After 20 years in marketing leadership roles that include Coca-Cola—one of the best-known brands in the world—Eric Masters is at the helm of Durham beverage startup, MATI Energy, as CEO. The company, founded in 2012 by Tatiana Birgisson in her Duke dorm room, makes the first craft-brewed all-natural energy drink. MATI proudly promotes it provides a no-jitters, no-crash, and no-sugar-added sparkling energy boost with naturally brewed caffeine, vitamins, and antioxidants.
Masters brings his “A” game when it comes to branding. His experience at Coca-Cola taught him the fundamentals of how to create and grow a successful brand. He gained his knowledge in the CPG (consumer packaged goods) industry largely from his time at Coca-Cola, but he also worked in healthcare, technology, and education in leadership roles at CareAnywhere, MeadWestvaco, Relias Learning, and IO Education. His portfolio is impressive and diverse. He has worked for big brands, startups, and has acquired companies or been acquired.
Now as CEO, Masters is tasked with growing the company and taking their products national. After five months, he is making things happen. He brought in Mark Mullins, co-founder of Social House Vodka, as VP of Sales, raised an additional $2 million in debt funding, and just helped the company get its organic certification.
This “Brand Master Extraordinaire” (no pun intended) shares: “You do not own your brand. Your clients and consumers own your brand and determine what it represents and what it stands for.” I sat down with Masters to learn more about his thoughts on branding, startups, the Triangle, MATI Energy, and more.
Q. You have taken a number of career pivots going from CPG to healthcare to tech to CPG again. Tell us about that?
Well, I would call them career turns, not pivots, but it’s fair to say that it hasn’t been a typical career path! I started in marketing at Coca-Cola where I spent 10 years learning the fundamentals of CPG marketing. But when I moved to the Raleigh area in 2007, I realized that there was an entirely different, exciting world out there comprised of start-ups and smaller companies, and most of them in this area are in healthcare or technology.
I got involved with CED, started learning more about the different industries and was fortunate to land my first VP of Marketing role with a local healthcare technology firm called CareAnyware. I actually started consulting with CareAnyware before being hired full time and I think for anyone looking to shift industries, it’s a great way to de-risk the hiring process for prospective firms and to learn new skills on the fly.
After CareAnyware, I stayed in tech—helping Relias Learning grow from $35MM to $135MM—and then moved over to another education software company that was owned by the same private equity firm.
I honestly didn’t plan on getting back into CPG, but when I heard that MATI was looking for new leadership, I sat down to talk with the board. I was already an investor in MATI, having participated in their Series A raise back in 2016. As we continued discussing what the company needed to reach its potential, it turned out that my background of CPG marketing, coupled with my experiences growing privately held companies through successful exits, were a pretty good fit.
So with that, I took the plunge and I’m back in the world of CPG!
Q. Tatiana Birgisson started MATI Energy as a Duke undergraduate. The company raised funding, established a manufacturing site in Clayton, and employed 20 employees before she departed. Tell us what you have in store for the next chapter of this Durham startup.
Tati is an amazing woman and her story—starting in a dorm room at Duke and growing MATI to over $1MM in sales—is remarkable. The next chapter is for me and the rest of the team to help Tati’s baby grow up and to fulfill its potential as a leading national brand in the emerging healthy energy category. There’s significant room to grow in the natural channel (think Whole Foods, Fresh Market, etc.) and the idea of healthy energy is ready to go mainstream (if it hasn’t already). I’m sure within a couple of years, folks will be able to buy MATI in convenience stores, drugs stores, vending machines and company cafeterias.
Q. MATI just raised another $2 million. What are your plans for this bridge round?
Grow, grow, grow! Most of our spending right now is focused on sales and marketing activities that are increasing our sales in 2018 and setting up 2019 to be a breakthrough year.
