Photo Credit: Courtesy of Hint Water
About 13 years ago, Kara Goldin, the founder and CEO of San Francisco–based Hint Water, found herself at a crossroads. The mother of three (now mother of four) had left her high-profile job in tech as vice president of shopping and e-commerce partnerships at AOL, where she had built revenue to more than $1 billion in less than seven years. Then she took time off to plot her next move.
“After leaving my career at AOL, I decided I really wanted to do something that makes a difference,” the natural redhead told Haute Living on a recent chilly afternoon at her Union Street office. “I thought it was ultimately going to be a nonprofit, and while I was trying to figure out what that next role would be, I realized that I wasn’t as healthy as I wanted to be. I was 55 pounds overweight, I had terrible acne, and I had no energy. I was drinking a ton of diet soda.”
Goldin started on a regime of organic chicken and other healthy food, walking as much as possible on a regular basis, getting plenty of sleep, and shopping at Whole Foods, but she wasn’t able to lose the weight. “I thought, I’m doing everything I’m supposed to be doing, so why am I not losing this weight?’“ she says. Goldin was frustrated and decided to consult some doctors. Nobody could explain it to her satisfaction.
She began thinking about the diet soda she was consuming—as much as six to 12 cans a day. This was in the early aughts, before soda tax laws, and none of the medical practitioners advised Goldin to cut back. One day in her kitchen, she started thinking about this. “I realized that I was drinking a diet soda. I looked down at the label and thought, What am I actually drinking and why am I drinking it? I didn’t really understand all the ingredients,” she explains. “I started to try and look them up, and that was complicated. I threw the diet soda in the garbage and thought, I think I’m just going to try switching to water and see what happens.“ What happened is shocking. Her skin cleared up, her energy returned, and in just three months, she lost 57 pounds.
Within minutes of meeting Goldin, you can’t help but notice her insatiable curiosity. She questions more than a preteen. ”Why? Why? Why?” she says of the doctors who failed to help with her health problems. “I said, ‘Just explain it,’ and nobody ever said anything that made sense to me.” It is this determination to get to the bottom of things that drives Goldin as an entrepreneur.
Photo Credit: Claudine Gossett for Drew Altizer Photography
When she gave up drinking soda, she also cut out sweeteners like Splenda and Stevia. Goldin was never a fan of plain water, so she started throwing muddled fruit into water to flavor it. Her friends and family raved about the fresh, tasty water so much that Goldin’s entrepreneurial inquisitiveness got the best of her. “I went to Whole Foods in San Francisco on California and Franklin streets and asked the guy stocking the beverage shelves if he had ever seen a product that was flavored with real fruit, without sweeteners. He pointed at Vitaminwater,” she says, laughing. “I showed him that Vitaminwater actually, at that time, had more sugar in it than a can of Coke. He was like, ‘Wow, that’s really interesting.’ I was like, ‘I know, right? It’s calling itself water, but it’s not water at all.’ We had this banter back and forth. He says, ‘Gosh, you know, maybe you should develop that product.’ I was like, ‘I know, right? I should just go do it.’ ”
She went home and quietly started researching the beverage industry. She cooked fruit in her kitchen, boiling it down until only skins and oil were left, then using a medicine dropper to add the flavor-packed essence to bottled water. She didn’t tell her friends or husband about her side project until she was ready to start her own company producing flavored “natural essence water.” She thought: I’ve got to take $50,000 out of my bank account to launch it. At this point I’d better tell my husband.
