Editor's Note: S'well is a winner of Inc.'s 2017 Design Awards, our annual recognition of entrepreneurs using design to build great companies, in the "Brand Design" category.
When S'well founder Sarah Kauss locked in a distribution deal with Target, her first reflex was to make sure someone on her team actually toiled through the vendor's phone book-size guide for new partners. It's not all that surprising, considering Kauss began her career as a CPA at Ernst & Young and then got her MBA at Harvard Business School. "I'm so organized, it drives everyone nuts," says Kauss. "Really, I'm a recovering accountant."
Most recovering accountants aren't known for their style prescience. But Kauss decided the reusable water bottle needed a makeover. Hers, which was often stashed in her designer purse, impressed her--but mainly for its ugliness. "I was paying a lot for a handbag and pulling out something that looked like a hiking accessory," says Kauss.
In 2010, she founded S'well, a water bottle company that behaves like a fashion brand. Its bottles are not simply utilitarian devices--double-walled, copper-coated stainless steel vessels that keep beverages hot for 12 hours and cold for 24; each one doubles as a canvas. Twice a year, 30 new bottle designs are released. They might feature modern patterns or be made to resemble teakwood or textiles from India and Africa. Then, without warning, collections are discontinued. The result: S'well has trained its fans to swoon over its fleeting, ever-changing bottles, cleverly transforming them from mere customers to avid collectors. The average S'well owner purchases more than five of these $25 to $45 bottles, a fairly irrational act, given that no one needs more than a couple of liquid-carrying receptacles.
"If we did everything so it was Six Sigma and boring, we would have six colors and we'd sell them for 100 years," says Kauss, who has never taken outside investment. "We want customers to feel the product isn't going to hang around forever." Kauss's design-led strategy has resulted in a business that earned $47 million in revenue in 2015, and $100 million last year.
From the New York City-based company's early days, Kauss knew she wanted to make a bottle as "beautiful as a product in the MoMA store" (where S'well bottles are now sold). But she was also determined to create one specifically designed for someone like her: There couldn't be any condensation that would drip in a handbag. The neck needed to be narrow enough to avoid splashing a drinker in the face, but wide enough to accommodate half-moon-shaped ice cubes. Bottles should also be able to fit in a stroller cupholder and, of course, keep drinks hot and cold. (After receiving feedback that women loved chilling wine in their S'wells, the company launched a 25-ounce version that can hold an entire bottle.)
In 2011, Kauss attended 17 trade shows, getting her bottle into about 600 independent retail stores. When an editor for O, The Oprah Magazine asked Kauss to provide her with "all" of S'well's colors--at the time ocean blue was the only one the company produced--she scrambled to broaden the line's range. Her small staff were mostly, as she describes them, "fashionistas," and had the instinct to make bets on colors like rose gold two months before Apple made an iPhone of the same color (Apple then asked S'well to sell those bottles in its Cupertino store). S'well bottles can now be found in 2,600 specialty shops, in high-end department stores like Neiman Marcus and Nordstrom, and in athleisure chains like Athleta.
With aggressive plans to become a billion-dollar company, S'well continues to find ways to keep customers intrigued. Besides launching a lower-priced line for Target, it's collaborated with fashion designer Anna Sui, photographer Gray Malin (known for his aerial photos of beaches), and street artist Yoon Hyup. Earlier this year, the tropical bottle it created in partnership with Lilly Pulitzer and Starbucks sold out in one day, crashing the coffee chain's website (today, you can hunt one down on eBay, where they run from $60 to $100 each). S'well employees--who now include refugees from fashion companies including Coach, Steven Alan Optical, and J.Crew, as well as Vogue magazine--field some 10 to 15 pitches every month from artists hoping the company will pick up their work.
Kauss, who now sells S'well in 65 countries, says this is just the beginning of her plan to take over the $7 billion industry. "I have a five-year innovation road map," she says, "for beverage containers."
Correction: An earlier version of this article misstated the date of the Lilly Pulitzer collaboration as happening in 2016. It occurred in 2017.