Take the Hint

Seeking a healthier beverage for herself, Kara Goldin founded Hint Water, today a market leader and multimillion-dollar business

In the early 2000s, Kara Goldin, at the time the vice president for Electronic Commerce and Shipping at AOL, was trying to kick her diet soda habit, as she found it was leading to persistent health problems such as weight gain, acne, and lack of energy.

However, substituting water just didn’t cut it—either it lacked enough flavor to entice her or the products advertised as healthy had added sugar.

First, Goldin cut up fruit and added it to her glasses of water.“My new, healthier habit caught on with my family and friends,” she says. “People would come over to our house and ask where I’d bought this flavored water. That’s when the light bulb popped on: if these concoctions I had mixed in my kitchen helped me lose weight, restore my energy levels, and clear up my skin, then there must be thousands of other people who could also benefit from kicking their soda addiction.”

Goldin began tinkering and created her own fruit-infused water product—the now ubiquitous Hint Water, launched in 2005 and a leading unsweetened flavored water on the market, valued at over $150 million in 2020.

After graduating from Arizona State University in 1989, Goldin began forging a conventional corporate business career in media and tech, in circulation, sales, and e-commerce, but she was restless and curious, always seeking new opportunities and challenges. “I was trying to find my own way,” she says. “And that usually did not include going down the path of least resistance.”

That path has turned out to be, well, golden. Goldin, who lives in the San Francisco Bay Area, has been named one of InStyle’s Badass 50 and Fast Company’s Most Creative People in Business, and is on the list of Fortune’s Most Powerful Women Entrepreneurs. Huffington Post listed her as one of six disruptors in business, alongside Steve Jobs and Mark Zuckerberg. She is a frequently sought-after speaker and hosts a podcast, The Kara Goldin Show, where she interviews founders, entrepreneurs, and other disruptors across various industries. Goldin’s first book, Undaunted: Overcoming Doubts and Doubters, published by HarperCollins Leadership, was released in October 2020.

In case you’re wondering, Goldin drinks 10 to 12 bottles of Hint Water a day, and her favorite flavor is cherry.

Diversity Woman: Tell us about your childhood and early influences.

Kara Goldin: I was raised in Scottsdale, Arizona, the youngest of five children. In a different time or under different circumstances, I think my father would have been an entrepreneur. He worked for Armour foods and created the now famous line of Healthy Choice frozen dinners. My mother shifted careers in her 40s, going from homemaker to working in fashion retail. Both were amazing role models for me in so many ways—inventive, creative, and always challenging themselves. The other thing I often note about my childhood—which I find that I share with many founders and entrepreneurs—is that I played sports throughout school. It was one rule that my father insisted on. I did gymnastics and softball, with varying degrees of skill and success. There’s something about playing sports in childhood that shapes you and prepares you for many aspects of life: teamwork, competition, performing under pressure, finding lessons in success and defeat.

DW: What is the biggest obstacle you had overcome to launch Hint and grow it so dramatically?

KG: I think the biggest challenge people have to overcome when they have an idea for launching a business is themselves. I write a lot about this in Undaunted. We all harbor doubts and fears. We all internalize the voices of others who think we won’t succeed. The biggest obstacle is learning not to let our inner fears hold us back from taking on a challenge. I could have sat on the sidelines and come up with a long list of why I shouldn’t take the plunge to start my own flavored-water company. Instead, I confronted my doubts. I listened to my skeptics. Then I got to work, mindful of the pitfalls and risks that might stand in the way of success.

As you start to knock down those fears, you gain the confidence to move on to the next ones and the next ones. At some point, I got addicted to operating outside my comfort zone. Once that became a place that was familiar to me, I started to thrive on that queasy feeling in my stomach telling me that the challenge in front of me was not going to be easy. I knew that whether I succeeded or failed, I would learn a ton, and I would be able to better confront the next hurdle in my path.

DW: What are some leadership insights you gained in recent years?

KG: I’ve come to appreciate how important hiring is, especially as Hint started to scale in recent years. That paid off this past year—Hint was able to navigate through the pandemic and switch seamlessly to remote work because we had an incredible team in place to move nimbly and decisively.

I have one rule about hiring: I’ll take passion and curiosity over experience any day of the week. I always look to hire people who are willing to try, and eager to experiment. I’m less interested in experts who come in saying, “Here’s how it’s done.” When you’re on the hunt for original ideas, in every aspect of your business, you need people who are inquisitive, who are pioneering, and who don’t accept conventional wisdom as fact. You want employees who will instill that culture of innovation within your company. Those are the folks who will make you look like a brilliant leader.

DW: What were your motivations and objectives for writing Undaunted?

KG: My book started as a journal around 2014. I was spending a lot of time on the road at speaking engagements, and the questions I would field from audiences would bring up stories from my life and career that would inspire my journaling process when I got back to my hotel room.

A lot of the questions followed a similar theme. Audience members would often ask me about being fearless or how people like me must have some special “founder DNA.” And when I looked back at my career, I realized I saw things differently. I definitely didn’t shy away from challenges. But that’s different from being fearless. As I said earlier, being undaunted is about confronting the doubt and the doubters. The more people are doing that in their daily lives, the happier they will be.

DW: What career advice would you give a new female college graduate who would like to be an entrepreneur?

KG: Starting a business is really hard, no matter your gender. Expect that many people— even your closest friends and family—will trash your idea and cite any number of reasons that you’ll fail. As a woman, you might face more of that skepticism. But either way, you’re going to need to develop some tough skin, believe strongly in your idea, and figure out how to weather the wild ups and downs of running a company.

There’s a saying about mindfulness that goes: “You can’t control the waves. But you can learn to surf.” When you’re in charge of a business, there will be difficult times when those waves will get real choppy. Criticism and bad news will crash down on you hard. My advice is learn to surf.

DW: You have four kids—how do you find work-life balance?

KG: I raised four kids while starting up Hint—they were all under the age of six when we launched; one was a newborn. The truth is, I don’t divide my day into “work time” and “personal time.” It all melds together for me, and I’ve never had a problem with that. I love what I do, and I love my family, so I guess the more of it I have, the better!

DW: What are you the proudest of in your business career?

KG: The most gratifying part of building Hint has been hearing from our customers that Hint is making a difference in their lives. People tell us about how they were able to find their way to healthy choices. People dealing with diabetes, cancer patients going through chemo, and everyone else who is looking to make improvements in their life and their well-being. The fact that this product that I invented in my kitchen is helping hundreds of thousands of people every day makes me very proud.

DW: What’s next for you?

KG: More Hint. Continuing to help consumers stay healthy. There are more consumers who are trying to affect a change in their health. I want to reach them all. I will be championing other entrepreneurs. On my podcast, I speak to people who have succeeded through grit and determination and scrappiness. I’m always inspired by those conversations, and I love sharing those stories with my audience. DW

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