Get Going and Disrupt Already
Over the years, I’ve witnessed countless entrepreneurs disrupting established industries. And while it may be surprising to some, the most innovative thinking often comes from people who leave one industry to join another. These people bring a different perspective. A new lens. A fresh pass that often drives change.
Yet, conventional wisdom doesn’t often lead us to predict this. It’s certainly something I was never taught. In fact most people are told that people should only try their hand as an entrepreneur and start companies AFTER they have gained experience in a particular industry. But what if we didn’t know the rules of an industry? What if we hadn’t followed the same pattern over and over again to success. What if we are just newbies to it all or a new industry?
I often refer to myself as an accidental entrepreneur. Maybe different from what some of you imagine. I didn’t dream of starting a business. Entering the ultra-competitive beverage industry wasn’t something I ever imagined myself doing either.
But here’s what drove me. Curiosity. And the ability to solve a problem. A puzzle I had been thinking about.
In order to innovate and create a new product and company – not to mention a new category – in any industry, it takes courage. Or stupidity. Or a bit of both. I credit my early experience in tech, where I learned to build the plane while flying it. Creating and innovating and honing my skills. I had fun leading a group of people building out partnerships for what would soon be known as the leading platform for online commerce back in the early days of direct to consumer. Charting new territory and leading the build of a billion-dollar business for AOL. It was truly the wild west.
Those skills – not knowing what was in front of me most days, but imagining what could happen regardless – would transfer to the beverage industry nicely. That curiosity to learn a new industry and a commitment to change an industry for the better. To create a water that just tasted better without sweeteners in it – sugar or diet sweeteners. And tame my diet soda addiction. I thought it could help a lot of other people who were searching for a similar solution too, but just hadn’t realized it yet.
Had I worked my way up through the beverage industry, I may not have seen my vision so clearly. Coming up with an idea that would challenge diet soda and enhanced waters that were supposed to be better for consumers would be taboo. Eat into market share with a product that eliminates sweeteners altogether? Unlikely. Who needs that?
Over the years, I have heard from many experienced beverage execs that the idea for Hint could have only been created by an outsider. And it was. I was once told by a certain soda exec, after I started Hint, that the consumer of that time (about 15 years ago) wanted “sweeter drinks with less calories.” Given my own personal experience, I couldn’t help but wonder if he ever thought about the consumer who may figure out that those sweeter-with-less-calorie drinks are doing more harm for ones health than good.
The early days of Hint were challenging for sure. We made many mistakes. From the clear label design that no one could see on the shelf, to figuring out how to make our product without preservatives. Most industry vets would have closed up shop before they even got started. Challenge after challenge. And each time, I found myself getting back up. I wasn’t going to allow those gnarly challenges to stop me. Instead, facing every roadblock like a new interesting puzzle. And entering each day excited to keep asking, “What can we do?”
That curious mindset. Where you live to iterate and constantly improve. And in our case, a different kind of thinking brought to an old industry where most felt that they had the consumer all figured out.
Once in a while in those early days, I would run into established beverage execs. And often I would take the opportunity to drop a few questions their way. I’ll never forget how most would answer, knowing that I was an outsider who didn’t come from their world, “Well that’s not how it’s done in this industry.” While those statements often irritated me, I often took those statements as opportunities to follow up with, “But why not?!”
And while most that I encountered didn’t actually know the answers to my often unique questions, that didn’t stop me either.
Entrepreneurs crossing over into new industries bring a new way of thinking. Fresh ideas. Weird questions. Entrepreneurs who are able to draw outside of the lines and break new ground. The people who will eventually disrupt and change things – and hopefully for the better.
Divya Gugnani is a prime example. She’s the CEO of Wander Beauty, a brand that has blazed a trail in the cosmetics and hair care industry. What did she do before starting Wander? Divya had launched an after-market car parts company, a culinary business, and a fashion accessories startup. Not the conventional CV one might expect from a beauty brand founder just killing it in the space.
“Entrepreneurs see things that others don’t see,” Divya said when she was a guest on my podcast, The Kara Goldin Show. “They take risks that others don’t take. They see problems and create companies to solve them.” Divya leaned into cruelty-free, clean formulations that “multi-task” so that her on-the-go customers could pack fewer beauty products with them when they wandered (get it?) beyond their home base. It was an innovation that no one else in the industry was thinking about -– or was brave enough to launch a company around it.
Julie Wainwright, founder of theRealReal.com, is another one of my favorite entrepreneurs. You may be surprised to hear that she had never been to a consignment store or bought anything on eBay before she started her mega-successful now public company. Her ideas started to build after a shopping trip with a friend to a secondhand store where she recognized the white space in the luxury goods resale space that no one was addressing.
“I actually started with just a little bit of money – not a lot of money. I started by figuring out, how many brick-and-mortar consignment stores there were? How does eBay handle luxury goods? How is luxury jewelry sold online?”
For many, seeing the vast white space of opportunity is enough to make one run and hide. An opportunity to come up with a million reasons why a new business idea won’t work. Many might fear an already established industry player. Or think too much and make the execution seem too difficult. Maybe get ahead of themselves – “Who wants to invest in the resale clothing market?” But entrepreneurs like Julie see all the reasons why an idea can work, applying their previous experience to test assumptions and make it all happen. A great idea and killer execution. This is exactly what made The Real Real into the indisputable leader in luxury consignment.
Tim Brown is another terrific entrepreneur who crossed industries. After a career as a professional soccer player, his interest in footwear came naturally from years of wearing different types of sneakers. He founded the Allbirds shoe brand like a true outsider – taking wool material and making sneakers out of them. An idea that many established footwear execs had ignored.
On my show, he explained how many in the footwear industry doubted his ability to produce a quality product that people would wear. Industry experts told him that he was wasting his time. The feedback he received, however, helped him realize that he was ahead of where others were. And because he saw the industry with a different lens, he could imagine what could be. What consumer’s might buy.
So my advice? No matter where you are in your career, the puzzle and the problem are yours to solve. Go out and disrupt. And don’t be inhibited by stepping into an industry you know nothing about.
The world is yours to add your positive mark to.
I’m counting on you.
My Favorite Piece of Steve Jobs Wisdom? Trust That the Dots in Your Life Will Connect
Entrepreneurs come in many forms – each with different origin stories that led to the founding of their companies. Some look for white space in a category and then fill a consumer need that hasn’t been met. Others spot inefficiencies or irregularities in an industry that technology can fix.
My own path to launching a start-up was more personal. The result of a need to solve a problem in my own life. It’s a path that I’ve seen many other founders follow. You make a significant change in your daily life and see the kind of positive impact that it can have. And then you start to look outward and think, “How can others benefit from this?”
Soon, a bigger idea starts to coalesce. And once you decide to make the leap and turn that transformative idea into a business, you not only have a product to take to market, you now have a mission to fulfill.
