Beautiful Thinkers: A conversation with Kara Goldin, founder and CEO of Hint, on being called Sweetie, becoming an accidental entrepreneur and why we need to clean up our water.
I discovered Hint years ago when shopping at Whole Foods with my young daughter. The name and packaging stopped me in my tracks. So simple and pure. And the product itself was delicious. It’s rare when marketers get the name and design right, especially from the beginning. Needless to say, Hint’s been on my radar ever since, and when I learned more about its founder, Kara, I knew I needed to speak with her.
Kara has several irons in the fire professionally, and on top of all that, she’s a mom of four! She’s been named one of the top 100 most creative people by Fast Company, as well as one of the most powerful women entrepreneurs by Fortune. The company she founded as a beverage brand has evolved into a full-fledged conscious lifestyle brand.
So, how did you get the idea for this brand?
I was drinking a ton of Diet Coke. I didn’t think it was bad for me because it had the word “diet.” One day, I decided to actually look at the can. I realized a lot of the ingredients just were not things I understood. I decided I wasn’t going to put things into my body that I didn’t understand, so I started drinking water. I saw my skin get clearer, my energy levels increase, and I lost weight that I had been trying to get off for years.
But water got really boring. So I started slicing up fruit and throwing it in, which helped me enjoy it. I just started living this way for the next year. People would see me throwing the fruit in the water or drinking fruit in water and ask me why I was doing it. I told them, “It’s just a way to flavor the product.”
So I took the idea to my local Whole Foods and said, “I want a product like this.” At the time, Whole Foods was only stocking products like Vitaminwater, which back then had more sugar than a can of Coke. I felt it was doing the same thing as Diet Coke — using the word “Vitamin” to tell people this product was ok to drink. Finally, it dawned on me that if I could get my product on the shelf next to the Vitaminwater, I could help other people get healthy.
How did you come up with the name Hint?
I came home, and I told my husband I had this idea to start a company. I was a tech executive, not a beverage executive, so it was a new world. He said, “What’s the name of it?” At that point, I had three kids, and I was trying to get them to drink more water and less juice. So I said “Maybe the drink is called Wawa.” And he said, “No, there’s a big chain in Pennsylvania called Wawa.”
Then I said, “Well, we’re giving people hints to hint the flavor. How about Hint?” He’s an attorney, so he said, “That’s probably not a great idea. You’ll never get a four-letter word trademark.” I said, “Just go ahead and file it and see what happens,” so he did and here we are.
Six months into the business, you contacted a Coca-Cola executive to try to persuade him to take over the company. What was his response?
I said, “Listen, I’m in San Francisco. I’ve never done beverages before. I worked in tech, and you can just have this company. We’re in 10 markets around the Bay Area, and it’s doing pretty well.” But then the Coke exec interrupted me. “Sweetie,” he said. “Americans love sweet.” And I was like, “Did he just call me ‘sweetie’?” I just put the phone down and lost him for five minutes. Finally, a light bulb went off. He really thinks Americans love sweet drinks. I realized I had runway to launch this company because he’s not focused on a company with no sweeteners. I knew that if I didn’t do it, nobody would.
Recently on your podcast, Unstoppable, you talked about processed foods and sustainability in the US. How can we help consumers make healthier and more sustainable decisions?
The challenge is it’s so easy for consumers to make decisions based whoever’s loudest. Take plastic bottles as an example. We produce our main product in plastic bottles. 100% of cans contain BPA and styrene, but nobody’s talking about that. Instead it’s: “Plastic is terrible.” When I ask consumers why they think plastic is terrible, they say, “Oh, it’s bad for the environment, and it goes into the ocean.” But if it’s recycled, it actually doesn’t.
