It’s common advice for anyone attempting to do something new: “You don’t need to reinvent the wheel.” But for entrepreneur Kara Goldin, success came from trying to reinvent something even more fundamental—water.
Kara is the founder of Hint Water, a revolutionary approach to drinking water that was born out of her frustration over not finding what she was looking for on the shelves of her local grocery store: a healthful beverage that had no calories, no sugar, and just a subtle “hint” of fruit flavor.
To celebrate Women’s History Month, the Women @ New Relic affinity group invited Kara to our San Francisco offices to share her story. In my onstage interview with her, Kara discussed how she came up with the idea for her product, the process of turning that idea into a viable business, and the challenges of being an inexperienced, first-time entrepreneur trying to go head-to-head with the billion-dollar commercial beverage industry.
Kara surprised the audience by admitting that she never planned to become an entrepreneur, let alone launch her own beverage company from her kitchen. In fact, before launching Hint in 2005, she had enjoyed a successful career in tech. Kara was vice president of shopping and e-commerce partnerships at AOL in the late nineties, at a time when online shopping was still relatively new. Today, Hint Water is a $90 million beverage company, and nearly 40% of its business comes direct-to-consumer through the Hint website—uncommon for a beverage company, but rather fitting for a business founded by an e-commerce pioneer.
Kara shared a wide range of wisdom and inspiration during her talk, but here are the most important lessons I took away from our conversation:
1. A career in tech can yield unexpected benefits
Although Kara had decided to leave the tech industry, her network and contacts from that old life were key to getting her first big break. At lunch with friend who had begun working at Google, she confided that she was trying to start her own beverage company. He told her that Google was launching a healthful food initiative for its employees and might be interested in stocking Hint in its kitchens. Kara dropped off eight cases at Google to start with. “The next day they called and asked, ‘Can we get 40 cases?’ Three weeks later we were doing 1,000 cases a week at Google, and today we’re one of the most popular beverages in Silicon Valley tech firms,” Kara said.
2. Be ready to take risks and never give up
Kara often attends Natural Products Expo West, a huge food industry trade show, and she said that 80% of the products she sees displayed there never make it to store shelves. Despite the enormous odds against success in the food and beverage industry, Kara persisted, delivering her first boxes of finished product to a major natural foods grocery chain just hours before delivering her fourth child. The first call she received in the hospital wasn’t from friends or family—it was the store manager calling to tell her that the 10 cases of Hint she had dropped off had already been sold, and they wanted more.
3. Don’t be afraid to admit you don’t know what you’re doing
Once Kara was ready to actually produce her product, she found a female-founded bottling company in Chicago to start bottling Hint. When the bottler asked her, “Did you used to work at Coke or Pepsi? What do you know about this process?”, Kara’s response was “Nothing. I know nothing at all about this. I just have this idea.” She was upfront to her partners that she was learning as she was going, but by being honest with herself and with those around her, she felt her way forward little by little with their support until she gained more expertise. Don’t think that being an entrepreneur means you have to do everything alone.
4. Take the time to pursue passions outside of your day job
At first, Kara made fruit-infused water at home just for herself. “My friends and I would go out walking or to the gym and they’d ask, ‘What is Kara drinking today?’ and I’d say, ‘Oh, pomegranate lime.’” Soon her friends were asking her to create bottles for them, too. If Kara had not cultivated her budding interest in health and nutrition, and hadn’t given herself the freedom to experiment on her kitchen stovetop, boiling down fruits to capture their essence, Hint Water would never have come into existence. Whether it’s gardening, coding, or skydiving, you never know when your hobby could transform into an entirely new career path.
5. Successful women are not just role models for other women—they can also be important role models for men and boys
Kara recounted a story about her young son, who came to her after having watched a news program that discussed how small the percentage of female CEOs was. He said to her, “So, let me get this straight—there aren’t very many female CEOs? So how did you get there? Because you’ve always been the CEO ever since I was little.” Having grown up in a household in which his mother’s success was simply taken for granted, he couldn’t imagine a world in which women didn’t have the same advantages as men. “I’m confident that he’s going to be a guy that will be a great boss to women … a great employee to women,” Kara told the audience.
What I found most inspiring about Kara’s story was that, instead of simply getting frustrated because the product she wanted didn’t exist, she decided to go out and create it herself. Her passion for adopting a healthier lifestyle drove her to try to improve the health of others, and she turned that positive journey into a very successful business.