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Hint Founder Kara Goldin shares the secrets behind her empire’s major success

Joining me on today’s episode is Kara Goldin, Founder and CEO of hint, inc.


This is an incredibly special milestone for me as it’s our 100th episode! I started Female Startup Club to help other women in progress, like myself, learn and be inspired by women who are building badass businesses and changing the world and I’m so thrilled to be speaking with an entrepreneur who has built something really incredible over the last 15 years.


Born in San Francisco, hint, inc. was founded in 2005 by entrepreneur Kara Goldin. It started as a healthy lifestyle brand best known for its flagship product, hint water- a delicious, unsweetened flavored water. Kara started the company with a simple idea: to make water that tastes great. To do away with all the sugar and diet sweeteners. And to give her family and friends something better that they would love. Today, hint is going beyond water to give people better, healthier experiences that they can truly enjoy and share.


We chat through her mission for building this business, what propelled her forward in realising that she would need to create and educate in an entirely new category and her advice for entrepreneurs with a big idea.


Please note, this transcript has been copy pasted without the lovely touch of a human editor. Please expect some typos!


Yeah, so my name is Cara Goldin and I'm the founder and CEO of a initially a beverage company, although we're a little bit more than that. I have my beverage here in case anyone can see this, but otherwise it's an unsweetened flavored water that I started fifteen years ago in the US and basically started the company because I was trying to get off of diet sweeteners. And so I had I had an addiction to Diet Coke and Diet Coke was my buddy and I loved it. And I'd wake up every day and I would drink my Diet Coke and it was great. And then finally, when I was trying to get healthier, I decided to really test some things that I was doing every day initially in food. And I started looking at different diets I had gained over the course of many pregnancies. I gained a lot of weight and was never able to lose it. And so since I was in university, I had gained fifty five pounds that I could not lose. And I'm a pretty small framed person. And so for me it was it was just a lot of weight.


I was really tired all the time. My energy levels were low and also I had developed terrible adult acne. I think that was like the ending point. I thought, what is going on with me? This is just not normal. And that's when I really started to read labels and try and figure out exactly what was going on. So anyway, it was really a health issue that kind of started this whole idea. I should mention that prior to starting hint, I was a tech executive. I worked for a company called America Online and ran their e-commerce and shopping partnerships for seven years.


And then prior to that, I actually started my career in media and worked at time and then CNN. And then when I moved to Silicon Valley from New York, I worked for a guy that I just was totally inspired by, actually not him, but an idea that was created inside of a company that you all know called Apple. And it was the Steve Jobs idea that was doing CD-ROM shopping. And so that was really my first taste of startup land. But still, I call myself an accidental entrepreneur, because even though I had worked early in the CNN days and then worked for an idea that was a spin out of a Steve Jobs idea, and then in America Online, that was maybe a little bit later startup, I didn't think that I would go and start my own company.


But when I had this health issue that basically I swapped out the Diet Coke for plain water. Two and a half weeks later, I lost twenty four pounds, almost half of the weight that I was trying to lose. It was insane. And again, I wasn't drink. Full fledged soda. I was drinking diet, so then I started to think, wait, this is diet y I'm diet means health. Why is this a problem that I've been tricked? Right. To think that it's actually better for me and my skin, clear to my energy levels went back. And that's when I started looking for this product that essentially I had made at home, which was to get myself to drink more water. I started slicing up fruit and I throw it in the water. And I wasn't counting calories. I wasn't, you know, it was just kind of just to get myself to drink water. And when I went to the store, everything had a sweetener in it. And whether it was sugar or some sort of diet sweetener. And I thought, that's not what I want. I want something that just is for taste. And when I saw this hole in the market. I had taken a couple of years off from AOL and I had three kids at the time under the age of four, then I committed to this idea that I would develop a product and try and get it on the shelf at this local store called Whole Foods that had just come into my area and San Francisco. And then I found out I was pregnant with my fourth. And so I thought I do. I like I've kind of written the business plan. Do I actually go go for it or what should I do? And then I thought, wow, I'm not having a baby for another six months, so I'll just keep working as hard as I can and try and get it on the shelf.


