Interview with Tatiana Birgisson '13 of Mati

Posted on 4/4/2013. Interview by Howie Rhee

Tell us about yourself

I am half Icelandic and half Venezuelan and spent my summers growing up split evenly between both countries. I gained a tremendous sense of independence during those summers as I was travelling alone with my younger sister internationally...starting when I was 6 or 7. It was also valuable to spend months at a time away from my parents since it built a very strong connection between me and both maternal and paternal grandparents who have been great influences in my life. I moved roughly every 2-3 years from one country to another. My diverse and constantly changing life growing up meant that I wasn't afraid to take on new challenges. I guess that when I got to high school and more so college I didn't think much about "should do" but just what I wanted to do, what I wanted to accomplish, what I wanted to learn, etc.


Tell us about your time at Duke, what were you involved in?

I started out my career at Duke wanting to develop (artificial) organs and thought BME was the best way to get there. Quickly I discovered that I didn't want to spend a lifetime to maybe succeed and more likely, fall short of my goal. So I switched to ME thinking I could design prosthetics or consumer products and see more immediate results. During this time I became involved in the Society of Hispanic Professional Engineers (SHPE) and attended two national conferences where I was first introduced to Procter & Gamble. My sophomore year I was president of SHPE, joined Chi Omega, and accepted an internship offer from P&G to work in upstream R&D. While in Cincinnati I was tasked with designing the next-generation sustainable diaper and discovered my passion for sustainable consumer products--now that's what I wanted to be doing! I also learned that I had no interest in being an engineer since those weren't the decision makers and I realized I didn't want to work at a huge company. I imagined having more responsibility, freedom, and ability to innovate and adapt more quickly in a smaller firm--but still I wanted to be the one who made decisions and talked with customers to identify their needs. I guess I wanted it all....Or had less idea of what I wanted than before the internship. During my junior year I decided to switch to economics to learn more about the business and "money" world since I was satisfied with my knowledge of the physical world around me. I also joined InCube that year! InCube was supposed to be a group for aspiring entrepreneurs--certainly I was one hoping to start a company after getting an MBA. During my senior year though, the InCubers around me were starting companies and I wanted in on the fun but had no world-changing ideas....


What's your major/program and when will you be graduating?  Tell us something about your educational experience at Duke.

I just graduated in December with a BS in economics. See above for my journey from Pratt to Trinity.


Tell us about your idea.

Mati is a delicious organic and caffeinated soda. Think Honest Tea meets Izze. We're organic and made of real tea like Honest Tea and are carbonated and fruity like Izze. Each cup of Mati has 1/3-1/2 the caffeine content of a cup of coffee--we like to think of it as focused and sustained energy.


How did you come up with your idea?  When did you come up with it?

I started brewing teas and refrigerating them in late Fall 2011. I had tried all the coffees on campus and didn't like their bitter, burnt taste...I needed a tasty and healthy source of caffeine to drink throughout the day. My friends really liked it and asked for half-gallon jugs to take to their dorm room fridges. Once their friends found me on Facebook and asked for some too I thought I might be on to something. Who doesn't want a healthy, tasty, refreshing and energizing drink?


How did you meet your team members?

I didn't start out with any team members--I was just brewing on my own. Once I started turning Mati into a company, I was on a roll and figured I'd seek out team members when I couldn't do everything on my own...I'm getting to that point now :D


How has the Duke Start-Up Challenge been helpful to you?

I submitted Mati as a concept for the DSC 2012 and made it to Round 2. Being forced to write down a business plan before I even had a good grasp on what I was doing was very valuable. The judges thought my ideas was cute but not feasible...and over the summer I learned just how right they were. Once I adjusted based on my needed margins and customer feedback, I was on the right track to making a sustainable company. This year I applied with a much more refined sense of what my company is, who my customers are, how I'm manufacturing (and how to change as we grow), etc.


The Duke Start-Up Challenge provides a lot of feedback from over 100 judges.  Can you talk about that experience of reviewing the feedback?

The results from Round 1 weren't as great as I'd hoped and as I read through the comments, I realized I hadn't done a good job communicating. For Round 2, I rewrote the business plan in more detail, made information more easy to find, and directly addressed the judges' concerns.


Did you connect with any judges for advice, and if so, who were they and was it helpful? 

One of the judges, Manuel Nieto, was very helpful. He introduced me to John-Paul Lee, CEO of Tavalon Teas and Ryan Caldbeck, CEO of CircleUp (angellist for consumer products) who both were very helpful. John-Paul helped me understand the ready-to-drink beverage and tea market better, shelf life improvement opportunities, best practices, etc while Ryan's feedback revolved more around how to finance a startup until it's at the point where it's attractive to angel investors and VCs (ie $1million in revenue). I've incorporated information from both contacts into Mati, and for the better I think :D


What advice do you have for Duke students that are thinking of starting a company?

Do it. Now. Make a prototype as fast as possible and try to get somebody to buy it. Then get more people to buy it and learn what they like and what they don't like about the product/service. Go back to R&D for a little and make the next prototype. Test again. Taking these steps as quickly as possible will help you learn about your market, pricing, customer needs, assumption errors, etc and will help you get on the right path.


Anything else you’d like to say?

Duke alumni are the best. Even cold-emailing them results in a response and often a phone conversation. They're so willing to help and give back it's incredible.



Want more? Watch the videos and read the other interviews for all of the Round 3 teams in the Duke Start-Up Challenge

And join us for the Grand Finale with David Cummings ’02 for the 14th Annual Duke Start-Up Challenge on Thursday, April 11th, 2013 at 7:30pm ET at Fuqua’s Geneen Auditorium. RSVP on Facebook

Not able to attend in person?  Watch the livestream on Duke’s YouTube channel


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