My story is known to many at this point. I discovered that my diet soda habit was leading to all sorts of persistent health issues – weight gain, adult acne, lack of energy. The problem for me was that I found water to be boring, so I started cutting up fruit and adding it to my eight glasses of water each day. My new, healthier habit caught on – and not just with me, but with my family and friends. People would come over to our house and ask where I’d bought this flavored water, and that’s when the light bulb popped on in my head. These concoctions I’d mixed up in my kitchen could be the start of something big.
At that point in my career, I had decided to take some time off from corporate life after years of grueling travel and long work hours. I had three kids at home, and I wanted a change. I decided that my next chapter would need to be different. I thought about working at a non-profit or finding a company that genuinely wanted to make a difference in the world.
In a commencement address he gave in 2005 at Stanford, Steve Jobs famously talked about a series of random – but meaningful – experiences in his life that all came together when he was designing the first Macintosh. He offered his journey up as a lesson to those young graduates. “You have to trust that the dots will somehow connect in your future,” he said.
This was my dot-connecting moment. I had solved a nagging problem in my own life, and I knew that there were others out there who could benefit from the changes I’d made. I also wanted to funnel my energy into a company with a mission to make people’s lives better. And now I had a vision for creating a product that would bring it all together. Connecting the dots. And thus, Hint was born!
I’ve talked to so many other entrepreneurs who followed the same path – experiencing revelations and changes in their personal lives that altered their professional paths.
Julie Smolyansky is the CEO of Lifeway Foods, a pioneering brand in probiotic foods founded by her father, an immigrant, in the late ’80s. But running Lifeway was not Julie’s original vision for her career; her passion was working in the field of psychotherapy, motivated by a desire to make a difference in people’s lives. “I wanted to change the world. I wanted to reduce people’s suffering,” she told me when she was a guest on my podcast, “The Kara Goldin Show.”
Her mindset shifted, however, when she started digging into the research around mental health and diet – and how probiotic foods factored into positive psychological outcomes. Julie realized, “Wow, actually, I see a usage for this… our product, our kefir, has ancient healing that changes people’s lives. It improves people’s lives.” She dropped out of graduate school and worked alongside her father for the next five years, learning the ins and outs of the family business.
When her father died unexpectedly in 2002, Julie stepped in to run Lifeway, becoming the youngest CEO of a publicly traded corporation. “Everyone around me said, ‘There’s no way a 27-year-old girl could run this company. Forget it, the company’s done, sell your stock,’” Julie recalls, “And that really fueled me, that gave me a fire in my belly, and a defiance, and I was just adamant about proving those men wrong.” Julie’s mission – to improve the lives of her customers and prove her doubters wrong – has driven the success of Lifeway over the last two decades, leading the way as probiotic foods have surged in popularity.
David Melzer is one of the most storied agents in the world of sports, but his greater passion these days, as he told me recently, “is to be of service.” David scaled the heights of his industry, and then in 2008 lost nearly everything he’d built over the course of his career. At that point, he says, “I had to take stock in who I was and what I wanted to become.” In the process of rebuilding his life, David felt that his perception of happiness had become distorted – and he saw others around him amplifying the wrong things as well.
That realization led to an entirely new thrust of his career. “My life now is about giving myself away,” he says. Sharing the lessons he has learned. He is the author of four books (one of which, “Connected to Goodness,” he offers as a free download). He’s the host of a must-listen podcast, “The Playbook.” And he leads free weekly online training sessions designed to help people reach their true potential. His goal to inspire people to find success – and be their best selves – has affected tens of thousands of people, and it has become David’s primary calling.
There’s a common thread I see in my own path and in others who have channeled a personal passion into their careers. Success becomes judged by a different standard. When your mission is driven by a greater good – and a change for the better that you yourself have experienced – your gratification comes from the people whose lives you impact. Early on with Hint, it’s what drove me to persist through the countless challenges. Seeing all the emails and hearing all the messages that Hint drinkers were sending us. Our little company was making a major difference in their lives. People with type-2 diabetes, people battling through cancer, people who just wanted to make healthier choices in their lives. Their love of Hint motivated me.
Then there’s this: Once you’ve gotten some traction and your mission-based business starts taking flight, you begin attracting like-minded people into your orbit – investors, partners, employees who share the same passion you have for your business. Some have experienced similar changes in their own lives. Others are drawn to the idea of making a difference in the world. As Hint expanded, we were able to pursue ideas beyond flavored water: sunscreen and deodorant and hand sanitizer that gave consumers easier access to healthy choices. Our mission was snowballing!
Of course, not every entrepreneur finds immediate success or success at all. Not every business catches on. Maybe the timing isn’t right. Maybe consumers aren’t quite ready for your product. But the work you do to put your idea out there and share your story through your company’s mission will enrich your own path. You’ll learn new things. You’ll challenge yourself. You’ll adapt. You’ll start connecting the dots. You might try again. You will become more resilient. You will grow. And, maybe, you’ll see how some small alteration you’ve made in your own life can spark an idea, gain momentum, grow into a thriving business, and impact the lives of millions.
You’re Good Enough, Smart Enough and Doggone It, People Like You
That mantra was introduced into popular culture by a 1990s “Saturday Night Live” character named Stuart Smalley, who mindfully recited his daily affirmation into an ornate, full-length mirror. While my twenty-something self (at the time) enjoyed the sheer comic value of Stuart’s shtick, it was later in my life that I would realize the indelible impact that Stuart’s words had on me. In fact, they were a small seed planted in my mind that foreshadowed my entrepreneurial success with Hint.
Today, millions of individuals are choosing to become entrepreneurs. In our lifetime, we may never see more career reassessments and pivots than those taking place during this COVID pandemic, which is already showing signs ofoutpacing even the 2008-2010 Great Recession in new business creation.
Many of these new founders are just where I was back in the early ‘00s, starting down the entrepreneurial path a bit later in life. Let’s call them unlikely or accidental entrepreneurs. That’s how I saw myself – and still do! It wasn’t my vision from birth to start a company. I was in my mid-thirties when I launched Hint (with three young children; pregnant with my fourth), and like many new entrepreneurs that I’ve talked to this past year, I was embarking on a business where my curiosity and determination far outstripped my expertise in the industry I was entering.
For these newly minted founders, Stuart Smalley’s Daily Affirmation may be just the tonic to keep them going, as all the naysayers and doubters and skeptical industry veterans (you know, the folks who always know exactly how things should get done) interject themselves on the road to success.
My own story is a tale of grit, perseverance and a lot of asking questions, starting with “how?” and “why?” I went from being a tech executive with a dependency on diet soda to a founder of a company, staking out an entirely new category in the beverage industry – one truly based on health. Initially, everything I knew about beverages was based on a sample of one. I was addicted to sweet diet drinks, and I had convinced myself that the word “diet” on the label meant that the product must be healthy. It didn’t take me long to figure out that it was anything but. And my gut was telling me that many other consumers were being confused in the same way.
