Earning

4 do's and don'ts for starting a successful company, from Hint CEO Kara Goldin

Kara Goldin turned a potential setback into an opportunity.

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Kara Goldin, founder and CEO of Hint Inc.
Courtesy Hint

A quest to kick her Diet Coke habit led Kara Goldin to form a multimillion-dollar water business. Seeking something flavorful and healthy to drink, she started boiling fruit skins in her kitchen and mixing the oils with the water. In 2005, she turned the endeavor into a company: Hint.

Goldin, a former tech executive, didn't have beverage experience, so a friend connected her with a contact at Coca-Cola. "He interrupted me 15 minutes into the conversation and said, 'Sweetie, Americans love sweet. This product isn't going anywhere,'" says Goldin, whose new book is "Undaunted: Overcoming Doubts + Doubters."

But she didn't walk out or give up. Goldin listened, realized they had different goals, and moved forward with her idea, having learned something important: "Even though he disagreed with me, that's where I got the most clarity."

Goldin's persistence paid off. While Hint is a privately held company and doesn't disclose its financial figures, Forbes has called it a $150 million business, and analysts say it's the largest independent nonalcoholic beverage company in the U.S. that doesn't have a relationship with a big soda company.

Hint products are on the shelves at major retailers including CVS and Whole Foods, and sold directly to consumers on the brand's website. In addition to its flavored flat and sparkling water, the company now also sells sunscreen, hand sanitizer, and other personal products.

"Since last March, our overall revenues are up more than 50%," Goldin says.

The successful CEO offers four "don'ts" to help you start your own business.

Don't go it alone

Becoming an entrepreneur doesn't mean you have to do everything yourself. And you shouldn't, says Goldin. While you're growing your business, it's important to bring people onto your team who have skills you don't, and who you can learn from, she says.

At Hint, Goldin brought on her husband, a Silicon Valley attorney, as chief operating officer. "He saw how hard I was working, but I was not super-interested in the supply chain and some of those details around how do we go to market," she says. "I think the moral of the story is finding somebody you get along with who also adds value."

At least one top entrepreneur shares Goldin's attitude. "Steve Jobs talked about this stuff," she says. Guy Kawasaki, the former chief evangelist at Apple, "said Steve used to walk in the room and would sit down with only the people he knew he could learn from." 

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Don't be afraid to build the plane while you're flying it

You don't need to wait until everything is perfectly set up to launch your business, says Goldin. "So many people think they have to have all the answers," she says. "And the reality is, you just have to start."

You can test out various methods and tweak them while you move your product forward. "Get it on the shelf, figure out the landscape and how the consumer is going to respond," she says. "It's way more important than trying to have everything perfect, because it won't be perfect, even if you think it is."

Hint bottles originally featured clear labels, but she soon discovered that didn't draw customers' eye on the shelves at Whole Foods. "You just couldn't see the bottle," Goldin says. The company made adjustments in 2010. "When we switched to a white label, it wasn't only cheaper, but it helped increase business." 

Get it on the shelf, figure out the landscape and how the consumer is going to respond.
Kara Goldin
Founder and CEO, Hint

Do remember you aren't expected to know everything

Entrepreneurs "may come off as being super-confident, knowing exactly the direction they're going, and what they're going to do," Goldin says. "But the reality is they just went and tried. They believed, they had fun, they took risks, they really were curious and asked a ton of questions."

Not having everything figured out can be an advantage. "I realized not having the answers, not really having the experience, allows me permission to walk into a room and not tell everybody the way it is, just say, 'Can we do this?' 'What about this way?'" she says. "I put myself in those situations all the time to not be the one with all the answers in the room."

Hint water, sun products, and deodorant.
Courtesy Hint

Do see the opportunities in setbacks

Starbucks had been carrying Hint for a year and a half when Goldin heard in 2012 that the coffee retailer planned to change its cold case offerings. "It was a huge hit, because that was 40% of our overall business," she says.

Goldin shed a few tears and tried to make a plan, since she had to alert her investors. But things quickly changed. "While I was trying to figure it out, I got an email from Amazon. They were launching their grocery business and the buyer said, 'Hey, I want to know how long it's going to take to get some Hint, because I love Blackberry Hint. I buy it every morning with my coffee at Starbucks.'" 

Goldin realized that the relationship with Starbucks had led to this new relationship with Amazon, which helped mitigate the feeling of loss. "After a year of working with Amazon, I got the idea to launch our direct-to-consumer business," she says. "So it sort of went full circle, or triangle. What looked like a setback, and could have been for many, was just a challenge."

Going over those challenges can be instructive. "If you look at what setbacks are happening and you keep moving and try to figure out what else to do in the meantime," she says, "you'll go back to those times that were challenges, failures, and say, 'Here's what I learned.'"

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