Episode 11 - Kara Goldin
You've Got Water: Why This Former AOL Executive's Health Product Company is Set to Bring In $100M This Year
4 Key Learnings – Kara Goldin
About this Episode
Kara is the founder and CEO of San Francisco–based hint, which produces the leading flavored water with no sweeteners and nothing artificial. She founded The Kara Network and recently launched the podcast Unstoppable to tell the stories of entrepreneurs and founders. Hear her inspiring story about her days with AOL, and what led her to found a beverage company that today is worth over $100M.
“If you, as a consumer products company can actually create change by just offering a great-tasting product that actually eliminates ingredients that people don't really need, that is a pretty cool thing. That's really what we're doing at Hint.”
More on – kara
Kara is the founder and CEO of San Francisco–based hint, which produces the leading flavored water with no sweeteners and nothing artificial. She founded The Kara Network and recently launched the podcast Unstoppable to tell the stories of entrepreneurs and founders
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- Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell
- Originals by Adam Grant
- Warby Parker
Welcome to today’s episode of The Career Hacking Podcast. I’m your host, Max Altschuler. Today’s guest is Kara Goldin, CEO of Hint Water. This episode is brought to you by SUTRA Superfoods. SUTRA is a healthy and beautiful superfoods latte and alternative to coffee. Gives you balance and natural energy without any caffeine or stimulants. I love SUTRA Gold with turmeric and ginger and maca root it in the mornings, tastes like a spicy chai. I drink the SUTRA black in the afternoons with activated charcoal and raw cacao, and it tastes like the healthy hot cocoa, beautiful too. It’s great for travel because it comes in stick packs and can have it easily on planes, trains, and hotels, and it can be made hot, iced, or even into a smoothie. It’s definitely my new favorite drink. Check it out. It’s sipsutra.com, and if you haven’t already, check out my book, Career Hacking for Millennials.
Hey, everybody. Thanks for tuning in today. We have a great episode for you. We have Kara Goldin, CEO of Hint. Here, Hint is a booming company right now. They make these natural, unsweetened waters basically. Flavors include watermelon, blackberry, mango, grapefruit, sugary, kiwi, but there’s no sugar or sweetener at all. I drink them. They’re amazing. She’s also getting into making healthier, non-toxic versions of sunscreens, deodorants, things that you use in everyday life that, you know, just have really bad ingredients in other cases, but hers are, again, non-toxic and not going to harm you at all, so we’re really excited to have Kara on. She comes from another former Arizona State Sun Devil alum just like myself, did some time at AOL, worked her way up the ranks, started Hint, now doing over 100 million dollars in revenue, I believe. Kara, thanks for coming on the show.
Hey. How’s it going? Bet it’s busy running multiple products now, right?
It’s crazy. Actually, I would say that the biggest challenge these days is hiring lots of new people, and we’ve doubled our team in six months from 60 to 130.
Then, we have 30 interns here for the summer, so it’s trying to help people figure out. People are trying to get their job done right, and then it’s trying to make sure that these people have useful things to do, and are being managed right, and know what their marching orders are. It’s interesting, I mean, so far it’s working, but it’s … As I was telling a friend last night, it’s not that everyone isn’t trying, it’s just that when you don’t have people that have lots of management experience on how to set it up, you really notice [inaudible 00:02:44], right, and so then the people that actually have managed are the ones that have to say, okay, this isn’t that hard, let’s do this, and set it up this way. Anyway, I ended up getting called in even though I’m the CEO. I end up getting called in to this stuff because I have managed teams remotely. I have managed lots of people fitting my office, and [crosstalk 00:03:08].
That’s a big intern class compared to the ratio of employees to intern. You had 30 interns for 120 person company, right?
Yeah. There’s probably half of them are working in our San Francisco office, and then there’s a bunch that are working, maybe it’s even 40 interns, there’s a bunch that are working in sales. It’s almost easier in sales because they’re helping with merchandising, you know, and stuff. Those managers, they’re used to managing sales team, so I don’t really have to do a whole lot with that, but I’m also a big believer too that when you’re managing interns, I don’t want to see people picking the garbage out. They can take the garbage out, but it’s also I want them … I mean, they’re customers for Hint, right, and so I want them to walk away having an experience with the brand where they’re like, “Yeah, it was really cool. I learned that … ” whatever. That shelf space on a supermarket is actually bought by this big food beverage companies, and so it’s trying to figure out what else can you do.