So I went to work, asking questions and searching for the right solution. Within months, the first bottles of Hint hit the beverage aisles in San Francisco. Fast-forward sixteen years later, Hint is the fastest-growing independent beverage company in the country.
Here’s what I’ve learned in that decade and a half, and this is what I recommend to the next generation of accidental entrepreneurs:
- Experience is a double-edged sword. When you know what’s possible because you’ve been there, you know onlywhat’s possible because you’ve been there. History tells the story of boundaries being pushed and breakthroughs being achieved by fresh, curious minds. Don’t underestimate the power that comes with asking questions – and with questioning legacy thinking and long-held industry practices.
- Everyone has fear and doubts. The key is pushing past them. The best athletes in the world; the greatest virtuoso concert violinists; the most lauded actors and performers – they all have DOUBTS. That never goes away. But the successful ones amongst them face their fears and don’t cower from challenges.
- It’s okay to fly the airplane while you’re building it. In fact, it’s necessary. If you’re waiting for all the stars to align, you’ll never get your business idea off the ground. As long as you can deliver on your product’s basic promise – its core benefit to consumers – you’re ready. Just start. Because guess what: you can never succeed if you don’t start!
And to Stuart: thanks for the advice. We’re all good enough, smart enough, and likable enough, doggone it. This next-generation of entrepreneur – whether they’re a newly-fangled bagel store owner who used to be in IT; or the stay-at-home mom now starting a college prep business; or the long-time HR professional working out that long-repressed aggravation by opening a karate dojo – they should similarly remind themselves that anyone can do it if they have the passion, curiosity and determination to make it happen.
Starting a Company – and Why Not Having ALL The Answers Is Better
“Just start. Because you will never succeed if you don’t.”
I’ve given this advice countless times when I see future entrepreneurs hesitating on taking the plunge. The logic behind it is self-apparent: you’ll only ever achieve success if you actually get out there and try.
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But there’s another lesson embedded in there, and it’s this: you will make mistakes no matter what new challenge you take on. There’s no way around it. With any new venture that you throw yourself into, there is going to be a learning curve and things will happen. And no matter how much you plan or try to anticipate what those mistakes will be, they just will happen.
Lesson #1: Get Your Product Out There
When we launched Hint, we spent a lot of time thinking about how we wanted to present the product – and differentiate it from the competition. What was unique about Hint? It had no sweeteners. It had no preservatives. And unlike many of the “healthy perception” products on the market, Hint was clear in color.
So naturally we thought the label should be clear too – different from the label on other brands. A clear label would reflect the purity of our product and make it distinct from everything else on the shelf. Simplicity and clarity – exactly what I wanted people to remember about Hint.
When we looked at the final product on the counter in our kitchen, it looked perfect. But once it was on the shelf under supermarket lighting, another story could be told. Our beautiful label was tough to read. The product with the beautiful clear transparent label, disappeared on the shelf. And when placed next to other products on the shelf – especially the ones that had color in them like Vitamin Water – our product seemed nonexistent. And unfortunately, we weren’t choosing where we would be on the shelf. Or if we made it into the coldbox. Those problems could shift each time; lighting was different in each store – and even within different areas inside a store.
We eventually switched our beautiful clear label to a white label. We found that the new white label allowed the product to really pop. While we learned early on that people who found the product enjoyed it — and became early fans — it was when we made this tiny but important switch that sales increased significantly.
So what’s the lesson? Get your product out there for the customer to see. You will always find things that need to be changed that you didn’t anticipate. Always. And hopefully you will not have sunk too much money into making it “perfect.”
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Lesson #2: Not Having The Answers is Often Better
One of the things that was critically important to me when we launched Hint was to show people that drinks can taste good without tasting sweet. I’d seen the health benefits myself – ditching diet soda in favor of water that just tasted better with a little taste of fruit. That’s all that I needed to start enjoying drinking water.
Without preservatives though, my product had a limited shelf life. Whole Foods was telling us that if we wanted to stay in their stores, we needed to solve that issue. And launching Hint nationwide was certainly out of the question until we could figure it out.
If I had come from the beverage industry – or if I had taken the advice of anyone from the industry – I would have never decided to dive in to such a big undertaking without first having a solution for this shelf life issue. The easy fix was to add preservatives, which I didn’t want to do. Or I could continue delivering Hint to supermarkets out of the back of my Jeep. The future of Hint was in serious jeopardy if we couldn’t figure a way out of this problem that no one seemed to have the answer to.
The really important lesson here? Not having all the answers – and not being burdened with a lot of institutional knowledge – turned out to be a blessing. I was an outsider. I didn’t know what I didn’t know. And when I asked questions about fixing this issue, people treated me differently. They entertained my curiosity a bit more. They forced themselves to be open to solving previously unsolvable problems.
Sure enough, I stuck to my guns. Mostly because I didn’t know better and I had no other option. And we solved the shelf life problem soon thereafter without preservatives. Often, not having all the answers actually works to your advantage!
Lesson #3: Cold Calling Can Work
One of the first marketing strategies we employed was featuring Hint at high-profile events where we could generate buzz. It was a way for us to get trial from people, and hopefully they would pass on their love of the drink to people they knew. I made a connection in early 2005 which led to Hint being served in a prominent way at a party at the TriBeCa Film Festival. This was great news, but “being” at the party — Hint that is — without having a nearby retailer who stocked Hint would be a huge misstep. It was critical that once people got acquainted with the brand that they could then buy our product at a local store. DTC was non-existent for beverages back then.
So I quickly got to work. Back when I lived in New York, I shopped at a small grocery store in Soho, not far from where the TriBeCa Film Festival took place, called Gourmet Garage. They seemed like the perfect place to buy a product like Hint. So I looked up their number, made the call, and I was promptly connected to a woman named Kara, their grocery buyer. I told her that my name was Kara, too, and that my husband and I used to live in New York and had loved shopping at Gourmet Garage. And I had a new product that I thought their customers would love.
She asked me to send some samples. I, of course, had already sent them, and I told her they would be arriving that day. She called back later, said she loved the product and they would be happy to stock it. I don’t know if it was the product, the fact that we had the same name, or something else, but I’ve never had an easier time getting to “yes” before or since then. I was smiling ear to ear.
The lesson was the same one I learned early in my career. Cold calling works. Sometimes. And the key thing with a cold call (or cold email) is making sure that you have something really worthwhile to offer the person on the other end. I sensed that Gourmet Garage was the perfect market for Hint – because I had shopped there for years and knew their brand intimately. So when I sent those samples off to Kara, I was confident that the product itself would seal the deal after I made that cold call.
And it did.
