Kara Goldin launched hint in 2005 to meet a need of her own: She was trying to break her diet-soda addiction—she drank 8-12 cans each day—when she started adding cut-up fruit to water to make it more interesting to drink. When friends and family started asking where she got her flavored water—and when she couldn’t find anything in stores like it—she decided to bottle it herself. “I knew that if I didn’t do this product, no one else was going to do it,” says Goldin.
Based in San Francisco, hint now has more than 100 employees, does close to $100 million a year in sales, and is the number one independently-owned non-alcoholic beverage company in the US. The company recently added oxybenzone and paraben-free sunscreens to its product line and just launched hint in kid-friendly boxes this month.
The Helm spoke to Goldin about how to choose investors, the benefits of working with her husband, and why “vision” can be overrated.
You came to the beverage industry after stints at tech companies like AOL and Google. Did being an outsider help or hurt you?
I think my experience in tech gave me a different lens to actually go start something like this. Everybody I talked to in food and beverage basically told me, “that can’t be done.” But in tech, instead of “That can’t be done,” it’s always, “Who can we get in the room in order to help us figure this out?” That was the key thing. I was a “What If?” person. And I think when you look back, those are the people who change the world.
How did you finance hint?
We self-financed initially. Then when we were doing our raise two years later, people were asking us if they could invest. Women, friends, fans of the product and brand. Over 70% of our cap table is now women.
Tell me about one big mistake you made when you first started hint.
If I had it to do all over again, I would hire people who were ready to execute. I wouldn’t hire based on their vision. When you’re a founder with a big idea and you’ve got people on your team that don’t have a vision but also don’t have the ability to execute, you end up wasting a lot of time—and time is your most valuable asset. It’s like hiring a painter. Good painters aren’t necessarily going to help you figure out the color you should paint your house. They might have a couple of suggestions, but at the end of the day, they’re like, “Look, you need to figure out what colors you want to put together, and I’ll go do it.”
One thing I’ve done right is taking investments from people that were first and foremost fans of the brand.Kara Goldin
On the flip side, what’s one big thing you got right?
One thing I’ve done right is taking investments from people that were first and foremost fans of the brand. People were drinking hint at tech firms in Silicon Valley. They would reach out and say, “Oh my god, your water changed my life, I’m off of soda, I’ve lost weight, my skin’s better, I have more energy”—those people ended up investing. They’re really excited to say they’re investors and drink the product, and tell people about it. Someone like John Legend—people will ask me, “How do you get John to have hint on stage with him?” He just drinks it! It helps him drink water. He likes water with a little bit of taste with it. These are the people who are really telling the story of hint.
If I was trying to get somebody to invest and I walked into the meeting and the people were all drinking Red Bull, I’d be like, “What are we all doing here?” How you fund a company is so critical. You’ve got to find your audience and your peeps, who are going to back you and believe in you.
What is always on your desk?
I always have a hint on my desk just to stay hydrated. The other thing is my desk itself—I have a standing desk. I fluctuate between sitting and standing because I’m a huge believer that your body shouldn’t get used to one position. My iPhone is my lifeline in so many ways, but I find that I still really appreciate paper now and then, especially if I feel like I’ve got to give something some more thought.
What’s your favorite productivity tool?
Notes in my iPhone. I can just talk into it to remind myself about things. There’s also an app I love called Accompany. It scours your calendar to see who you’re going to be meeting with and then sends you background information on that person, so you can quickly see that she used to work at Google, or she used to work at Procter and Gamble, or whatever.
What’s your feeling about companies being political? Are there any causes or issues that you feel comfortable advocating for in your role as hint’s founder?
It depends on the kind of company you are running. I don’t think a founder can 100% divorce herself from her business. At hint, we tend to support causes that fit in with our company culture and beliefs, but I don’t preach politics through our business.
Your husband, Theo Goldin, is hint’s COO. What’s it like to have your professional and personal lives so intertwined? How do you make it work?
We started this adventure together. Once I had the idea and the formula, Theo stepped in to help put all the pieces together. In fact, we delivered our first order to Whole Foods on the way to the hospital to have my fourth child. Ultimately, it works because of our deep mutual respect. He’s better at some things, I’m better at others and, day-to-day, we actually don’t cross over that often anymore. The best thing about working together is that we share the excitement and the passion of building a brand. We also have four amazing children and we can control things to a point so that at least one of us has our eyes on them every day! As far as challenges there is a new one all the time so nothing gets old.
We delivered our first order to Whole Foods on the way to the hospital to have my fourth child.Kara Goldin
You have four teenagers. With your work and travel schedule, how do you make sure you stay close and in touch?
We speak and text frequently and weekends are very much theirs.
What are your non-negotiables when it comes to work and family time?
In general, I rarely miss an event for the kids and I rarely miss a milestone for the company. I think of the hint staff as part of my extended family so when something seminal happens I like to be there to celebrate or to troubleshoot if necessary. We escape as a family a couple of times a year and do a big trip somewhere that has adventure, culture and ideally some serious downtime.
Do you think “balance” for CEOs is even possible? What makes you feel balanced personally?
I don’t think there is such thing as work/life balance for anyone. There’s work and there’s life. You do your best and hopefully one makes you better at the other. Living a healthy lifestyle without compromising on enjoyment balances me. It’s drinking hint rather than soda, hiking in the morning and SoulCycle sometimes. And like I said, I need to check out with family a couple times a year.
Have you ever experienced sexism in the workplace? If so, how did you handle it?
Every woman has probably experienced some form of sexism at work. An example that comes to mind is when a top soda executive said to me “Sweetie, your product won’t scale. Americans want sweet.” I politely disagreed and built a multi-million dollar company.