December 14, 2020 Larry Gulko

CEO Lounge: Kara Goldin

Founder and CEO, Hint

Kara Goldin CEO Lounge

“Hint helps people fall in love with water by making water taste better, but unlike a lot of the other “water products” out there, Hint doesn’t reinforce your craving for sugar.”
~ Kara Goldin, Founder and CEO, Hint

You worked in corporate at AOL where you received early recognition for really defining what DTC could do. And you have received numerous accolades over the years in building Hint as a game-changing entrepreneur. What defining moment inspired you to embark on a new journey focusing on entrepreneurship?

KG: I loved building a great e-commerce business at AOL. I left after it had become a huge company, with e-commerce transactions topping $1 billion a year. I focused on my young family for a few years, while advising a bunch of e-commerce and tech startups, but my own entrepreneurial journey began when I decided I needed to solve my own health and wellness issues. I discovered that giving up diet soda and switching to water reduced my cravings for sweet foods, allowing me to lose weight and feel better. I just needed a way to beat the boredom of plain water. When I figured out how to help myself fall in love with water, I knew I was on to something.

LG: Share with us your vision, motivation to launch Hint water in an amazingly crowded product category where there are 175+ brands of water.

KG: There are a ton of water brands and other brands that like to call themselves water, but there is only one water brand that is infused with great tasting fruit essences and doesn’t have any sugar or sweeteners. Hint helps people fall in love with water by making water taste better, but unlike a lot of the other “water products” out there, Hint doesn’t reinforce your craving for sugar. By letting people discover that they can enjoy drinking water, we’re helping them take an important first step towards a healthier lifestyle.

LG: How did you initially break through the ‘marketing noise’ to build brand awareness, drive demand, and create customer loyalty?

KG: We built Hint patiently, the old fashion way, sampling Hint water at outdoor events and in stores and earning our shelf space one facing at a time. Early on, I met with a lot of reporters and we were blessed with great press coverage for a small brand. Eventually we started getting the word out on Facebook and were in enough locations to invest in advertising.

LG: What is Hint ‘really selling’ that emotionally connects with the consumer and retail partners and what category did you create and or own, dominate?

KG: We’re helping non-water drinkers fall in love with water, which they know they want to drink but they find it boringly plain. It’s that simple. People know that sugary and diet-sweetened drinks are bad for them but they hate drinking water. We make that thing they know they should do into the thing they love to do. We built the unsweetened flavored water category and have been the dominant brand for 15 years.

LG: 15 years later…tell us, as you grow your business, how you keep the Hint brand fresh and relevant in terms of brand expansion, flavors, brand voice, messaging platform.

KG: Well, a couple years ago we did a brand refresh, mainly to make the label consistent with the liquid inside, so that people who see the product but haven’t tried it yet get the right impression of what it is. We’re actually playing a bit with the messaging platform all the time (mainly because we get bored saying the same thing) but the messages that really get through to the most people are the ones that keep it simple and tell the brand story. We keep the flavor mix interesting by offering seasonal limited edition flavors, many of which are combinations of Hint flavors that people already love. We call those smashups and people love them. Sometimes we throw in something totally new, like our recent blueberry-lemon smashup.

LG: How are you leveraging social media and technology platforms to create meaningful conversations with your customers?

KG: Facebook and other social media platforms are a great way to advertise to new consumers, but I honestly think we’re still learning the best ways to use social media to foster organic conversations with consumers. We really had a great series of conversations going way back when Facebook was free, but it is a bit tougher in a pay to play world. We do believe that consumers are interested in interacting with leaders of brands. They want to know who is behind the brand that they are supporting. Finding the balance of talking about the brand as well as engaging about leadership lessons has been a lot of fun.

LG: You recently published a new book titled Undaunted: Overcoming Doubts and Doubters. Talk to us about the purpose of writing this book and key takeaways you feel reflect the overall message you want to share with other business leaders and budding entrepreneurs.

KG: A lot of people come to me for advice and they appreciate that instead of telling them what to do I simply tell them a story from my own life that they might find relevant. There are a few organizations like YPO and EO that bring elite business leaders together to help each other through this type of storytelling, but I think that anyone can benefit from this approach. I’ve been through a lot of challenges and collected a lot of good stories. That’s why I wrote Undaunted and I think it can be helpful and enjoyable for anyone who feels like they may be letting their own doubts or the doubts of others stop them from doing what they really want to do.

LG: Richard Branson was quoted: “Train people well enough so they can leave. Treat them all enough so they don’t want to.” Share with us your leadership style and perspective reflecting his quote.

KG: I love that quote. I believe in hiring people who are better than I am at the things that they do and who have the drive to figure things out and “manage up.” Managing up means organizing themselves, training themselves, but bringing me in when I can be helpful and making sure I understand what they’re doing so that I can jump in when I feel the need to be involved. It isn’t easy to find people who can truly manage up. They need to be driven by their own desire for excellence, but they also need to know that they are there to make the people they work for and their peers successful. The top performing members of our team are totally self-motivated people who are confident team players who are willing to go the extra mile for the rest of the team but who also expect the same from their teammates.

LG: What’s the most popular Hint flavor…and what’s your personal ‘go-to’ flavor?

KG: One of the most amazing things about Hint is that Hint fans love to rotate through multiple flavors a day. They love the variety and typically don’t have one clear favorite. That said, Blackberry, Watermelon, Pineapple and Cherry have been at the top of the list for a long time. Cherry is my current ‘go to’ flavor. I also love all the new ‘Smashup’ flavors that we create which are fun and limited edition.

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