That’s actually even though you’ve got distributors, that it’s your job working for the brand to say, “Hey, guy working at Whole Foods, do you mind if I just check in the back room to see if there’s back stock on the product. By the way, here’s a free T-shirt.” It’s amazing what $5 T-shirt will get you, just being nice, right? Anyway, I want everyone of our interns to walk away and not say, “Yeah, it was okay. I mean, 17 bucks an hour, whatever.” That, to me, is failure. I want them to walk away and say, “Wow! It was awesome. I really learned a lot.”
They’re going to go back to their college or their frat or sorority, and they’re going to tell their friends, and then next year, you’ll have another crop of interns, and you’ll get the best pick of the litter because the word of mouth will be so strong that everybody will want to come and intern for Hint.
Totally, and I think we’ve seen it actually. I mean, we have a bunch of interns … Actually, we have, I guess, three regions where our managers started out as interns, and they came back, and now they’re … I mean, the guy that’s in San Francisco, what’s so great about him is he’ll say to interns like me playing Lacrosse at UVA. He said, “Look, I never in a million years thought that I was going to be a beverage sales person, but what I’m finding is I really love the product, and is really passionate about it. Now, I could build teams and I’m on the right side of the fence, the beverage industry. I’m not selling something that’s poisonous for people, so I just like it, and I had to get over the fact that some of my friends are in tech, and I’m selling beverages, but, you know what? I like what I do, and it’s part of my lifestyle.” People like that too I think can also speak to their own fears of saying I have this perception of what I should be doing versus what I actually wanted to do.
You really hit on something with Hint in terms of the health trend in general, so what are you seeing in the market? What was the reason for starting Hint, and what do you see going forward as you start to unveil these new products like sunscreen, deodorant? You know, my girlfriend, for example, had heavy metal poison and she had lime disease, and she uses none of the mainstream deodorants or sunscreens, anything like that. You think that’s a trend in the market overall that’s going to happen, or is that something that just San Francisco, New York?
I think that the key thing that I see is that it’s not a demographic thing. It’s really about lifestyle, wherever people are living. The sad thing is that, we, as a society start to have more access to information about lots of different things including our products, we’re also on a parallel track finding out that where some of the things, whether it’s skin disorders, or allergies, or just things like cancer, for example, or lots of different issues really could potentially be related to something that we’re putting inside our body, or on our skin, or what have you. I think there’s a lot of alternative now where people are feeling like chemo, for example, may not be the thing that they have to do when they get cancer.
Instead, it may be really about, look, the likelihood of your tumor growing is very low, and so, therefore, going in and doing a super aggressive treatment like chemo could not be clearly the answer, right? It could be watching something, and eliminating sugar from your diet. That is something that, 10 years ago, many people hadn’t heard, and they would go through aggressive treatments. You can call it prevention, you can call it ‘I’ve got something that I’m living with, and now I’m just going to try and figure out how I live with it, or reverse it, or what-have-you.’
There’s a lot of those people out there. We’re just a product that really is about helping people drink water, and it’s really why I started the company. It’s interesting because I run into people daily who just say, “Hey, I love your water. I drink it all the time.” There was a [inaudible 00:09:00] all across the US, but we’re also the largest beverage at places in Silicon Valley like Google and Facebook, and others. I feel like, to be a mainstream product, and yet for a segment of the audience we’re actually helping them really solve problems that they have, that their colleague at work might not even know they have. It’s pretty special.
Also, if you, as a consumer products company can actually create change by just offering a great-tasting product that actually eliminate ingredients that people don’t really need, that is a pretty cool thing. That’s really what we’re doing at Hint. I mean, we started it as a water company. We put a stake in the ground around the fact that water can actually have bubbles. Water can actually have organic green coffee bean extract, which creates caffeine, but all across our beverage segment, it is really about no sweeteners. Always has been, always will be. We highlight sugar as not great, and not good for you, and not necessary to have in your water, but we also do something that is pretty different from other beverage companies, which says that it’s not about calories. It really is about what happens when you’re consuming sweet, and how your brain actually reacts to that.
