Matt Bartelsian '90 on Taking Life One Leap at a Time
Matt Bartelsian isn't afraid to take risks, fail, and pivot. In many ways, this attitude has been the key to his success. But just as his career is taking off, he finds himself face to face with the opportunity to take a really big risk, one that he himself doesn't fully understand.
Proctor & Gamble. Unilever. Johnson & Johnson. Recognize any of those names? After running global strategies on these accounts for various large advertising agencies, Matt Bartelsian knows them well. "Nobody who's 26 should be given the responsibility that I was given, but I was helping to run global strategy for Johnson's Baby and o.b. tampons," he says, shaking his head and chuckling.
Twenty-six feels like a lifetime away, now. This was before the move to Shanghai, or the work with drug addicts in Hong Kong. It was before he stepped away from the security of big paychecks and the glamour of the advertising world to live "by faith." And before he jumped into the hi-tech world of artificial intelligence.
Lost yet? Buckle your seat belts...we're about to take an adventure of faith and of partnering with God to use the talent He's given to bring good to the spaces we walk in.
First Comes Poland
It's February of 1995. After a year of slogging away at odd jobs in the Twin Cities while mailing a tome of unanswered resumes to Germany, Bartlesian steps off the plane in Frankfurt. Without a job. Without connections. With just five weeks of living expenses in hand. His plan? Knock on every door of every advertising agency he can find until someone hires him.
"When I arrived, I immediately understood that Germany was in a recession," he says. There are no jobs to be had in Germany, and certainly no jobs for an inexperienced, recent college grad from the US. Within a few days he knows he needs to adjust his plan.
It's been just five years since the Berlin Wall fell, and Eastern Europe is opening in fits and starts; in terms of the global market, this is the Wild West. Armed with a double major in history and German and a family background in advertising, Bartelsian starts to look for a road less traveled.
"The Czech Republic has too many Americans. Budapest is too small. Moscow is too crazy," he says. "But there's this huge 40-million person country called Poland that I had no clue about. And I said, 'I'll go there.' I remember getting off the train from Germany to Poland, and it was like, Oh, my goodness, here we go."
"I remember getting off the train from Germany to Poland, and it was like, Oh, my goodness, here we go."
He approaches every ad agency he can find until someone finally says yes. And it's a big yes...DMB&B, an international ad agency, takes him on and hands him a pile of projects.
"At that time, [I wasn't hired for] my skill. It was just the fact that I had an American passport, and because I'd grown up with ads." In 1995, Poles hadn't. They were just emerging from a world where every piece of printed or broadcast material came to the public sifted through many layers of State scrutiny, and mostly consisted of propaganda. In this unusual environment, Bartelsian's natural skill and moxie shines through as he takes on increasingly large and complex projects, including ones that expand beyond Poland's borders and into the rest of Eastern Europe. Major brands like Proctor & Gamble's Clearasil face wash, Ivory shampoo, and Crest toothpaste gain ground in the region as Bartelsian cuts his teeth on them, one ad campaign at time.
In the midst of this, he attends a local international church and meets Ella, a beautiful Armenian grad student. They date for a bit, but Bartelsian has his sights on a post at Saatchi & Saatchi in New York, where he hopes to gain "real" experience to beef up his tool box. So he breaks off the relationship, packs his bags, and heads back to the US. Less than half a year in at S&S, he's recruited by a former boss for a position at Ammirati Puris Lintas. This is where an overworked head of multinational clients hands the Johnson's Baby and o.b. tampons accounts to the ever-eager, 26-year-old Bartelsian.
"He said, 'Hey look, kid, I'm completely overwhelmed by my job. So I'm going to give you a couple accounts to run. And I don't know if you can handle it or not, but...I'm too busy. So if you can do it, great. Just holler if you need help.'"
And handle it he does. After two years and a merger, the company moves him to Sydney, where he works with the team that pitches and wins eBay for Australia, and then Monster.com for all of Asia.
At this moment, Bartelsian isn't necessarily seeing God in all of this. He works hard. Makes good connections. Steps through the right doors as they open. But things are about to change.
Bartelsian shares that in some ways, over the preceding years, God had become more of a memory than a present reality, like a distant uncle you liked well enough but who isn't very relevant to your daily adventure.
"I [had been] this good Christian kid that got saved at eleven. I just kind of coasted and then left Jesus for a decade and did my own wild things. When we were in Australia, he began to call me back."
The "we" there is Bartelsian and his now-wife, Ella, who hadn't been as ready to give up on their relationship as 26-year-old Matt had been. "She started writing these letters that were amazing. And that's how I fell in love." Not long after his transition to Australia, the two married and began attending a small inner city church in Sydney.
Matt and Ella at a movie theatre in Dubai.
