The Interview: Kara Goldin Gets the Hint

By Janet Reilly

Goldin, founder of the flavored, unsweetened beverage company, Hint Water. (Cody Pickens)

Kara Goldin was living the dream as a wife, mother and veteran sales executive for tech companies including AOL, where she and her team built the internet brand’s shopping channel into a nearly $1 billion business. In 2005, her quest to get healthy (and shed some of that baby weight) led Goldin to shun soda for water and, in the process, launch Hint Water from her home kitchen in San Francisco. Fourteen years later, the unsweetened, flavored drink is now the signature product in a thriving and expanding company (they recently introduced Hint Sunscreen) with 200 employees operating out of five buildings on Union Street. ¶ On a recent afternoon, I sat down with Kara at Hint headquarters to talk business, family and activism.

What inspired you to start Hint? I’d gained a bunch of weight through all my pregnancies. I had terrible adult acne. My energy levels were really low … I went to a bunch of different doctors and said, “How do I fix this? I’ve never had a weight issue.” There were lots of different theories, but basically it was “You’re getting older, you’ve had babies too close to one another.” Things I couldn’t change … At that point I said, “I want to look at everything that’s in my kitchen and really have a better understanding of the foods.” I wasn’t eating 12 cupcakes a day. But the one thing I drank every single day was the Diet Coke. One day, I decided to put it to the side and see what would happen. There are over 30 ingredients in Diet Coke. I needed a dictionary to figure out what they were. I didn’t promise myself I was going to quit it, but I swapped it out for plain water. I said, “I’m going to drink at least eight glasses a day. I’m not going to bed at night until I drink all eight glasses.” Six months later, I lost 55 pounds. I mean, it was crazy.

Goldin adds fruit to H2O at Hint’s headquarters in the Marina.

That is amazing! And, so Hint Water was born from there … It was. I saw that I was solving this problem for myself and that there was this epidemic going on out there. I started slicing fruit because I thought, “I’m so bored with drinking plain water that I’m just going to put fruit in a glass.” And I had never really connected the two as like, “Oh, now I’m going to go start a beverage company.” I tell entrepreneurs all the time that I never said to myself, “I want to be an entrepreneur” or “I want to be a beverage entrepreneur.”

Tell me about your first sale. I understand it was when you were on your way to give birth to your fourth child! I was having a planned C-section when the [first] shipment came in and we [my husband and I] took it to Whole Foods over on California and Franklin. And I walked in and the guy that I was talking to was cracking up because I was so pregnant. And he’s like, “Wait, are you going to deliver in my store right now?” And I said, “No, I’m having my baby at 2 p.m. today at CPMC.” It was like 10 a.m.

That is dedication. He told us he would take 10 cases and said, “I’ll try to find room for it on the shelf somewhere.” And I said, “It’d be really great if you could get Hint into the cold box near the salad bar, where people could grab it.” And he was like, “I’ll see what I can do.” … I left and delivered Justin. The next day, I wake up and my husband’s in the room and the phone’s ringing. He grabs the phone and it’s the guy from Whole Foods and he says,“The cases are gone.” I said, “Give me the phone. Who took the cases?” I still didn’t believe it. … This is the other thing I always say to entrepreneurs: If you have a great product, and you get it on the shelf, the consumer will tell you whether or not it’s good by how much they’re selling.

You’ve come a long way since then. We have. We’re the largest independent nonalcoholic beverage company in the country that doesn’t have a relationship with Coke, Pepsi or Dr Pepper Snapple.

What’s been the biggest challenge over these past 14 years? All along, we have had to educate the consumer. I figured out that “diet” wasn’t necessarily healthier — so how do we actually deliver that message? We decided to focus on having a great-tasting product. There wasn’t even a category called “unsweetened flavored water.” We created this category and for years buyers were telling us, “We don’t have that category, so we can’t buy your product.” We were like, “Well, just create one.”

The CEO on vacation with husband Theo and their four children.

You have three teenagers and a 20-year-old, and your husband of 24 years is Hint’s chief operating officer. What have your kids learned from your working life? I have two girls and two boys. [I remember one day] my son woke up when he was 12, he’s 17 now, and Sheryl Sandberg was coming out with Lean In or talking about Lean In— and he said, “Mom, I just realized women don’t run companies.”And I’m like, “Where is he going with this?” He said, “But you’ve always run the company since I’ve been around, and why do people not allow women to run companies?” He viewed it as something he just didn’t get. I feel like I’m raising boys who will be great employees, great managers and husbands, if they choose to be a husband.

What are the biggest lessons you’ve learned on this entrepreneurial journey? Passion trumps experience. Trust your gut. Develop a network of people who can help you figure stuff out.

You’re very involved in efforts to get clean water in school water fountains, which have high levels of lead — tell me about that. I’m making the push to get in front of Congress and also get other CEOs involved to say this is not acceptable. Ultimately, the biggest challenge I see amongst people in Congress who have known about these issues is [money]. They’re like, “It’s $75 million to actually change the infrastructure. We don’t have the money to do it.” And as an entrepreneur, I’m saying: well, have you thought about crowdsourcing this? What about offering Salesforce a tax incentive to set up a customer service center and they’ll go and fix your infrastructure. Like, have you guys thought about that? The answer has been no. So, I’ve been quietly having these conversations with … Google and lots of other people.

The Lightning Round

I’m happiest when … I’m with family.

My biggest regret … Not trusting myself.

The biggest risk I’ve ever taken … Hint.

If I had a magic wand, I’d … Make everyone healthy.

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