I had no idea what I was doing again, had never had never launched the company, had never launched a beverage company or a food company. But I thought, if, you know, I should just try, because if nothing else, it would be a great dinner conversation. They'd say, Hey, Carol, what have you been doing since leaving Tech? I'm like, well, I launched a beverage company and I thought, I don't know, I'd be kind of funny, right? Like, what if it failed? I thought, who cares? It'll just be great. Instead, I could tell people why it inspired me, why I wanted to work on this every day. And and that was really the thing, too, that I realized is that when I jumped into this industry super by accident, I knew nothing about it. And that's what made me excited because I was learning and I never would have said this when I left AOL. But I think part of the issue with so many people is that you get into this, you know, you start a job, your first job out of school and then sort of the aspirational end game is to become the CEO. Right. Or some C suite executive or a manager. Right. And there's a lot of people that get into those positions and all they're doing is actually teaching and mentoring, which is great. But after a while, I think that I needed to be learning. I needed to go back to the bottom right and be able to learn. And I've stumbled upon this new industry that I felt like was just so exciting because I just knew nothing about it.


I mean, something as simple as these little caps that I'm holding in my hand. I thought that they were called caps. And then six months later, I find out by accident that they're called closures. And I'm like, the world opened up when I was like, I mean, all of a sudden all this information, it was it was like a board game that all of a sudden you had just like flipped the code and then you got all this more information. I was like, yes. And I'm telling my friends and I'm like, I finally figured this out, you know what I mean?


When you go and figure something out that you're just like and people are like, are you OK? And I'm like, I'm super good. I got to go back to work right now because I'm just so excited right now. Like, I feel like I just hit the goal line.


So anyway, that's how it started. And today, were they still that? I'll always be the founder, but I'm still the CEO. Fifteen years later, we're the largest non alcoholic beverage in the US that doesn't have a relationship with Coke, Pepsi or Dr. Pepper Snapple.


And we started out and still version with just fruit in it. And we also have a carbonated version. We also have a caffeinated version, no sweetener. So our deal and our purpose and our mission is really to help people enjoy water and help people get healthy. And that's that's what we do every day. And from day one of getting it on the shelf at Whole Foods, that was what we were hearing from consumers, exactly what I had experience, which was you're helping me drink water. We heard from a number of people. Remember, this is fifteen years ago, a number of people who were saying your product is helping me control my type two diabetes, which was like two percent of the population in the US at the time. I'm like, how could we be helping so many people with Type two diabetes? I mean, this is tiny today in the US, 40 to forty five percent of the population has type two diabetes or prediabetes in the US. And so, again, it's a global it's not a pandemic. It's an epidemic. And it's an issue that we hear more and more may not actually be caused by sugar, but may be caused by other things, including diet sweeteners that are out there that people just don't get and they just don't seek this information. So so our purpose has really been to create great products that don't have diet sweeteners in them or sweeteners in them.


What a great mission to be impacting so many people and on such a deep level, 40 percent. That's a crazy statistic to have. And what a what a change from two to forty. My goodness. I'm interested to go back to that early time in your busy. And really understand what you were doing at that time to get the word out there and educate those consumers and have people stop buying your product and what was driving them, buying it off the shelves?


Yeah.


So just the moment that I got it on the shelf, I you know, it's a funny story. I mentioned that I was pregnant with my fourth and I actually have a book out that just came out October 20th. And it's one of the stories in the book that I think a lot of people start laughing a bit at. I was living it. It was it you know, I didn't view it as funny at the time. Now I look back, I'm like, I guess that's going to happen. But of course, when when you launch a product, it's always delayed. It's never on time. Right. And so that was the case with hand. And we were about two weeks delayed and I was working out of my house. And so I'm having a Plan C section on May twenty seventh. Twenty five. The product shows up at my house is big truck drops a pallet into my garage. I have a two car garage at the time we were living in San Francisco. So parking is really, really tight and it's like street parking is almost nonexistent where we lived. And so I have two cars and I'm thinking there's a pallet and one of the spaces when I go to the hospital and I'm coming home with my young baby, my fourth child, this is not going to work. I need this stuff out of my garage. And so the morning I wake up, I have to be at the hospital at two p.m. and I and my husband said, what do you want to do this morning before we go to the hospital? And I said, I would like to go to Whole Foods and see if we can get our product on the shelf.


