About nine years ago, Kara Goldin, who had recently had three children and was about to have a fourth, wanted to get her family eating healthier. One day, she took the nuclear option: She cleared out the entire fridge and pantry and told her husband, “We’re starting from scratch.” She wanted to know where her eggs came from; she wanted to know if milk had hormones in it. As she told her husband all this, he eyed the Diet Coke in her hand. She had a habit of drinking 10 to 12 a day.
“That’s all great, but how about that Diet Coke?” he asked.
She looked at it, and realized she wanted to rethink what beverages she consumed, too. “I was like, ‘Yeah, you’re right. Fine.’” She tossed the can.
She didn’t want to drink juice in excess, because of the sugar. But when she looked at vitamin waters on the market, she saw all kinds of chemicals and preservatives she mistrusted. She began drinking plain water and trying to get her family to drink it too, but they found it bland. Finally, one day, she had the idea to throw a few berries into the bottom of a pitcher of water, to flavor it naturally. “When I got home, the water pitcher was gone,” she said. Her family had been drinking it all day. Soon, the parents of her children’s friends were asking, “What kind of sweetener do you put in that raspberry water in your house?”
Gradually, Goldin became convinced this could be a business. Yet her background was in tech–she had worked for AOL until 2001–and she didn’t know anything about launching a non-digital product. Still, she rolled up to her local Bay Area Whole Foods, talked to the purchaser there about what she’d need–a UPC code, a shelf-stable product–and within a few months, she showed up back at the Whole Foods with 10 cases of what would become Hint Water.
Almost a decade later, Hint Water is growing explosively. Retail revenues are over $40 million, with 30% growth from 2012 to 2013. There’s also been 200% growth in online sales. Initially having enabled sales through the likes of Amazon, Hint recently launched a direct-to-consumer e-commerce platform online. Hint Water comes in a range of flavors, yet remains unsweetened (through a process hinging on the oils, and not the sugars, from fruit). It retails at around $1.69 a bottle, depending on
Surprising even herself, Goldin has begun distributing far beyond the likes of a San Francisco Whole Foods. Hint recently signed on Publix, the Florida-based supermarket chain popular throughout the American South. And she’s working with a major distributor to get Hint Water onto college campuses, with one of the earliest adopters being Auburn University in Alabama. “I was frankly a little nervous,” says Goldin, citing stereotypes of the South as the land of fried chicken and sweet tea. “Conventional wisdom says this is not supposed to work in the South.” And yet in the very first week at Auburn, students bought up the contents of 100 cases of Hint.
Goldin claims, too, that Hint Water is something like the unofficial beverage of choice to Silicon Valley’s star companies. She says the product is especially popular at Google, whose lobbies feature refrigerators full of of the stuff. (On a recent trip to Google’s New York headquarters, this reporter enjoyed a nice glass of agua fresca, though it appeared to have been concocted in-house.) “We’ve heard that the typical employee at Google who drinks Hint drinks four to five bottles of Hint per day,” says Goldin. Facebook and Square have followed, and Goldin says that representatives of other companies will sometimes ask her, ‘How did you get that relationship with Google and Facebook?”
And to think that in 2006, Goldin nearly gave up. Struggling at the time to distribute on a large scale, she says she reached out to someone she only identifies as “someone at Coke.” She pitched him on her product over the phone, and pointed to her growth. But the man was dismissive:
“The rest of the world likes sweet. Everybody wants sweet,” he said.
“I don’t think that’s true,” she protested, citing her success at places like Whole Foods.
“Sweetie, Americans like sweet,” he finally said.
She hung up. “Wait, what did he just say?” she recalls thinking. “He just called me ‘sweetie.’” That casual, condescending, gendered “sweetie”–coming from a man she had never even met in person–was enough to light a fire under her. She wound up innovating a different process to flavor the beverages, one that used heat and extended shelf life, which gave her the wiggle room to scale without a giant soda company’s backing.
All of which makes her ever more delighted when she gets a call like one she says she recently got from Johnson & Johnson. Concerned about the health of their employees, says Goldin, they wanted to begin pulling Coke products out of their refrigerators–and putting Hint Water in.