Around the same time, in 2005, she noticed that she was constantly tired and had skipped her period. It turns out Goldin was pregnant with an unplanned fourth child. She decided to tell her husband, Theo Goldin, now Hint Water’s COO, about the beverage idea and baby at the same time. “I say to my husband, ‘Okay, have a seat. This is going to be a big one.’ He’s like, ‘Wait, you’re launching a beverage company?’ ” Her husband realized that there was no stopping the determined redhead once she set her mind to something. Still, he was in shock. As he turned to leave, she called him back and he gave her attitude. “He snapped, ‘What? You want me to go get milk at the grocery store? What do you want?’ I said, ‘No, I’m pregnant with our fourth child.’ “
From there, Goldin did what many women before have done: She moved forward, barreling toward her goal of launching a line of unsweetened flavored water, all while battling morning sickness. Theo finally came on board after visiting a bottling plant in Chicago. When he saw the bottles rolling off the line for the first time, he told his wife, “ ‘I understood you wanted to launch a beverage company, but I didn’t understand the bigger interest, which now I think I do,’ ” Goldin remembers. “I really believe that if I can convert people from drinking these flavored waters that aren’t really water or soda, to drinking [natural essence] water that we could change health in America.” This is Goldin’s ultimate goal: to eliminate the health issues that plague many unhealthy Americans—diabetes, heart disease, obesity, and cancer. She launched Hint Water (the name stands for just a hint of flavor) in 2005, and the brand has morphed into the fastest growing flavored water company in the United States. Now consumers can find Hint everywhere: at Whole Foods, CVS, Publix, Stop & Shop, Starbucks, and more.
Influencers, from the Forbes family to Michelle Obama, have taken note of her efforts. In 2011, Fortune named her one of the 10 most powerful women entrepreneurs. In 2012, Ernst & Young named her one of its Entrepreneurial Winning Women, and she received the Gold Stevie Award for Female Entrepreneur of the year. OpenForum.com named her the CEO to watch in 2013, and Forbes added her to its list of 30 Women to Watch Over 40. More recently, she won the prestigious Marketers That Matter award for building her small company, and the Huffington Post named her one of six major disrupters in business, along with Steve Jobs and Mark Zuckerberg. She partnered with Michelle Obama to launch the Drink Up initiative, a movement that encourages people to drink one more glass of water every day. (Both Obama and Goldin believe that a healthier America can be achieved if people drink more water.) Penny Pritzker, Secretary of Commerce under Obama, appointed Goldin to the National Council on Innovation and Entrepreneurship, where she will serve a two-year term with the goal of disrupting industries, creating jobs, and stimulating the economy.
On top of all this, Goldin still has time for her family and to host pizza parties with her team in the office’s spacious backyard. Her four children have awakened to the concept that their mom is a CEO and founder of a $90 million company. Education and instilling a sense of entrepreneurship in her children is important to her. She tells the story of her son’s classroom discussion about female leadership in America. “He said, ‘Mom, I was in this discussion at school about women running companies. Apparently there are none. I raised my hand and I said, ‘Actually my mom runs a company.’ ” She laughs. “I feel like I’m not only teaching him that women run companies, but I’m also teaching him that it’s OK to have a woman run a company.” She’s showing her kids that she’s not afraid to go up against beverage giants like Coca-Cola and Pepsi.
Photo Credit: Drew Altizer PhotographyGoldin considers her fight to eliminate unnecessary sweeteners similar to earlier attempts to stifle the bigwigs in the cigarette industry. She cites many life-changing cases in which people started to drink her water and, like her own experience, noticed a drastic change in their health. “We have customers every day who tell us, ‘Wow I started drinking your product and I’ve lost weight. I found your product when I was going through chemotherapy, and it helped me mask the metallic taste in my mouth when I’m in chemo.’ Today, almost 45 percent of the population has type 2 diabetes or is
prediabetic—if these people start drinking Hint, they could get rid of their diabetes issues.”
Goldin makes it easy for consumers to access her water. There is a subscription delivery service, and 40 percent of Hint’s sales are direct-to-consumer through DrinkHint.com and Amazon.com. “With the direct-to-consumer model, we believe that we’re setting ourselves up as a company to really, truly, help consumers get healthy,” Goldin says.
“There are more than 2,000 beverage companies in the United States today, but it’s hard to name a beverage company that’s actually about health. There’s a lot of healthy perception versus healthy reality. We’re really focused on changing health; we’re actually, like I said, hearing from lots of consumers that we’re doing it.”
Next on her agenda? A sunscreen that launches in January. “We’re launching sunscreen to call attention to chemicals like oxybenzone and parabens, which are in 95 percent of the sunscreens available to the average consumer in drugstores like CVS and Walgreens and elsewhere. I’m really, really excited. It speaks to the mission of the overall company, which is [to be] a consumer advocate and help people actually understand products. In doing so, we also offer products for sale that really help people get as healthy as they want to be.”