And he said, I was thinking brunch or a walk note. I you know, I want to I want to go to Whole Foods and see if we can get the product on the shelf. So we said, OK. And so he drives me and we go there and I'm waddling into Whole Foods trying to find the guy that I had been asking all these questions at in my research. And my nice husband's carrying the cases in. We have a dolly. He's bringing him in. And the guy said I said, hi, do you remember me? And he said, Wow, you are really pregnant. And I said, I am. And he said, Are you going to deliver your baby right here in the store? And I said, Gosh, I hope not. I'm having a Plan C section and a few hours. And and he said, what? What's a plan C section? And I hesitated. And I said, Do you mean like the difference between a Plan C section and an emergency C-section? Because I've had both so I can explain it all. And he said, yeah. And I said, OK, so after you have an emergency C-section. And I went on to explain the difference and my poor husband is backing up into the fruits and vegetables section. He leaves the cases there. He's walking around horrified that I'm actually having this conversation. And he comes back fifteen minutes later and the guy looks at my husband and he said and looks at me too and said, thank you so much for explaining that. I've always wondered I've heard people talking about Plan C sections and and now I know.


And I said no problem at all. I said, by the way, can you get our product on the shelf now? Can you put it in the cold case? And he said, I don't know if I can do it. And I said, gosh, it would it would be amazing if you could. And my husband said, stop selling. We need to go to the hospital. So I go to the hospital not knowing whether or not it actually went on the shelf. And then the next day he called me. And in the hospital, of course, I think it's like my family or friends. No one calls when you have your fourth child. They're just like she's just gone for a couple of weeks. And so I hear the phone ring and my husband said, it's the guy from Whole Foods. And I said, What do you say? And he said that the product is gone. And I said, give me the phone. And I said, Who took the product? And he said, Oh, it's gone. And I and I said, What do you mean it's gone? And he said, it's it's sold. You guys need to get some product back in here because I'm going to get in trouble with my boss unless there's more product. I said you sold ten cases over night and he said, yeah, he was like, it was crazy and people were looking for your product. And so, of course, at that point we check out of the hospital. My husband goes and delivers some more products. So they said that they have more product.


And I thought that the rest was history. Right. I the next bazillion dollar brand. Right. But then that's when and this is something I talk about in the book, is that I certainly doubt it. Right, that I was going to be able to get that first bottle on the shelf at Whole Foods. But then also the doubts start to pour in right when you start. Here, like family and friends are the worst, they try and be helpful, but you say this is really hard and then they're like, why are you doing this again? Why maybe you should go back to your job and tech. Maybe you shouldn't work, right?


Maybe you shouldn't do all these things. And again, I was really excited. It was hard, right? There were challenges. But I also feel like we couldn't figure out Shelf-life, for example, we needed a longer shelf life. That's what the guy was saying at Whole Foods. And I said, OK, how do I find that out? He here's like I don't know. I mean, that's your problem. And I was like, OK, I'll figure it out. I had no idea. And then and here I was.


I was a tech executive that, you know, the youngest female tech executive at AOL, one of the only females. And, you know, now I'm I'm sitting there hearing cases in to Whole Foods trying to figure out shelf-life, trying to figure out a distributor. It was it was crazy. And again, I wasn't sure whether or not I was going to be able to figure this whole thing out. I felt I felt really I had fears. I had doubts. I was I I was less afraid of failing because I felt like I could always go back to being a tech executive. Right. Like that issue was not as big of a deal. The challenge with me, though, was that I just felt I felt like it was just so hard and I was tired and I just thought I'm just not going to be able to do this.


And so that's that was really when I just decided that I would share with the friend that I was having these issues.


That's another story. And and the book where I ended up meeting with an executive from Coca-Cola. And it was a really pivotal point in my history where I kept thinking that somebody people with experience, like people who were from some large company, would wave their magic wand and solve all of my problems. That's what we do right. When we start a company, we think that somebody is going to be there that is going to solve all the problems because they have more experience. And that's when I I ended up connecting with this gentleman. And I'm thinking that because he's got all this experience, he can solve all my problems, including shelf-life issues and distribution. And and I mean, I was ready to just give him the company at this point. And fifteen minutes into the conversation, he interrupted me and said, Sweetie, Americans love sweet. This product isn't going anywhere.


And I was like, whoa, what what did he just say to me, sweetie?


