Turning a Personal Problem Into a Social-Mission Startup

Written by Jordan Rosenfeld, contributor for Lean Startup Co.

Editor’s note: From now through the end of the year, we’re offering excerpts of talks from select Lean Startup Week 2016 speakers. These pieces are a combination of tips from their presentations and interviews that took place at the conference in San Francisco.

When Kara Goldin, CEO of Hint Water, started her now multi-million dollar beverage company 11 years ago, she simply set out to solve a problem: her poor health. Her health had changed since she’d graduated college, and “not all for the better,” she says. Goldin reported gaining 50 pounds, acquiring terrible adult acne, suffering from digestive problems, and lacking energy.

Doctors offered solutions and medications that didn’t resolve anything. It took deep self-reflection to find the source of her health issues: Drinking eight to ten Diet Cokes every day. “It wasn’t a casual addiction,” she says.

To replace the Diet Coke habit, Goldin sought new ways to get herself excited about drinking water. She experimented in her kitchen with adding fruit. Friends raved about her tasty water and suggested she consider selling it in stores. She took a chance by asking a stocker at her local Whole Foods in San Francisco about how someone gets new product on the shelves — and he shared the necessary steps new beverage makers have to go through. When she followed those steps and Whole Foods then blew through her first ten cases of Hint Water in just two days, she knew she was on to something. Within six months she managed to increase production. Soon after Goldin got an in with Google to purchase Hint Water for its employee snack bars, and her success grew exponentially.

Great Entrepreneurs Solve Real Problems

“My goal was never to launch a beverage company,” Goldin says. She simply wanted to fix those health issues at first — and then bring that solution to the public in a socially conscious way. She points out that in the US, more than 40 percent of the population has Type II Diabetes, which is reversible through diet and exercise. “I was that entrepreneur who stepped off the track for a minute and said, ‘Wait, is ‘diet’ really better for me?’”

The proof was in the doing for Goldin — after just two weeks of quitting diet soda, she lost 20 pounds, her acne disappeared, and her energy improved remarkably. Moreover, she birthed a fantastic business idea.

Think Bigger Than What Everyone Else is Doing

For Goldin, the whole point of being an entrepreneur is to solve the big problems that are otherwise being ignored. “I believe entrepreneurs are always the ones who will be able to create change and awareness and educate people to make the right changes — not just for ourselves, but for other people,” she says. Successful startups don’t try to recreate the wheel or improve on an existing success. She advises entrepreneurs to think big when they choose their problem to solve, because it increases the chances of becoming “a game-changing, disruptive company,” receiving funding, and acquiring customers to follow your vision.

She launched Hint Water with very little capital and manpower, and by setting annual goals, then monthly goals. “We thought if we could shift just ten percent of people away from soda over to our product, that would be a pretty big company,” she says. Her estimate proved correct. In 11 years Hint has “never had a down year. We’ve had 100 percent year-over-year growth for the last two years,” she says, which she attributes to a wider movement of “people wanting transparency in their food and their drinks.”

Stick with the “Pick and Shovel Work” Long Term

Great startups may thrive as much on experimentation as they do on solid plans, but Goldin advocates for what a mentor described to her as “pick and shovel work.” This means every time something great happens, companies should celebrate those wins while also realizing “there’s something else that is probably dropping that you need to go and get done.” This also applies when things don’t go your way. “Then you’ve got to figure out where you can put your pick in to keep chipping away and make it happen.”

Most importantly, Goldin feels that company executives should never lose sight of what it takes to run things at the most micro level. She says that while she isn’t the strongest candidate for sales, marketing, or operations, she knows “every single aspect of this company.” She advises that no matter how big a company gets, founders should be able to at least understand, if not do, all jobs within their company. “It’s really having that component of scrappiness,” she says, “so that if you ever have to go back to that, you can.”