The reality is that BPA was removed from plastic in 2012 because it’s a known hormone disruptor, which causes breast cancer, lymphoma, lot of other issues. It was not removed from aluminum cans. And glass isn’t a more sustainable alternative because it’s not cleaned and reused like it used to be. Instead, it’s crushed and turned into sand. It takes three times more energy to create a glass bottle than a plastic one. It also uses more cardboard because there’s breakage, which means you have to cut down trees. And with plastic, we can put four fewer pallets on a truck than with glass
In a perfect world, there’s no packaging at all. There’s no plastic. There’s no aluminum. There’s no boxed containers that just go in landfills. There’s nothing. But we’re dealing with the fact that 65% of drinking fountains in our children’s schools have too high levels of lead, some arsenic, some copper. The only way to remove arsenic from our water is reverse osmosis, which we do in our product before putting it into plastic bottles. You have to have packaging in some way in order to have clean water today.
Hearing you talk, I can tell you’re extremely informed and passionate. Are you trying to change legislation, too?
One initiative we’re about to get pretty noisy about is water in schools. The federal school lunchtime guidelines are sponsored by the dairy association, which is why 80% of our schools have trays with cartons of milk. The dairy association was told that 20% had to be something besides milk. So they partnered with their friends at the orange juice association to have orange juice on the trays.
Many food service directors and school nutritionists have requested a product like Hint, but they can’t because it’s not approved by the federal school lunch program — which means the water option is drinking fountains. What’s crazy is that the federal school lunch programs determine what the lunch trays have, but the school programs are run at the state level, and the states don’t have money to clean up the water. We’re trying to create awareness because it’s affecting 35 million children in our public schools.
These are the issues I get pulled into because we use reverse osmosis and need clean water to produce Hint, and I’ve been a big advocate for them from the beginning. I feel like it’s my purpose. I wouldn’t be called into these conversations if it wasn’t really what I’m supposed to be doing. I’ve also found that you can get sucked into Washington pretty quickly and not a lot of stuff gets done very fast, if ever. We’ve got people who are helping us on that front to actually get stuff done.
40% of your sales last year were online. Is that something that you’re hoping to build?
Look, the challenge with stores today is that a lot don’t really have everything that people want. I talk to people who tell me they end up going to multiple stores to find everything they want. Also, carting home a bunch of heavy Hint from a grocery store is not as appealing as having it delivered to your home.
But I love the idea of retail. I still love going into a store and touching and feeling things. Traditional retail is never going away, but I believe that the consumer should be the one choosing how they shop. Having said all that, since we’ve gone online, our offline business in stores like Target has increased. They work off of each other. It’s not an either/or situation for consumers.
You recently branched out into sunscreen. Where did that idea come from?
Again, it stemmed from a personal need. I was looking for sunscreen for myself. I’d had skin cancer removed on my nose. But I really wasn’t that excited about what I found at the drugstore. Frankly, I didn’t like the way mineral-based sunscreens felt or looked on my skin. And since they were blocks, not actual sunscreen, they let some sun come through.
Then I ran into the same issue as with drinks. There were all these ingredients I didn’t understand. When I searched one, oxybenzone, I learned it might exasperate pre-cancer cells under the skin. I went back to my kitchen and started making sunscreen using our fruit extract really just for the smell. I thought a product that smelled better would be a great experience. We started out with an aerosol, and now we’ve got a pump spray, a stick and a chapstick. So it’s very, very exciting.
In the beginning, I didn’t think Hint would become a platform. It just naturally happened. People were coming to us asking us what other products we’d be interested in developing. It just goes back to solving problems that the consumers have. If we can lead an industry that is confusing for consumers to actually figure out what is healthy and what isn’t, that’s the role for Hint.
I’ve heard that you tend to pull mentors from different categories and places. How did that start?
Early on, I would talk to people I knew about various aspects of our business including things like e-commerce or supply chain. What I found was that they didn’t necessarily need food or beverage experience. Lesley Blodgett, who started Bare Escentuals was a client of mine when I was at AOL. She built a significant company to over a billion dollars in a unique way: through QVC. The people I wanted to reach out were the ones who were doing things differently.
What other brands do you look to for inspiration on how to grow your brand?
Oh, there’s so many. I admire simple companies that are disrupting and solving problems like Drybar. I like female companies that focus on how to solve problems. I just think women look at things in a different way where they see the problem and instead of saying it’s a problem, they go out and create something that helps people live an easier life in some way.