Q. What differentiates MATI Energy drinks from other energy drinks?
MATI is truly the first craft-brewed all-natural energy drink – and we just got our organic certification which is very exciting. In addition to being craft-brewed, our main ingredient, guayusa, is a pretty amazing gift of nature. In addition to natural caffeine and antioxidants, guayusa has theobromine which acts a time release for the caffeine, meaning that there is no initial spike of caffeine to cause jitters and no crash on the backend. It’s an amazing plant that helps provide just the right boost to stay focused, productive and feeling good all day long. MATI sources our guayusa very carefully for a specific taste profile and then our brewing process and the juices we add give it an incredible taste on top of the functional benefits. What’s amazing is that all we use to make MATI is brewed guayusa, fruit juice, and carbonated water. There’s really nothing out there that provides the functional benefits and the great taste of MATI with such a simple, clean ingredient panel.
Q. What do you think the greatest challenge(s) is/are for a CEO in the present Triangle startup environment?
Honestly, there are so many positives and such a great startup community here that it’s hard to think of a specific challenge other than delivering the vision, strategy, and execution to make your startup successful. We have access to talent, angel and venture capital, an incredible entrepreneurial network of mentors and coaches to tap into, work environments like American Underground and WeWork, technical resources at local universities, the list goes on and on. If there was one thing to wish for, it would probably be better local access to private equity and later stage funding, but all in all, the Triangle is a great place for startups.
Q. You and I met when you were at Relias and wanted to fill your open marketing positions. What are the similarities/differences regarding talent acquisition/management in the CPG industry versus the tech industry?
I think the personalities and core values of what makes a great marketer are the same regardless of the industry. Marketers need an innate sense of drive, competitiveness and continuous improvement to be moving the business forward. In both tech and CPG, we need to zero in on our target consumers, figure out what’s important to them, decide how to get your message through to them and then drive them to purchase. The differences start to lie in the types of messages we need to create (lifestyle versus emotional benefit versus functional benefit), the channels we use to get them across and the types of sales tools that we need to create.
I think good marketers can definitely make the leap from one to another, but just like sales, the higher up and more senior you become, the more important the segment-specific knowledge and experience becomes.
Q. How is technology changing the Consumer Package Goods industry?
The question is probably too broad to answer in a short Q&A! To start, the access to data analytics, manufacturing KPIs and back-office technologies have really helped level the playing field for startups to gain insights and access to tools that only the ‘big boys’ used to have. At MATI, for example, we’re looking into a PEO—a professional employer organization—that would provide us access to tremendous healthcare benefits, online development tools, a 401k plan and more. Ten or 15 years ago, solutions like that just weren’t as prevalent or robust and it was much tougher for startups to compete.
On the consumer side, social media continues to redefine how brands and consumers build relationships and interact – but really leveraging technology to its fullest is difficult and time-consuming. For a brand like MATI, the ability to have meaningful dialogues with different target consumers through social media is incredible. We can target diet and nutrition advocates with one message, craft beer aficionados who appreciate MATI’s approach to craft brewed energy with another message, run Facebook ads geo-targeted around a select retailer where MATI is on promotion… the list goes on and on.
The challenge is in defining and prioritizing key consumer segments and then dedicating the resources to build a relationship over time. It’s not easy, but when you consider the cost and limitations of “old school alternatives” like television commercials, radio spots or billboard ads, you quickly realize that the new world of brand building in CPG is incredibly exciting.
Q. Share something we might not know about you, preferably personal.
I love dogs and my wife thinks I was a dog in a previous life. I told her that she could put, “He was a Labrador Retriever in people’s clothing” on my tombstone.
Q. If you could change something/anything, what would you change? Might want to stay away from anything political. (just looking out for you)
I would create a cure for depression and self-doubt. So many great people suffer clinically, never let themselves be happy or hold themselves back from reaching their own potential. Everyone should have the right to be happy with who they are and the future that they can achieve.
Q. Fast forward 10 years from now and where do we find Eric?
Hiking somewhere in Italy (with my dog) and then settling in for an evening of great food and wine.