When You Have Options, You Can Weather Any Storm
What so many forget to make sure they have. In life – and in business.
I learned that lesson the hard way about ten years ago when I got a fateful call from our buyer at one of our most important accounts at the time. Starbucks. And I was told that what had been consuming my life for the last eighteen months was going away in two weeks. Two weeks!
We had been fortunate to gain chainwide distribution in Starbucks – just over 6800 stores throughout the US. That was a good day when we received that news. It took us about six months to achieve our goal. And after that, we were rockin’ it! Exceeding our sales targets by almost 3x. Then, we were given the notice that Hint would be discontinued from all those store cases at Starbucks. Every store. A bad day for sure.
In retrospect, I can’t say there were warning signs. Hint was selling well above our goals. There was a buyer change. And, we soon learned, a strategic shift from the top. It was decided that the coffee company needed to make room in their cases for sandwiches and more expensive items that had a higher margin and higher ring. While this all made sense for Starbucks, this new strategy was bad for Hint. No sugarcoating it.
I got off that phone call, politely and calmly. And then I laid my head down on my desk. What was I going to do? Six months’ worth of inventory was sitting in the warehouse that would go bad. While we had other retail customers, we didn’t have another customer that could make up for this gap. What were we going to do with all this product?
I thought long and hard about what I could have done differently. And I came up with one answer. We had put too many proverbial Hint eggs in the proverbial customer basket. That account for us represented a huge chunk of our overall business – almost 40% of our total revenue. And that’s the issue I should have recognized months earlier: not thinking about a way to diversify or have other options if that business suddenly disappeared. We were vulnerable.
When you have an important account or client, it’s everyone’s tendency to stay focused on that relationship. Make it the highest priority to meet the goal. Or over perform. But it’s a balance. In fact, the most prudent thing we could have done while building that Starbucks distribution was to go out and find a few other revenue streams. And ensure that we had options if and when that high-priority account went away.
The funny thing is that I’d always been very good about making sure that I had options. When I embarked on my post-college job search, I set myself up with almost 100 interviews. While I was at AOL running their e-commerce and shopping partnerships, I would always go after more retailers, knowing that not all of our partners would be successful online, at least not right out of the gate. Years later, I started Hint knowing that if things didn’t work out with my first entrepreneurial venture, I had the option to go back into the tech industry.
I had a similar conversation recently on my podcast The Kara Goldin Show with Alex Lieberman, the co-founder and Executive Chairman of Morning Brew. He reached a fork in the road professionally a few years ago, while working full-time in finance and writing his email Morning Brew on the side. There weren’t enough hours in the day to work on both of his interests. He had to make a choice.
So he thought through all the worst-case scenarios if Morning Brew failed. “If I didn’t burn all my bridges at Morgan Stanley, I could go back there and actually this makes me a more well-rounded trader,” he recalled. “And I basically got several layers deep into what I thought were other realistic options.”
Turns out, none of Alex’s fallback options were necessary since Morning Brew exploded in the ensuing year and became the go-to business news brand for millennials. Not long after, the company was acquired by Business Insider. Having options allowed Alex to commit fully to his venture.
Cate Luzio was another recent guest on my show. She spent decades in the financial services industry before pivoting to an entirely new business. In 2019, she opened Luminary, an event space for collaboration and community. One year later, the pandemic unfolded and completely altered Cate’s business model. Fortunately, she refused to stay still. She found options.
“When the pandemic hit… we were fortunate that we could really be nimble, the team could react quickly and I could make those tough decisions,” Cate said.
Cate shifted her business online quickly given that in-person events weren’t going to be feasible for the foreseeable future. And a surprising thing happened. “Going online for us was incredible. It accelerated our growth dramatically. We will always now have a virtual and a digital platform as part of our plan. And now we even have members around the world.” Having options – in this case, finding new ways to quickly maintain revenue – allowed Cate to lead successfully during the pandemic.
So, back to our story at Hint. How did we handle the situation with Starbucks in the end? That was a painful lesson, to be sure. And it would be tempting to just feel vindicated for whatever perceived slight I had felt. But Starbucks was doing what any responsible company does: they were doing what was best for their business. And unfortunately, that was not necessarily what was ideal for my business. The only thing that I would have asked for is longer than two weeks’ notice.
I always say that it’s important to look back on challenging times. For those options, and also for the learnings. Here’s what else I realized:
Starbucks introduced Hint to millions of customers who would have never been able to try our product since we didn’t have distribution in many areas where they had stores. That exposure was invaluable. And that led me to realize something else that I was missing from our business. Our own connection with the consumer. Because if we would have made that connection, or had the emails from the people who purchased our product at Starbucks, we could have shared that Hint was still available elsewhere. Or online at our own site www.drinkhint.com.
And for that reason alone, I am grateful for the experience with Starbucks and for making me realize what I was missing from my business. Another option for connecting with the customer. My own.
What options are you planning to create for your career? Or your business? I would love to hear.
My Message to Graduates in the Class of 2021? Go Out and Create Your Own Opportunities
Thank you for taking the time to read this.
This month I’m hitting a big parenting milestone. My first child graduating from college and embarking on “real life.” It brings up a lot of emotions and memories for me, going through the same rite of passage many years ago myself. My first job search. My big move from Arizona to New York City. My tiny Upper West Side apartment. But I’ll get to all that in a second.
First, I’d like to say something to the graduates in the class of 2021.
I don’t need to tell you what a unique group of graduates you are. The unprecedented circumstances of the last year have re-written the rules of what many of us faced after college. Without a doubt.
Graduation – in any year – is an emotionally complicated time, with so many unknowns and so many possibilities. It probably seems to you like the future is more intangible and unpredictable than ever.
But here’s one thing I know about times of uncertainty: the best opportunities for change happen in moments like this. Smart companies and savvy entrepreneurs are making plans right now, investing in what comes next, anticipating the upturn that always follows a time of upheaval.
My advice? Stay curious. Ask questions. And show up.
Let me take you back a few decades – back to when I was graduating from college in the midst of a prolonged recession. Many of my classmates were taking any job they could. They just wanted to get a foot in the door somewhere, anywhere. And many were even opting for unpaid internships.
Well I couldn’t afford to do that. Even if that meant being a bit more creative and scrappy to find that first full-time job. The problem was, I didn’t know enough about the job market to chart my own path. So, I did what I would do over and over again in my life to make an informed decision: I asked questions. Of anybody and everybody.
If the opportunities I want are not coming to me, I’ll have to create them for myself.
I went out in search of people to network with who could help me find those interviews. I was looking for an “in” or an advantage anywhere I could find it. So I started looking close to home – the Tee Pee restaurant, where I had been waitressing throughout college. It was a natural place to network because of the constant stream of people coming from all over the country to enjoy delicious mexican food.
