Stretching the Rubberband:

An Interview with Briana Gardell

“I’ve always been a workaholic, like to the extreme. The work part doesn’t bother me,” explained Briana Gardell, founder of Mezzimatic LLC, which makes a throwable paintball affectionately called a Goblie. “I’ll work a 15-hour or 20-hour day without an issue just because I know that I can walk away from my desk at any time and do whatever I want. That’s what I tend to do.” To get a mini-recovery break, Gardell will watch some YouTube videos or go to the grocery store to get some food or pick up lunch. That 15 or 20-minutes is all she needs to reenergize. (We’ll need to dig into stress recovery in another blog for sure.)

Gardell says she’s always been a workaholic, including her school years. You could say it’s reflected in her grades. Try a 3.96 undergrad GPA and a 4.0 grad GPA, both from Lehigh University, which she attributes more to hard work than being super smart, not that she’s short in the brains category. It was during her graduate studies (Masters of Engineering, Technical Entrepreneurship) that she invented Goblies, which are going nationwide this year.

The professor gave them an assignment to use a manufacturing technique to create something. “So I used the manufacturing technique that is used to create balloons,” Gardell explained. There was some trial and error as the product evolved. To track her progress, she used the Day One journal app, and at one point made a note that this could be her next business idea. That was that. “I remember emailing my professor about it. It took 26 prototypes to get anything to work or function, to actually break. Then it was like 1 million prototypes to take it from that to where it could be mass produced.” A million is an exaggeration, of course, but that’s how it can feel.

Halloween of 2014 marks the day she created her first successful Goblie. The next month she won the Eureka! Ventures Competition, a coveted entrepreneurship prize awarded to Lehigh grads and undergrads. With the judges being other entrepreneurs, it gave her some needed verification that she was onto something. So in May 2015 she formally founded the business. All told it’s been over three years of grind, but with a potential payoff now in the offing.

Sacrifices have been across the board, and Gardell readily admits, “Other people perceive my quality-of-life as poor.” As for those sacrifices, she duly noted, “I haven’t really bought myself anything in years, like clothes-wise or cars or anything, so that tends to have a little bit of an impact. I don’t really need a lot to be happy.” As for the work-life design thing, she said, “I would appreciate it if I could figure out how to take time to eat right or exercise, just to prepare myself to handle more work and more stress and incorporate that into my life. Especially this year with all of the stuff I have been doing, my self-care routine hasn’t been up where I want to be. But I think when I feel a little bit of financial relief after these orders are shipped and I get paid, I can prioritize it a little bit more. I don’t think I’m going to stop being a workaholic, but maybe I’ll make my life a little easier and give myself some conveniences that will help.”

Like a Rock Star Without a Song
What is striking is that Gardell would like to eat and exercise right in order to be able to handle more work and more stress. Yup, she’s a quintessential entrepreneur, you could say. Like others we’ve talked to, that desire to be an entrepreneur goes back to when she was much younger. “I’ve always wanted to be an entrepreneur since I was in high school when I wrote my first business plan for a class,” Gardell explained. “So that was my first taste, myself, of what entrepreneurship can mean, and I was just really attached to how creative and challenging it is of thinking of an idea and how to grow it. I was just really attached to it, and that wasn’t necessarily logical, because for a long time, I felt like saying I wanted to be an entrepreneur was like saying I wanted to be a rock star but I didn’t even have a song.

“So I was always attached to it and always gravitated toward it, which is why I took entrepreneurship classes in college, and that allowed me to be surrounded with students who already had established businesses. That also fueled my fire greatly, to say, Look these are people my age who are actually doing this. In a lot of ways, in my opinion, in our culture and our society entrepreneurship is so glorified on one side with Shark Tank and you read the success stories, but when you get into an entrepreneurship program and there are entrepreneurs coming in and going out everyday, you get into a bubble and it doesn’t seem so crazy. You know people your age who are starting businesses, and making hundreds of thousands of dollars in sales, so it doesn’t seem so crazy.”

The takeaway here appears to be that while some entrepreneurs might not find what they learn in college entrepreneurship classes all that useful (so we’ve been told), there is the energy, the camaraderie, the infectious I can do this! attitude. Another pivotal experience for her at Lehigh was running an entertainment club that put on concerts and comedy acts. She managed 20 people and the budget. “That experience allowed me to get hold of this notion that people love success but they don’t always love the risk that it takes to get there,” she reflected. When you think about it, founding a company isn’t too different than getting up on stage in front of a fickle audience.

Justification Is the Investment
Gardell knew she would have her fans and her critics. On the positive side, she had what she called blind support from her mom and step-dad, who are entrepreneurs and get it. Still, when she decided to take the unconventional route, that is entrepreneurship rather than getting a cushy job, she knew there would also be pushback from some quarters. “I’ve also gotten a full on taste of people asking why are you doing this, this is too risky, you’re sacrificing a potential career. But I justify that by saying people invest after college in becoming doctors and lawyers, and you kind of make investments your whole life to try to get to a career path. If there is going to be a time to do it, it’s going to be now when I’m so young and childless and not married.”

After a momentary pause, Gardell reflected, “That all sounds really easy to say, but emotionally it’s not always easy to justify to myself. Even now there’s still challenges justifying the level of risk. I think the funniest thing that I really notice now, the good stuff now is even better but the risks are higher.” She then added, “You kind of become more immune to the outside stress influencers about your decision. I think it also becomes less risky once you realize you have nothing to lose and you’ve exhausted your own life savings, it definitely helps.”

