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The following is excerpted from “Undaunted” by Kara Goldin Copyright© 2020 by Kara Goldin. Used by permission of HarperCollins Leadership. www.harpercollinsleadership.com.
I wasn’t thinking about founding a company or building a business. Nor did I picture myself as a national advocate for health or dream of being recognized as a leading entrepreneur. And I certainly had no vision of becoming a major player in the beverage industry.
I was just focused on one goal.
That’s usually how a business gets off the ground successfully, even ones with a lot of capital behind them. The founders of “Time” magazine, for example, wanted to create a news magazine that a busy person could read in an hour or less. Amazon started as an online bookseller.
My goal was simple: show people that drinks can taste good without tasting sweet. Obviously, I couldn’t do that by myself, slicing up tons of fruit and filling up my fridge with pitchers of water.
I had a lot to figure out, and it wasn’t like I had nothing else to do. That spring of 2004, I was looking after our three kids—Emma, five; Kaitlin, three; and Keenan, two.
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I was also fielding requests from tech companies who wanted me to take a job with them and come back to work full-time. Because of my experience at AOL, I had a reputation as an innovator in online shopping and e-commerce. I got calls from people at Yahoo, Google, Microsoft, and other major industry players who basically wanted me to do for them what I had already done for AOL.
I was flattered and tempted by the offers, but ultimately I turned them all down for various reasons. I didn’t want to travel a lot while the kids were young. I wanted to focus on my health. I had commitments to the community.
While those things were certainly true, there was another fundamental reason I didn’t pick up on any of the tech offers. It would mean doing something I already knew how to do. I didn’t want to repeat myself. I wanted to do something new and potentially life-changing. Something disruptive.
That’s what I had loved about my previous jobs. When I landed the position at Time Inc., I knew next to nothing about publishing, sales, circulation, corporate empires, management, or New York City. When I started at CNN, I knew little about television, cable news, big-name entrepreneurs and movie-star activists, or fast-growing media companies. When I joined 2Market and eventually AOL, nobody—including me—knew much about the internet, online shopping, tech startups, or megamergers.
I had been attracted to each new position precisely because I didn’t have all the answers about the business or the job. Each one presented me with an opportunity to gain experience and to learn. If I took another tech position related to online shopping, I would probably gain a little knowledge that I didn’t have before, but I didn’t think it would be life-changing. In fact, I thought it would be boring.
So, as I focused on my family, staying healthy, and volunteering, I took baby steps toward creating this thing that I felt really could be meaningful. Not just for me, but for lots of people. My fruit-infused water. I didn’t tell any of my friends or family about my idea to turn it into a marketable product. I didn’t even tell Theo the extent of my thinking. He thought I was just having fun “screwing around in the kitchen,” as he put it. And that’s pretty much what I was doing, because I definitely didn’t have a product that was ready to go in a store. But I felt that there was something there, and I kept tinkering.
One of my first steps was to figure out how to make the water a little more attractive. Fresh fruit floating in water looks pretty nice, but to get the flavor into the water I had to let it sit for a day or two in the fridge, and with berries I had to muddle up the fruit. The big question became how to get the right amount of flavor without letting the fruit sit in the water.
I did some research on the internet and learned that there were companies that made fruit essences used as flavorings for foods and beverages. I ordered samples and soon had a collection of little glass bottles. I would choose an essence, squeeze a few drops into a glass of cold water, take a sip, then make notes about the flavor. The notes turned out to be pretty much a waste of time, since almost all the flavors ranged from terrible to merely okay. They did not taste like real fresh fruit.
I also tried some essences from a small supplier that marketed its products directly to consumers as flavorings for water. When I got the samples, I was disappointed to see they had some artificial flavors along with the natural essences, but I tried them anyway. Although they didn’t have the natural taste I was looking for, they were a bit closer than the natural essence samples I had received from the big flavor companies. I thought maybe the company could help me formulate a better natural essence flavor.
I called the company and was surprised to get the owner on the phone. Turns out the flavor business was a side project for him, and he bought the flavors from an independent consultant. I asked if he thought he could work with his flavor guy to make the type of flavor I was looking for.
“You know, I’m pretty sure he can help you, but this isn’t really what I do.” There was silence for a moment. “Why don’t I just put you in touch with him directly?”
I thanked him, because it was a generous thing to do. I got in touch with the consultant. He couldn’t help me right away, but we had an incredibly helpful conversation, and he got me thinking about flavors in a totally different way. Ultimately, what I learned helped us come up with the recipes for our initial products.
The biggest unknown for me was bottling. How would I make the leap from making up small batches of water in my kitchen to producing it in quantity and bottling it? I had no idea.