I started with a customer who had been a regular over the years. We always chatted as I was getting him his dinner order, but I never asked him what he did. I decided it was time to find out after he asked me what I was planning on doing after graduation — that dreaded question.
“What do you do for a living?” I asked.
He told me he lived in Los Angeles and came to Phoenix regularly for work. He managed product placement for Anheuser-Busch on movie sets.
Now, being a college student, I knew what Anheuser-Busch was. But what was product placement exactly?
“Where do you place beer products?”
“On movie sets. We film a lot of movies in Arizona.”
“I could definitely do that! Can you get me an interview?” I said, half kiddingly – but not really.
Sure, enough he came through. One interview in the books! I just had to get to Los Angeles which was easy enough.
I was feeling pretty confident. What was once something I didn’t know how to tackle, getting the interview, actually was fairly easy to line up. One step at a time. So, I continued to scan my network, inside and outside of the little restaurant. If I was going to be in Los Angeles for an interview, maybe I should line up some other interviews. And visit other cities too.
Another frequent pair of customers was a couple from Illinois who owned a vacuum cleaner business. They invited me to interview with their company – which would ultimately mean a move to Chicago. Chicago could be a fun option!
“What kind of roles are in your vacuum cleaner company?”
“Marketing could be a great start for you.”
The idea of marketing piqued my interest for sure. And it also solidified the fact that I knew I wanted to move to a big city – Los Angeles, San Francisco, Chicago, Boston, or New York – to start my career. I didn’t exactly see myself marketing vacuum cleaners, but I didn’t want to rule anything out. Things were falling into place, and I started mapping my path forward.
Decide on a direction. Set your course. But be open to changing it if necessary.
I put together a list of every company I could imagine working at, as well as every place someone could connect me for an interview. I said yes to all. I assembled all of my leads and I started sending out letters and making phone calls, this was before email was a thing believe it or not. I told everyone who responded to my inquiries that I would fly myself out for a meeting. That I had researched their company extensively (and I did). I pitched myself hard. I knew I was not only a hard worker, but that I was sure I could contribute and make a difference.
Before long, I had seventy potential interviews lined up – in all of my wish-list cities! They were entry-level positions at a variety of companies, from consultancies to financial service providers to publishing.
But I didn’t stop there. As I embarked on my “tour,” when people asked about my plans (and they always did), I told them which city I was headed to next.
“My third stop is Chicago. I’ve never been there so I am very excited.”
“What are you doing there?”
“More interviewing. I am on a tour getting in as many interviews as possible over the next month. If you know anyone that is looking for a smart, hard-working college grad, I am the person.”
Just by putting myself out there, telling people what I was looking for – most were eager to help. I was amazed at how many people started opening up their rolodexes.
“I do know someone in Chicago. Let me give her a call and see if her company has any entry-level positions open.”
I soon lost count of how many interviews I had done over the course of that month, but it was close to 100 in total.
Still, there was one place I wanted to work at above all the rest. It was a New York publishing company whose product I really admired.
Unlike many of the other companies I sent letters to, I didn’t have a referral contact at Fortune, but I didn’t let that stop me. I looked at the masthead and went straight to the top. Marshall Loeb. Managing Editor of Fortune Magazine. A major figure in the New York and national publishing scene.
I figured it couldn’t hurt to ask for an interview — what’s the worst that could happen?
In fact, I’ve found that the most certain way to get what you want is to ask, directly and explicitly. And ask yourself that question too if it seems a bit scary. The worst that could happen is rarely that bad.
In all the letters I had sent to prospective employers, I simply asked for an interview and a job, but I added a more personal touch to my Fortune letter, sharing how his magazine had helped me understand finance, my minor in college. I explained how Fortune really helped to demystify many of the challenges I’d initially had with the subject in my classes.
Then, I got a letter back! Marshall had responded thanking me for writing and proposing that if I was ever in New York, I should get in touch. He would be excited to meet me.
That added New York City to my list of places to visit. The last stop on my US “find a job” tour.
Btw, you may be wondering how much this “investment” cost me. Great story there as well. When I thought about taking this month-long adventure to figure out what I wanted to do, I worried I may not be able to afford all the stops. I called a travel agent and ran through my five-city itinerary with her: Los Angeles, San Francisco, Chicago, Boston, and New York. $472 total. That’s right. Total. Still a lot for me, but much less than I expected. And looking back, one of the best investments I made in myself.
Some things are meant to be. And you never know if they are until you set out toward your goal. Take those steps.
Fast-forward to a cold January day in New York, 1989, as I walked along Sixth Avenue to the famous Time & Life Building. I pushed through the revolving door into an overwhelmingly awesome lobby of glass, marble, and stainless steel, hung with enormous works of art.
I hesitated. Could I really go through with this? That little doubting voice was chiming in in my head. And the fear was rolling in. I hadn’t actually arranged an interview at Fortune, but I did have my letter from Marshall Loeb in hand. Suddenly, it felt like an impossible long shot. I took a deep breath.
Show up. What’s the worst that can happen? You’ve got this.
I got in the elevator, rode up several floors to the Human Resources department, and went directly up to the receptionist.
“Hello. I’m interested in a job at Fortune. I am here to see Marshall Loeb. ”
She looked at me skeptically.
“Do you have an appointment?”
“No. But I have a letter from him though.”
A woman standing nearby had heard our exchange. She came over and introduced herself as the Head of Human Resources. She glanced at the letter. Maybe she had seen a few like it?
“What Mr. Loeb meant was that you should get in touch and make an appointment for an interview if you were planning to be in New York.”
Although she was saying “No,” what I heard was “Maybe.”
“Maybe there is another opportunity with one of the other magazines? I would love to work here. I am leaving tomorrow. Would it be possible to interview somewhere else for one of your openings?” I didn’t turn to go. I just stood there. Right in front of her. Hard to ignore.
I had become an expert in asking for what I wanted. An interview.
There was a pause. Then she remembered something. “There really aren’t any openings at Fortune right now, but there is one at Time. It’s in the circulation department. For an executive assistant role. Would you be interested in that?”
Now she was saying “maybe,” but I was hearing “yes.” I had only a vague idea of what circulation was. It wasn’t Fortune Magazine. It wasn’t Marshall Loeb. But if I could work in the building, in New York City, maybe I could meet the Fortune people and eventually get hired as a writer.
Have a goal but also be open for adjustments.
“Yes! I would be interested in interviewing!”
I am forever grateful to that kind woman from Human Resources.
She escorted me to an office on a different floor. There she introduced me to Brooke McMurray, who was looking for an executive assistant. In my interview, I told Brooke my whole story—about how much I liked writing and reading Fortune, my letter to Marshall Loeb, my seventy interviews on my cross country tour. My authentic story.
Brooke listened patiently. I can only imagine how I came across.
