“People ask me ‘How did you create a whole new category of beverage while pregnant and with a budget of only $50,000?’ The truth is, I did it pretty badly. It would take many, many millions of dollars and fifteen years to get from that point to where we are today, but I did accomplish my goal of making something that people could hold in their hand, that they could drink and that could help them fall in love with water…. That was the beginning, not the end… If you think too much about the end, you’ll never get past the beginning.” – Kara Goldin, founder and CEO of Hint Water
Just start and build the plane when you’re flying it
Hint Water was far from perfect when Kara launched at Whole Foods. The flavors were good but not as fresh and accurate as they could be. The labels were appealing but sometimes they fell off. The shelf life was about three months, nowhere as long as it needed to go national. But none of those mattered much because Hint had the thing that really counts – a product that delivered what it promised. Hint was a delightfully refreshing, fruit-flavored, no-diet-sweetener, zero-calorie water unlike anything else on the market.
“When I speak with entrepreneurs and would-be entrepreneurs, they often ask me ‘How do I know when to launch my product? How perfect does it have to be?’ The answer: perfect enough to deliver on the basic product promise.”
Trust is the foundation of every business
As Hint gained traction, they heard over and over gain from consumers how their product tasted better than their predecessors. Then things took a turn. In 2007, as the distributions grew, they needed more and more products but their co-packers were reaching the limit of its capacity and failing to keep up with the orders. One day, Kara received news from the co-packer that they needed $300,000 in new equipment and if they didn’t get the investment needed, they would stop producing for Hint completely. Instead of explaining their challenges and figuring out a way to finance the new equipment, they held Hint hostage.
“We had to make a difficult choice. We could invest in a partner who violated our trust. Or we could leave and look for another partner. If we couldn’t find one fast, we might have to close the business. We chose the risky alternative based on a simple principle: you can’t build a strong business with an untrustworthy partner.”
Take risks and persevere
For nearly a decade, Kara was literally at risk of personally losing all she owned if Hint didn’t achieve, perform and grow. As fraught as the times were, it also taught Kara valuable financial lessons and brought her benefits, as tough times usually do.
“People often ask if it was hard for me to raise money as a woman. My response is simple and a little cheeky. ‘I’ve never been a man, so I wouldn’t know.’”
Take risks and diversify
Getting into a deal with Starbucks was a turning point for Hint, but in 2012, Howard Schultz decided to add food to the Starbucks offerings. Kara was informed by a Starbucks executive that they had decided to remove one Hint item in two weeks.
That was a serious blow because Starbucks wasn’t just a major account, they had built up about six months’ worth of inventory just to fulfill Starbucks’ demand. But to be fair, Starbucks had done a lot for Hint. Millions of customers all around the country had discovered Hint. Still, it seemed like a disaster at the time.
“Never put all your eggs in one basket. Or even most of your eggs. Minimize risk. Always.”
Transform setbacks into opportunities
While still mourning the loss of Starbucks relationship, Kara received a call from a buyer at Amazon. He was a fan of Hint and was interested in making it available in Amazon’s new grocery business. He asked if they have inventory available. And almost immediately, Hint became one of the top grocery products on Amazon.
When things seem like they’re heading in the right direction, Kara asked if she could reach out to some Amazon customers so she could learn more. “No,” he said. “The data belongs to Amazon. It’s proprietary.. We buy your product. We own the data.” No discussion.
Just like that it became clear that as much potential Amazon had for Hint, they needed to build their own ecommerce site. That would be the best way for Hint to truly understand their consumers.
“To be successful, you have to have options and alternatives. If one door closes, you can open another one quickly.”
Define the meaning of your brand
A product becomes more than a product, it transforms into a brand, when customers feel they intimately know the brand and feel a part of it. That’s what happened with Hint starting 2012. Hint became more than a selection of fruit-infused water products. Hint stood for the idea that healthy products should be the most enjoyable products.
“We were not a member of the Big Sugar beverage establishment. We were more in the tradition of Silicon Valley, the land of technology and entrepreneurialism. We were disrupting the idea that your favorite drink has to taste sweet by delivering products that proved that assumption wrong”
Expand the mission
When Kara kids attend public school, she had never dreamed they might be at risk drinking water from fountains. She couldn’t stop thinking about the importance of clean water in schools and wondering how it was possible there were no state regulations to ensure everyone had access to it. Someone had to do something but it seemed the system was so big and ingrained that no one inside was able to take action.
That’s when Kara made a decision to apply their extensive knowledge of water for a greater social good. She would push for nationwide testing and regulation of school drinking water. She was reaching out to legislator and community and business leaders. The goal was simple: to ensure the water kids drink in school is as clean and pure as the water Hint uses.
“I began to see I had something valuable to contribute beyond product donations, charitable gifts, and supporting causes. I had a lot of knowledge, combined with an ability to disrupt the status quo, to stand up to people who did not care.”
Face your fears
Entrepreneurs are not a special breed of human being. They feel fear like normal people. But what separates them from the crowd is that they are undaunted.
“Being undaunted is understanding what your fears are, deciding when it’s important to face up to them, preparing yourself to confront them, and then working through them.”
When you do, two things happen. First, you put your particular fear into where it belongs. You might not completely eliminate it, but you reduce it down to a manageable size. Second and even more important, you gain confidence to overcome any fear, any obstacle that comes in your way. That’s the key. The more you take on your fears, the more confidence you gain. It’s a virtuous cycle.
“The most important takeaway from those early jobs was not what I learned about toy stores, beauty salons, restaurants or the government. It was what I learned about myself: that I loved figuring out people, what would make them happy and what they would value and that I enjoyed their appreciation of what I had done for them.”
“I’ve met or interviewed many entrepreneurs, and they can all point to a book that has inspired them, changed their lives or positively affected their companies.”
“People often ask me how I have the nerve to make cold calls. First, I’m naturally curious, so I genuinely want to learn from people. Second, people love to be asked about what they do and generally, are eager to tell their stories.”
“Some people are turned on by managing big organizations and reaching growth goals. I’m bored by those things. I like to come up with fresh ideas, to change things up, to surprise people.”
“I kept opening the fridge as if I would find something better but I had thrown out the soda, juice and everything else that tasted sweet… My question just popped out. If I developed a water that’s flavored with real fruit and has no sweeteners, would you stock it?”