A lot has happened in the dozen years since Kara Goldin founded Hint Water in 2005. The maker of unsweetened flavored waters has won shelf space in grocers from Target to Whole Foods, seen Hint become a staple in startup fridges, and raised money from about a hundred angel investors, including John Legend.
If that sounds like a lot, Goldin freely admits so. But when she gets stuck, she knows exactly where to turn: a high-level network of women who help her think through all types of business challenges, especially those in marketing and distribution.
"Not one of my advisers has beverage experience. There's a reason for that," says Goldin. "But they say as a CEO it's often lonely, and when I'm trying to figure out how to solve a problem, it's nice to be able to call on people who aren't in it with you every day."
For the most part, these aren't women who Goldin has personally sought out. Instead, they've been introduced to her by other people whom she respects. About six years ago, for example, Goldin was having breakfast with Guy Kawasaki when he mentioned Porter Gale, who had been the CMO of Virgin America.
Kawasaki introduced the two. At the time, Hint definitely needed some branding help, and Gale gave helpful insight about how the Hint brand was perceived from the outside. Gale, who Goldin calls one of the best brand builders of the past 10 years, eventually joined Hint's advisory board. "When I'm trying to think about my brand and how do I articulate it, she's another set of eyes and ears to help me think," says Goldin.
Goldin has also called on multiple advisers to help with her distribution strategy. Chief among them have been Lesley Blodgett, the founder of makeup company Bare Escentuals, and Elaine Rubin, who brought the 1-800-Flowers business online. The conventional wisdom in the beverage industry, says Goldin, is that you sell through grocery stores, and that "if you can't own space in grocery stores, then you'll never win." But established beverage companies are adamant about defending their shelf space, and Goldin didn't want to have to consistently outbid them to get it.
Goldin thought she could successfully develop a direct-to-consumer strategy. Hint was selling well on Amazon, but Goldin wasn't getting the customer data she needed to encourage repeat purchasing. The resources to develop a direct-to-consumer strategy were few and far between. "It's not like I can ask Kroger, do you mind if I sell direct-to-consumer?" she says.
Blodgett had faced a similar problem in the early stages of her business. She thought the only way to scale Bare Escentuals was to own space at department store makeup counters. But she knew she would never win that way. So, like Goldin, Blodgett needed to come up with a different distribution strategy. For her, the answer was QVC. Bare Escentuals, says Goldin, was the first makeup brand on QVC. "She helped me think about what else I could be doing and thinking about," Goldin says of Blodgett.
When Goldin approached Rubin, she was in search of tactical advice in setting up a direct-to-consumer business. Goldin had run AOL's e-commerce business, but that had been a few years ago, and the technology had changed. She knew there were better tools that she could be using to understand who her customers were. Her questions for Rubin reflected this. "What am I missing here?" she asked Rubin. "Help me spec this out. What are the key metrics I should be looking at to figure out if this is working or not? And how soon should it start to work?"
Goldin is totally appreciative of the differences between asking her advisers for help and, say, hiring a consultant. It's not just the money. The consultant, she says, isn't going to know her and isn't going to know much about her track record. The advisers "know you and where you came from," she says, and are supporters in helping the business succeed.
Plus, in Goldin's case, they must have given her incredible counsel. Her direct-to-consumer business now brings in about 40 percent of the company's revenue, last year estimated at $90 million.