Kara Goldin is the Founder and CEO of Hint, Inc., best known for its award-winning product, Hint® water, which is the world's leading unsweetened flavoured water.
She is an active speaker, writer and host of the The Kara Goldin Show, where she interviews founders, entrepreneurs and other disruptors across various industries. She has received numerous accolades, including being named EY Entrepreneur of the Year 2017 Northern California, one of InStyle’s 2019 Badass 50, Fast Company’s Most Creative People in Business, WWD Beauty Inc.’s Feel Good Force and Fortune’s Most Powerful Women Entrepreneurs. The Huffington Post listed her as one of six disruptors in business, alongside Steve Jobs and Mark Zuckerberg. Kara’s first book, Undaunted, published by Harper Leadership, was released in October 2020. She lives in the Bay Area.
Hello Kara and thank you for participating in this Q&A session. We would like to explore your origin story. Please give us an overview of your background, career, and most importantly, why and how you got into entrepreneurship?
Kara: I often call myself an accidental entrepreneur. It was never my goal to start a company. I had zero experience in the beverage industry. My background was in tech, building the e-commerce business at AOL, and before that, working in media at Time Magazine and CNN. But after taking time off from working, to spend more time with my kids, I started addressing some health issues that had been nagging me for a while.
I found that the culprit behind my persistent weight gain and adult acne was my diet soda addiction. Once I started drinking water instead, I had newfound energy, I lost weight, and my skin cleared up within weeks!
The problem was, I hated plain water. So I started cutting up fruit and adding it to my water pitcher. I soon realized that I wasn’t the only one who could benefit from these concoctions I’d mixed up in my kitchen. There were millions of others like me out there. Once that realization set in, I had a mission to bring healthy options to consumers. That mission has guided me from Day One until today.
As a businesswoman and entrepreneur, what were the key challenges you initially faced in your entrepreneurial journey?
Kara: I wrote a whole book about this. It’s called “Undaunted: Overcoming Doubts and Doubters.” And that pretty much sums up the challenges I initially faced. As I said, I had no background in beverages, which is one of the most ruthlessly competitive industries out there. And I was well into my thirties when I decided to start a company, something I never pictured myself doing.
So you can imagine the long list of internal anxieties I had, compounded by the endless chorus of naysayers who couldn’t believe that I was embarking on launching an unsweetened, fruit-flavoured water. But I confronted those doubts one by one.
What I learned, over time, is that that process is similar to a muscle you build. The more you address those fears head-on, the easier it is to knock down the next one, and the next one. I found that in many cases the obstacles I was worried about were not nearly as insurmountable as I originally thought. And each experience gave me the confidence to blast through the next set of roadblocks, real or imagined.
Are there any leaders, past or present that have influenced you as a business leader?
Kara: Steve Jobs for sure. I took a job at a tiny start-up called 2Market in the 1990s based on the fact that he had started the company. One thing he said that has always resonated with me: “Trust that the dots will connect.” He was making an example of a calligraphy class he took in college and how years later when designing the first Macintosh, that experience shaped the design of the product in novel ways.
What I love about that advice is that it encourages people to unleash their curiosity and pursue their interests, even if those interests don’t align with their near-term professional or personal ambitions. Life isn’t linear, the path to success is never a straight line. You’ll be surprised at the hidden patterns that emerge down the road and the ways in which the dots connect. That is quintessential Steve Jobs.
What do you attribute your success at work and in life to?
Kara: Following on from the last question, I would say curiosity. I love figuring out the ins and outs of an industry, the rules, the players and the lingo.
A few weeks ago, I was with my daughter helping her find an apartment, her first place after college, and I have no experience in apartment rentals. Still, I couldn’t help my brain from cleaning up the inefficiencies there and seeing new revenue streams. I love looking at a system, taking it apart, figuring out what works and what doesn’t.
It’s the same reason I started my podcast, The Kara Goldin Show, because I love hearing the stories of different entrepreneurs and their path to success in other industries.
You have been the CEO of Hint Inc for 16 years plus. How do you manage the repetitive nature of your job as CEO, and still remain motivated and inspired?
Kara: The key is that it’s not repetitive. We’re always innovating, always trying new things, and for me, that means that I’m always learning.
A few years ago, we launched Hint sunscreen. Since then we’ve launched deodorant and hand sanitizer products.
They all fulfil our mission to give people healthy choices, particularly in categories where some of the active ingredients and additives that are used are not so safe.
That’s what gets me out of bed every morning with a bounce in my step. We’re creating products that make peoples’ lives better. And I’m always expanding my expertise, taking on a new challenge, and operating just a little outside of my comfort zone.
Out of curiosity, have you created or invested in any business enterprises other than Hint?
Kara: Hint has been my main focus for now.
What advice do you have for aspiring business leaders and entrepreneurs looking to start a business during the pandemic?
Kara: You’re doing the right thing! Now is a great time to start a new business, as the economy rights itself and things normalize. In fact, more new businesses have been launched in this past year than at any point in the last two decades. So you’re not alone either.