When I returned to Arizona, I had a voicemail waiting. Many voicemails. And letters. Offers! Including one from the last place I interviewed. Brooke wanted to hire me as her assistant! I had landed a job in the city that was my top choice and in the building I wanted to be in. Not Fortune, but close enough. And working for a person who I believed could support me as I supported her.
Turns out, I picked right. One of the best bosses I ever had.
I’ve seen a few challenging moments since my own graduation in 1989, and when you are in the moment, they certainly feel like unmatched havoc and uncertainty. And perhaps, 2020 may feel a bit like this for some of you.
But don’t let the events of this past year keep you from moving forward. Tomorrow is a new day. Your job now is to be open to possibilities. Be inquisitive. Ask anyone and everyone for advice, for leads, for connections. Be a sponge. Absorb as much knowledge as you can to help set you in the right direction.
Create the opportunities you want. Don’t wait for them to present themselves either. Take the risk. Write that email, send that DM, or make that cold call to pursue that possibility.
Find what you are looking for. It’s out there.
And know that I believe, and so do many others, that YOU can make a difference. And you can find what you are looking for.
It’s your turn now to get out there and live undaunted!
The #1 Lesson I Learned from My Mom – And That I’m Passing on to My Kids
2020 was a year that made us all stop and think. For me, I thought a lot about fear. About family. And about being a parent. A mom.
And since this coming weekend will be all about celebrating mothers, I wanted to take a moment to share about my own family, starting first with my mom, Kay Keenan. While she passed away several years ago, I still hear her voice at times. I think often about her bravery, the extent of which I didn’t fully recognize until recently. Her creativity. Her resilience. And finally, her kindness.
Kay grew up in rural Minnesota, and while many of her peers went straight from high school graduation into marriage and starting a family (this was back in the 1940s), she enrolled at the University of Minnesota pursuing a degree in art history. Not the norm. I never really appreciated until much later in life how bold it was for her to make this decision to attend college. To go a different way and forge an alternate path. Being a woman from the Midwest, college was not the route that was expected of her.
She loved art. And crafts. Any type. She hugged her creative side. She was an art history major; however, we would learn later that that would not define her – but I’ll get to that in a minute. It was at the University of Minnesota where she met my father, Bill Keenan. She was playing softball in a rec league (can you imagine!), and Bill was writing for the school newspaper. He mentioned her in a story in the sports section: “The softball was not that great, but the shortstop was a real ‘looker’.” My mom called him out for that comment when she saw him at a party a few days later. He then asked her out on a date, and the rest, as they say, is history. They married after graduation. Soon after, my mom did put her career ambitions on hold to raise me and my four siblings. She never put her creativity on hold, though, always crafting something, always working on some sort of project.
We moved to Arizona when I was just a few years old. (My dad grew tired of shoveling snow in Edina, MN where we were living). My mom picked up work here and there as a substitute teacher. Probably the first time I remember witnessing her “entrepreneurial” spirit was when she took it upon herself to reach out to the heads of the Phoenix and Scottsdale school districts and convince them to let her teach a small program she had developed teaching art history as a volunteer. She wanted kids to be able to recognize some of the great artists – Picasso, Renoir, Monet and others – how to appreciate their work, understand who they were and why they were significant. At her funeral, a few of the kids that I grew up with recalled how my mom’s lessons on “the greats” lived on with them.
Looking back, I feel like there was a countdown in my mom’s head as I approached kindergarten age. She decided that she was ready to try something new and pursue retail. Fashion. While I think she definitely had an interest in fashion, she also was excited to make a little more money than she was getting as a volunteer AND she could socialize with other adults – something that she really missed. She ended up working in the children’s department, given how much she knew about kid’s clothes, and she frankly became a bit of an expert there. It definitely was an adjustment to having her out of the house, but we all supported my mom’s decision to go back to work. She needed that independence and outlet too for her creativity.
She was in her mid-40s, pursuing an entirely new career. Learning new things. Meeting new people. And she loved it. I always wonder if she knew she was setting an example for me. For all her kids.
Kay Keenan wasn’t thinking about what she couldn’t do. She didn’t allow those walls or doubts to ever get too high. She knew she could always go back to a career in art history or volunteering too. If she needed to or wanted to. And she did always continue to do those things on the side, including taking up quilting in her late 50s. She always figured out what she wanted to do, always looking to learn new things – and she did them.
My mom influenced and inspired me in so many ways, both in life and in motherhood – and as I said above, some of those lessons I’ve only come to appreciate in the years I’ve spent in her absence. So, I also wanted to take this moment to impart some wisdom as a mom of 22 years myself.
To my own kids. Here’s what I have to say to you:
First of all, being your mom has been the greatest joy of my life – and the greatest challenge for sure. Nothing really prepares you for being a parent. It may sound cliché to you. It certainly did to me when people (my own mom included) said it over the years. That unconditional love from the minute that you entered this world. And even during pregnancy when I anticipated your arrival. It doesn’t matter what order you came in. Or your gender. There is nothing I love more than being your mom.
I love hearing the four of you enjoy each other so much. Whether it’s laughing with each other in the kitchen or talking with each other on the phone. Emma, Kaitlin, and Keenan, as you all experience your own worlds in college and Justin in high school, I often think of the legacy I will leave for you. How I may be remembered in your eyes. Much in the same way my mother left her legacy for me and my siblings. I wonder if you will look back at the lessons I tried to share with you, consciously and unconsciously. If you will find value in them or if you will laugh a bit and see them as “mom talk.” So, humor me for a moment and allow me to impart a few nuggets of wisdom – many of which are passed down from a previous generation.
– Find what you enjoy doing and do it well. There is no greater example of this than your grandmother, who spent much of her life pursuing her creative passions. She had a keen eye for making our world a more beautiful place, and she certainly loved doing just that.
– The world will do its best to fit you in a mold and tell you to go a certain way. Just know that it’s okay to take your time and change your mind. Maybe you’ll choose to pursue a fashion career in your mid-40s (or for that matter, maybe you’ll decide to use your life savings to start a beverage company in your mid-30s). Don’t be defined by the restrictions and the perceptions that others have of you. Make your own path.
– Don’t fear making mistakes. You can always go back to what you know if you try something new and don’t succeed at it. The worst thing is not trying because you believe you might fail.
– If an opportunity doesn’t present itself, create the opportunity yourself. The local schools in Arizona didn’t have an art history program, and your grandmother knew we would all benefit from it. I’ll never forget the people who came to me and told me what a difference her teaching made to them.
– Be authentic and vulnerable. When you’re true to yourself, you will show those beautiful sides of yourself to the world.
– Be kind. And grateful. No one will ever fault you for this, and you will feel happier too.
– And always know that you are loved beyond words.
Happy Mother’s Day, all!
Create a Category & Climb Everest! All in the Same Day…
Imagine this sign:
Seems impossible right? And well, maybe to most it is.