We did ask Gardell if there are a few particular stressors rattling around despite that “nothing to lose” attitude. “It’s more financially since I’ve put everything into it,” she explained. “What if I was blind to something within a contract, the ramifications of that. If I don’t handle a sale correctly. If I don’t work out the specifications of the product with the manufacturer and then make it wrong. There’s a difference from selling to 30 stores and having a $2 million purchase order, the risks are higher. Honestly, the stress, it’s just as intense in the beginning as it is now. I think now I tend to handle it a little bit better just from being exhausted from dealing with it before.”

While she handles the stress better now, Gardell does think that how to deal with the roiling emotions should be integrated into the classroom. “It’s definitely not addressed at all in my opinion,” she said, “to the point where I was thinking there’s got to be something in entrepreneurship classes about how to handle stress. It’s definitely just not addressed. I’ve been able to seek a lot of personal relief by just talking to other entrepreneurs and being in my co-working space.”

Afraid to Make Plans
Circling back to those 15 or 20-minute recovery breaks to watch YouTube videos or grab some food, we wondered if this workaholic had taken any weekends off or even a vacation since launching Goblies. “I’ve noticed one thing about the quality of life thing,” she answered, “I’m definitely afraid of making plans over the weekends because I’m not sure what’s going to come up or how much work I have been able to get done, so I’m kind of hesitant to make plans.” At the same time she acknowledged that post-college you have to make plans with friends “because you can’t just walk out your door and there are all your friends.” She has taken some weekends off, to see her old roommates, for friends’ graduations, and now weddings. But you get the sense they are far and few between over the last two and a half years.

“Definitely going forward I dream about continuing to take weekends,” she said. “I think weekends are enough for me because it stresses me out too much to think of leaving work for a week and not handling things.” There you go, the very thought of vacation is stressful. She then reiterated, “Weekends are worth the recovery. And also sometimes being able to sleep in, especially like on Saturday or Sunday, to be able to catch up on sleep helps a lot.”

Stay Invested in Your Best Friends
One weekend with old roommates. Friends getting married. Afraid to make plans. This all brings up how her entrepreneurship endeavor has impacted personal relationships. Relationships have suffered, she acknowledged, but her good friends get it, as does her mom, step-dad, and boyfriend. “What I do now isn’t really different than how I acted in high school or college. The people who know me and talk to me, know what I am doing and why I am doing it. They’ve known every tiny little risk that I was taking and every potential success that was coming through, and they saw the ladder that I was climbing, that there was a way up. … So they saw all of the dark clouds and the sun.”

So Gardell’s few close friends, including a boyfriend of seven years, have been witness to the hard work and sacrifice, and have stuck by her. For her part, it’s those few close friends she does work to keep relationships with. And that’s something you hear about being important: Invest in your closest friends, keep those relationships healthy and fulfilling. “At the end of the day I tend be good at that,” she said. “When I need to be there I’ll be there for important things, for important milestones, especially with, like, I have a lot of friends who are getting married, with the showers, and important things like that, I’ll be there.”

A solo act, Gardell also relies on support from fellow entrepreneurs in the co-working space she has at an incubator in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, the same space she had when she first launched Goblies. “I still work out of that space because it offers a lot of flexibility and camaraderie with other entrepreneurs,” she said. “There’re a lot of connections and opportunity for mentorship.”

Life Is Risky in General
We asked what she and the other entrepreneurs might banter about around the proverbial water cooler. Her answer involved a blunt reality: “Just like you can make mistakes and lose like hundreds of thousands of dollars.” But they keep it in perspective by talking about how other people get jobs, save money, it seems less risky, but they can lose their job. They might get another job, but then have a medical event that results in a huge bill. “Life is risky in general,” she concluded. But for entrepreneurs the risk factors and propensity for risk are very much different. “It’s a big jump on outlooks on how to live life, and some people just don’t understand this kind of approach.”

From her experiences, Gardell has some interesting observations about success as an entrepreneur. “I’ve continued to say that I want to be an entrepreneur since I was 14. I think that by saying I wanted to be an entrepreneur for so long helps me justify it in my own head. To think about it, and read about it, and ingrain it into me, and tell other people in my life what I wanted to do – I think it made it a lot easier to take that step regardless of the supportive or unsupportive people around me.” Without that mindset at an early age, she believes “it would’ve been a lot harder to mentally deal with the consequences and risks and perceptions of who you are as an entrepreneur.” Especially when you’re toughing it out and scraping by to support yourself.

Moreover, Gardell noticed that in her entrepreneurship classes not everyone who came in was interested in becoming a full-fledged entrepreneur and would struggle with taking the plunge: “I found that people who said in the beginning of the program that they don’t want to be entrepreneurs, or that they’ve never really thought about being an entrepreneur, having a lot harder of a time stepping off the diving board and diving in.” This reinforced her belief that being attracted to the idea for a long time has helped her deal with the emotional side of it.

With Gardell clearly having the passion to be a serial entrepreneur, we asked her where she envisions herself in ten years time. For the moment she’s not letting herself think of other products or businesses because she’s intensely focused on growing Goblies. But that’s just for the moment. “I really like this flexible entrepreneurship lifestyle,” she said, and then emphasized that she loves all aspects of it, the creativity that goes into marketing, selling, growing the business, and even the accounting. You don’t hear that often, especially the accounting thing – but again, it’s all about passion in the final analysis.

Down the road, Gardell could see outsourcing some of her responsibilities but keep the company small and manageable. That might allow her to pursue some ideas percolating in her head. “Once you stretch the rubber band, and knowing what paths you have to take,” she said, “it’s so much easier to get something off the ground, especially with the connections I have now.” Nevertheless, she’s not sure what the future will hold. “I’m okay not knowing where I’m going to be in 10 years. I just know that what I’m doing now is definitely investing in where I’m going to be in the next 10 years.”