And I'm so thankful for that moment that he said this to me because I started listening and recognizing that he was speaking to me in a way that was rude, condescending, whatever you want to say, but different than than how I had imagined it would go right. And all of a sudden, I was a little shocked. So then I really started listening because people have asked me, why don't you just hang up on them? We weren't meeting live. We were meeting over the phone. And I said, well, I don't know. Like, I just started listening even more. And he went on for the next forty five minutes to say all kinds of things, including that people wanted less calories. They weren't interested in an unsweetened. And here I had consumers who were writing me saying thank you so much for developing this product. You've helped me drink water. You've helped me control my type two diabetes. And everybody was talking about health. My purpose and my mission was health. He never said the word health the whole time.


And so I get off the phone with them and I'm thinking, OK, I was about to give up an hour ago. And now what I realize is that I have a choice to make. That is, I can be bothered by what he said and stop, quit, or I can keep going because I'm on a totally different Mission River.


Whatever you want to, however you want to talk about it. And so I decided to keep going. And and so that is part of the reason why I decided to write this book, frankly, was that there's so many stories like this along the way that I've shared with entrepreneurs. I've in my talks that I've given I've shared many of these stories. And the book is called Undaunted Overcoming Doubts and Doubters. It's great for entrepreneurs. It's great for students. It's great for people who are just. Curious people who are trying to figure out what they want to do and be a lifelong learner of never really thought about that, but I figured that by sharing my stories that people could get inspired to ultimately know that you can do it. And I've always said like that story with the Coca-Cola executive, consider the source. Right? I mean, I'm like people have said stuff to me my whole life. And at the end of the day, you have to figure out if it matters or not. And that is really there are so many stories like this of stuff that people have said. Doubts I've had I've had doubters have had fears. I've had failures along the way. But if you just figure out instead to be driven by your curiosity and listening to your customers, that is the most important thing that you can do when you wake up every single day and and really start and run a company. And so that is what I'm doing.


I love it. And I'm super excited to read your book. Also be linking it in the show notes below. Yeah. When you look back, what is it that you attribute your success to and what is your superpower?


I would say it's definitely curiosity is my superpower and the the idea that I don't know, I'd say multiple curiosity and also just the ability I mean, people have called it resilience. Yeah, maybe. I mean, I think I'm just relentless at going and figuring out what is it that is in front of me that I need to solve. And I sort of I now look at so many stories and so many entrepreneurs that I've met. I had this opinion that you have to have experience in an industry to actually go in and start your own company. And that's one way to do it. But so often it's the people that are curious like me that come in to it from a consumer perspective that they're trying to solve their own health problem or some other problem that they have. And those are actually the people. While you may get discounted, right, that you don't have industry experience, you don't know what you're doing. You're a mom of four young kids. I had that one, too, along the way. The fact that you're looking at somebody who actually has this curiosity in this it it's it's dangerous. Right. You should look closely because depending if they're competitive, if they're driven right. If they've gone and done it in some other industry, don't discount that. They can't go and get this done.


Totally. Absolutely. What advice do you have for women who have a big idea and want to launch their own business?


I think don't be afraid to start small, so especially during the pandemic, I've talked to so many people who are in that position where they're trying to figure out like, gosh, I want to go start something or I've got this idea just though starting may actually be as simple as going on Google and really understand if someone else is doing this product right. Or the service. And when I started hint what I didn't realize, I knew that I was starting a new company and I was launching a new product that's like climbing a mountain. Right. But what I didn't know until a couple of months in was that I was starting a new category, and that's like climbing Everest. That's a whole different deal. And the problem, if you've never really thought about this, and that's such a key thing when you're thinking about starting your idea that you don't believe is out there is that you have to educate the consumer. You often have to educate if you have a product similar to mine where you're reliant on a grocery buyer, if they don't think that they need and unsweetened flavored water, if they're sort of in the camp of the guy that I met from Coca-Cola who's saying Americans love sweet, we don't need this product, then you've got to figure out how do I get over the wall? How do I crush the wall? How do I get around the wall? Right. You've got it.


You your job is strategy. You've got to have a great product and have confidence, but you've got to sit there and figure out where is this consumer. In our case, we grew up. We grew as best we could in grocery stores, but we actually grew up inside of Google and Facebook. And purely by chance, I was being recruited by Google and I again had this tech experience and a friend of mine was actually interviewing me. And after a while I just said, Amede, I don't know how to tell you this. I'm starting my own company. And I think he thought it was like competitive with Google after he had been really sharing a lot of information with me. And I said, just to let you know, it's not competitive at all. A