I frequently say, “Starting a company is like climbing a mountain. But creating a new category within an industry — that’s like climbing Everest.”
We climbed Everest when we launched Hint. (Well, not literally.)
You see, two months into launching Hint in stores, I realized something. Customers didn’t understand what an unsweetened water was. And neither did the category buyers who were controlling Hint’s destiny on the store shelves. You see, it’s great to come up with a new idea for a product that has no existing competitor. But know that you’re going to have to educate a lot of people in order to succeed. In my case, it was both the customer and the grocery buyers.
I found a solution to a health problem that had challenged me for years. I hated the taste of plain water. So I had been drinking diet soda for years thinking that it was healthy. Boy was I wrong! When I finally started slicing fruit and throwing the fruit in water, that’s when I realized that I had uncovered the key to great tasting water. Giving water a little hint of flavor. And without sweeteners. Sounds simple enough, right? Yet what I soon realized is that my kitchen concoction wouldn’t be so easy to create. And there might be a reason why no one else had done what I was setting out to do. (And not just because it was difficult to make.)
Soon after I decided to develop Hint, I started sharing my samples with friends – and frankly anyone who wanted to try a product that made water taste better. I soon realized that I was on to something! Parents, kids, so many people actually wanted better tasting water without sweeteners. And more and more, people wanted to know where they could find Hint – “which stores?” they would ask.
I found myself educating people a lot too. While they liked the taste, they also wanted to know what it was sweetened with. Even though the bottle of Hint was clearly labeled, “Unsweetened.” Like me, people didn’t realize the junk they had been putting in their system. Diet this. Vitamin that. Products that were on the shelves in grocery stores all hiding next to water trying to act healthy with a deceptive brand name. Healthy perception versus healthy reality. Tricky words to get the consumer to buy the product on the shelves. Evil that I had been manipulated by as well.
Here’s what I finally realized when Hint made it on the shelves of our first Whole Foods in San Francisco. While not having competition might be an advantage in some ways, it also makes things more difficult. Creating a new product is challenging. Creating a company is super challenging. Creating a new category within any industry is a challenge on a whole new level. You with me so far?
You not only need to educate the consumer, but also the gatekeepers who give you access to the consumer. In our case, it was the buyer at the grocery store who made decisions about what to put on the shelves to sell. Remember: 16 years ago, there was no direct-to-consumer for beverages. And today, DTC might sidestep a gatekeeper, but that still doesn’t eliminate how fast or slow the consumer will embrace the thing you’re telling them they need. It’s new to them, remember.
There is a process for consumers to embrace a new category. They have to discover it. They have to want to learn about it. All of that takes time. This can’t be rushed. And it requires patience on your part as the founder for sure!
In the early days of Hint, we would hand out samples at supermarkets or find events where people could try it. That’s how we found many of our earliest fans of the brand. Most consumers didn’t understand what I was talking about when I described Hint as an “unsweetened flavored water.” They had to fall in love with the taste of Hint before they could fully comprehend it. Those people who did though were the early Hint evangelists — fans who spread the word of the product I had dreamt up. These evangelists who loved “their” new drink. A new category in the beverage industry was slowly building an audience.
Taste is a critical component for food and beverage products, which of course doesn’t apply to other industries like tech. But in many industries, entrepreneurs push to educate the consumer and often try to spend their way to speed up the process. Unfortunately, that doesn’t work in most cases. Getting the consumer to listen and see your ads or other marketing is a daunting proposition and takes creativity. Especially when a consumer doesn’t know that they need what you are offering.
So while developing a new category might be for the craziest of entrepreneurs, here’s why it’s worth it. One of my favorite marketing gurus and category design experts, Christopher Lochhead, recently analyzed the one hundred fastest-growing companies in the U.S. While he found that only 1 in 5 companies were what he deemed “category creators,” those companies accounted for a majority of overall growth for their industry. Creating a category requires one to be bold and fearless, but once the consumer embraces it, the reward will be there.
So, getting back to my original point. Know what you are climbing. Is it a mountain or is it Everest? Both are doable. But knowing how arduous the climb might be is critical. That doesn’t mean you let that stop you, but know that It takes time. And resilience. Curiosity. You’ll need a really sharp pickaxe to cut through your own doubts about whether or not you can make it. Get ready for all the confusion you’ll encounter when you take your trailblazing new product to market – not to mention the skeptics you’ll meet along the way. It will take them time to catch up to what you already visualize and understand. And you’ll need the perseverance to keep putting one foot in front of the other – even after you’ve planted your flag at the peak.
I’m rooting for you! Enjoy the journey.
Looking to Stand Out and Make an Impression at Work? Sharpen Your Soft Skills
This past year has shined a light on how critical soft skills are. Soft skills are the intangibles. The art of understanding people, working in a group dynamic, communicating productively so that ideas can turn into action – and then action can transform into results. The importance of effective communication has never been more obvious. Especially as we work more asynchronously and virtually.
I’m also thinking about the next generation coming into the workplace. Especially those eager college grads, Gen Z-ers, figuring out their first jobs and internships right about now. I can speak from experience with three college-age Gen Z-ers who have made me think a lot about this topic and the importance of these critical communication skills for everyone.
It’s a bit ironic because technology has been both an enabler of remote work and the culprit in the communication gap that we see widening these days. And now with a new generation of employees entering the workforce – mobile natives who have come of age communicating almost exclusively through their phones and computers – the different ways we all use technology are becoming, sometimes, painfully clear.
For those generations that grew up in the digital age, conversations often moved seamlessly between physical and digital. And that trend has percolated into the workplace over the last few years as many face-to-face conversations have shifted to digital platforms. The downside is that we’ve definitely lost some of the clarity and accountability that comes from being in the same room with our colleagues. And while video conferencing has tried to correct for that trend, it can still be an awkward stand-in for in-person interaction.
Technology instills efficiency. That’s what we love about it. But in the context of work, we need to remember to take our time, be more diligent, confirm that everyone is on the same page, and move forward in unison.
There’s no way around it: work is most successful when it’s an open and sustained dialogue.
So for native texters – not to mention all of us who have become inextricably tied to our phones (Gen Xers included, we’re still here!) – that’s an important reminder. Maintain the dialogue. Don’t leave digital conversations hanging without a clear conclusion. Make sure that when you’re assigned a task or take on a project, you acknowledge it and set clear expectations. Whether that’s on a text thread, a Slack channel, or, ideally, in an email.
There’s a big difference between this…
No communication back and no acknowledgement or closure leads to a lack of clarity. For all. Seems obvious, right? Not to a generation that is used to being a student in the digital age or chatting with friends vs being an employee in the context of a work conversation. The idea of saying something as simple as, “will get that to you by the end of the day,” or “do you have a few minutes to discuss?” may not be what one of the parties is used to conveying.
