How to Go From Underdog to Maverick CEO: Trust Your Gut & Don’t Give Up

Even in pictures, you can tell that Kara Goldin, CEO of Hint Water, radiates the kind of confidence that most people would do anything to have. This intrepidity has served her well throughout her career, like when it came to building up a billion-dollar business within AOL as VP of Electronic Commerce and Shopping. She’s never been afraid to take charge or follow her instincts, even when others doubted her, which became especially important once she started Hint.

As Goldin will gladly tell you, she’s been fighting big soda since before it was cool. When her Diet-Coke-a-day addiction began to take its toll on her, she created a sugar- and sweetener-free flavored water in a beverage category all of its own. And, of course, there were doubters, including many bigwigs in the beverage industry who had the experience, scale, and brand name-recognition that Hint lacked in its infancy.

But despite it all, Goldin has managed to build a growing beverage empire, going from a home-cooked (literally) operation to distribution around the nation. And as the company scales, Goldin has become recognized more and more often for her leadership, business savvy and passion for health.

Recently, Glassdoor’s Emily Moore got the opportunity to sit down with this business maven to pick her brain on entrepreneurship, women in the workplace and working with her husband as COO. Here’s what she had to say.

Glassdoor: Hint has a pretty interesting and personal story behind it — can you talk a little bit about that?

Kara Goldin: I had just had my second child and was pregnant with my third and thought I’d sit on some boards and do some advising, as well as take the time to get healthy. I didn’t really think I was unhealthy — I shopped at Whole Foods and Trader Joe’s, and hiked the Marin headlands for 40-45 minutes every day but I couldn’t get off the extra baby weight. I was almost 50 pounds overweight from where I was in college, and developed some adult acne that I had never even had as a kid. So I was really trying to get to the bottom of why this was happening. According to the doctors, I was hormonal or my metabolism had slowed down, but instead of taking the medication the doctors were suggesting I wanted to take a look at everything I was eating and drinking to make sure it wasn’t one of those. Then I happened to read the label of the Diet Coke that I was drinking every day and thought I don’t even understand what these ingredients are — so I decided I was just going to stop drinking them for now. And from doing nothing else but switching from soda to plain water, two and a half weeks later I lost a little over 20 pounds.

I was getting healthier, but plain water for me was super boring. I started taking fruit in my kitchen, boiling it down on the stove and putting 2-3 drops of this concoction into a big bottle of water. I went to Whole Foods in San Francisco and said “Hey, what if I developed this product since no one else is doing it?” and the [employee] said “Okay, lady, go ahead.” I don’t think he thought I was actually going to go through with it, but I took on the task and, fast forward years later, we’ve created an entirely new category. We’re available nationwide, not just in grocery stores but lots of colleges, tech firms and our own consumer platform. We’ve also created a sunscreen where we use our essences from the water to scent the sunscreen, and it doesn’t have oxybenzone or parabens which are in 95 percent of sunscreens today and have been called out by the Center for Disease Control as probably encouraging pre-cancerous growths.

Glassdoor: Was starting your own business in an area you didn’t have professional experience in scary in any way?

Kara Goldin: I was just setting out to solve a problem — I never sat in my seat and said, “I’m going to develop the next Red Bull.” My focus has always been, “How do I help consumers get healthier?” So I never really felt scared.

Glassdoor: You’ve talked publicly about your challenges as a female entrepreneur, including the time a representative from a major beverage company called you “Sweetie”. How has that shaped your experience?

Kara Goldin: A long time ago [that] guy sort of poo-pooed my idea of recognizing unsweetened flavored water as a category, and I think that’s one example where some would say he was not being sensitive to my gender. But I always encourage all of our employees to stand up for themselves if something doesn’t sound right. No matter what company you’re working at, you want to go in and feel like you can focus and really enjoy it. If you’re not being spoken to in the right way or your team doesn’t respect you and want to see you succeed, then you either have to fix it or find a better place to be.

Glassdoor: I know that your husband is COO of Hint — you must work really closely together! How has that been?

Kara Goldin: It’s been great! We have very different skill sets. He was an intellectual property attorney in technology prior to joining me in building out this company, so he always had a science background. I always tell entrepreneurs whether it’s your husband or friend, make sure you and your partner have different skill sets.

And I think building a family with your work partner is great, because the two of you both have the same goals. If you’re working with a cofounder and you both have different families, or one has a family and one doesn’t, you don’t really know what’s going on in that person’s life. But I know everything that’s going on in his life, so it makes it easier to see what we have to focus on in our family as well as in our business.

Glassdoor: Speaking of incredible people you’ve gotten to work with, I know you’ve partnered with some pretty notable figures like John Legend and Michelle Obama. What’s that been like? Do you ever get starstruck?

Kara Goldin: I’ve met so many people along the way, and it’s been really amazing. Michelle Obama was certainly someone where I thought, “Oh my gosh, it’s crazy that I had a conversation with her!” But at the end of the day, what I realize is that these people are really passionate about health. That’s the key thing I’ve noticed — I haven’t been as starstruck as I thought I would because they want to ask me lots of questions about what I’ve done and how they can help. They’ve been very normal conversations, like with friends.

Glassdoor: Last question, what’s your best piece of career advice?

Kara Goldin: I think I’d say trust your gut. [I could have] thought I can’t do this because I don’t have the experience, but if you think you can’t do it, you’re not going to be able to.You have to change your mindset and think, “I’m smart. I can do this. I just have to figure out how.” Trust your gut that if you’re a problem solver, then you probably can go do this if you let yourself stay focused long enough to actually figure it out.

Feature Photo Courtesy of Fast Company

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Also on Glassdoor:

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March 09, 2017 at 09:09AM
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