Olympian Is an Entrepreneur Behind Energy Tea Startup

<b class="credit">MateBros</b>Olympian Sam Mikulak co-founded a firm to make yerba mate, an energy tea.
MateBrosOlympian Sam Mikulak co-founded a firm to make yerba mate, an energy tea.

Start-up company MateBros was born when Alex Anunciation invited two friends, Sam Mikulak and Jordan Gaarenstroom, over to try a tea he had discovered called yerba mate.

It was an odd experience for the boys, then just 16. The traditional way to drink yerba mate is to sip it from a wooden gourd using a filtered straw called a bombilla, a practice that initially seemed strange to the Southern California crew. But afterward at practice, elite gymnasts Mikulak and Gaarenstroom found they felt more energized.

Yerba mate is a South American tea used for everything from treating chronic fatigue syndrome to promoting weight loss, and while some in the medical community aren't convinced of its benefits, others are sold, including TV personality Dr. Mehmet Oz, whose website promotes the tea as "chock full of antioxidants and vitamins ... [it] gives you a metabolism and energy boost ... [and] does not produce the caffeine-related crashes that some people experience with coffee."

An Idea Takes Hold

After that initial encounter with the tea, the boys were hooked and began drinking mate before practice and at competitions. Their coaches weren't thrilled about their teenage athletes drinking from wooden gourds at meets, so the boys began using a French press to make their brew and, over time, experimented with adding a little sweetener and lemon juice to improve the taste.

Mikulak and Gaarenstroom went on to college at the University of Michigan (Anunciation attends California Baptist University, where he is an accomplished wrestler). They continued sharing their energizing tea with athletes all across campus, and Mikulak even brought it along to London, where he represented the U.S. at the 2012 Olympics.

Along the way, the idea of sharing mate as a business took root: The guys felt there was a need in the market for an alternative to popular energy drinks. They felt mate could fill this niche, and coined the name MateBros.

Of course, there's a long road between having an idea and getting a product to market. But that didn't intimidate the three friends, who drew on the discipline and determination developed through years of training. "Most of entrepreneurship is just going out and doing the work," says Gaarenstroom. "I started talking to everyone I could."

<b class="credit">MateBros</b>From left: MateBros founders Jordan Gaarenstroom, Sam Mikulak and Alex Anunciation.
MateBrosFrom left: MateBros founders Jordan Gaarenstroom, Sam Mikulak and Alex Anunciation.

From Concept to Reality

It helped that Mikulak and Gaarenstroom were enrolled in the certificate program in entrepreneurship at Michigan. At a speaking event for the program, they met an alumnus who connected them with Ann Arbor-based NewFoundry, a brand development and design company. The team brought their tea to the first meeting, and a partnership was formed.

"They saw our passion, and saw that we want this to be more than just a dream and were going to put the work into it," says Mikulak, now a senior at the University of Michigan and the reigning U.S. national gymnastics champion. In exchange for a 10 percent stake in the company, NewFoundry advised MateBros on everything from designing the website to solidifying the brand identity to social media marketing, which draws heavily on Mikulak's high profile in his sport.

Of course, MateBros needed something more to sell than tea made in a French press. Gaarenstroom took on the task of finding suppliers. His search led them to Allen Flavors, the U.S. distributor for Nestle's coffee and tea flavors.

Mikulak and Gaarenstroom began working extensively with Allen to perfect the taste of the drink. "We wanted it to be consistent with how we've been drinking mate our whole lives," explains Mikulak.

Next up was the container. Allen Flavors recommended Ball Corp. (BLL), producer of the iconic glass jars. Ball worked with MateBros to design the can and create the nutrition label, and Mikulak had his social media followers vote on the final design. Finally, the team partnered with Krier Foods, which will produce and package the final product and send it off for distribution.

Funding Their Dream

The final piece of the puzzle was to raise the $37,000 needed to fund the initial production run of a little more than 30,000 cans. To do that, MateBros turned to crowdfunding site Kickstarter, launching a campaign on Dec. 1. Because part of MateBros' brand identity is making connections and bringing people together, the team felt crowdfunding was a fitting choice.

They've raised over $20,000 so far from more than 200 backers, by offering a variety of rewards, from T-shirts to cases of tea to personalized coaching sessions with Mikulak. Gaarenstroom and Mikulak send out regular updates with health and fitness tips, and Mikulak is leveraging his large social media following to promote the campaign before it ends on Dec. 31.

The team is also working with gyms and grocers near the University of Michigan campus and in their native southern California to entice them to stock the tea.

What's Next for MateBros?

Gaarenstroom, who finishes his degree this month, will move back to California to focus full-time on MateBros with Anunciation, while Mikulak will remain in Ann Arbor to finish school this spring and train for the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro. "We're going with the flow," says Gaarenstroom when asked about MateBros' future. "You can't plan too far ahead: Things change so fast, opportunities come around."

Even with a shot at an Olympic medal in his sights, Mikulak will still devote time to MateBros. "I've been balancing gymnastics, school and socializing since elementary school," he says, brushing aside questions about how he gets it all done. "MateBros has taken up most of my social life, but I'm working with my friends."

He recalls the night they shot their Kickstarter launch video in the gym from midnight to 3 a.m.: "We were joking around, having fun. It doesn't really feel like work, it's a pleasure."

Motley Fool contributor Robyn Gearey has no position in any stocks mentioned. The Motley Fool has no position in any of the stocks mentioned. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. Check out The Motley Fool's free report onone great stock to buy for 2015 and beyond.