Mati cans 2016

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Growth hacking might be a buzz term in tech.

But it's a new job title at Mati Energy too and it's helping the Durham startup ascend the list of top selling energy drinks on Amazon and win fans across the U.S.

Those efforts, matched by $2.1 million in funding—$1 million from a converted note secured in the spring combined with $1.1 million from new investors—primes Mati for more market penetration in the Southeast, the launch of three new drink flavors in November and shelf space at new major retail chains across the country.

Tatiana Birgisson Mati
Tatiana Birgisson is founder of Mati Energy, a healthy tea-based energy drink made in Durham.
Importantly, more funding and momentum for the brand helps founder Tatiana Birgisson begin to solve the challenge that keeps her up at night: planning appropriately for growth.

"How do you prepare and set the groundwork for future growth when you're working toward it and hoping for it but you don't really know?" she says.

Mati started that groundwork earlier this year when it took production in-house in a new facility in Clayton, N.C. New equipment allowed Mati to pasteurize cans for the first time, which adds to the shelf life and allows the product to be shipped and stored without refrigeration. It also opened up opportunity with retail chains like Kroger and e-commerce giants like Amazon.

Mati tank system
Mati's equipment can produce 9,000 cans of beverage at a time.
Marketing efforts followed. Mati teams now pop up at running events, festivals and conferences passing out free cans and sharing the story of a tea-based energy drink brand with natural, healthy ingredients. The company is one of the sponsors of this year's Hopscotch Music Festival.

Similar efforts are happening in cities in South Carolina, Georgia and Tennessee too. 

Building sales online

E-commerce has also been a big push. And that's why Birgisson hired Talal Asad as "growth hacker". 

By securing positive reviews and ratings on Amazon as well as cross promoting with complimentary products, he's helped make Mati a top 100 selling energy drink brand (out of thousands). And when cherry and tropical went live on the site, both became No. 1 new releases (for sales). 

He's also focused on building an email list to help sell direct from the Mati site—there, customers can subscribe to receive cases of Mati monthly and save 4 percent. To build the list earlier this summer and promote the coming Mati flavors, he launched a crowdsourcing campaign modeled off the launch of Harry's Shave Club (a playbook which that company open sourced).

It took advantage of Mati's existing fans by promising them free Mati and swag in return for sharing with their friends. Mati got verified email addresses in 49 states (minus North Dakota) and fans unlocked rewards like a can and t-shirt or six cases of cans. 

Birgisson calls it "super successful" and something they were able to pull together in just two weeks.

Big retail opportunity is out there

But shelf space at large retail chains is still the biggest growth opportunity. And while she is slowly ramping up distribution with Kroger, the largest grocery chain in the U.S., Birgisson says she has interest from two additional major retail chains, each with more than 2,000 stores. 

That brings up more questions.

"What if we get both?" she says. "What are the capital investments we need to do on the manufacturing side to support that? Should we go ahead and do those now?"

And if the stores are in new states, will she have enough time to hire and train a person to manage the market?

"There are so many of those growing pains," she says. "It's startup growing pains."

Mati cans over time
Displayed in the window of the new Mati office in American Underground is a progression of bottles and cans since its founding in 2012.
Three new flavors coming this fall will help Mati add to its shelf space at existing stores where the product often sells out. Mango peach and passion fruit were two flavors requested by Mati fans, and blueberry pomegranate is a new flavor profile unique from the others, Birgisson says. 

The new flavor rollout is an attempt to create a "brand block", which gives Mati up to six slots on a grocery shelf. For comparison, some of the largest beverage brands have 12 or 18. 

"We can't get that right away, so just doubling the amount of space we have access to will be really valuable for us," Birgisson says.

Duke and other investors

Investment will help Mati add employees in new markets, as well as hire an office manager, production manager and additional brand ambassadors. The headcount is 18 today, up from six in March.

Mati office in American Underground
Mati Energy has a new office for its corporate staff at American Underground on the American Tobacco Campus.
The new money brings Mati's total venture capital raised above $3.4 million. 

Birgisson declined to share the names of her new angel investors, but said at least one has invested in other beverage brands. Five Duke angels participated in the Duke Angel Network's investment, and it's matched in some part by funding from the Duke Innovation Fund. 

Mati is the seventh reported investment by the year-old network that funds Duke-affiliated companies. The angels have also funded Durham startups Baebies, SoloPro and Testive.

Besides her investors, Birgisson looks to advisor Lauren Whitehurst (her mentor during the Soar Triangle program) and her management team for support tackling the challenges and managing the hard-to-predict but continued growth.

And to keep the buzz going while the big decisions are ironed out, there's her resident growth hacker.