How a DIY Beverage Turned into a Multi-Million Dollar Company

Lean Startup Week Speaker Spotlight: Hint Water’s Kara Goldin


Talk about knowing your audience. The concept behind fruit-infused Hint Water started with a quest by Founder/CEO Kara Goldin for healthy beverages for herself and her family. She didn’t want sweeteners, or calories, or ingredients that you’d need a science degree to decode. She experimented with flavoring water with a little fresh fruit and berries at home. Based on the success of those drinks with her friends and family, she then asked a stocker at her local Whole Foods in San Francisco what it took to get onto the shelves. “I don’t think the guy I was talking to thought that I would actually come up with a product,” she says when we talked, on the 11th anniversary of when she first got Hint into Whole Foods. “I was pregnant with my fourth child at the time, and thought I better hurry up and get it launched.” She says she got Hint Water onto the shelf of that Whole Foods, delivered her child, and then got a call a few days later from the store. “They said we’re out of the product and we really need you to make some more, or you’re going to lose your shelf space,” she says.

Today Hint Water has 23 flavors to choose from (including a few limited edition ones), a website where avid consumers can order their favorite flavors and browse health tips, and a connection with the tech industry that has the company servicing Google and Facebook as well as creating a caffeinated version of the water based on tech worker requests. Not bad for a founder who came from the tech and media industries at AOL, CNN, and Time.

Kara will share the story of how she built a hunch into a multi-million dollar company at Lean Startup Week in San Francisco Oct. 31-Nov. 6.

To give you just a hint (we had to say it) of what’s in store when Kara takes the stage this fall, we asked her about some of her big ah-ha moments below. Below is an edited version of the conversation.

Being an entrepreneur is for the hyper competitive out there — especially when you’re going up against something as big as the sugary beverage industry

“Starting a company, building a brand, and doing anything, frankly, that makes a difference is tough. Especially when you’re going against the big guys,” she says. “They have a lot of people, a lot of money, and a lot of power. You have to be a fighter. Disrupting a very large industry — that in our case is about selling sugar water — they have a lot to lose. I always tell people, it looks easy, it’s fun, and it’s a lot of work.”

When you’re working in an uncertain corner of an industry, it’s important to admit what you don’t know as much as what you do

“I tend to gravitate towards industries that, in hindsight, are really about breaking new ground,” she says. “Maybe there are a few rules written here and there, but if you deviate from those rules, it’s untested water. I’m the first person to say, 11 years ago and today, ‘I don’t know.’ You have be ok building an industry and saying that.”

When you’re inventing an entirely new category in an industry, you may have to educate buyers along the way

“We not only developed a new product but we also developed an entirely new category, which is called ‘unsweetened flavored water.’ When we launched we took it to major chains like Safeway and Kroger and Publix and the Whole Foods of the world. The specialty and better for you markets got what we were talking about,” she says, “but there were still a lot of buyers there who didn’t get it, and would ask, what’s the difference between your product and vitamin water? The buyers would say to us, ‘There’s a spot on the shelf for plain water, there’s one for flavored water, and there’s one for soda, but there’s nothing for unsweetened flavored water, so we can’t put you on the shelf.’ We did whatever we could to get it on the shelf but stood firm and walked away from stores that said, we’ll only put you on the shelf of you give it to us.”

And just when you think you’re secure in your relationship with a buyer, those old industry giants can swoop in and try and push you out

We’ve been in and out of stores. There’s a lot of stuff that goes into building out sets inside stores and distribution and frankly it go back to the Cokes and Pepsis of the world. They have a lot at risk right now, for example if things shift away from sweeteners,” she says. “All kinds of games go on where the [major soda company] category captain for a major retailer will somehow get us removed from a store. I’ve realized when that stuff happens, it’s just as important to treat that buyer with respect. [It’s about] having other options to figure out a way that, if one major retailer decides to pull you out of your set, you’re not sunk.”

Hear more from Kara and our other amazing speakers and mentors at Lean Startup Week in San Francisco Oct. 31-Nov. 6. Register now to get the best deal on tickets, which go up in price on May 31.

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