There’s lots of studies being done. There’s also lots of large food and beverage companies and pharmaceutical companies that are preventing some of the studies from coming out about saying diet sweeteners, Stevia, is probably the biggest one that really show that the people with the most weigh issues today in the US also have diseases like Type 2 diabetes, which is the fastest-growing disease in the world today claim to be drinking diet sweeteners, Stevia in particular. What is the connection? Those are the things that we really focus on as a company.
How did it come about? Where were you working at that time? What was that light bulb moment like?
I was working in AOL. I ran their E-commerce. You know, it started there super early back when there were, nobody really knew what E-commerce was, nobody really believed that people would shop online, and basically, seven years later, I’m basically running this marketplace with lots of different retailers, 200 people on the team, and over a billion dollars in revenue to AOL. I was commuting from San Francisco, my husband was at another company, Netscape, and we have these young kids. You know, I thought, I don’t know, there’s so much going on in Silicon Valley. I should just go find something closer to home. The company has grown significantly, and I really started to think about what I like to do best, which is build.
I’m a builder. I’m a disrupter. I love the excitement of not having a bat for E-commerce, and growing that, and then basically started thinking, okay, what do I want to do next, and the natural progression for me was go find another tech job. I kept interviewing for all these tech jobs. A lot of the companies that I was interviewing with were basically telling me to disrupt what I had built, and I thought that that was go out and compete with what AOL has built, so they acknowledged that it was this amazing marketplace that I was responsible for, and they’re like, okay, now, I need you to go do better for us.
I just thought that that was just such a bizarre … I couldn’t really get my head around it because I thought why do I want to go and … I don’t know. It just seemed almost [inaudible 00:12:50] to me that I would actually be a part of something like that. Here, I [inaudible 00:12:55] new people who would work for me under there, and now I was going to go be paid by somebody else to go do something that would actually disrupt what they were doing, and so I hadn’t totally eliminated the idea of doing that, but while I was doing that, I just thought, gosh, I’ve lost the baby weight. I had three kids at that time, I’ve lost the baby weight, and then had really been thinking about, okay, how do I actually move the rest of the weight, and had a come-to-Jesus moment with myself about that I had gained all these extra weight, that I somehow wasn’t really counting in my calculation of losing weight, the baby weight, and I had gained over 50 pounds since I’d actually graduated from college.
A lot of that was right after college. I was living in New York, really focused on starting my career, you know, eating out a lot, and lots of different things. You know, as my girlfriend said to me when told her that I was 55 pounds over what I was in college, she was like, “Gosh! You wear your weight well.” I was like, “Oh, what does that mean exactly?” Because no one could believe that I weight it, but I knew it. Finally, I just decided, well, I’m looking for a job, I’m going to get this weight off, and start working out every day. I was never a marathon runner, but I was a competitive gymnast growing up, and I always was a runner, and grew up in Arizona, really enjoyed hiking, and just always being outside.
I thought I’m going to just start daily just doing this, and I’m going to only shop at Whole Foods, and it’s all just going to happen. Then, it didn’t, and it was really hard for me to lose weight. I also had terrible adult acne, which I never had even as a teenager. I thought, gosh, what’s going on? Is there something wrong with my makeup? What is happening? Finally, I went to a doctor. The doctor told me that this is what happens when people grow older. Their hormones go crazy, their metabolism stops. None of it made any sense to me. After I got a prescription for some medication to actually … Basically, diet medication to kick start my metabolism, and figure out what’s going on with my hormones. I just thought, well, I don’t know if I want to go on that for the rest of my life. Instead, I’m really going to start to look inside my pantry and my kitchen, and try and figure out why this is happening.
I just decided that I was going to eliminate things that I just didn’t quickly understand the ingredients. Diet Coke was my very best friend. I drink it, ever since I was a teenager. I just drink it all the time. I would go to my local Circle K in Arizona, [inaudible 00:15:35] super size diet sodas. When I was at AOL, I would do the same. I really thought, I had to convince myself that it was a liquid, so it was as good as water, and that’s great. You know, there were certain days I was drinking eight to 12 a day, can size, but, again, sometimes it was in a super big belt size [inaudible 00:15:58]. Then, when I just decided just throw it in the garbage two weeks later, I purposely said, okay, I’m going to drink water instead of this, so I literally lined up eight glasses a day on the counter, and said I’m not going to go to bed until I drink all of those water to try and see if that makes a difference.
