Starting a Company – and Why Not Having ALL The Answers Is Better
9 minute read
“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.
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.”
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.
My Advice? Learn to Surf
There’s a saying about mindfulness that a friend reminded me of recently: “You can’t control the waves. But you can learn to surf.” And interestingly, that adage applies just as well to launching and sustaining a business. The waters out there will be turbulent at times – there’s no avoiding it. Sometimes you’ll feel like you could drown in them, especially if you try to resist all the ups and downs.
But right there is the bigger lesson I learned early on with Hint. If you accept that there will be challenges – some of which you will rise to, and others where you will falter – you have a good chance at finding success in the long run. The key is learning to ride the waves, staying nimble, and course-correcting when you make those inevitable mistakes. You’ll not only learn important lessons from the missteps you make, but they will better prepare you to recover quickly from the next one, and the next one.
And sometimes? The quick thinking you do on your feet will result in a better and more effective solution than the one you might have spent months mapping out and plotting. That roadblock that delayed you from starting – it’s amazing how it shrinks in size once you start learning and seeing what customers will do with your product.
Don’t delay. Don’t overthink. Don’t get bogged down in the mistakes you haven’t even made yet.
You’ll never succeed if you don’t start.
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