Healthy dose of flavor: Kara Goldin and Hint Water are converting more people into H20 drinkers

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When Hint Water CEO Kara Goldin decided to get healthier and kick her diet soda habit, she couldn’t find a suitable substitute.

At first, she decided to switch to plain water, only to discover that approach didn’t work for her.

“I just really wasn’t a water drinker,” she says. “Then I started slicing fruit and putting it into water. Soon I found that was enough to really get me to be able to drink water.”

So she scoured supermarket shelves in search of such a product, but was unable to find anything similar.

“I couldn’t find any flavored water that didn’t have sweeteners in it, whether it was sugar, NutraSweet or aspartame. So I just started making it at home,” she says.

Seeking to fill that void, Goldin launched Hint Water in 2005 and has made it her mission to see to it that customers have an option that wasn’t available to her.

Here’s how Goldin took her idea for a healthier water and turned it into a company that expects to hit the $50 million revenue mark in 2014.

Developing the product

Ramping up an enterprise to accommodate mass production involves many challenges, many of which demand innovative thinking. One challenge for Hint Water was finding a way to extend what was initially a six-week shelf life for its product.

Goldin was adamant that Hint Water never have preservatives, which meant finding another way to increase shelf life.

“We reached out to whoever in the industry would talk to us and the general consensus was that you couldn’t launch a product with a large shelf life — meaning greater than nine months — without adding preservatives,” Goldin says.

Instead of accepting that premise, Hint Water management kept working on a solution. After months of experimenting, the company developed a hot-fill process to pasteurize the water that extended the shelf life to 18 months.

“It was a matter of us having the tenacity to go through the trial and error and redefine what you had to do to get that done,” Goldin says. “We disrupted an industry that had a set of rules we didn’t know about because we didn’t come from that industry.”

While the pasteurization process solved the first challenge, Hint Water was then inspired to see if there was a better alternative to using flavoring from a supplier.

“We found that flavor houses cannot create the fresh, real fruit flavors that we craved and we knew our consumer would love,” Goldin says. “We wanted the product to taste even better than when we cut up fresh fruit and placed it in the water — and found that the only way to do that was to bring it in-house.

“We spend months tinkering with flavors and we know it’s right when everyone in the office can’t get enough of a new flavor.”

Building a healthy culture

Hint Water is more than just a business to Goldin. It’s part of an effort to make life better for her and her family.

“I wanted to build this product for myself and my family. I didn’t view this as I’m going to build the next billion-dollar company,” Goldin says. “I really wanted this product for myself, to get myself healthier.”

That same spirit fuels Hint Water’s 30 employees.

“If you ask people who work at Hint, they’re living and breathing this lifestyle,” she says. “Everyone who works at this company was drinking Hint before they ever started working here. And then, once they got here, they couldn’t even believe they were drinking anything else.”

That extends beyond water or beverages as well, recognizing the unhealthy ingredients in other products.

“It’s many of the food items and skin care — they’re just not what we thought they were,” Goldin says.

When building her team, Goldin wanted people who were passionate about living a healthy lifestyle.

“I’d say pretty much everyone here does some sort of athletics. They could be dancers. They could be wrestlers. They could be runners. But everyone seems to live that active, healthy lifestyle,” she says.

That keeps employees focused on Hint Water’s consumers, who share that same healthy mindset.

“More than anything, it’s just a passion for changing an environment of unhealthy beverages that are trying to be perceived as healthy. Everyone has a focus here, and every day we hear from consumers that they’re drinking our product, and they’re happy we’re helping them do the right thing,” Goldin says.

It’s not always easy to be healthy, Goldin says, considering the many products that are promoted as being healthy, but aren’t.

“There’s not a single person who will tell you that they don’t want to be healthy,” she says. “But it’s not easy to be healthy. The last time I checked, water doesn’t have sweeteners in it. But somewhere along the way we were allowed to call other things water.