My main piece of advice is: understand your core consumer. Make sure you’re solving a problem for them. Ideally, it’s one no one has identified, even the consumers themselves. So, once they figure out how your product can fit into their lives, and improve their lives, you’ve created the kind of stickiness that can result in a lifelong customer.
How would you describe Hint’s target market and value proposition?
Kara: Our mission is to make water taste better and without sweeteners. We make healthy choices easier for consumers by providing what they need. We often enable consumers to realize that they can get healthy just by cutting out the diet sweeteners. When you help people to attain health, that’s powerful.
What is Hint Inc’s operating business model, and have you made any adjustments to it over the last 16 years, especially during the pandemic?
Kara: Shortly after launching Hint 16 years ago, we started offering Hint to all the micro-kitchens in tech firms like Google, Facebook and others. We soon became the largest beverage supplier in Silicon Valley, to tech offices. And that soon branched out to offices outside of tech across the US. We of course started in specialty retail like Whole Foods and others like it. We then branched out into bigger grocery then big box and clubs.
We made a very consequential decision a little less than a decade ago to start selling Hint through Amazon Grocery. Drinkhint.com was born about a year after being on Amazon’s grocery offering, in order to offer all of the flavours we created. All of our channels have grown significantly every year. Since the Pandemic started, our direct to consumer has tripled. Our overall business has grown by more than 50%. Our strategy and distribution model is to meet the consumer wherever they want to buy Hint.
Hint Water is sweetener-free with zero calories and this is one of its strong marketing points. Firstly, how do you get the fruit flavour into the water? Secondly, during this process, how are the calories removed?
Kara: The details depend upon the specific flavours, but here's an overview: First, individual essences and extracts are obtained from fruits, vegetables, and other vegetarian sources (for example spices), using a variety of techniques to separate the flavours we want from the sugar, colour, pulp and other components that we don't want.
Techniques used involve various combinations of pressing, heating, cooling, filtering, and dissolving. We then combine a variety of essences and extracts together according to our unique recipes. This mixture of flavours is blended with extremely pure water at local bottlers around the country, and the resulting "essence water" is then pasteurized, or in the case of Hint Sparkling products, infused with CO2.
What would you say are the key challenges to the enhanced water market?
Kara: So much confusion! The key challenge for us when we launched was that we were creating a new category in the beverage market. Unsweetened flavoured water. So it required a lot of education, both for the consumer and the buyers at the retail level. I can’t tell you the number of times I would pitch my “unsweetened, flavoured water” to grocery store managers who would taste it and ask, “What’s it sweetened with?”
Today, the challenge is that the category overall is incredibly crowded with still too much healthy perception products.
Innovation is in the air, we breathe it, eat it and sleep on it. In the case of enhanced water, we drink it. Do you anticipate any further innovation in the enhanced water space?
Kara: Every business has to keep innovating. There’s no such thing as perfecting a product, and these days, you can’t afford to be complacent. That said, we think Hint is the perfect upgrade to water. It’s simple, it’s delicious, and it’s a great way to stay hydrated. We don’t believe in tricks or tricking the consumer by adding unnecessary additives to our product. But if there’s a way to continue to improve on our product and fulfil on our mission, you can be sure that the endlessly innovative folks at Hint will come up with it.
You recently released your first book titled “Undaunted”. Please tell us what this book is about?
Kara: My book is a collection of stories from my life and career. It’s part memoir, part business tell-all, and part an advice book on living more boldly, and embodying an undaunted mindset.
Who is the target audience of “Undaunted”?
Kara: The book is geared toward anyone who is looking for a little inspiration to pursue the goals they’ve set for themselves, but perhaps don’t know how to go about getting there.
The book actually started as a journal back around 2014. Back then, I was spending a lot of time on the road at speaking engagements, and the questions I would field from audiences would bring up stories from my life and career that would motivate me to journal when I got back to my hotel room.
I noticed that a lot of the questions followed a similar theme. Audience members would often ask me about being fearless or how people like me must have some special “founder DNA”. When I looked back at my career, I saw things differently. I definitely didn’t shy away from challenges, but that’s different from being fearless.
Being undaunted is about confronting the internal doubts we all harbour and addressing the doubters in order to move forward. It’s an important distinction and a message that has galvanized a lot of readers who have reached out to me since the book came out.
How long did it take you to write “Undaunted”?
Kara: It took about five years, starting from when I began journaling. It wasn’t intended to be a book back at that point. It was just an outlet for me to recount stories from my life. Once the journal was spilling out over 600 pages, I thought, “Maybe this should be a book. Maybe people would find some value from the lessons I’ve learned over the years.”
Why should people read your book “Undaunted”?
Kara: I write in the foreword to my book, “Everybody needs a little encouragement and advice to help them push away the doubts and doubters and achieve everything they believe they can. If my story proves anything, it’s that if I can do it, you can too.”
We have come to the end of the interview and would like to thank you for participating in it.
Kara: Thank you
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