Kara Goldin is the Founder and CEO of Hint, a company she started in response to a lack of sugar-free flavoured water options in the USA. With over $100m in sales and having also overseen the launch of sunscreen and hand sanitiser products, Kara talks to The Industry Leaders about her journey, her leadership style and why leaders should learn to surf.
How did you end up sitting where you are today?
I've learned not to let fear or doubts hold me back from taking on a challenge. That's different from being fearless, by the way. I've had plenty of fears. I've had plenty of people telling me that I wouldn't succeed. But I confronted my doubts. I listened to my sceptics. And then I got to work, mindful of the pitfalls and risks that might stand in the way of success.
I talk about this a lot in my book, "Undaunted" - as you start to knock down those fears, you gain the confidence to move on to the next one and the next one. At some point, I got addicted to operating outside of my comfort zone. Once that became a familiar place, I started to thrive on that queasy feeling in my stomach telling me that the challenge in front of me was not going to be easy. I knew that whether I succeeded or failed, I would learn a ton, and I would be able to better confront the next hurdle in my path.
What kind of work does your role involve?
I'm the CEO of Hint, so my role encompasses everything we do – from marketing to manufacturing to finance to human resources. Of course, we have amazingly talented people running each of those functions, so day-to-day, I'm working with my team, being a sounding board and source of information and inspiration. So, I'd say my role is part coach, part analyst, part taskmaster, part champion, and part den mother.
What gets you excited about your industry?
Creating products that offer consumers easy access to healthy options is what excites me. Hint is well known for its unsweetened flavoured water – with no preservatives or additives (we like to say that it's water that helps people fall in love with water.) But we also sell sunscreen, deodorant, and hand sanitiser.
The story behind each of those products is that I was frustrated with some of the ingredients that traditional brands used in their formulation process. So I went out and created a healthier version for consumers. Being able to give people those options and delivering every day on our mission - that's what gets me out of bed in the morning.
What's the best advice anyone ever gave you?
My favourite piece of advice is from Steve Jobs. He gave a famous commencement address at Stanford, where he talked about a series of random – but meaningful – experiences in his life that all came together when he was designing the first Macintosh. He cited a calligraphy class that he stumbled into in college as an example and said: "You have to trust that the dots will somehow connect in your future."
Pursue the things you love, follow your curiosity, keep learning, and know that at some point down the road, it will all converge.
What advice do you have for other women who want to get started running a business?
I always say I've never been a man running a business, so I couldn't really speak to what the difference is.
Starting a business is really hard, no matter your gender. Expect that many people - your closest friends and family, even - will trash your idea and cite any number of reasons that you'll fail. As a woman, you might face more of that scepticism; I don't know. But either way, you're going to need to develop some tough skin and believe strongly in your idea.
There's a saying about mindfulness that goes: "You can't control the waves. But you can learn to surf." When you're running a company, there will be difficult times when those waves will get real choppy. Criticism and bad news will crash down on you hard.
So my advice is: learn to surf.
What kind of leader are you?
My first boss at Time Inc., Brooke McMurray, was my first role model as a boss and a leader. I was her executive assistant – my first job right out of school – and she taught me everything about the magazine business. She taught me something else, though, a couple of years after I started working with her.
On a snowy day in New York City in 1991, I slipped on a sheet of ice inside Rockefeller Center on the marble floors, slamming my knee into a marble step and shattering it in three pieces. It required surgery and weeks of recovery, during which Brooke sent food to my apartment and allowed me to take a month off of work to recuperate. It was only after I left Time Inc. that I discovered that most bosses didn't operate that way. Brooke was a savvy businesswoman, but she was also a kind human being. I realised that I thrived on kindness – I still do – and that that was the model for a leader that I wanted to emulate.
How do you keep up to speed with what's happening in your industry?
I talk to people in my network and read up on the news. But how I really keep up to speed is by staying in touch with what consumers are doing and what they're thinking.
In the end, that's the most important thing.
I still walk the aisles of the supermarket. I still strike up conversations with shoppers. I read every email and tweet, and letter that comes in from our customers. They're the ones that tell me where the industry is headed.
What was the most challenging project or situation you've overcome?
Early on, Hint struck up a partnership with Starbucks that was very successful. But about a year into the deal, Starbucks made a sudden decision to remove us from their 10,000 stores. It turned out that they needed to make room for higher-margin food items – it wasn't a reflection on us or our product. That was a tough day, for sure, since Starbucks orders represented a huge percentage of our total revenue. I definitely gained some important wisdom about never putting all your eggs in one basket.
Here's what else I realised, though: even if I knew at the time how the partnership would ultimately turn out, I don't know that I could have done anything to avoid our fate. And in retrospect, I wouldn't change a thing. The exposure that Hint got from Starbucks was invaluable. They introduced us to new consumers in every city and town across the country. Even though the partnership didn't turn out the way I had planned, it would never erase that fact.
And actually, an Amazon buyer called me up a few weeks after the Starbucks deal was pulled and told me he wanted to stock us in their online grocery store. He loved Hint, and – guess what – he got hooked after he bought his first bottle at his local Starbucks.
You finish work today and step outside the office to find a lottery ticket that ends up winning $10 million. What would you do?
Give half the money away, put the other half in the bank, and go right back to work the next day. I love what I do, and as long as I'm learning something new every day, I will never tire of it.
How do you switch off after a day at work?
I'm not sure that I have an off switch. I raised four kids while starting up Hint (they were all under the age of 4 when we launched; one was a newborn), so I never had the luxury of defining a hard line between work and personal life. I don't divide my day into "work time" and "personal time." It all melds together for me, and I've never had a problem with that.
In terms of how I de-stress, I start every day with a long hike with my two dogs, Sadie and Buster, and my husband, Theo. Those morning hikes give me perspective. That's my meditation time, where I reset and refocus for the day.
If you had one wish for the future of your industry, what would it be?
My wish would be that brands focus more on their consumers' health. A lot of products create the illusion of health with all sorts of buzzwords and tricks. And the confusion that results from it is real. Most consumers want to make healthy choices for themselves and their families, but unfortunately, so many of the options at the grocery store are carefully formulated and marketed to mislead people and usher them toward bad nutritional decisions.
What book or podcast should everyone know about?
"Caste" by Isabel Wilkerson
"More Myself" by Alicia Keys
"Follow Your Different" podcast from Christopher Lochhead
"The Playbook" podcast from David Meltzer.
What's next for you and Hint?
More Hint. Continuing to help consumers stay healthy. There are still so many people who have yet to discover Hint. There are new audiences to reach and more consumers who are trying to affect a change in their health.
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**Looking to level-up your leadership skills? Check out our article on the best self-help books for business leaders and entrepreneurs.