The world of entrepreneurship is filled with stories of kitchen-table inventors who turned favorite recipes into thriving small businesses. But few grow as big as Kara Goldin’s Hint Water, bottled water with just a hint of natural fruit flavor. Developed in Goldin’s kitchen just outside San Francisco in 2005, Hint is now sold nationwide in retail outlets, such as Whole Foods, and racked up over $20 million in sales in 2010. So what’s Goldin’s secret sauce?
Goldin, a former AOL executive who took time off to raise a family with her husband, Theo, discovered an unmet consumer need when she decided that her own consumption of sugary drinks was unhealthy. And that included juices and flavored waters that were marketed as healthy but actually contained huge amounts of sugar. “I was stunned that I had failed to notice that these so-called waters had so many calories,” she says. However, she found plain water “boring” so began adding chunks of fruit to the water she served her family. Both kids and adults alike gave her concoction rave reviews and Goldin, who was also itching to get back to work, began to think she was on to something. “I said to Theo, ‘I’m going to take $50,000 out of our bank account and put it into this idea," she recalls. Theo’s response was predictable. “I asked her what she knew about the beverage industry and how she was going to fight for shelf space,” he says.
But Goldin was undaunted. “She’s always had a keen sense of consumer behavior,” says Theo, “and we felt that if she created something that people were excited about, it would take the big guys a long time to catch on.” In fact, big companies like Coca-Cola are typically terrible at creating new brands, preferring instead to acquire smaller companies that have already earned consumer loyalty (case in point: Seth Goldman’s Honest Tea, which was acquired by Coke in March of 2011).
Hint hit the shelves at the end of May 2005, right after Goldin gave birth to the couple’s fourth child. Goldin had developed her flavors and lined up a co-packer to bottle her product, but distribution was a do-it-yourself endeavor: The couple loaded up their Jeep Grand Cherokee and knocked on the doors of local specialty retailers. They got their big break the following month, when they attended the Fancy Food Show in New York City. “We had a totally bare bones display,” recalls Goldin. “But everyone was buzzing about the product.” Whole Foods picked up Hint for its San Francisco stores and national distribution followed. From there on, it was a matter of getting bottles into the hands of consumers through in-store sampling and at charitable events like AIDS Walk New York. “We’re now 50 percent of sales in the unsweetened and lightly sweetened beverage category at Whole Foods,” says Goldin.
Hint also has some very high-profile fans. The singer John Legend discovered the product and invested in the company last June, and was joined by Jay-Z’s Roc Nation in December. The Goldins have 30 or so investors but retain control of the company. For 2012, they’re predicting $20-$30 million in sales and have just rolled out a new carbonated product called Hint Fizz, available at The Fresh Market. “It’s a new market for us and we think that the carbonated product could be as big as the still water,” says Goldei. But she has no intention of stopping there. “There’s no reason why we can’t take Hint into chips or yogurt, no reason why we can’t go into multiple categories,” she says. We’re guessing the big beverage companies are now keeping a close eye on Hint’s progress.
Image credit: Courtesy subject