I had never been involved in the creation of a physical product before, so I started to research bottle designers and bottling companies to see if there were companies who would work with a startup. I collared anybody with a connection to the food and beverage industry and peppered them with questions. I picked up industry jargon along the way. The most important term I learned was co-packer. I knew I would need some kind of bottling partner and had been calling bottling companies for information about their services. They all said they couldn’t help me, but they didn’t really explain why. Finally, a helpful guy at a bottling company enlightened me.
“You’re not looking for a bottler.”
“What do you mean?”
“The companies that call themselves bottlers or bottling companies are usually doing bottling and distribution. They work with big companies like Coke, Pepsi, and Dr. Pepper and don’t like to just make the product, especially if it’s a small, unproven one. Co-packers just do bottling, and some of them are willing to work with small companies or new products.”
Co-packers, in other words, are for-hire manufacturers who work with all kinds of client companies to create branded products. You provide co-packers with your specs, and they do whatever needs to be done. Some can do everything, including sourcing ingredients, designing your label and packaging, formulating the product, filling the bottles, and shipping the cases. In addition, they have all the necessary certifications to ensure quality and safety.
This was another example of why I loved getting into this new project. At AOL, everybody was asking questions of me and expecting me to supply the answers. Now I was asking the questions. Which meant I was learning. Every day. That is how you stay fresh and motivated. Always be learning. An important lesson, for sure.
Another great thing about constant learning is that it builds confidence. Even the non-answers and rejections I got strengthened my resolve—perhaps they were the most motivating of all. Some of my favorite success stories are about people who are initially laughed at for their ideas or discouraged from pursuing their dreams.
One day in September 2004, I realized that I had learned enough and had confidence enough to make my vision a reality.
You can do this, I said to myself. You’re smart. You can figure it out. And you can help people by helping them enjoy water.
I sat down and wrote up a short business plan, a road map for what I wanted to do.
Theo and I had always brought work home and had always helped each other with our careers, but all of a sudden, we found ourselves embarking on a mission together, to help America fall in love with water. It felt right to be doing this with my husband, my best friend, and now my business partner.
One of the first things we worked on was naming the product. I had initially planned to call it WaWa. The next idea I had was “hint.” I liked it because it was a simple, four-letter English word that could be used a lot of ways. For example, you can give people a hint. They can take a hint. What I was trying to do was help people drink water instead of sugary drinks. Later, we launched with the trademark Hint: Drink Water, Not Sugar.
Theo applied for the trademark in late October, but we wouldn’t know if we had secured the mark until after launching. Now we were down to seven months before my due date, and I wanted to make sure we had product to launch in stores before the baby arrived.
Those early flavors were not even close to the ones we produce today, but they were way better than anything available on the market. We proclaimed a few of them to be “final” (at least for the time being) and turned our attention to designing the bottle and looking for a co-packer. I got in touch with several co-packers and told them I had developed a new line of unsweetened flavored water. I asked if they would be interested in doing a test bottling of a thousand cases. The only answers I got were “No,” “No way,” and “That’s been tried before and it isn’t going to work.”
Then, in November, I got lucky. I connected with a relatively small co-packing operation in Chicago that manufactured a range of food and beverage products. It was woman-owned, which I liked, and I went through my pitch with Lisa. Fruit extract. No preservatives. No diet sweeteners or sugar. She was interested. She said they used a “cold fill” bottling process, which would ensure that the fruit flavor wasn’t altered by heating. She also agreed to accommodate a short run, at least for the test. Lisa was a great resource, putting us in touch with a company that could make bottles for us and providing contacts for a closure manufacturer, a box manufacturer, and a label company.
We scheduled an initial production run for early April 2005, since it was going to take a while to get everything lined up. The next four months flew by. We finalized our formulas. We designed a unique bottle, which looked a bit like an old-fashioned medicine bottle and worked well with the equipment at Lisa’s plant. And we settled on a closure, a clear, twist-open sport-cap, custom made for Hint.
I was committed and excited. I had newfound resolve and some funds in the bank to pay for the initial materials and run. In April, Theo and I flew to Chicago and watched as the first bottles of Hint came off the line. I have to say, seeing our physical product moving on the line was exhilarating, even though I was almost eight months pregnant and felt like I might give birth at any moment.
People ask me, “How did you create a whole new category of beverage while pregnant and with a budget of only $50,000?” The truth is, I did it pretty badly. It would take many, many millions of dollars and fifteen years to get from that point to where we are today, but I did accomplish my goal of making something that people could hold in their hand, that they could drink, and that could help them fall in love with water. That was the beginning, not the end, and I’m here to tell you that, sometimes, if you think too much about the end, you will never get past the beginning.
“Undaunted” is available now wherever books are sold and can be purchased via StartupNation.com.