a distribution agreement.

“I call those ‘moments of fearlessness,’ ” she says. “Standout moments that you can pat yourself on the back for. You say, ‘Today, I’m just going to get a yes from the Whole Foods regional buyer. That’s the only thing I’m going to do today. And I have to figure out how to do that.’ ”

Her solution for doing “that”—fighting, always, for just a bit more runway—isn’t really a secret. On the Mati drinks themselves, just under the rim of the can, is a thin banner with bright letters. It reads, “DO MORE. BE BETTER.”

  • Lucas Hubbard '14 is the Clay Felker Fellow staff writer at Duke Magazine.