After two weeks, I lost over 20 pounds living this way. I realize that once I started drinking water, I didn’t have the big appetite for bread any longer. I don’t know. I really craved vegetables and fruits. I still ate a lot of chicken just like any processed-
Did you feel that from getting rid of it?
Yeah. It was interesting because I thought, okay, I’m going to get really bad headache because I’m no longer going to be having the soda, but it was actually stomach issues more so than anything else. I felt like I went through this major detox. Finally, after I had just gotten the weight off, people were like, “Oh my God! Your weight … I mean, your skin … ” In three weeks, I had totally changed my skin as well, and I no longer had acne. I mean, I was looking at Accutane and all these other things in order to change it. It was just amazing. Nobody talked to me about actually looking at what I was putting into my body every day.
Finally, like I said, I was drinking all these water, but I was just like, oh my God, how am I going to [inaudible 00:17:32] that’s why I start slicing up fruit, and throwing it in water. One day, I went to my local Whole Foods, and again I was still interviewing for jobs, and so I didn’t even think of this as a company, or even a product. I went to Whole Foods, and I said, “Hey, do you have a still water that has fruit in it, that doesn’t have-
Preservatives, doesn’t have sweeteners. The guy pointed to this product called Vitaminwater, and, at that time, 14 years ago, Vitaminwater had more sugar in it than a can of coke, and so I explained this to him. I’m like, “Oh, you know, I’m sure it tastes great to people who really like sugar, but I’m really trying to eliminate sugar.” He’s like, “Huh. That’s really interesting. There’s this carbonated versions of the product.” I was like, “I know. You know what’s crazy about all these flavored waters that have carbonation, most of them have sodium in it,” which I was also trying to … I never had an issue with sodium that I knew of, but I just didn’t really want it. Then, the other thing was that they were not using real fruit for their flavors.
He is like, “You’re kidding?” I’m like, “No. It’s crazy. I mean, they’re using bone marrow, and for color, a lot of these companies are using cockroach wings. It’s all natural, but it’s like … ” He’s like, “How do you know all these?” I’m like, “I’m not working anymore, and I’ve just been thinking a lot about this industry, and also thinking about, you know, I had young kids, and I just thought there’s so many things out there that are healthy perceptions versus healthy reality. It’s just really disturbing.” He’s like, “Yeah. This is crazy.”
Then, a couple of weeks later, I came in to do some more shopping, and this is my local Whole Foods in San Francisco, I was just walking down the aisle, and said, “Hey, how’s it going?” He’s like, “Oh, wow! I can’t stop thinking about our conversation, and started looking at all these crackers on aisle three, and how much sugar is going into all these things.” I felt like this topic was one that nobody had really had because everybody I talk to, people I knew, people I didn’t know were just like, “Wow! That’s really interesting. I had no idea,” that if I didn’t actually go do something about it, that it would just go away.
You had this problem yourself, you did your research, and you said, okay, there’s nothing else like it. Obviously, at that point, you knew, okay, there’s other people out there that probably have the same issue. What steps did you take from there? What were some of the pitfalls you have to avoid?
I was making it at home, and then I went back to Whole Foods, and I said, “Listen, I really like to launch this product.” The guy was like, “You should. You should launch it.” I just said, “Okay. Well I got to figure out how to do it.” I think he really thought, oh, she’s not going to figure this out. Then I went home, and I had started really researching things like bottlers, which is what I thought what a Coke packer was called. I mean, I had no idea. I was not a quick study on that topic. It took me a couple of months to figure it out, what bottlers were actually called Coke packers, but in the process of it, what I really thought too from a personal standpoint, I had been one of the youngest vice presidents at AOL, the first trying to disrupt an industry around E-commerce as well, and I felt like, finally, I’m doing something that was really not only impactful for myself but for lots of other people.
A lot of people get that feeling when they go do non-profits. Those people over the years, I’ve never done that, so I start thinking do I go and start at non-profit, or join a non-profit, or whatever. I just thought actually getting people to enjoy water would just be-
It’s a cause. That’s great.