I love seeing enthusiasm from employees. People who are looking to learn. I encourage everyone to find ways to shine, raise a hand, and assume ownership of something. But in the midst of that eagerness, ensure that you’re closing the loop. I guarantee all will appreciate this.
And don’t be afraid to over-communicate. The key is figuring out the means of communicating most effectively in this new environment.
In an age of so much casual communication, being a bit more formal isn’t necessarily a bad thing. So send a quick “yes” response by text, but then follow it up with a detailed email outlining how you plan to attack the task at hand. What deadlines you’re setting. What resources you believe you need in order to succeed on a given project. It will not only show that you’re thinking strategically, but it will also help you stand apart from the rest of employees who aren’t taking the time to do so.
Effective communication shines through when it’s done right. And conversely, when it’s done sloppily or rushed, it can crush you. Sadly, so many people these days communicate poorly. They don’t pay attention to how they compose an email or present their work. It’s so easy to stand out when you make the effort to do it right.
I give a lot of credit to Millennials for how they’ve altered and, in so many cases, improved the modern workplace. Today, the Millennial generation makes up the largest percent of the workforce. They’ve transformed the modern office, bringing conversations about mental health and work-life balance to the forefront. They’ve nudged the conscience of corporate America to take a stand on social issues too. Having a corporate culture that is awesome is critical and one Millenials have highlighted that they prefer to come to and interact in. Who doesn’t? And finally, working for companies that have mission and purpose is the preferred way – especially for this generation – to make a living.
Enter Gen Z. They are all of this and more. They are knowledge-gatherers but also creative thinkers. They know how to find the info but also question it and aren’t afraid to go against the grain. As a result, these young recruits are not only eager to join a company, but they are ready to contribute. Continue learning. And lead.
It’s tempting to think of this past year as an anomaly. But we should take the time and give what we have witnessed a lot of thought. The trends around remote work and digital collaboration are here to stay, as are bridging communication gaps between the generations. Upping our soft skill game – for all of us – is going to be critical for employees, managers, and companies that want to succeed in the “new workplace.”
We all need to work with each other. Recognizing how we can all learn from each other. How we can all leverage the flexibility that technology offers us. And keep conversations moving in the right direction. Always.
It’s Good to Be Lucky, but It’s Even Better to Make Your Own Opportunities
With the benefit of hindsight, it’s easy to look back at the early days of Hint and recognize the key turning points in the growth of the brand. I can clearly identify those critical junctures where the business made a huge leap forward. And, interestingly, those leaps sometimes occurred at the most unexpected moments.
People might chalk up those sudden turning points to good fortune, having the right connections or being in the right place at the right time. Having lived through the process though, I will say that these critical points can be summarized — creating your own opportunities.
Case in point: Google.
In 2006, when Hint was still in its infancy, I still had no idea if this idea I’d cooked up in my kitchen would have legs. To outsiders – beverage industry veterans, as well as my pals in the tech industry – there were dozens of reasons to doubt that this “crazy” venture that I was jumping into would ever succeed. I’d spent about 18 months building the brand and delivering the product out of the back of my Jeep Grand Cherokee to a handful of local grocery stores. I’d enlisted my husband Theo (also a tech expatriate) to join me in my mission. And while I had cultivated a small but loyal customer base, it still wasn’t clear to me, or anyone else, if the idea could actually scale.
Around this time, a former coworker of Theo’s, Omid Kordestani, took on a new role at Google heading up sales and operations. We had met a few times and talked about my experience building out the shopping and commerce channel at AOL. He emailed one day, and asked if I might be interested in doing something in his new organization at Google. I was super interested in hearing more, but was also in the thick of launching a start-up. And of course eager to see if I could make my new venture succeed.
I headed down to Palo Alto to have lunch with Omid, and that’s when I decided it was time to share what I had been working on for the last few years. I reached into my bag and pulled out a bottle of my new creation: Hint.
I wasn’t sure where this would lead, but a voice inside me nudged me to reveal that bottle. To this day, I’m not certain why I wanted to show it with Omid, but I think I was so excited about what I had been working on and wanted to share.
“I know this is going to sound crazy,” I said, explaining to him that I recently started a beverage company – probably the last thing he expected me to say. I told him why I did it. How I learned a lot about health during my time off since leaving my last job. I launched into the story of getting my first bottle of Hint on the shelf. Our early success with it. How much fun I was having. How much I was learning!
Then, the unexpected happened. Omid could see how excited I was about my new company (and how Hint had helped me get healthy by drinking water that tasted better and had no sweeteners). He then shared that he had been working with the founders of Google on a program to offer their employees healthier food options. Maybe there was room for a healthy drink like Hint? He introduced me to their Head Chef Charlie to see if we could do a test. And Charlie said yes!
No doubt there was some serendipity at work here. My mission with Hint happened to align perfectly with Google’s health initiative that had just gotten underway. The timing was ideal. The next day, I dropped off 10 cases of Hint at Google HQ. Then I got a call the next day asking if I could drop off 30 more cases – as soon as possible! The next week, they wanted 300 cases – Google employees loved Hint! Within a couple months, Google became Hint’s number one customer. Really!
What did we learn here? Connections can get you an intro, but a great product is what allows you to stick around. If the product didn’t deliver – if Google employees didn’t care for Hint – it never would have remained there. In fact, many employees would joke about a term used inside Google called “Hint Hoarding,” where employees would hide bottles under their desk for fear that their closest fridge might be emptied out by mid-day. (They always refilled those fridges, but sometimes it wasn’t until the next morning.) It wasn’t unusual for some Google employees to be drinking six to eight bottles per day at the office. Maybe that’s how Hint became known as the “unofficial beverage of Silicon Valley.”
Hint. Started by a tech executive with no experience in the beverage industry. A small, local San Francisco brand that had purpose, that had a mission, even before the term ‘mission driven brand’ was a thing. Solving a problem for many by making water taste better with just the taste of fruit and no sweeteners was immediately embraced by employees at Google and eventually more.
And unlike what we were dealing with on the shelves of grocery stores – trying to convince the store buyers that we were needed or relevant – Google employees quickly understood what I was delivering.
After our success at Google, we focused on supplying Hint to corporate cafeterias and kitchens. As employees migrated to different tech companies around Silicon Valley, word spread and demand increased for Hint. Food service became a big part of our business and an even bigger part of the brand’s growing awareness. And it all started with a fortuitous lunch in Palo Alto.
I received a phone call one day from Sheryl Sandburg’s assistant. She had just moved from Google over to Facebook to be their COO. I had never met her, but she was interested in having Hint – Hint Fizz, in particular – stocked in their fridges. She missed having her favorite beverage on hand in her new office.
“Would you consider supplying Hint at Facebook?” the assistant asked.
“Ummm… Let me think about that…” I said on the other end of the line. “YES!”