"We were in this crazy church...half the congregation didn't show up with shoes on. But the love of Jesus was there. And I just saw what church could be; that it had nothing to do with the structure or the organization; it was just people that loved Jesus, and were loving other people for Jesus. That was super attractive."
When his team pitches and wins Travelocity for all of Asia, the couple moves to Singapore to help develop the brand's launch for five markets across Asia. Bartelsian is married, his career is taking off, and everything seems to be heading in the right direction. He sees the end to school loan payments on the horizon, with financial freedom not far behind. Things are good.
What he doesn't know is that Singapore will come to represent a stake in the ground, the moment where his future splits off into two alternate paths. While Australia was a gentle call back to his faith, Singapore, he says, "is where I really encountered God." It was his Mount Horeb: the place of the burning bush.
Do You Trust Me?
The young couple lands in Singapore in February of 2001 filled with hope. They set up their apartment and explore the hyper-modern island-nation. (The very same nation that a decade later will inspire the novel Crazy Rich Asians.)
Then, just seven months after their arrival, two planes crash into the World Trade Center in New York City, and the travel industry worldwide comes to its knees. Lowe & Partners pulls the plug on the Travelocity launch.
"[It] disappeared in a blink," Bartelsian says. "I didn't have a job. Wow."
Not to worry, the company assures him. We'll find a place for you. Then, How about China? We've got a project with Johnson & Johnson there. Bartelsian feels an immediate sense of relief. They'll stay in Asia, and he can work with a company he knows well.
"[But] Jesus said, No." In a way Bartelsian himself finds hard to articulate, he experiences a powerful impression that Jesus wants him to reject the offer. His sense of relief evaporates.
"I thought, this is insane. Because there is no other job."
After multiple days of wrestling, Bartelsian decides to accept the position. "As I picked up that phone, I became physically ill with the thought of saying yes, because God was saying no. And I said, I'm sorry, but I can't take this job. And literally all hell broke loose. It was a big, big deal."
After years of taking big risks to advance his career, Bartelsian now takes a big risk to honor his growing faith. He decides to trust God's voice, even though it makes no logical sense.
In spite of the initial storm after his announcement, the company decides to hold on to him. Six months later, they present him with a new opportunity, working on the Unilever account in Shanghai. This time, Bartelsian experiences the peace to move forward.
"That was one of the best jobs ever," he says. And not just one of the best jobs, but also one of the best churches he's ever seen. "We were in this incredible international church in Shanghai. It was the only Protestant English-language church in the city, so there's no room for disagreement. If you disagree, what do you do? Start a new church? You can't. So we had high Anglicans and liturgical Lutherans sitting right next to flaming African Pentecostals and everybody in between. Everybody got along, and that church was just on fire for Jesus."
The international church in Shanghai the Bartelsians attended. Creative Commons license, Szalai.laci.
In some ways, the couple is on a spiritual high. They've just trusted God with something really big and it worked out. Now they are in a church like they've never seen before, where the passion for knowing and sharing Jesus trumps petty squabbles and politics. What they don't know is that this test of trust was actually practice for something bigger: a complete lifestyle overhaul.
Going for Broke
Bartelsian shares that when he went into advertising there was a common adage in the industry that for your first eight years you work sixty to eighty hours a week, and don't make much money. Then, once you hit around year eight, things start to pick up speed.
Just over a year into their stay in Shanghai the Bartelsians hit that spot: The money is coming, they pay off their school loans, and things look really good.
But then God speaks. Again. Similar to the earlier experience while in Singapore, Bartelsian finds himself overcome with a strong sense that he shouldn't renew his contract with the company.
"And I'm just like, 'Are you kidding me? Let me just earn a bunch of money here for a couple of years and then build a big bank account and I'll gladly go serve you wherever.'"
Dallas Willard once said that if you think God spoke, but you're not certain, ask him for more light. Bartelsian asks. God answers.
Over the next few days, God confirms his will in ways Bartelsian can't deny. He and Ella see the next steps on their journey, but they have no idea what it all means.
First, they will go to Hong Kong to minister with St. Stephen's society for nine months and learn about living "by faith." Then they will move to Ella's hometown of Yerevan, Armenia. No job lined up. No clear direction for what they should do. Just go, and trust that God has a plan for it.
Addicts and Toilets
Miles and worlds away from the wide desk and swivel chair, managing teams and conducting meetings in Shanghai, Matt and Ella find themselves in the slums of Hong Kong, on their knees, scrubbing toilets. Lots of toilets.
Each day they spend time in worship and prayer with the St. Stephen's community, and then they serve, wherever needed. Space prevents sharing the many "God moments" that happen during this time, but the season lays a foundation for a future grounded in trusting God and His direction, instead of their own ability to pull in an income or make things happen.