“The water on the shelves today either has sugar or stevia in it, and it’s really defined by calories rather than actual ingredients. We’re looking to change that.”

The problem with sweetened drinks isn’t necessarily one of calories, but of creating a craving for sweets.

“Today, 40 percent of people who are getting diagnosed with diabetes are not obese. And when you ask those people what they drink, many are drinking zero-calorie beverages. Why are they still getting diabetes? Is it the sweetener? Or is the sweetener making the consumer thirstier or hungrier, because it’s spiking their blood sugar levels? “ Goldin says.

“We are not a sweetened product, so consumers have told us that they don’t get hungrier, they eat less, and they don’t crave sweets or salt.”

Growing the company

Getting a company off the ground can take a lot of work. The effort you put in to building a strong culture can make a big difference when you look to take the next step and lead an enduring, sustainable business.

At Hint Water, that meant moving beyond local and regional markets to get product on shelves throughout the country.

“We’re focused on growing the company. We’re really a mission-driven company to help people get healthier,” Goldin says. “For us, water is the vehicle to help people do that.”

Earlier this year, the company reached agreements to have its products stocked at the Publix and Safeway grocery store chains. Goldin credits customer demand for prompting the chains to approach Hint Water about being available in their stores.

“Those are major wins, not only for us but for the consumer as well,” Goldin says.

“A lot of conventional grocers, like Publix and Safeway, are realizing that this consumer wants to get healthier. They’re trying to provide products that the consumer wants, and they’re chomping at other options to do more to provide the consumer with healthier items such as those found at Whole Foods or Trader Joe’s.

“They realized that these are products consumers are buying and are asking us to get put in the set.”

But there’s still a major marketplace Goldin wants to break into — food service establishments. She says that’s where millennials, who comprise much of Hint Water’s customer base, often go for their meals.

“They go into the Whole Foods of the world and pick up dinner from the beautiful salad bars in those stores, but they’re also buying from places like Chipotle and Subway,” Goldin says. “We would love to be a part of these national places like Chipotle, for example.”

Goldin even sees opportunities to partner with restaurants not normally known for being healthy, such as McDonald’s.

“My dream is to be part of a large chain like McDonald’s or someplace that is trying to offer healthier options for their customers. Having Coke products alongside salads doesn’t really cut it for many of the consumers they’re trying to attract,” Goldin says.

The way she sees it, a place like McDonald’s could benefit from being connected to Hint Water and its reputation for promoting a healthy lifestyle.

“Offering a beverage like Hint in some of those places that are not perceived as healthy would be terrific,” she says.

Takeaways:

  • Find employees who are passionate about your mission.
  • Challenge accepted industry rules.
  • Let consumers decide what they want.

The Goldin File:

Name: Kara Goldin
Title: CEO
Company: Hint Water

Born: Scottsdale, Ariz.

Education: Bachelor’s degree in communications from Arizona State University, with a minor in finance.

What was your first job and what did you learn from it? I worked at a toy store when I was in high school. The woman who owned the store gave me a lot more responsibility then most people have in their first job. She needed help in doing buying for the store. I learned early on that age or experience doesn’t necessarily mean expertise. We increased sales by 100 percent when I started doing the buying because I had an understanding of what kids would want. I think it has carried over to my experience with Hint, in that it’s much more about what vision people have.

Who has been the biggest influence on your life? Many people have influenced me; it depends on what facet. But my dad definitely was one. He launched Healthy Choice and would tell me about sweeteners and chemicals. That definitely shaped the way I view sweeteners, whether they’re called saccharine, NutraSweet or stevia.

What is the best business advice you ever received? When I was at AOL (as vice president of shopping and e-commerce), we were building things, and I always like to say we were building the plane when we were flying it. The theory at AOL was that you throw a lot of watermelons on a cart and some are going to fall off. But you keep going, stay focused and keep moving forward. I think about that every day, especially being an entrepreneur.