In the early summer of 2004, Bartelsian again steps off a plane in an unfamiliar country, with no job lined up and no clear path forward. This time, though, he is with Ella, and for her this is a homecoming.
Yerevan at night, with Mt. Ararat in the background. Shutterstock/David Haykazyan.
The two spend their first two years finding opportunities to minister to others and become involved with a local international church. Soon Ella is part of the worship team and the leaders ask Matt to join a roster of men who preach. Aside from English-speaking ex-pats, the little church draws a number of curious medical students from India and Iran, which is who the couple feels drawn to minister to. Ella becomes the regional project coordinator for the Alpha Course (an international ministry offering a low-pressure space for those interested in Christianity to explore the faith), and the couple finds themselves encouraging curious seekers and discipling young Christians.
"We had no idea what we were doing," Bartelsian says, "but God was gracious."Concurrently, Bartelsian finds opportunities to financially support their ministry by consulting in branding and tech. At times things are rough and the family pantry goes distressingly bare, but the couple never goes hungry. In fact, multiple times when Matt is in between consulting jobs, friends and even strangers who don't know their situation feel led to give the couple financial gifts, and even gifts of food.
Eventually, though, Matt hits his stride again and starts to make his mark with business development consulting for software development companies.
This work introduces him to a pain point experienced by independent grocers: the inability to gather and analyze data that can help them make wise choices about pricing, sales, and purchasing.
"I was working on a robotics project for supermarkets," Bartelsian explains, "and a client was talking about how bad the data structures were across the supermarket industry. I felt God whisper to me 'You know how to solve that.' And here we are."
AI and Grocery Stores
Independent grocers, especially co-ops or those in smaller towns that satellite larger towns, often struggle to compete with the big name grocers. Across the US, small-town grocers have closed their doors as people became increasingly willing to drive fifteen, twenty, even thirty miles for a Saturday grocery trip to the closest big box grocer.
Here is where Bartelsian sees an opportunity to not only step into a hole in the market, but to also help salvage a dwindling community gathering place that provides local jobs.
For Bartelsian, this isn't just about making an income to support his ministry habit. He intentionally seeks God's direction each step of the way, seeing this as an opportunity to partner with God in the creative process of using his talents for good.
An unexpected encounter with a grocer at a Missouri grocer's trade show connects him with Jeff Woods, the chief product strategist for SAP (a German multinational software corporation) and the son of an independent grocer.
Bartelsian and Woods join forces to troubleshoot the data gathering challenges grocers face.
While their first solutions involve data-gathering robots, they soon shift to a focus on artificial intelligence and profitability automation. They call their new business Puzl.
The Puzl team.
"We use artificial intelligence to make the process of managing supermarket pricing really simple and really clear. Supermarkets have upwards of 60,000 different items in stock at all times...and everybody's managing it manually."
He says that this cycle usually takes about four weeks, making it difficult to get real-time data on what is selling well at what prices and what isn't.
"We use AI to radically speed up the process of managing pricing each week." Knowing what should go on sale when and which price points just aren't working in real time saves grocers money and keeps customers coming back.
In 2021, the team pilots the project at Woods Supermarkets, the independent chain owned by Jeff Woods' father. And it's a big success.
So that brings us to today. Puzl employs a team of fifteen (and is looking to hire more) and is just starting to pursue their US launch.
Matt and Ella with their children. After seven years of infertility, the Bartelsians were prayed for at an Alpha Course conference in London and conceived almost immediately.
Meanwhile, Matt and Ella now pastor that small international church where they share their life and seek to show by example what it means to trust God's leading and partner with him in both the so-called sacred and secular aspects of life.
"Sometimes it is about a big grand vision, but other times, maybe most of the time, it is about letting God use you every day," shares Bartelsian. "It's about being in tune with His Spirit, stopping when He tells us to stop, and caring for the inconvenient, the broken, the needy. I think of it as a lifestyle. John Wesley famously said:
"Do all the good you can, by all the means you can, in all the ways you can, in all the places you can, at all the times you can, to all the people you can, as long as ever you can."
And that, says Bartelsian, is his goal—whether he is worshipping with grad students from Iran or tackling AI challenges with his team at Puzl.
Matt Who? About that name change...
If you're a '90 grad and a little confused about just who Matt Bartelsian is, this probably has to do with the fact that in 1990 there was no Matt Bartelsian, just Matt Bartels. When Matt and his wife began to have children, a discussion of identity came up. "In Armenian culture, everybody has an -ian or a -yan in their name," Matt explains. "So my kids were growing up in Armenia, and they look Armenian, and they speak Armenian and their grandparents live just down the street. And they [felt they] needed that membership. So we changed our name to Bartelsian."